Patricia Tobin is an emerging theatre, film and arts reviewer based in Melbourne. She spoke with Writers Victoria intern John about her love of the critique and how to get started as an arts reviewer.
Tell us a little about yourself. Are theatre reviews a big part of your writing?
I’m a Melbourne-based reviewer. Apart from theatre, I review film, cabaret and standup comedy too.
Writing reviews in general is a big part of my writing. I think it’s because I love all forms of arts and culture—theatre, books, film, television etc.—and I love writing as well. To put those two things together is a dream for me. The idea of critical writing might sound boring or dry, but to me, it is really, really enjoyable. It gives me tremendous pleasure to be able to discuss a plot’s pacing, cast performance, visual aesthetics etc. in a play, film or otherwise. Mainly because there’s so much to discuss in just one production alone! The writing process can be painful at times, especially when I’m rushing towards a deadline, but at the end of the day, it is something that I really love to do.
You write reviews for plays and film. Is there one that you prefer over the other? What similarities and differences do you find in going between the two mediums?
I couldn’t say that I prefer reviewing theatre to film, or vice versa. I usually think of critical writing as a whole entity, and as something I very much enjoy to do. I do plan to write more reviews on film though, and I’ve recently joined the excellent team at The Essential to help me with that.
There are certainly many similarities in a play and film – conventionally, a linear plot with characters, setting etc., which allows for some transferrable analytical skills. The major difference between a play and a film, is of course, the “live” experience. Take watching a live musical production of Rocky Horror versus watching the 1975 film on DVD at home, or even perhaps, watching the movie with an audience at the Astor. The “live”-ness, or lack thereof, plays a crucial role that shapes your own personal experience. The three-dimensional nature of theatre is certainly compelling, and a good play makes the best use of being “live”, sometimes even reminiscent of an oral storytelling tradition. Through the lens of a camera, a film’s mise-en-scène, the composition of a shot, evidently establishes its own distinct voice. These two mediums are both highly aware of its own audience, which makes it all the more exciting when writing about them.
Does reviewing theatre take the pleasure out of watching theatre?
Definitely not! A common misconception is that adopting a critical view on theatre, film or any other art form prevents you from enjoying it, like a “normal” viewer. Although watching a play for leisure is a different experience from reviewing a play, I think that being critically engaged helps you to appreciate the art form even more, and hence, also elevating your level of enjoyment.
I think this can be applied to anyone involved in or engaged with the artistic process too. An actor who watches a play could take away from it something else entirely, but it does not mean he or she does not “enjoy” it. Take Malthouse Provacateurs, for instance. It’s a really cool collective that I’m glad to be part of. It consists of a bunch of theatre nerds, actors, producers, designers, playwrights and reviewers that get to attend a fair number of shows at Malthouse Theatre and then “provoke” conversations with the audience after the show. I think, with the Provocateurs, we can all bring in something different to the conversation. Whether you are involved in the artistic process or in my case, critical writing of theatre, it does not hinder, but enhances the experience instead.
What is your advice to someone thinking about reviewing for theatre?
I’ve only been writing theatre reviews for about a year, so I’m probably not be the best person to dispense advice on this. But, for anyone who’s interested, I would say the best way to get started is to watch lots of theatre. Any kind of theatre – experimental plays, huge glossy musicals, student productions etc. The more varied the better. Become a member at your favourite local theatre company to get discount prices for tickets. Or volunteer at an arts festival – it’s the best way to catch plays for free!
Next, try and see if you are able to express your thoughts about theatre cohesively. It could be as easy as tweeting about an excellent play you’ve just seen. With its 140 character limit, Twitter actually forces you to convey your voice in a more concise manner. If Twitter isn’t for you, after catching a play, try jotting down your thoughts on your phone or a journal or a blog. I know reviewers who have a notepad right with them throughout a play, and they’re busy writing things down the whole time. But for me, I find it to best to enjoy a production in its entirety before processing your thoughts.
Oh, and read lots of theatre reviews, such as those written by Alison Croggon and Jane Howard. Or even writing on performance criticism, like how Melbourne’s own critical culture has been recently scrutinised. I also recommend Jana Perkovic’s piece, ‘The Critic’, in Issue 22 of The Lifted Brow. It is a deeply personal take on theatre and critical writing, and is a very good read.