TRAINING YOUR CRITICAL EYE

The METAs are a peer-juried awards project, and so the Jury’s observations and discussions are at the heart of the whole process. The verb peer means “to look narrowly or curiously; especially: to look searchingly at something difficult to discern.” This definition alludes to the very real challenge that faces each jury member – to look searchingly at something difficult to discern. Deciding which performance or design is the most outstanding amongst what is hopefully a long list of outstanding work is not easy, but that’s part of what makes it so important.
Here are some things to keep in mind while watching the registered shows.

 

Direction:

The director is responsible for the production as a whole, and for ensuring the creation of a cohesive theatrical world onstage. There are obviously different styles of directing, and certain directors focus more on the actors or on the design; some lead with a subtle hand, and others put a clear stylistic stamp on each production they direct. If all of the performances and design elements are “in the same world” and telling a quality and complete story, it is usually thanks to the director.

 

Performance (Actor/Actress):

Questions you can ask yourself about a performance: Was the performance believable? Was it compelling? Were the actor’s choices appropriate for the character/play? If there was a clear style to the production, did the actor adhere to that style? Did the performance push the story forward? Did the actor fully inhabit the character, physically and vocally? Was the performance appropriate for the theatre space (not too big or too small)? Did the actor engage with the other characters onstage in an appropriate way (listening, reacting, etc)? (There are surely more questions that will come up, but these are just a few to get you started.)

 

New Text:

A great play usually involves a solid plot, compelling characters, an engaging theatrical world, and a clear “voice.” Questions you might want to ask yourself: Is this a story worth telling/hearing? Did the play draw me in and keep me engaged from start to finish? Were the characters’ “voices” distinct and believable? Was the overall world of the play evoked clearly and consistently through the language of the characters? Did the events in the play drive the plot forward?

 

Design Categories:

The design of a production, on a practical level, helps to answer certain questions – Where are we? When are we? Who are these people? What is happening?.. What’s happening now? But each design element can also add a sense of mood, style, and a certain sense of flair.
Designers must collaborate, and so it can be difficult to isolate each element – a costume design must exist within the world of the set, for instance, and the set designer must consider how the set will be lit, etc. It is important to try and see the elements individually, but to also recognize that they should work together as a cohesive whole.
With each design category, it is useful to ask whether the work: A) is of a high quality, and B) helps tell the story.

Set

The set designer creates the physical surroundings in which the action of the play will take place, potentially giving us insight into location, time, etc. The set also gives a sense of mood/atmosphere/”feel” and often gives insight into the overall “concept” of the production. The set provides space(s) for the location(s) in the text, and hopefully offers appropriate opportunities for stage movement. Like other design elements, the set designer must fulfill the practical needs of the script while also giving insight into the flavour and spirit of this particular production.

Costume

The costume designer creates the “look” for each character in the play, and adds to the overall look/feel of the theatrical world. Costumes help give us insight into who the characters are – their social status, psychological state, vocation, location, personality, etc. They can suggest relationships between characters, and highlight changes in age and/or state as the play progresses. A costume design can be quite naturalistic, or highly stylized. Costumes reinforce the mood and style of the overall production, and can make a strong visual statement through shape, colour and texture.

Lighting

Practically speaking: Lighting is what allows us to see the characters (or not see them when appropriate); lighting helps locate us in the play – it can help to indicate time of day and location(through shape, colour, intensity, etc.), it can involve onstage sources or “practicals” (a lamp, a flashlight, a candle, etc.) and/or it can involve the use of gobos which delineate or texturize the space. Lighting gives a sense of form and depth to the space. Lighting also helps to shift from one location/time to another.
Artistically speaking: Lighting also reinforces the style of the production; helps to create mood and atmosphere; shifts focus between scenes or within a scene (in a subtle or overt way); and, like all aspects of design, it ideally helps to move the story along.

Sound

The Sound Designer is generally responsible for all the sound in a production. From sound effects to transitional music to underscoring, the sound can have both practical and artistic resonances. The sound can help indicate time and location, atmosphere, a character’s psychological state, etc. The sound is also a part of the overall artistic “feel” of the production, and can support or enhance the style or mood. The Sound Designer is also generally responsible for the acoustic quality of the space, when amplification is involved.
Questions to consider and discuss: Was the sound realistic or atmospheric? Did it sound like a recording or like it was being produced live? Was that intentional? Were certain sound-effects performed by the actors? Was there live music being played? Were there songs being performed? If they were amplified, how balanced were the instruments and voices? If you have technical skills or knowledge, how were the microphones and speakers calibrated and positioned?

 

Outstanding Contribution to Theatre:

If there are not enough productions in the season that feature outstanding translations, or video designs for instance – assuming we need at least three nominees to have an award in a specific category – then these rare artistic contributions could be nominated together in a multidisciplinary category, the Outstanding Contribution to Theatre Award. These elements may be (but not exclusively):

Translation

There is much debate over what makes an outstanding translation – should it stay grounded in the feel of the original language, or stand firmly in the language of translation? Since you will not be reading the original text, you will have to judge the translation on its own merits, using the same criteria as you would for a new text.

Video or Projection Design

From the vintage oldschool overhead projector used to create shadow puppets, to the elaborate 3D video designs of Robert Lepage, designers are constantly exploring new ways to use technology on stage. Projections were fisrt used as a prop (to fill a TV screen or when a film is being projected within the play) or as a way to mark transitions (subtitles, scene numbers or dates projected on the set). Video has since evolved to become a scenic design element in itself, and not just in rock concerts. Entire sets can now be projected on multiple levels (not only backgrounds, colours and textures) and projectors are often used as lighting sources (combining movemebt and abstract images to create dreamlike atmospheres). As a Juror, you should evaluate video and projection design as you would any other design element (see “Design Categories” previously elaborated), but also, ask yourself how the fixed media was able to interact and evolve with the live performance.

Music Composition

When a Composer is credited in a production’s program, chances are original music was written specifically for that production. However, the Sound Designer is often the only person credited for it. Music and soundscapes are inherent to a Sound Designer’s work, whereas a Composer produces a musical score that might even be considered as an original work of art on its own (like an album).
Questions to consider and discuss: Was the original music used to underscore scenes, or mainly for transitions? Did it fade in and out, or was it tailored for a specific timing? Was it used to manipulate the spectator into feeling something, to create an atmosphere, or simply as an accompaniment to a song? Were there discernable themes or recurring leitmotivs? Was the musical style mimicking a certain period or was it purposefully anachronistic? Did the music mirror the themes of the play, or broaden them?

Musical Direction

If music was conducted live, did you feel it was done respectfully in regards to the rhythm and pace set by the actors and the director? Did you feel like the conductor was giving cues, or following them? Were the musicians playing “together” with the cast? Did you feel the musical direction did justice to the composer’s score?

 

Other design elements that may be included in the Outstanding Contribution to Theatre category could be:
Live musical performance
Choreography
Movement coaching
Fight choreography
Make-up design
Puppet design
Properties design
Chorus direction
Graphic design (for an outstanding poster or program)…
… or any other outstanding element for which a person has received credit.

 

For all of the above, what really matters is for a designer to be on the same page as their collaborators, and to share a visual vocabulary and understanding of what they are trying to achieve with the project. Are the results integral to the dramaturgy of the production? Does it help to convey meaning? Did it take you further into the world of the play? Did it harmonize with the lighting and scenic elements? Did they add to your comprehension, or were they superficial, imposed, distracting?

 

What about personal taste?

Everyone has their own sense of style, their personal preferences or beliefs about the purpose of theatre (is it educate? entertain? enlighten?…) and it would be foolish to think that this doesn’t play a part in how jurors see and evaluate each production. They key is trying to distinguish between what is a personal preference and what is a (relatively) objective observation about someone else’s work. It may not always be obvious, but the attempt is still worthwhile.

 

Please note: This document is in progress and will continue to develop over time and with input from the Jury/METAC.