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September 16, 2008


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Kerry Reid

As a former Bay Area resident, I have to say that I really fucking hate The Little Man, and nothing Mick LaSalle says can sway me from that opinion. The problem, as many arts groups in the Bay Area will attest, is that people tend to view the Little Dude sitting up and looking interested, but not applauding, as on a par with the guy slumped over sleeping. If the Little Man ain't clapping, the audiences aren't coming.

Charlie Varon, a wonderful satirical writer and performer in San Francisco, did a short piece years ago about radical arts activists kidnapping the Little Man. "When last seen, The Little Man was duct-taped to a chair with a gag in his mouth, looking bored with his captors."

Kris Vire

Kerry, I have to admit that up to now I was unaware of The Little Man's existence, and thus quite confused about what the heck you were talking about until I did a little Googling. Here's the story on the San Francisco Chronicle's Little Man.

Given that context, I'm totally with you. I don't have the data to judge how Time Out's star system affects box office (if it does at all, which I tend to doubt), but circumstantially, I've heard theater artists lament that a three-star review is bad—or, even worse, people offering sympathy for a three-star rating.

For myself, I think three stars out of six is the equivalent of what I'd like to think a Jeff Recommendation is—that maybe the production as a whole doesn't quite work, but there are elements of it that are worth seeing. And that, to me, encapsulates what I don't love about all these sorts of shorthands: the Little Man, the thumbs-up/thumbs-down, the star systems. It's already a huge challenge for me to pare my thoughts on a show down to 250 words. To then have to assign it to one of six "levels" seems even more reductive. I worry that readers will only look at the stars and not consider the actual text.

This also speaks to why we almost never assign the full six stars in the Theater section of TOC. Movies, books, albums and gallery shows are generally finished products. Theater artists—or at least the actors, stage managers and crew—have to recreate their work live at every performance for, in our town, four to eight weeks for most runs. Maintaining a six-star standard every night is a lot of freaking pressure for us to put on them, isn't it?


For me the difficulty is in the disconnect between star level and review content. I've read a four-star review that felt more negative than a three-star review; I've read a three-star review that felt positive enough to be a four. In some cases, and this is general for all movie/music/theatre criticism, it almost seems like an apology for liking something too much--"I had a great time, but I'm a critic, and must criticize somehow. Therefore, this film is an A-, even if I left the theater feeling A+, because no work of art should be allowed an A+."

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

    Any opinion expressed here is solely that of the author or commenter. No opinion expressed here can be assumed to represent the opinion of Time Out Chicago magazine.

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