Emma Jane Denly and Daniel Hutton discuss the issue of star ratings in theatre – what are the benefits and limitations of star ratings? Is there an alternative to this much-used method of ranking theatre?

EJD: On my return from Edinburgh this September, it has become increasingly obvious that there is a discrepancy between star ratings up at the Fringe – or the star ratings from what we could loosely call ‘Fringe reviewers’ – and those that can be found in London or national publications. Clearly, this makes for a confusing message: when theatre-goers need to choose where to go and what to see, they may be given conflicting advice by different publications. Is this a big issue, or does the bulk of the problem actually lie in the way we ‘grade’ theatre in this linear way? Perhaps, somewhere out there there is an alternative solution that suits theatres, reviewers and ticket-buyers alike – a replacement system that is more highly nuanced to the qualities and form of each piece of theatre, rather than relying on a rather basic linear scheme.

DH: Firstly, I’d like to put my cards on the table by saying that I’m firmly against star ratings. I think they commodify theatre where is shouldn’t be commodified and reduce years of hard work to a simple number. Theatre companies don’t like them and reviewers (on the whole) don’t like them; the only people who are really ‘for’ star ratings are marketing departments. I think the issue lies with the differences in opinion about who theatre criticism is designed for: the company, the audience or another entity. I’m of the opinion that criticism isn’t for either; its purpose is to record events as the writer sees them and add to a wider cultural discourse. It’s obviously difficult, however, for one company or publication to stop using them, as this would mean a dent in sales. I therefore propose a blanket ban on star ratings. We’d learn to cope very quickly.

EJD: A dent in sales is one thing, but the inability to work out what is worth seeing and what isn’t actually very good is another. The problem with removing the entire system is that not only do we lose the ability to create fiscal value (and I’m really out of my depth here with these economic terms) but we also lose the ability to circulate the artistic values of the production. Unfortunately, what the star ratings do is make it very quick and easy for punters to select shows: shows that are not only worth their money but also their time. The sad fact is that people would rather have an immediate, easily digestible response than read an entire 400 word review.

DH: Again, I think this comes down to differing opinions as to what the purpose of criticism is. I think it’s sad that we have to talk about shows being more ‘valuable’ than others and objectively ‘better’; that’s just not possible. Jerusalem was adored by the press, but I still know people who didn’t enjoy it. Art is inherantly subjective and personal, and we shouldn’t be placing value systems like stars on it. I just don’t see what’s wrong in reading a review; it’ll take a few minutes longer than looking at stars and, in any case, if you’re thinking about going to see the show you’re likely to read what people have said about it anyway. I agree that some people feel like they need to know what to go and see and enjoy having someone they can trust to guide them in the right direction, but then word of mouth often leads to the discovery of exciting productions. I just think we need to reassess what we believe theatre and criticism is for – by wrenching it away from its perception as a market system. And the first way to do that is to get rid of stars.

EJD: I’d like to propose that there are alternative solutions. If you look at Fringe Biscuit, and other pioneers of alternative reviewing (Pinterest is an interesting one – there’s definitely possibility there if that visual form of reviewing is honed) it’s clear that there are indeed ways of making the nuances, faults and positives of each production available in a digestible form. I’m not saying that full reviews should be scrapped completely – as you say, people do still read full reviews and they are fundamental to theatre-makers as outlets of constructive criticism – but rather there needs to be an accompanying measuring system that is more complex than star ratings. The English language is full of synonyms – even three words have the potential to encompass a production far better than a number. If you were to ‘title’ the production as ‘fizzy, pulse-racing, apocalyptic’, the readership immediately know that the production is good; that it’s probably a thriller and it’s probably about the end of the world.

DH: Ok, so if we accept that, for the benefit of the audience, some kind of value system is necessary (I still reject that somewhat, but I’ll go along with it), then what we need is a system which acknowledges subjectivity and allows for nuance. Initially, I thought the review system used at IGN could be useful. They use a long-form system which goes into depth about the game being reviewed before concluding with a rating system which gives different points for presentation, graphics, sound, gameplay and lasting appeal before finding an average. Obviously, those aspects would have to change for theatre, but it’s worth a go. Perhaps even better, however, is a reviews aggregate website like Rotten Tomatoes, which pulls lots of reviews together to come up with an overall mark.

I’ve recently found out that CultureCritic uses a ‘Critometer’ to do a similar thing for theatre – pulling together reviews to put percentages on shows, allowing audiences to decide whether or not they should see it. That way, practitioners and critics can find more nuance in reviews, while audiences can determine which shows they see based on a mixture of reading the critics they trust and consulting this website. This is still a form in its early stages and needs to pull together a wider selection of blogs and reviews from outside the mainstream in order to be useful. I also think the focus should be on words rather than stars, but the notion still stands. It’s far from ideal – I’ll fight star ratings and the commodification of theatre until the day I die – but there may be a happy medium to be found there.

EJD: I think at the moment, our best chance at revolution is going to be the ‘happy medium’, as you call it. A total overhaul is the ideal, the current situation is unfair – shooting somewhere between the two is where we’ll have to leave the debate. As long as we pact to avoid star ratings wherever we can – perhaps the future will be sparkly in a new and exciting way.

What’s your opinion on star ratings? Add your thoughts in the comment box below and join in the conversation.

Image via Photos in a box.