By Vicki Weisfeld

Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need besides finding a comfortable seat, grabbing your popcorn, and turning off the lights and the ringer on your phone? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process will make your viewing a richer experience.

Since I write theater/performance reviews for The Front Row Center, I hoped the insights in this book would be at least somewhat generalizable to this other medium. And, they are. The book is organized usefully, too—chapters on the screenplay, acting, production design, and directing, are all germane to theater. Hornaday, who is a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, helpfully highlights differences between film and stage too.

The overriding questions that shape her approach to reviewing were raised early in her career by a more experienced colleague. He said, “Ask yourself three questions: ‘What was the artist trying to achieve?’ ‘Did they achieve it?’ And, ‘Was it worth doing?’” Seems to me those three questions can be applied to any creative endeavor—painting or novel-writing, as well as movies and theater.

What was the artist (the playwright, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. As a theater-goer, you can usually have a pretty good idea what the intent was. A glitzy surface and top-notch cast may distract you from a  production that is hollow at its core. But if you have nagging doubts, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many backstage cooks may be at fault.

Did they achieve it? Here’s where it’s fun to see several productions of the same play. Even a new production of a familiar classic can knocks your socks off. Caesar Must Die, a film of prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar is astonishing. I’ll never forget the McCarter Theatre’s 2016 production of Disgraced, which had already won its Pulitzer, had a successful run on Broadway and elsewhere, and had become the most-produced play in the country that season. No doubt many audience members, like me, had seen it and knew what was in store. Yet, this production was so powerful that, at the end, we were too stunned even to applaud. At least for a long moment.

Was it worth doing? Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.”

Tucking these three questions in the back of your mind may help you answer friends and family, when they ask the inevitable, “So, what did you think of that play?”