Seeing Stars

As many of you know, I began reviewing theatre at the Ottawa Fringe Festival back in June. Before I took on this assignment, I decided to check out other reviews from other Fringe festivals to see how others went about the job of reviewing.  I quickly noticed that most reviewers had adopted the star system.  The system was straight forward. Each show would earn between one and five stars based on how much the reviewer enjoyed the show. One star would be given to the worst of the lot and 5 to the best.

I decided not to adopt this system and instead chose to just use words to convey what I thought was or was not successful about a given production.  Theatre is a very subjective experience. A show I loved others might not enjoy as much and a show that I found boring might have mass appeal.  This is why I always encourage others to see a show and decide for themselves how “good” it is.  

A star rating system would only be useful for those readers who either have similar theatrical tastes as me or the exact opposite aesthetic sensibility.  I suspect both these instances are pretty rare. Maybe I’m wrong and excellent theatre is more universal than I am letting on here. Any thoughts?

For these reasons, I would feel very guilty if a theatergoer missed out on a show that they would have loved because I did not give it 5 stars.  Yet, this is the kind of thinking that the star system encourages. People want to see “the best” without recognizing how artificial this is.  (Then again it seems to work for wine.)

 I do understand why this system is popular. I saw 14 shows at the Fringe and yet this was still only a sampling of what the festival has to offer. Most theatergoers don’t have the time to watch even that many and so they are understandably looking for short cuts.

I feel that talking about the various elements of a production gives a reader a sense of what a show is about so they can make these judgments on their own.  This decision process, on the part of the reader, is more useful than simply seeing a show based on a high rating.

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17 responses to “Seeing Stars

  1. When I did the fringe circuit long long ago, it depended on the city whether or not the stars in a fringe review mattered.

    Winnipeg was very star centric – if you got five stars, you sold out. If you got four, you didn’t.

    Edmonton could care less. I remember seeing patrons walking up to the schedule board, looking at their watch, picking a play without knowing what it was and go. I remember a one star reviewed show selling out.

    As a performer, stars were helpful (if you got good ones!) as it was a good marketing tool.

    But in the end, stars are mostly subjective aren’t they? We all have our own instant judgment system. But if you focus on the content of the review, you have more of a platform to fully analyze a show instead of an instant thumbs up or down. One would hope a show can’t be so easily categorized….

    • Thank you for replying Lindsay. You raise a good point about certain audiences being star centric. Perhaps, I should ask my readers what they would prefer rather than imposing my ideas on them.

      I like what you said here :
      “But if you focus on the content of the review, you have more of a platform to fully analyze a show instead of an instant thumbs up or down. One would hope a show can’t be so easily categorized….”

      That’s certainly been my feeling on the issue so far. Thanks again.

  2. post-fab princess

    I think it’s a good call. As a reader, I think it would be easy to become dependent on a star rating, in a lazy sort of way…

  3. Great post!

    Let’s say I’m sitting in the fourth row, aisle seat. The woman seated next to me is upset because she can’t find her water bottle in her handbag. In her defense we do live in the desert, but I look over as though I’m trying to will her to pay attention. But she can’t, because she’s bored.

    She’s bored because she doesn’t care about anybody on stage. She’s bored because she doesn’t understand what that man is talking about. She’s bored because that other man can’t act so there’s no point in even trying.

    As you say, our experiences are solely our own. As a playwright, the details are important to me. I’d like to ask my seatmate about the characters, through line, and casting. As an audience member, I’d like to hear about those elements, and more, from a reviewer. Like you, I prefer a conversation to a rubber stamp.

  4. Since stars or similar ratings tend to appear in conjunction with, rather than in lieu of a full written review, I don’t have a big problem with the concept. I prefer when they’re placed at the end of the piece. Seeing them at the beginning acts as a form of spoiler.

    I wish more reviewers would replace the star, with other objects…preferably some clever twist on their name or persona. For example, you could use faces….or currents. 🙂

    • This is an interesting comment Nadine. What do you think a star rating would add to a “full review?” More knowledge of the reviewers tastes?

      • nadinethornhill

        Yes, exactly. For example, if you were describe a production as having solid performances, but a troublesome script, that’s important. If you give that script three stars (or faces or currents) out of five, that gives me a clue as to how much you value the elements you’ve critiqued.

  5. I *hate* the star system. Stars stifle critical discussion, and encourage laziness in readers (why spend valuable time *reading* the *words* when you can count the stars and make a decision without any context?)

    • Partick,
      Welcome to the Many Faces of Wayne. I also felt like this originally. It’s worth pointing out that words can often be misinterpreted or be ambiguous. Stars are certainly more concrete. I share your concern that this might encourage people to weigh the stars more heavily than the words.
      Thanks for replying. I hope to hear from you again.

  6. Stars are more reliable than headlines.

    Reviewers choose how many stars are accredited to their reviews, whereas headlines are often written by someone else entirely – someone who may misinterpret the main focus of the review.

    For me, stars are a lead-in to the rest of the review. They are an immediate visual eye-catcher, which is why I am often drawn to reading film reviews. I want to find out why the reviewer chose to give the film 4 stars, or 1 star.

    Also, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t jump at the chance to use a high star rating in their promotional material, even if it does seem simplistic.

    • Thank you for commenting Jessica.
      I agree that high ratings can be very useful for marketing/publicity. I also think your point about the unreliabilty of headlines is well made. Lots to think about.

  7. I support the star system.

    Any system which makes it easier for people to take the plunge and try out theatre — especially high-risk Fringe theatre — is a good thing.

    Some audience members will be lazy, some will not. A quality review plus some stars serves both kinds of audiences.

    Stars in and of themselves won’t make discerning audience members any lazier.
    If stars help people who can’t be bothered reading a review see theatre and enjoy themselves, that can only be a good thing.

    Moreover, the star system gives people something that is easy to discuss. More talk usually means more sales.

    If we want our audiences to grow, we have a responsibility to serve both our lazy and our discerning audiences. After a few tastes of quality theatre, the lazy might very well become discerning.

  8. Pingback: It’s All Good: On Television, Stars and Standing Ovations. «

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