This year I had my first experience of “mass reviewing” – as part of the U Review scheme in association with The Stage, myself and six other writers found ourselves reviewing over 100 student shows, in less than two weeks between us.
Although one cynically might not think so, it came as a complete surprise to me that the more and more I wrote, the more negative I became.
I love theatre. I make theatre. I believe that everyone should be involved in the arts.
But the more and more work I saw, the more and more I felt like an X factor judge – crushing each hopeful but talentless performer’s dreams of a great review with a single glare from behind my notepad.
At first, I was understanding: sympathetically writing about new companies in a much less critical way than I would scrutinise professional work. Why? Is it because as an ex student I can empathise? No, because if we’re not aspiring to professional standards then how are we ever to become professionals?
Is it because I understand what it like to create a production on a shoestring budget with a unrealistic rehearsal schedule? Absolutely. It’s a simple fact that no student company has even 10% of the funding that professional companies do, which limits artistic decisions immensely.
Yet, for example Entita’s “Fall to The Top” (see review here) was created with nothing but a few briefcases as set, giving the show a visual and conceptual core. On the other hand, Be Fruitful and Multiply (see review here) an amazing play – had a serious lack of visual appeal, reliant on quite frankly average acting performances to sustain the audiences attention.
Having given generous reviews to young companies, it was clear that the nail in the coffin was John Roberts review of my show, Pornography. (I’d rather you didn’t, but the link is here).
TWO FUCKING STARS.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see a two star show. To publish a two star review in my eyes is saying “this show isn’t worth seeing”, it doesn’t say positive things or provide feedback to work on.
Yes I am biased – I have every right to believe that my show was superior to those that I have given better reviews for. So why should my show in direct comparison be made to look worse due to its review?
We accidentally sold out, it was our first night in the space, and the cast panicked and naturally reverted into a comfortable (i.e. average) performance. As a reviewer I felt like I would have understood this and overlooked these factors when writing my review (or at least considered it within the review itself). But John Roberts doesn’t care about this – he doesn’t care that it was my first production – so why should I care about other peoples circumstance?
R.I.P Dana Segal, the sensitive and empathetic reviewer. Enter Dana Segal, the theatre CRITIC.
The whole experience raises a lot of interesting questions.
Writing for The Stage means that we do not allocate what are commonly known as “star ratings”. However, plastered all over every Edinburgh Fringe flyer, included on every tweet, shouted at you down the Royal Mile, are the words “FOUR STAR REVIEW”/”FIVE STAR REVIEW”.
The problem is, that there is no clear overall system for what each star indicates that is mutual between review papers/websites, yet there is a clear indication as to what audiences and artists regard as a good review (4 and above). To get a two star review from John could possibly be a miracle and have the value of a five star review from somewhere else – but no audience member cares for that, and no artist takes positive feedback from that either.
Another issue I have with the star review system is that often when a company has received a positive review, they take nothing but the star rating system, and don’t act on any of the review notes. This seriously undermines the work of the reviewer who has attempted to translate the experience of a show into 250-300 words. Although particular reviewing bodies seem to try and combat this (Three Weeks place the rating of the show at the end of the review, in tiny detail), others still rely heavily on the star rating system.
Of course, there are some cons to the removal of the system. The day after John Roberts’ performance, Andrew Haydon came to see the show, and wrote an interesting and rewarding review/analysis (read here).
Which of them has a greater value to the artists and potential audiences of the show? In which case, if we remove the star rating system, the only thing that enables the value of the judgement is the writing and theatre-going experience. In which case despite a lot of theatre-going experience for my age, I am nowhere near as experienced as someone like Haydon, therefore is my review is less valuable than his. Hmm.
Then again, I have a varied experience of acting, directing and producing, more so than people who have studied the art of writing, so who’s opinion is more valuable with that comparison?
Then again, the theatre-going experiences of the audience will always be varied. And as reviewers it is ultimately our job to assess whether the investment of time and money from the audience is worth an experience, from the truest audience perspective.
So here’s to abolishing the star review system and re-embracing the incredible and varied reviewing talent of reviewers – whether it’s for fun, for the future, or if you’re fortunate enough, for your pay cheque.
a great addition & further discussion on here: scores of reviewers