Reviews with ratings: an ambivalent acquiescence (A TheatreStorm Editorial)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Many critics offer some sort of rating system with their reviews. It is a popular technique, and one favored by editors. We are all accustomed to the ubiquitous “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” system for movies promulgated by the legendary Siskel & Ebert. And we are used to seeing most reviewers offer a system of stars or, perhaps, appreciate the little man “applause meter” used by the SF Chronicle. Everybody does it, why not TheatreStorm?

We hesitate. One reason is that, for TheatreStorm, and many committed theatre goers, the theatre is something more than an evening’s entertainment. It is an activity of particular cultural value, independent of its entertaining qualities, almost a religious experience.  One might suppose that even a devout Catholic might find it reasonable to rank a service according to the quality of the preacher’s homily, but surely no one could think it reasonable to rank the relative holiness of  different communion wafers. That would entirely miss the point, right?

Theatre certainly has entertainment, didactic and blatantly commercial aspects (there’s no business like show business), but that isn’t the essential thing. For some of us, not to mince words, theatre is sacred. The act of sitting in a darkened room with a group of fellow human beings, paying undivided attention to a group of actors at play is an objective good. Even if its boring. Even if its badly executed. Even if it sucks. Some of us will go no matter what—can’t stop, won’t stop.

On the other hand, when people are paying a king’s ransom for tickets, they want to know what to expect. That’s understandable. Perhaps it is the reviewer’s responsibility to try some sort of rating system? Alright, we say, but with some caveats.

It is difficult to rate theatre because there are so many different reasons and ways a production might effect me. For example, one might find it valuable to see new plays because they are new, especially if the playwright has shown promise with other productions or is tackling a particularly important subject. But if the result is boring nevertheless, does it deserve a low ranking? Maybe the company should be encouraged for having tackled something hard? What to do… what to do.

There’s no easy answer. But after some soul searching, TheatreStorm has decided to begin instituting a rating system for our reviews. We’re biting the bullet. Here’s the code, with explanations.

5 Stars: Outstanding. 5 Stars indicates a particularly outstanding production, work that is “must see” and distinguished. TheatreStorm rarely awards 5/5 Stars.

4 Stars: Highly recommended. 4 Stars indicates top tier, just short of “must see”.

3 Stars: Recommended. 3 Stars indicates well-made theatre, satisfying and professional.

2 Stars: Worth seeing. 2 Stars indicates a worthy effort, deserving support, but significantly lacking in some important aspect(s).

1 Stars: Disappointing. 1 Star indicates work that is not stageworthy.

So, that’s it. TheatreStorm would be very interested to hear what our theatrical colleagues and fellow audience members think about this.

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