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Back in April, Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks (he/him) tweeted something critical about the trailer for the upcoming West Side Story film. When someone defended the trailer in a reply, Marks wrote, “It wasn’t a criticism, just a first reaction.” Roxane Gay (she/her), who occasionally comments on Twitter about shows she sees, recently tweeted about Pass Over, and one reply referred to it as a “tweet, which is not a review.” These simple exchanges made me think: Can’t an initial reaction tweet be a form of criticism? Can’t a tweet be a review?
When the pandemic began, I told myself I wasn’t going to be writing theatre criticism for free—which turned into me not doing any theatre writing at all for more than a year. Despite this, I still watched a lot of theatre: readings on Zoom, concerts, pre-recorded pro-shots, and hybrid productions. My understanding and appreciation for digital theatre deepened and my definition of live theatre expanded. I learned a lot about theatre as I watched so many artists innovate, experiment, and make do within new limitations.
Inspired by these artists’ boldness, I found myself exploring new ways to engage with theatre, both as a regular audience member and as an (unpaid) theatre critic. Although I wasn’t writing full-length reviews for a publication, I still had critical thoughts on what I was watching and still wanted to share these thoughts. So I turned to Twitter, as I often do, and wrote my thoughts out in Twitter threads.
For me it began, oddly enough, with Love Never Dies, a disaster of a musical I love. The pro-shot was put online for a few days in April 2020; I pitched a piece about it to several editors. Sadly, none were interested, so I decided to just live-tweet my responses instead. To my surprise, tons of people engaged with my tweets: Fans came out of hiding, and other theatre people had a lot of fun following my tweets, experiencing the show vicariously through me.
ok y’all it’s time. here begins my Love Never Dies live tweeting. Disclaimer: I have already seen this musical (more on that below). If anyone wants to pay me to review of this musical, I am very eager to do so. pic.twitter.com/bFsCBDBYcP
— christian lewis (they/them/theirs) (@clewisreviews) April 26, 2020
But it was the Sondheim birthday concert, which Broadway.com aired online in late April 2020, that really showed me how the theatre community can come together online. One of the things I like best about Twitter is the communities it forms. As someone who likes performance, I love the various ways it allows people to experience things together, even when they are apart. The concert had a very active YouTube comments stream, and so many theatre people on Twitter came together to live-tweet their thoughts and reactions to the concert in real time. Though a global pandemic kept us apart, the internet allowed us to share our reactions, creating a digital audience community.
Like so many others, I live-tweeted the entire concert. I loved doing it, so I kept the momentum going and live-tweeted the reunion reading of Significant Other a few weeks later. As the pandemic raged on, I began to really think about exploring my Twitter, and live-tweeting, as a critical space. With this in mind, I began an experiment, actively choosing to live-tweet productions in lieu of long-form reviews, considering my live-tweeting not just amusing initial reactions but a form of reviewing in itself—as criticism. I next wrote live-tweet review threads for The Prom movie, the Ratatouille concert, and Fake Friends’ This American Wife, sharing my thoughts as they happened.
Live-tweeting as a genre is inherently different from a traditional long-form review. The latter is written some time after a critic saw a show, and is crafted as a whole piece, with a flow and coherent overall thesis/opinion. In a traditional review, a critic gets to mull all their separate thoughts and pull them together into larger overall thoughts. A live-tweet thread is all in-the-moment reactions. Instead of seeing a show, thinking about it for a bit, and then writing a review, trusting my gut as I write and letting my opinions drive where the piece goes and what the tone ends up being, live-tweeting means there is less filtering going on. I am literally writing as the show is happening, creating a parallel process of processing.
I learned a lot about myself as a critic while live-tweeting, and a lot about criticism: about how and when opinions are formed, and about the effort we critics often put into shaping our initial reaction into more polished and professional forms. But perhaps the biggest takeaway was that there are more ways than one to do criticism, and critics should absolutely feel free to explore other avenues, genres, and forms for our work.
It is my hope that we can move beyond the hegemony and prioritization of long-form reviews at major outlets and break down the hierarchy of what counts as criticism. I want to open up doors to kinds of criticism that are less confined and formal, but are more emotional, honest, and organic. In addition to live-tweet reviews, I’m also thinking of podcasts (like Three on the Aisle or Stage Left) and critical dialogues (like 3Views). Particularly exciting is the upcoming relaunch of the review aggregator Did He Like It? as Did They Like It?, which will include a “critic cohort” made up of diverse journalists. All these outlets promise to take us beyond edited prose written by an individual, instead offering a variety of forms, whether spoken or collective, and to overall less constrained forms of criticism.
This is not a state-of-criticism piece or a manifesto as much as it is an exploration of what criticism might become, a dream for the future of the field. I envision an expansion, not necessarily a replacement. A modest proposal, if you will.
Of course, I understand that live-tweeting reviews presents challenges. For one, it’s much easier to share positive initial reaction tweets than negative ones. Tweeting requires quick thinking (and fast fingers). Long-form reviews allow for more lyrical and poetic language than the 280 characters of a tweet. While many critics likely prefer the longer form, Twitter reviews don’t have to be for everyone. But I do think there are quite a few people who would enjoy and embrace it if critics did more in this vein, as I did over the past few months.
The field has already shifted toward making Twitter an important critical space. Almost all working theatre critics are present on Twitter, and some—including San Francisco Chronicle’s Lily Janiak (she/her), The New York Times’s Maya Phillips (she/her), the Undefeated’s Soraya McDonald (she/her), and freelancer Jose Solís (he/him)—are very much so, often using Twitter to add to and build on their criticism. Toussaint Jeanlouis (he/him) even uses Twitter as one of his main critical mediums. Many non-theatrical reporters, when sharing a piece they wrote on Twitter, don’t just tweet the link to the article; many also compose a thread of tweets hitting several of the salient points, sometimes even with quotes or screen shots. What if we also did that for reviews? Might we even forgo the article itself and make some of our points entirely through Twitter threads?
Yes, I get the irony of writing a several-thousand word piece about how we should try to move more of our writing to Twitter. But I want people to read my work and I want to get paid—and right now, the industry is structured so that if I want those two things to happen, my argument needs to be made in an essay in a major outlet. But I hope that can change. I imagine a future in which I and others like me could write essays and reviews exclusively in the form of Twitter threads, and even get paid to do so. This could begin with pro-shots (like Come From Away and Diana) and film adaptations (like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and West Side Story), but would ideally extend to live-tweet reviews of in-person theatre as well. The upcoming verbatim theatre plays Is This a Room and Dana H., for instance, are using audio recordings of people reading their own initial reaction tweets to the Off-Broadway productions as pull-quotes, building on the theme of “reality.” I want ideas like this to become standard; I want tweet reviews quoted on marquees and in publicity materials. In short, I’d like to see Twitter criticism, and other experimental forms, be respected, quoted, and paid.
as if today has not already been busy and theater-filled enough, I am now going to do a live tweet review of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie! This will be part of my ongoing experiment with Twitter reviews. Who needs longform reviews when you’ve got a Twitter thread! pic.twitter.com/xszwuBEOby
— Christian Lewis (they/them/theirs) (@clewisreviews) September 18, 2021
Criticism as a field has been rapidly shrinking, with fewer staff positions, less pay, less readership/engagement, and less respect. Some blame social media, Twitter in particular, for democratizing criticism, giving everyone an outlet for their opinions. But I still strongly believe in criticism, and in critics who do the job for a living. Perhaps social media offers a way forward: If, instead of bemoaning the impact of social media, critics embraced it, adapted with the times, and treated Twitter as a critical space, might they recover some of that lost ground? Instagram has paid influencers; why can’t Twitter have paid critics? Certainly, the model for payment would have to be different, Twitter critics can’t just be posting #sponcon (sponsored content, paid for by companies). Twitter critics, as trusted experts on social media, could increase engagement and traffic about theatre, and get people reading criticism again—which ideally would be enough to get media companies and outlets (as opposed to self-serving producers) to find ways to pay Twitter critics.
Several of the past year’s digital productions not only inspired my own interest in alternative forms of criticism, but actively fostered digital engagement and criticism. Fake Friends’ Circle Jerk and This American Wife, for instance, became trending topics on Twitter, and audiences often interacted with each other on social media during the performances. The final section of This American Wife included the actors taking questions from Twitter and even referencing the fact that people were live-tweeting opinions about the show. I found this type of engagement experimental and exciting—not least the moment when Michael Breslin (he/him), while offstage during This American Wife (filmed and streamed live), liked some of my tweets about the show. Live-tweeting thus became incorporated into the dramaturgy. I was similarly fascinated by Celine Song’s The Seagull on Sims 4, which included her actively talking to and taking feedback from the audience that helped to shape her creative decisions. The audience watched her create and got to be part of the process. A recent OnlyFans theatrical experience, xXPonyBodyDerekXx, created by Gage Tarlton (he/him), further explored audience interaction by sending audience members private DMs. Tarlton made use of a platform known for sharing user-generated pornography with serialized posts and videos to create an experimental and extremely online play which fit perfectly with my live-tweeting reviews experiment.
These shows encouraged me to think about how audiences and critics can engage with theatre in new ways. The old-school dynamic of audiences sitting silently in red velvet seats, and waiting to read what critics write in longform reviews for newspapers the next day need not be the only way forever. There is clearly potential for audiences, critics, and artists to actually engage with each other—and not just afterwards, but during as well.
I was able to test my ideas over the summer and take my live-tweeting criticism out of my apartment, onto the streets, and to in-person theatre. I had to convince a publicist and make an agreement to sit in the back with brightness down, but I was allowed to live-tweet my review of Seven Deadly Sins, an outdoor, ambulatory production. Because the production was made up of seven mini-plays and the audience had to walk from space to space in between them, audiences talked and interacted a lot during the production, sharing opinions and thoughts on each. Ushers also talked to us and acted as intermediaries, and the MC for the night, Shuga Cain (she/her), spoke to and responded to audience members during her opening set. All these elements played with new forms of audience engagement: I got to interact with audience members, ushers, and performers, and to live-tweet my opinions as I went.
The experience helped me see how live-tweeting a review might work in the real world. It can be exhilarating and freeing; it definitely forced me to think creatively and quickly. Sometimes it was hard to keep up, sometimes I had thoughts too complex for a tweet or too long to type. But sometimes a tweet was the perfect length and format for me to create a succinct opinion. (If reviews are often extracted into single-line pull quotes anyway, isn’t writing in tweets just expediting the process?) Some of my review tweets talked about the content of the plays fitting, adhering to, and thriving within the shortened form–which I think might also hold true for my experiment with live-tweeting.
I love the way this overall piece played with form, having to truncate its dramaturgy much like poetry. Many of the plays had similar structures, as if adhering to structural rules of set type of poetry. I think of each of these short plays like the theater version of a sonnet
— Christian Lewis (they/them/theirs) (@clewisreviews) July 12, 2021
This is not to say I don’t also love long-form reviews or some of the critics who write them. Some shows beg for longer considerations: What the Constitution Means to Me or Hadestown come to mind. But while I sat in my seat for Merry Wives and Pass Over, I wished I had been able to tweet. There were lines that I loved, design moments I wanted to gush over, questions I had about small choices—lots of things I knew would not necessarily (and in fact, did not) make it into my longer reviews. These feelings were strong, organic, and immediate, and I wish I had been able to get them out into the world, to interact with the audience and the artists and the reading public directly. But because I saw these plays during press previews, when there was an embargo on published opinions, and because the producers did not allow anyone in the audience to be on their phones, I sat quietly, phone turned off, dutifully went home, and later wrote a longform review.
I can anticipate the objections to my ideas: Live-tweeting an outdoor, ambulatory experience is one thing, but how could I feasibly live-tweet a play in a traditional theatre without disturbing those around me? I could perhaps be given “tweet seats” somewhere secluded. Or perhaps we could try to think more critically about how we imagine audience engagement and unpack some of the stuffy etiquette rules we have inherited. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris (he/him) has advocated for audience members being allowed to be on their phones during productions; he specifically defended Rihanna when she texted him about Slave Play during the production.
Expanding how we think about audience engagement and theatre criticism will not be easy or without logistical hurdles. But I think now is the time to shake things up. After the year we have had, I don’t want us to go back to theatre as usual. With the return of in-person theatre, I hope the industry resists the temptation to go back to doing things exactly as we used to. Just because the old way worked does not mean that it is the only, or even the best way to do things.
In a recent piece, “What Theater Learned on Its 18-Month Vacation,” New York magazine critic Helen Shaw (she/her) discussed diversified programming, new artistic directors, altered labor laws/schedules, advocacy on behalf of actors, how audience members feel going back, and in general about how things have (or have not) changed. Her conclusion: that “theatre is trying to rebuild itself into a more ethical shape, even as it’s trying to rescue itself from its greatest existential crisis.”
I’d like to extend her advocacy for theatre changing and learning lessons from the pandemic to theatre criticism, which has been having an existential crisis of its own which predates the pandemic. Criticism has never been less paid, less staffed, or less read. Many have very rightly criticized the long-standing lack of diversity among the existing pool of critics, and the limitations/issues of prioritizing a small number of prestige outlets. To these critiques, I add that we need not only think about who is doing the criticism and where that criticism is being published, but also how they are doing criticism and what that criticism might look like. At this critical moment, in which a whole profession might very well be in danger of extinction, now is the time to embrace change. Expanding criticism and experimenting with the forms it takes might be the very things that could rescue criticism from irrelevance. No matter what happens, rest assured I’ll be tweeting about it.
Christian Lewis (they/them) is a queer, nonbinary freelance theatre critic with bylines in Broadway World, the Brooklyn Rail, HuffPost, Exeunt, Medium, and Out. They are a cohost of What’s Up Broadway? on the Broadway Podcast Network. Lewis is also a Ph.D. candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. Twitter: @clewisreviews
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