Friday, December 12, 2008

Rating the Critic-O-Meter

There's an interesting discussion going on regarding the Critic-O-Meter, a new theatre blog that summarizes the critical consensus regarding Broadway and off-Broadway productions and assigns each show a letter grade.

The blog is a project of Rob Weinert-Kendt of The Wicked Stage and Isaac Butler of Parabasis who wanted to create a theatre equivalent of the Web sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

Well, not everyone thinks this is such a great idea. In the L.A. Weekly, writer Steven Leigh Morris commends the pair for their passion but decries the cultural shorthand that he believes the Critic-O-Meter represents:

"Ours is a culture with a prevalent and public rush to judgment, to a letter grade or score, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down mentality that appears to be replacing the love of investigation, which comes from curiosity."

And Morris apparently finds the very notion of assigning a letter grade offensive:

"Teachers have been complaining for a decade that the test-scores results mandated by the No Child Left Behind program are an irrelevant reflection of a child, of his or her abilities and potential. A theater production, too, is a kind of child, intricate and multidimensional, born of a family history lodged in some cultural context. To assess a play with a grade is mildly insulting to the critic but deeply insulting to the creators."

I have to respectfully disagree. We do this all the time for other aspects of popular culture - movies, books, music, television. Stars or letter grades don't automatically shut off discussion. They're just clear, concise starting points in a world where we're short on time and bombarded with information.

From what I can see, the love of investigation is alive and well in our culture. The Internet may have its share of crackpots, haters and conspiracy theorists, but it's also home to passionate, knowledgeable and well-thought-out discussion on movies, books, music, television and theatre.

If anything, I believe a site like Critic-O-Meter can actually encourage discussion. It presents the whole range of choices - Broadway and off Broadway - in a convenient, familiar way. Information about theatre - especially plays - needs to be more accessible, more widespread. The more voices, the better.

When I was in New York last month, whenever I struck up a conversation with a fellow out-of-town theatergoer I always mentioned Gypsy and August: Osage County. Some people had heard of Gypsy but no one had heard of August: Osage County, winner of the Tony award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. When the movie comes out in a few years, then they'll know about it.

So if the blog does become a stop for people who are looking for some guidance, I think it could help rather than hurt. For some shows, like Wicked, the critics don't matter. But for others, maybe it'll give them a little boost.

And Critic-O-Meter doesn't just give a letter grade. It summarizes how critics in general felt about the show, gives a brief overview of each review and provides a link to the full piece. If you read a handful of them you'll get a pretty lively debate.

(Morris also points out that the site give equal weight to reviews from the New York Times and Theatermania but that doesn't bother me, as long as the critic can write well and make a compelling argument.)

Like it or not, this is the way popular culture gets judged. The question is: Do we have to treat theatre differently because plays - and the people who create them - are too fragile to exist in the rough-and-tumble world of the critical marketplace? I don't think so. That, I would argue, is truly offensive.


Vance said...

Life's all about judging others. hahaha...

Okay, in serious note. I understand the theory behind not having stars and thumbs up and stuff and reducing it to simple labels but as a reader, I love it too so I sort of balance between the two. Still grade it (and I've even decided just to move my grading to the top of the post but then I offer an explanation to why I gave it that. Since 3 stars for one show may be different than 3 stars for another. (show might be "good" but boring but good acting, show may not be great but fun to watch. etc etc).

Dale said...

I don't ever strictly follow a rating system in choosing what to see, be it theatre or a film or even choosing a book (sometimes the cover is enough) but I do like reading lots of different takes on the same thing so rate away!

Esther said...

Yeah, I agree Vance. I don't see a problem in summarizing a review with a rating. I think stars or letter grades are an easy shorthand for the reader. But most people will look at the review, too, hopefully. And frankly, the theater is a much bigger financial investment than a movie or a book or a cd, so people should seek out as much information as possible. You're right, some shows can be technically fine but just not very engaging, or just not for me!

Esther said...

Hey Dale,
Reading reviews is a lot like looking at those web sites that rate hotels. You find people who love a show and people who hate it. The reviews for 13 were poor but bloggers I respect loved it, and I did, too. Rock 'n' Roll got great reviews but I thought it was pretentious and slow. Like you said, you've just got to read lots of different takes and in the end, go with your gut about whether it's right for you.