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August 20, 2009


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I don't really mind the stars when the text beneath those stars seems to support what I've come to understand about the shorthand. I've read mostly positive notes underneath a three-star review and a positive review with notable "except for" sentences under a four-star review, which to me says that the critic hasn't fully explained their star rating. I need to know why one show lost that fourth star or another show kept it, even though both text reviews came across as similar in reaction.

Not to open another can of worms, but we are essentially talking about awards judging as well here, which is why every time the Jeffs roll around we get a fresh batch of That Is Undeserving and They Wuz Robbed. But anybody who tells you that they don't appreciate the additional box office you get from the phrase "Jeff Recommended" is either a saint or a liar.


Yes, people in shows put a lot of stock in those stars. Those stars hold their fate.

You'd rather not use them? Don't.

Other critics use them? Other sites do it? C'mon.

I understand you might lose readers. Still the right thing to do.

Kerry Reid

We who must operate with "star systems" can at least be grateful that we're not stuck with That Wretched Little Man used by the San Francisco Chronicle for its review rating system. He is despised by every critic (and most artists) in the Bay Area I've ever known.


I think the biggest pain in the ass about star systems (like some shows) is that even though most critics and artists hate them, many readers do like them. So I don't think they are going anywhere. (Although I do like the five star approach much better than the 6.)

While there are some critics out there that get lazy in their reviews (just like some companies do with their shows), any company who lazily waits for critics to do the heavy lifting of audience building for them are far more of a problem. If the stars hold the fate of any show, that show is probably already fucked.


They aren't going anywhere is another way of saying that's just the way it is. Which is another way of saying shut up. Which is another way of saying you aren't prepared to act.

I don't know any companies that wait for critics to build their audience. I know every company that has been hurt by how stupid our system is.

Readers like them? I bet if we lost the stars and put pictures of puppies on every page circulation would improve. I'd buy it.


Wait, how are companies actually hurt by the star system?


Do you think a two star rating helps a company?

I wasn't referring to just the stars. I'm referring to the fact that we all collectively agreed to let critics have power over artists, power over something they do not create. The truth is that the emperor is buck naked.

Critics gave themselves cultural authority. No one challenges this authority. This authority does not exist.

Again, that's just the way it is, right?

I don't want to pretend that critics are a monolithic group of snobs savoring their hallucinated hipster power. I don't want to pretend that artists are a monolithic group of truth seekers. Again, we all bring passion and agendas and cronyism and bullshit to the table.

I guess I just don't want to pretend at all.

If artists don't get to be coddled neither do critics.


And to bring some love into things, happy birthday to this critic.

Zev Valancy

It's the job of the reader to read criticism intelligently. Evaluate what you see, decide if you agree, and act from there. If critics are making your decisions for you, rather than being one voice that guides you, that is your problem, not theirs. Critics only have control over their writing, not how it's read. Hopefully readers develop a critical eye. If there's any way critics can help in their work, I'd love to hear it, but I think writing stuff that's intelligent, well-written, fun to read, and descriptive is the best and most important thing we can do.


But critics do make decisions for people. This goes back to the question of the validity of professional criticism.

Intelligent, well-written, descriptive, yes yes yes. Snarky, self-important, drunk on power, full of hipster entitlement, no no no.

One thing you could do to help would be to buy your own tickets. I'm not making fun here. It might obliterate the sense of entitlement.

Another thing would be to interview more folks. Like all the time. I don't know. Write a review and interview the artists involved?

Zev Valancy

I will admit that there are some people who blindly follow critics in making up their minds what to see. What I don't see is how this is the fault of the critic.

As to paying for tickets: With a few exceptions, critics make very little money for their reviews. If someone is getting $25--or even writing for free, as is surprisingly common--paying that amount or more for the tickets would be prohibitively expensive. If Kris paid for every ticket, his take-home pay would probably be cut down by a third. Whether someone is a critic full-time or only occasionally, it is still work. It seems odd at best to ask people to pay to be allowed to work. Is there widespread resentment of critics getting comps? I thought it was accepted as common practice.


But critics do make decisions for people.

This is false and condescending to the people. The critic does not make decisions for people. The critic makes decisions for themselves and then makes that decision public record. The people who read the public record then make a decision to listen or to ignore, and then to act accordingly.

Even reliable theatre companies make missteps; however, if I've enjoyed their work for years before now I will go check out their show and then afterwards consider whether the critic was right.

That is to say: the artists, by virtue of their art, will always hold more sway than the critics. No Led Zeppelin fan stopped buying Led Zeppelin just because Rolling Stone kept panning their releases.


Maybe it is. I'll think about it.

But were not talking about Led Zeppelin or Transformers 2.

Tony Adams

I dunno, not helping isn't the same as actively hurting.

Great reviews can sometimes bring in more people, but in my experience bad reviews don't stop someone who wants to see your work from coming. Actually in my (possibly unique) experience, the more stars TOC has given a show, the lower the audience numbers have been and vice versa.

Does a two-star review help? No. But the only way it could hurt is if a company is reliant on critics for finding them audiences.

You get the audience you deserve. Hopefully you doing good work and marketing it well, and deserve good audiences. If you're doing work and making decisions primarily to please critics, you're in trouble.

Critics only have power to keep people away from you if you let them. That is just the say it is. Any fault for lack of audiences lies with artists and companies, not with critics.

Critics are part of the process and part of the conversation--not its entirety. Building audiences takes time. But blaming critics for that is a cop-out.


Maybe it is a cop out to some extent. Maybe I'm being petty and entitled myself. I still think critics have too much power and don't get confronted about it often enough. I don't think all readers actively parse reviews. It's all flawed and nobody knows what to do and everyone is pissed about this topic. Everyone's at fault.

Perhaps the best thing I can do is shut up and work on my own shit.

At least we're talking.

Is that a cop out?

I'm going to listen to Led Zeppelin.


Thanks for bringing this subject to light, Kris. You inspired my blog post today:



Steve - maybe it feels as though they have a lot of power because we have such little interaction with them?

When I was first reviewed in Chicago, I would freak out about the process, but now that I know I can chat with Kris (and Piatt before him) about things, or engage Kerry Reid when I see her at a show. Have a pre-show conversation with Mary Shen - the woman is one of the fairest critics out there (IMHO), and her passion for the arts is amazing, you can't help but be caught up in it.

Blogging, online reviews and access to critics through social media helps break those walls down - it knocks down those "pedestals" that these folks used to be on (whether the pedestal was a reality or a construction of your 25 year old freaked out self is open to interpretation.

These methods give us an unprecedented access to engage these "critics" as people.

Merrie Greenfield

The only thing I will miss about the 6-star scale is seeing shows gleefully advertise their rating as if it were on a 4-star scale. "THREE STARS!!!" I thought that was an amusingly twisted cosmic balance.

When I saw the geniuses at the Tribune forced their reviewers to start using stars, though, I started to dry-heave.

I get the feeling they assume we're all really dumb.


I've been thinking about it and I've decided to proceed with the following formula. Seems simple but I'm pretty dense.

It's not the critic's job to help artists. Artists have to help themselves. So everybody can say anything they want.

I'm going to try that for a bit.

Scott Barsotti

Wow…Kris, see what happens when you go away for a while? As soon as you post something there’s a whirlwind of opinions. Welcome back.

I agree that critics are under no obligation to artists. They have the right to demand quality and are employed to offer their opinion. It is bullshit to argue “the scene needs support from the critics, therefore you should like this show.”
But here’s something that gets my goat, and I’ll put it in context of my own work. It has to do with doing right by the work you’re seeing. I’ve had plays reviewed as such: “A play like this is likely trying to do ABC, this play did not do ABC, and therefore is a failure.” In several cases, the play in question did not set out to achieve ABC (in some cases quite the opposite), rather it set out to achieve XYZ. Ironically, the reviewer, in some cases, validates in their review that the play did indeed achieve XYZ (the actual intention) but has already stated in no uncertain terms that the play is an artistic failure because it did not do ABC (the pre-conceived notion).

This is problematic because it goes beyond having a subjective opinion about the work in front of you and extends to making a public declaration about the artists’ intention that may not be accurate. If a critic does this, they are taking it upon themselves to quite literally steal the messaging of the work away from the artist and shape it for themselves, creating a pre-conceived notion for the readership of what the play is about and trying to do, rather than what it’s actually about and doing. This is different from saying, “This play made me think of this,” or “This play had this effect.” It’s essentially literary misinformation. Nothing bugs me more than reading in a review that my work is clearly influenced by an author I’ve never read.

New work has no prior context, history, critical or academic review, and without direct engagement with the artist/producing company, criticism often doesn’t meet new work on its own playing field. Criticism in this case invents its own playing field and then penalizes the artist for breaking rules they never intended to play by. I’m not on an island here, this happens to a lot of artists.

It’s a double-edged sword because the critics (such as yourself, Kris) always want to see more new work (and god bless ya for that), but then new work tends to get poorer reviews, which can in theory lead to lower attendance, which can in theory lead to companies choosing safer seasons comprised of works with cache.

Context plays a big hand in this. Arthur Miller’s plays have a great deal of context. They’ve been done a million times. We all have some understanding (whether accurate or no) of what Miller was doing with his writing, we’ve seen his plays, we’ve read his plays, and we can judge a new production of a Miller play according to that context. Because we know what “Death of a Salesman” is about, it is very easy for us to make an informed judgment about a production of it. The work is not in question, so the production stands alone. With a new work, we don’t have that context, so we have to work harder to put it in context, and therefore nothing stands alone, which leads some critics to make assumptions and call a play a goose when it’s actually a duck. And now everyone is pretty sure it’s a goose.

It is not a critic’s responsibility to support theatre they don’t like because that would be asinine and their word would mean squat. It IS a critic’s responsibility (in my opinion) to make every attempt to give what they saw context and accurately represent the successes and failures of a production based on what its actual goals were. These goals could be understood by critics taking more time to ask questions before or after they’ve seen a show (which is taboo for reasons I don’t understand).

Scott Barsotti

I should note the pre-or-post show engagement thing is not exclusively the critic's responsibility, but should always be an option, and would, in an ideal world (or mine anyway) standard practice.

Dianna mentioned a couple comments back that she feels free to engage critics. Not everyone does, and that's not necessarily anyone's fault. I agree that we need to continue to break down these walls, though.

Anne Nicholson Weber

One other aspect to all this is that the audience for reviews includes not only potential audiences and the artists themselves, but other artists. I think it's incredibly discouraging for a director, for instance, to see a show that's poorly directed and then read reviews that don't show any awareness of that fact. "Supportive" reviews -- reviews that pull their punches to spare the feelings of the artists involved -- make other artists feel like the world doesn't know the difference between good and bad. I don't think that's going to make a great director stop directing, but I don't think it's healthy either.

Scott Barsotti

"This is something that most of us struggle with, even though we create something, that doesn't mean we have the final say on it. No [one] can control the conversation anymore. It's naive to think otherwise." ~ Tony Adams on Don Hall's blog

This is in response to a totally different issue, but I take it under advisement. I like to gripe, but I know what I signed up for when I put a show out. The artist doesn't get to "control" messaging once the work is out there (try as we might). I'm trying to mentally come to a happy medium on this one...

Scott Barsotti

Another nugget from the thread following Don's post today, this one from Paul Rekk:

"We share with the audience in hopes that they either get what we got or that they get something we never intended/knew existed in the work."

This is 100% true. So I guess here's a question I'd pose relating back to the post: do we expect audiences at large to support theatre they don't like? I assume most people would answer that negatively, so critics should hardly be held to a different standard, right? We should have the same hopes, perhaps? Or are the standards indeed different?


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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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