restricted access How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students, and Bloggers by Mark Fisher (review)
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How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students, and Bloggers. By Mark Fisher. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015. Paper $29.95. 296 pages.

The Fall 2016 issue of Canadian Theatre Review focused solely on the state of theatre criticism. Contributors discuss the ways in which the role of the theatre critic has greatly diminished (if not disappeared entirely) due to funding cuts and changes in technology, as well as how some professors have attempted to keep theatre criticism alive in their classrooms, at least as a foundational skill to be used in theatre classes. Mark Fisher, however, takes a different path in his book, How to Write About Theatre: a Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. Rather than lament the passing of yesteryear's criticism printed in periodicals, Fisher seeks to educate the next wave of critics by embracing the multitude of platforms available via the internet; and Fisher is successful. Perhaps the most telling line from the introduction is his statement, "Opinions are commonplace; it is analysis that makes a critic" (5). For Fisher, critical thought does not need to evaporate in one hundred and forty characters or fewer; on the contrary, Fisher offers excellent examples of how one may perform a thoughtful analysis of a theatre event in a single tweet (6). In approachable and fastidious prose, Fisher guides the reader through twenty chapters in which he demonstrates how one can perform theatre criticism that is analytical and accessible, regardless of the intended audience or medium of delivery. At the same time, the reader should have an understanding of how they must take responsibility for any of thoughts they post either online or in print.

The first five chapters unpack the history of criticism, styles and approaches, finding one's audience, and finding one's voice for that audience. Though excellently written, these chapters may generate more interest from scholars and teachers, rather than students, as Fisher spends time discussing the historical roster of characters who populate theatre and memory studies texts—from early luminaries such as Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Aaron Hill and Williams Popple, to George Bernard Shaw, John Lahr, Christopher Jones (who wrote the foreword), and numerous figures in between. In these early pages, Fisher expertly suggests the critic follow the three questions offered by Alessandro Manzoni, which originally appeared in his introduction to Il conte de Carmagnola (1819): "What did the author set out to do? Was this a reasonable ambition in the first place? Has the author achieved what they set out to do?" (19). As Fisher notes, Goethe usually gets credit for these questions. For his purposes, Fisher adapts them into "What were the theatre makers trying to do?", "How well did they do it?", and "Was it worth it?" (23). These questions serve as a solid starting point for discussion, and Fisher gives each further consideration as he identifies the various roles a critic may play (after all, criticism is a kind of performance). "The critic as reporter," for example, may focus on the first question (30); the "critic as judge" may focus on the second (31); while the [End Page 157] "critics as consumer guide" may focus on the third (36). Fisher weighs the pros and cons for each approach, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusion about what style may work best. Writing about the latter, Fisher rightfully contends that most consumer guides do at least imply the larger the price for an item, the better the quality; however, in theatre that is simply not the case, as "there's little reason to suppose a person who spends £200 will enjoy themselves twenty times more than the person who spends £10" (33). Fisher states, "A strategy more likely to succeed as consumer guide is to write for a defined market whose tastes broadly coincide with their own" (33). This advice is insightful, as tastes (like ticket prices) do tend to vary. For example, the website Theatre is Easy features reviews by budding critics who cover Off- and Off-Off-Broadway performances. Their target audience will not be the same as a Broadway critic's from The New York Times.