No stars for the star rating system of Fringe reviews

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

To star or not to star.

There’s a question that’s been debated in beer tents, box offices, and press rooms since Hamlet gave director’s notes to the travelling players.

There are arguments to be made on both sides, and I’ve made them. And I’m still of two minds. But as a theatre reviewer who’s covered the Edmonton Fringe and its astonishing growth spurt since 1983 (please, don’t do the math!) I’m thinking that the star rating system, the shortest possible shorthand review, has outlived any real meaning for artists and audiences it might once have had. So, for my short Fringe reviews on my theatre website, 12thnight.ca, I’ve decided not to go that way. 

In a star-studded Fringe universe peppered indiscriminately by a proliferation of four-and-five star ratings from an ever-widening spectrum of writers — just look at the program — artists and Fringe-goers alike tell me (loudly and convincingly) that 3 1/2 stars is a pall, and three is a pasting, worse at the box office than no review at all. Two? Don’t even bother writing a review. To pursue that thought to its reducto ad absurdum, why even bother writing a review anyhow, and provide evidence for your critical reaction, if a star chart with its top-heavy four and five-star clusters, is all that counts?

I get that the 220-show lineup in this latest edition of our summer theatre bash is dauntingly full of choices for ticket-buying audiences. But if critical reaction is reduced to four- and five-star assignments, we’re in a sorry era of a pass-fail system for Fringe shows. Only four? Sorry, you flunk.

And, my Fringe-going compatriots, isn’t that a slam at the whole idea of having a Fringe, a theatre festival with alternative cred, with a mixture of bright ideas, experiments, works-in-progress, polished touring shows?

Star ratings were never a nuanced, stand-alone system, I think. What journalist wants their work not to be read? Not me, that’s for sure. What’s happened to the critical imperative to explain your reactions?

To pick the most problematic of the ratings, what does a three-star rating slapped on a review mean? Potentially, very different things. A theatrical experiment with aspects of brilliance and notable flaws, perhaps, worthy of seeing and discussing? Or perhaps a piece that strikes you as competent but only mildly interesting? How many stars should a fascinating failure get? How do you weigh ambition against execution?

These reactions cry out for a review, no matter how short. And it shortchanges everyone concerned, onstage and off-, artist and audience, to off-load that responsibility onto a star chart.

Which is why I’m venturing outside the star rating system for my Fringe reviews on 12thnight.ca. I’ve thought and thought about this, since the Fringe is SO big. And artists need, and deserve, some cross-country box office traction from their experience at the continent’s biggest and oldest Fringe, some way of recording the response to their work.

I’ll be trying hard to be more quotable; it’s only fair. Stay tuned.

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