How to Write A Theater Report
In this section, we’ll give you some guidelines for writing a report on a theater event. But the first and most important advice we can give you is this: be sure not to let concerns (or even fears) about writing a paper prevent you from fully enjoying the theater experience itself. You should not become so distracted by note taking, for example, that you cannot concentrate carefully on what is taking place in the performance. Your response to a production will be determined by how closely you have been engaged by the action onstage. If you spend too much time and effort thinking about your report during the performance, you will defeat the purpose of attending the theater.
Turning Notes into a Report
You should expand your notes into a complete report as soon as possible, while your impressions are still fresh; many instructors recommend writing a report the same day as the performance or no later than a day or two after it. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to reconstruct your experience and substantiate your impressions by citing specific examples and instances. (Keep in mind that most theater critics are expected to respond almost instantaneously to performances they see; in a sense, you too are being asked to make quick critical judgments.)
It is useful to begin with an outline and draft, consider using the questions on the worksheets. Next, revise your draft as often as necessary to produce the final report. As you revise, check your spelling and grammar carefully. Although theater courses are not English courses, all instructors expect papers that have been thoroughly edited and proofread. In addition, although it is your ideas that will earn most of the grade, a sloppily constructed paper will not present your ideas well.
What Makes a Good Theater Report?
A good theater report depends on content (what’s in the paper), structure (how the paper is organized), and usage (conventions of writing and presentation). A sample report—with comments and corrections by an instructor—is shown at the end of this handbook.
A good theater report is a combination of subjective responses—how you “felt” about the event—and objective analysis and support for your feelings. Just saying that you liked or disliked a production is not enough. The key question is always “Why?” For example, you may have hated a performer in a production, but noting that you hated him or her is not enough for a report. Why did you feel this way? Was the actor totally unlike the character? Did the actor fail to enunciate the lines clearly? Did the actor convey emotions that seemed inappropriate to the dramatic action? Did he or she move inappropriately or clumsily onstage? Did he or she seem not to understand or express the character’s motivation? These are the kinds of questions you will need to answer in order to substantiate your opinion about the performance, and you will have to support each answer by describing some specific aspect of the performance.
This is where your notes can be of great value. The more specific your notes, the more useful they are. Below, we suggest a series of questions about each production element. You can use these questions to guide your note taking.
Like a good play, a good theater report has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
At the beginning, you should state your point of view; you may also indicate how you felt about the production in general or about the specific elements you will discuss. Sometimes a good paper can begin with a striking image or an idea that you believe to be at the heart of the theatergoing experience. The most important characteristic of the beginning of a successful paper is that it gives a strong sense of what you consider significant about your experience.
The middle of your paper should contain all the evidence and analysis that substantiates the viewpoint expressed in the beginning. This would include specific examples and details from the production. The more specific and analytical this section is, the more successful the paper will be. Through your description and analysis, the reader should be able to visualize important and representative moments in the production.
At the end of your paper, you should recapitulate your point of view and find some way to leave the reader with a clear sense of the conclusions you have drawn. As with the beginning of a paper, it can be effective to close the paper with a vivid image or idea. Remember that your conclusion will be the last impression left with your reader.
There are a few conventions for writing about theater productions. For example, the title of a play is usually Capitalized; and the title of a full-length play is italicized, though the title of a one-act play is generally in “quotation marks.” When you name production personnel, the first reference should give the full name, but thereafter only the last name should be used. (E.g. A.J. Sclafani plays Ren McCormack, a young rebel new to Bomont. Sclafani’s portrayal of Ren was the worst piece of…)
Most instructors expect papers to be typed or printed out rather than handwritten. If you use a personal computer, remember that the “spell check” will not catch every error: you cannot rely on it for names, for example, and of course it does not pick up grammatical mistakes. Remember too that word processing requires careful attention to formatting and printing. The harder it is for your instructor to read your paper, the harder it will be for him or her to evaluate your ideas.
Your instructor may recommend or require specific stylistic rules or a specific physical format for papers. Be sure that you understand such requirements at the beginning of the semester.
Key Questions for a Theater Report
These questions are intended as a guide for writing a theater report. You can use them to help you focus your thoughts about the various elements of a production. Note that you should keep the specific assignment in mind, since some instructors will ask you to write about particular elements whereas others may ask you to evaluate the entire production. In either case, however, these questions should prove helpful.
1. Were the actors believable, given the requirements of the play? If they were believable, how did they seem to accomplish this? If they weren’t believable, what occurred to impair or destroy believability? (As you discuss this, be sure to separate the performer from the role. For example, you can dislike a character but admire the performance.)
2. Identify the performers you considered most successful. Citing specifics from the production, note what they did well: particular gestures, lines, or moments. Try to describe each performer so as to give the reader a clear image. For example, how did the performer’s voice sound? How did he or she interpret the role?
3. If there were performers you did not like, identify them and explain why you did not like them. Give concrete examples to explain why their performances were less successful.
4. Acting is more than a collection of individual performances. The entire company needs to work as a unit (this is sometimes called ensemble): each actor must not only perform his or her own role but also support the other performers. Discuss how the performers related or failed to relate to one another. Did they listen to each other and respond? Did any actor seem to be “showing off” and ignoring the others?
1. The director unifies a production and frequently provides an interpretation of the text. Did there seem to be a unifying idea behind the production? If so, how would you express it? How were you able to see it embodied in the production? Was it embodied in striking images or in the way the actors developed their performances? (You should be aware that this can be one of the most difficult aspects of a production to evaluate, even for very experienced theatergoers.)
2. Did all the elements of the production seem to be unified and to fit together seamlessly? How was this reflected, in particular, in the visual elements—the scenery, costumes, and lighting?
3. How did the director move the actors around onstage? Were there any moments when you felt that such movement was particularly effective or ineffective? Were entrances and exits smooth?
4. Did the pace or rhythm of the production seem right? Did it drag or move swiftly? Did one scene follow another quickly, or were there long pauses or interruptions?
1. What type of theater was it? How large or small was it? How opulent or elaborate? How simple or modern? What type of stage did it have: proscenium, thrust, arena, or some other type? How did the stage space relate to audience seating?
2. What was the size and shape of the playing space?
3. What sort of atmosphere did the space suggest? How was that atmosphere created?
4. Did the space seem to meet the needs of the play? Did it affect the production, and if so, how?
1. What information was conveyed by the scenery about time, place, characters, and situation? How was this information conveyed to you?
2. What was the overall atmosphere of the setting?
3. Did any colors dominate? How did colors affect your impression of the theater event?
4. Was the setting a specific place, or was it no recognizable or real locale? Did that choice seem appropriate for the play?
5. If the setting was realistic, how effectively did it reproduce what the place would actually look like?
6. Were there symbolic elements in the scenery? If so, what were they? How did they relate to the play?
1. What information was conveyed by the costumes about time, place, characters, and situation? How was this information conveyed to you?
2. What was the period of the costumes? What was the style? Were the costumes from a period other than the period in which the play was written or originally set? If so, how did this affect the production? Why do you think this choice was made?
3. How was color used to give you clues to the personalities of the characters?
4. Did each character’s costume or costumes seem appropriate for his or her personality, social status, occupation, etc.? Why or why not?
5. Did the costumes help you understand conflicts, differing social groups, and interpersonal relationships? If so, how?
1. What information was conveyed by the lighting about time, place, characters, and situation? How was this information conveyed to you?
2. Describe the mood of the lighting. How was color and intensity used to affect mood? What other characteristics of light were used to affect mood? Was the lighting appropriate for the mood of each scene? Why or why not?
3. Was the lighting realistic or nonrealistic? What was the direction of the light? Did it seem to come from a natural source, or was it artificial? Did this choice seem appropriate for the text?
4. Were the actors properly lit? Could their faces be seen?
5. Were light changes made slowly or quickly? How did this affect the play? Did it seem right for the play?
1. What was the text for the performance? Was it a traditional play? Was it a piece created by the actors or director? Was the piece improvisatory? (Note that most productions you attend will use traditional scripts as texts, and most of the following questions are based on this traditional model. However, you can adapt these questions for texts that have been created in nontraditional ways.)
2. What was the text about? What was the author of the text trying to communicate to the audience? Did the author try to communicate more than one message?
3. How was the meaning of the text communicated through words, actions, or symbols?
4. Did you agree with the point of view of the text? Why or why not?
5. What was the genre of the text? Was it comedy, tragedy, farce, melodrama, or tragicomedy? Was the text realistic or nonrealistic? Was it presentational or representational?
6. Many theorists argue that conflict is necessary for a dramatic text. Describe the conflict within the text in the production you saw. Which characters were in conflict? Was there a moment in the action when the conflict seemed to come to a head? Was the conflict resolved or not? How did you feel about its resolution or lack of resolution? If the conflict was resolved, how was it resolved? How did the conflict seem to embody the meaning of the text?
1. What were the major desires, goals, objectives, and motivations of the leading characters? How did these help you understand the meaning of the text?
2. Were the characters realistic, symbolic, allegorical, totally divorced from reality, etc.?
3. How did minor characters relate to major characters? For instance, were they contrasts or parallels?
4. Did you identify most with one of the characters? If so, describe this character and explain why you identified with him or her.
Worksheets for Theatergoing
The following worksheets have been designed as an aid to note taking. They should be used while you are attending a production. They do not call for extensive information; rather, they will help you jot down quick impressions that you can use later to jog your memory when you are actually developing your report. That is, the questions on these sheets are meant to help you accumulate information that can be used to respond to the more in-depth questions in the preceding section. To fill out the worksheets, you will enter information at three different times during your attendance at a theater event.
Remember: Do not try to write an essay or even any fully developed statements while you are watching the performance; that would defeat the whole purpose of theatergoing.
Notes before the performance
a. Jot down three adjectives that describe the atmosphere of the theater.
b. What kind of theater is it: proscenium, thrust, arena, found space?
c. Draw a quick sketch of the auditorium area below.
a. Jot down when and where the play is set, and any other information you have gleaned from the program.
b. Read any notes in the program and underline three sentences that you believe will help you better understand the production.
c. Underline any historical information in the program about the play or playwright.
3. Playing space:
a. Can you see the playing space before the performance begins?
b. If you can see the playing space, what are your impressions about the scenery? What does it seem to suggest about the production? (Just jot down a few adjectives that reflect your first impressions.)
1. Who is the central character? With whom does this character conflict? Write down their names.
2. For each of the characters you have just named, jot down three adjectives that describe his or her personality and physical attributes.
3. For each of the characters you have named, write down three adjectives to describe how you feel about the performance of the actor playing him or her.
4. Briefly describe a specific moment or scene that you thought was particularly dramatic, effective, or significant.
5. Describe a striking use of an image or simile by a character, or a moment in which such an image is used.
6. Has any character directly addressed the audience? Note who and (very briefly) when.
7. Jot down three adjectives that reflect your impressions about each of the following.
8. Write one word or one short phrase which best describes the world of the play (for instance, absurd, unceasingly violent, repressed, uncontrollably cruel, sentimentally romantic, constantly hilarious.)
9. Have any audience members been asked to participate in some way? If so, describe how; also, describe your own reaction.
Notes after the performance
1. List your initial responses to each of the production elements. Indicate whether you like or dislike each element, and provide an adjective that expresses why you like or dislike it. (Remember that it is these initial responses you will have to defend your paper.)
2. Review your intermission notes. After the intermission (or after each intermission, if there was more than one), have you changed your opinion about any of the production elements? If so, jot down what changed.
3. Write down what the high point of the action seems to have been and what resolution of the conflict, if any, has occurred.
4. Have any characters changed between the beginning and the conclusion of the action? If so, provide an adjective or a short phrase to describe the character at the outset of the action and another adjective or phrase to describe him or her after the change.
5. Does anything about the play or the production puzzle or confuse you? If so, jot it down.
6. On the basis of this experience, would you go to the theater again? Yes or no? (You will probably not include this point in your paper, but your answer may interest you for its own sake.)
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