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

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting 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 it’s boring. Even if it’s 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 be great or not-so-great, often at the same time.  For example, one might find it valuable to see new plays simply 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 committed to a rating system for our reviews. We’re biting the bullet. Here’s the code, with explanations.

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

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

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

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

1 Stars: Disappointing. 1 Star indicates work that, in the reviewer’s considered opinion, is not stage-worthy.

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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