I just finished up my busiest Fringe Festival ever. This was my seventh year reviewing Fringe shows; it’s actually what got me started writing about theatre, way back when I was just a budding, overly snarky wine columnist for the now-defunct SEE Magazine.
This year was particularly notable because I was also asked to be on the Fringe Sterling Awards jury, so the usual marathon weekend of reviewing Fringe plays was extended into a whole week of play-watching.
It was an Odyssian undertaking: a great experience, and thoroughly exhausting. By the end of it resentment flooded unbidden throughout my entire being as soon as I got within a block of the Arts Barns. It definitely didn’t help that I had a head cold the entire damn time, so I was that person trying to discreetly blow her nose in the corner of the venue right before the show, and in the beer tent in between shows, and in line to buy a pulled pork burger. When your head is producing approximately one litre of snot with astonishing frequency (DayQuil’s mitigating effects be damned), you end up blowing your nose a lot. So yeah, sorry ’bout that, fellow Fringers. But at least my nasal expulsions sounded better than that arrhythmic asshole banging his shitty plastic buckets on the corner of Whyte Avenue every fucking night.
Anyway, I’m not going to pass along my thoughts on who should (and shouldn’t) win the Sterlings because it’s supposed to be anonymous. However, I AM going to share an editorial that I wrote for Vue on Fringe star rankings, which ended up getting cut from the paper due to space. They offered to run it online, but my editor had some comments he wanted me to address before publishing it; long story short, I didn’t feel like revising and expanding the piece so I decided to just post it here instead. Whatever – I’m still tired from all the Fringing, okay?
[Side note: Our discussion did get us planning to do a big feature story on Fringe stars for next year, hopefully a point-counterpoint type of piece in which we explore this (super contentious) issue from multiple angles.]
FRINGE STAR RANKINGS
When did three stars become a bad review?
This year’s edition of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival just wrapped up, and with it another year’s onslaught of star rankings and all the grumblings, complaints, and outright condemnations associated with them.
I’m not a fan of the star system. I think star rankings occlude the actual review, causing people (audience and artists alike) to gloss over the actual words attached to those stars. And of course everyone has a subjective opinion, so one person’s four-star show is another’s two-star.
I also noticed a somewhat disturbing trend in terms of the leniency of reviews this year: out of 210 shows, Vue’s team of reviewers gave four stars to 63 shows and five stars to nine shows. That means over one-third of the shows got four stars or higher, and that just doesn’t sound right to me – especially when only 11 shows got a one-star rank, and only a single show bombed with no stars. This trend was maintained by The Edmonton Journal’s review team as well, though their results aren’t as conclusive as Vue’s because they don’t review every show (they did 159 this year). The Journal gave a four or four-and-a-half star rank to 61 shows, and five stars to four shows; only five shows got a one or one-and-a-half star rank, and they didn’t give out any bombs. This means that over 40 percent of Fringe shows were, in the Journal’s eyes, four stars or higher.
I attribute some of this leniency to a crop of reviewers that was a bit greener than in previous years: I know several long-time Fringe reviewers who didn’t participate this year, and I saw a lot of new names attached to reviews. That’s not inherently a bad thing – actually, I felt that the quality of writing was quite good, as a whole. But newbies tend to be more merciful than us ruthless veterans; this was my seventh year reviewing Fringe shows so my jump from three to four stars (and certainly from four to five) is a pretty big one. That proportion of high-ranking shows, which defies the law of averages, suggests an audience and a critical community that is too indulgent. This has a profound and potentially damaging effect on the theatrical community.
I also heard a disproportionate amount of complaining about low star rankings, including a fair amount centered on shows that scored in the three star range. I understand the artist’s obsession with getting at least four stars, as anything less can’t be promoted on posters and handbills. But a three-star show isn’t at all bad – it’s perfectly acceptable, well-produced, and worthy of the audience member’s $15.
I’d like to see a Fringe without the star rankings. Vue and The Edmonton Journal only use them during the Fringe and not during the regular theatre season (a fact for which I, as a regular theatre reviewer, am extremely grateful). No star rankings require people to actually read the reviews instead of just glancing at the stars. It means that critics have to really work at crafting a useful, accurate review. And it prevents artists from simply bellowing “five stars!” before shoving a handbill at people in queues.
A Fringe without stars would be a strange beast indeed. But is it really so unimaginable?