When Everybody's Starry-Eyed, How Can You Tell What a Theatre Critic Actually Means to Say?


Jake Mace stands in black dungarees against a pale background.

Jake is Lead Editor of Grassroots arts magazine Binge Fringe, covering underrepresented artists and themes at theatre festivals around the World. They have written and produced three shows at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Brighton Fringe, and Prague Fringe, with an emphasis on platforming unheard narratives in historical and literary theatre.

In their second piece, Jake discusses the use and limitations of star ratings, and what they mean as a commentary on performance art on a broader scale. Read their previous blog post here.

It's a well-used adage among theatre critics to say that "nobody likes having to write a bad review", which has left me wondering what's the point of bad reviews at all? I've covered multiple Fringe Festivals across the world as a reviewer for a semi-professional publication, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a bit of guilt typing out a one star review for a show. However, usually if I have arrived at that conclusion it's because something in the content has come across as deeply problematic on-stage representation of an issue, and that requires addressing. There's a difference between mean-spirited trashing of someone's hard work and questioning its inherent principles or value with intention and rationale. A critic takes on a certain responsibility in leaving a bad review, especially if they have a sizeable platform. Some choose to bare that responsibility, while a minority take the chance to demean and diminish.

I'm personally guilty of using the star rating system to build a platform. As an editor, I hope it is something that can be discarded once the platform I am building has reached the prominence that our contributors eventually envisage it having. Yet I do feel there can be a place for stars. One that takes them with a pinch of salt - a necessary evil that helps condense and conduce rather than explain and prescribe what is right or wrong with a piece of art. No critic is totally fallible – a prescription comes down to our own views on what is acceptable and unacceptable, what is 'good' art and not.

I've noticed at smaller Fringe Festivals star ratings are treated more as an opportunity to grow and engage than capitalise and evoke. My engagements with artists after writing reviews at Dundee Fringe and Prague Fringe this year have felt far healthier and promoting of mutual understanding than those I've had in Edinburgh and London. Stars aren't inherently unkind, but we can't treat them as descriptive assets anymore. They don't describe a writer's experience of the show, they describe their experience with the show – a journey and a progression, not an instantaneous response. We're not there yet on the wider scale, and it will take well-meaning, community-building work between artists and critics to achieve criticism that is involved, forward-thinking, and responsive.

So if everybody is starry-eyed, how can you tell between scrupulous and unscrupulous content? What's the difference anyway?

I think the answer lies in how we address criticism. The critic's work is too often treated as a descriptive measure rather than a prescriptive one. Let me preface that by saying that not every prescription helps cure the symptoms, just as not every review provides an answer as to what is right or wrong with a piece. Yet when we presume that every critic is acting in the journalistic interest of uncovering and protecting truths, we negate their real motivations. Most of us are doing this for free. Lots of us want to build a solid reputation for our taste and attention to detail. Almost all of us are writing for publications that are primarily entertainment products rather than serious dramaturgical literature. As a result, our work is emotively engaged beyond the objective lens of journalism.

We balance the responsibility of our platform and its entertainment-led intent with the opportunity to engage with the representation of issues in media and the fundamental building blocks of creative work. Most of the semi-seriously engaged critics in the Fringe Theatre world see fledgling opportunity in most work they see, and we end up balancing our obligations to promote and publicise what we like and rigorously unpack what we don't. We are part-time PRs, part-time dramaturgs, part-time producing consultants, and part-time provocateurs. No critic wants to say something they don't wholeheartedly believe in, and no serious critic wants to diminish someone's career for the sake of it.

So to star ratings – the most descriptive part of what should be a prescriptive process. There is some presumption that work can "climb the ladder" of stars, especially at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where semi-professional and aspiring-professional work can run for up to a month at one time. In that case a three star review in the first week of the show that engages critically with the work is a scaled-down version of dramaturgy. Platforms such as Fringe Review have gone as far to drop stars entirely for a far more prescriptive system using three or four word monikers for each show they see.

This more prescriptive system is better for creatives, audiences, and critic alike. Yet because it doesn't fit the commonly-used format, the review loses prominence in the 'publicity' side of the critic's role. Star ratings need to be taken with a pinch of salt, as they don't accurately convey a critic's feelings on a piece of work. Balancing competing interests is part of everyone's work in the arts, but we could all benefit from a widely accepted, consistent, and less descriptive measure of perceived value.

How do you feel about star ratings? If you'd like to contribute to the discussion, please get in touch.

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