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Tag Archive | "critics"

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Star ratings: A conversation

Posted on 07 October 2012 by A Younger Theatre

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.

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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Edinburgh Critics Team

Posted on 18 June 2012 by Eleanor Turney

A Younger Theatre and C venues are delighted to announce the winners of our joint Edinburgh Critics competition.

The Edinburgh Critics Team is:
Veronica Aloess
Laura Dodge
Charlotte Ely
Catherine Love
Sarah Sharp
Chloe Stopa-Hunt
Devawn Wilkinson
Katherine Wootton

Scroll down to meet the team or click on their name to read their winning review. Congratulations to these eight – the judges were all highly impressed with the quality and maturity of writing displayed.

Congratulations are also due to our four runners-up:
Lee Anderson, who reviewed Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court
Germaine Cheng, who reviewed Spring Loaded at The Place
Laura Mooney, who reviewed Henry V at the Liverpool Playhouse
Hannah Tookey, who reviewed Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! at Warwick Arts Centre.

Our highly commended entrants are: Valentina Alfonsi, Lucy Cave, Amelia Forsbrook, Natasha Kaeda, Catherine Noonan, Andres Ordorica, Izzie Radley, Harriet Thompson and Rachel Williams.

MEET THE TEAM:

Veronica Aloess, 19, is an aspiring arts journalist and playwright, who trained at Arts Educational School London and is currently studying towards a BA in English with Creative Writing at Brunel University. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, and her arts blog West End Epilogue is a part of AKA’s blogging network. She recently co-founded Don’t Make Me Angry Productions, which is dedicated to new, original writing and innovative performance.

She reviewed Misterman at the National Theatre, and was shortlisted independently by all three judges. “Her writing has style and flair without losing sight of her job as a reviewer,” said the judges.

 

Laura Dodge is a 25-year-old dance teacher and freelance writer working in London. She is also studying for an MA in Ballet Studies, currently writing a dissertation on stage presence in ballet students. She is looking forward to seeing and reviewing lots of dance at the Edinburgh Fringe.

She reviewed Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. The judges praised her “ability to describe the event in vivid detail without wasting words”.

 

Charlie Ely is a 23-year-old Londoner, currently studying for an MA in Theatre Studies at Central School of Speech and Drama. She graduated from Sussex University in 2011 with a First Class BA in English Literature and Theatre Studies, and got her first taste of reviewing before university when she spent two months writing for The Telegraph in Calcutta, India. She has a background in acting, directing, dancing and choreography, and is particularly passionate about experimental and physical theatre.

She reviewed Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican, and was unanimously selected by the judges. They particularly liked her “sophisticated analysis of the show overall, combined with well-chosen details”.

 

Catherine Love, 22, is a recent English graduate who combines a part-time job in the magazine publishing industry with freelancing as an arts journalist. She has written for publications including the Guardian, Exeunt, IdeasTap, Spoonfed and What’s On Stage.

She reviewed Posh at Duke of York’s Theatre. All three judges selected her “well-written review, which mixes impressive knowledge of the theatre world as a whole with insightful comments on the production”.

 

Sarah Sharp is a 26-year-old writer and actor, based in London. She has been writing reviews for theatre, film and comedy for about six months and is a Fringe rookie. She is excited to be in Edinburgh, at the catalyst point for so much up-and-coming talent.

She reviewed All New People at Duke of York’s Theatre. The judges enjoyed her “witty and engaging review that offers a lighthearted take on the play”.

 

Chloe Stopa-Hunt, 25, read English at New College, Oxford. She has since worked as a poet, editor, script-reader and critic, contributing reviews of British, American and French poetry to a variety of publications. Her theatrical interests lie in Renaissance and eighteenth-century drama, as well as new writing. 

She reviewed Boys at Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, and was a unanimous choice of the judges. They praised her “elegant and eloquent prose, and subtle critique of the play”.

 

Devawn Wilkinson, 21, is an English and Drama student (aspiring to be a playwright/poet) currently living in East London. She entered the competition because she really enjoys absorbing as much theatre as possible and finds that reviewing is the most satisfying way to respond to it.

She reviewed Leper Colony at the Yard Theatre in Hackney, which the judges called “a confident and nuanced response”.

 

Katharine Wootton is a 19-year-old student from Huddersfield, currently studying English literature at the University of York. A dancing fanatic and lover of all things theatrical, she has a real passion for stage writing and reviewing, something which she has been heavily involved in since beginning university. She is hugely excited to be part of A Younger Theatre’s 2012 Edinburgh review team and cannot wait to immerse herself in the Fringe spirit.

She reviewed Midnight Tango at Manchester Opera House. The judges praised her “succinct review which manages to capture a real flavour of the show”.


Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Behind the Scenes: the Guardian’s Open Weekend

Posted on 28 March 2012 by Sarah Williams

This weekend saw the Guardian open its doors to readers for its first ever Guardian Open Weekend. Just some of the theatrical highlights on offer saw Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent talk to Lyn Gardner, Jez Butterworth in conversation with Andrew Dickson and, in an entertaining role reversal, critic Michael Billington being interviewed by Sir David Hare.

But first-off, a lively discussion on the subject of ‘What Can the Arts Offer in an Age of Austerity?’ On the panel were the Guardian’s Claire Armistead (Literary Editor), Melissa Denes (Arts Editor) and Mark Brown (Arts Correspondent), as well as author and founder of Poems on the Underground Judith Chernaik. Perhaps unsurprisingly, speakers and audience alike spoke overwhelmingly in defence of the arts (in particular the need to safeguard access to them), but there was still room for animated debate. Armistead paid lip service to pertinent arguments against cultural spending (“why pay for art in hospitals if you can’t afford hip replacements?”) and Chernaik emphasised that art has always survived – and always will – without government support. She namechecked artists who have overcome much more than austerity, from war to the Great Depression. Significantly, she also questioned the notion that the arts really are experiencing austerity (a word falsely applied by this government?) given the money consistently spent by audiences and consumers of the arts today.

Other points of contention arose with regard to how funding has been spent previously. One audience member referred to the large grants paid to institutions such as the Royal Opera House where high ticket prices might limit access to the well-off; others questioned whether funding really has succeeded in permeating beyond major cities. Brown’s commentary on the regenerative effects of funding in areas such as Margate (with its Turner Contemporary) was disputed by an audience member who questioned whether a gallery visited primarily by a “London weekend crowd” really benefitted local people, even in monetary terms. Another went so far as to suggest that, rather than the arts being starved by austerity, Britain seemed historically to need to be “battered down” to start producing worthwhile art.

Debate was rife elsewhere in the Guardian towers, too, but so it seemed was a fascination with occasions in which it might be lacking. In their separate talks, both Michael Billington and Nicolas Kent addressed the idea of “preaching to the converted” with both in fact defending the case for doing so. “What’s the problem with it?” Billington asked, commenting on whether political plays have made a real difference to society; “it happens in churches up and down the country”. Kent spoke of audiences at the Tricycle, stating that “if people feel passionately about something and you can reactivate their passion… that can be very useful. It’s reassuring to know that as a society we care about these issues.”

He also highlighted the way in which the Tricycle’s particular brand of political theatre, the “tribunal play”, presents an audience with evidence distilled in the purest form, allowing them to examine it for themselves. In the case of Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry (2003) he described how the audience arrived at “the opposite conclusion to Lord Hutton, as did the nation”.

So what does theatre have to offer that journalism cannot? Gardner pointed discussion towards the tension between the two media. For many plays, it seems largely a case of access and coverage. Trials and enquiries occurring behind a courtroom’s closed doors could be steno-graphed, distilled and staged to reach a wider audience. Norton-Taylor (also the Guardian’s Security Editor) described the “butterfly-mindedness” of many news editors, which often prevents stories from receiving the in-depth, continued exploration they deserve. As a journalist, he finds an audience that engages with a subject for two or three consecutive hours immensely satisfying.

However, plays can also offer a certain visceral detail impossible to the journalist. Norton-Taylor emphasised the significance of details such as body language, which the written reporter cannot describe but which his actors endeavoured to recreate with accuracy. For this same reason, Kent said he was uninterested in creating a play about the Leveson Inquiry, because it has been televised throughout and “at some point someone will string together an overview”. This statement was challenged by audience members entreating Kent to reconsider, and some thinking aloud from Norton-Taylor also suggested that Leveson could perhaps yet find itself in the Tricycle’s limelight. “I feel a play coming,” said Kent.

For playwright Butterworth, the premise upon which the creative process begins is perhaps less easily definable. Sometimes triggered by note making, it nonetheless essentially results from strange moments of inspiration, or thoughts which elicit a physical response: “I only follow ideas which give me goosebumps”, he said. One such moment occurred while driving, when a line familiar to Jerusalem fans suddenly popped into his head: “I, Rooster Byron, hereby place a curse upon the Kennet and Avon council”. He stopped the car and asked himself “what on earth was that?”, but felt a burst of excitement. However the roots of Jerusalem actually extend much earlier to a 2004 Royal Court read-through of a play set in a wood. Wryly describing this as “the most painful experience of my life”, Butterworth explained how this early attempt “wanted to be itself so badly, it wasn’t”. He never returned to that script in writing Jerusalem, but observes that the trouble he encountered has given him a curious new determination: “I no longer follow the things I want to write. I follow the things I don’t want to write.”

Butterworth also spoke fondly of his early connection with theatre; a desire to “go to Cambridge [University] and write plays” was fuelled by watching his older brother in a production of Brian Friel’s Translations there. Playwriting really was his sole focus as he admitted to having attended just one lecture in three years, and reflected fondly upon being quite literally chased by his head of studies Tom Morris (Director of War Horse) for an essay he would never write.

But there is also a kind of writing that Butterworth has avoided as a reader, upon Harold Pinter’s advice: reviews. Butterworth’s explanation invites controversy: “Harold worked out that there wasn’t a single person reviewing for the nationals who wouldn’t swap places with him in a heartbeat, and there wasn’t a single playwright whose work was being produced who would swap places with them.”

However, what arose most clearly from the interview was in fact Butterworth’s humility. On working with actors such as Mark Rylance to rewrite a script, Butterworth emphasised that the most important work happens inside the rehearsal room. He said that attempts to “forensically” assign parts of a performed play to a particular hand were ridiculous, because a play,  like a child, is a thing in itself: “I never feel even that the words I write belong to me, so why would anything else?”

For David Hare, criticism possessed potentially more irritating tendencies. Referring to a critic who had regularly mistaken not only the name of a play but also the theatre in which it was staged, he declared, “there seems to be a basic level of reporting about theatre criticism – that you get the facts right – and an awful lot of critics can’t seem to get over that bar”.  Not a charge he levelled at Billington, but he did suggest that his interviewee tended to be “soft on actors”. Billington partially accepted this, saying he had been moved by the (often tearful) effect of harsh criticism upon the people who must, after all, “make this thing live night after night”. To which Hare countered that he has himself likewise “picked playwrights out of the gutter”.

Billington also responded defensively to Hare’s suggestion that he had “a certain idea of how a play should be staged”. He explained that while he felt a critic was duty-bound to place plays into a context based on their experience and expertise, he also tried always to approach each production with the “innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm” of a first-time theatregoer. He celebrated the “democratisation of criticism” through the recent boom in websites, blogs and social media. This idea also featured earlier in the weekend in the discussion ‘What Defines the Guardian?’ with Editor Alan Rusbridger. A critic like Billington, says Rusbridger, writes his professional review, but the show has likely been watched by nine hundred or so others. “Are their views unimportant? The answer is so obvious.”

Wholly representative of the Guardian’s current policy of “open journalism”, this sentence encapsulated the theme of the weekend overall. So let’s watch, react and talk about theatre, but just remember (for Hare’s sake) to get those all-important facts right.

Sarah Williams was at the Guardian’s Open Weekend, 24 – 25 March 2012. For more information, visit the website here.

Image credit: the Guardian

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams

Sarah has an MA in theatre from RADA and King's College London and has written for publications including A Younger Theatre and The Guardian.

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