A Fringe without stars (or reviews)

There was a brief period of time, right after I left Vue Weekly, when I thought maybe I wouldn’t review any more Fringe shows.

That didn’t last long. I left Vue in July 2016; a few weeks later I ended up doing some reviews for GigCity. I did that for the 2016 and 2017 Fringes, and then last year in 2018 I did a daily Fringe roundup for Taproot. Taproot just launched its new Arts Roundup headed by Fawnda Mithrush, so for a brief time again I thought maybe that was it – I wouldn’t be reviewing any Fringe shows. (Side note: I’m looking forward to Fawnda’s coverage and you should absolutely sign up to support Taproot. Fawnda was the woman who launched my freelance writing career by giving me a weekly wine column in the long-defunct SEE Magazine, back in the halcyon days when Edmonton had not one but two alt-weeklies and they were willing to take a chance on a totally newbie writer and give her something like 800 words to write about wine every week.)

And then I got an email from Andrew Paul, a fellow alt-weekly expat who is putting together The Beer Tent Reviews – a print-only (!), glossy (!!), 5000-copy (!!!) booklet of Fringe reviews. Oh, and there will be no star ratings (!!?!?!?!!).

The tides have turned, my friends. Back in 2014 I mused that I’d love to see a Fringe without stars. Here it is.

Everyone hates star ratings, both reviewers and performers alike. Reviewers agonize over assigning a number, knowing that their carefully crafted words will be skipped over in favour of a single quantitative but extremely subjective judgment call. They also know that the performers will actively hate them if they give anything less than four, and also it just feels so mean to give someone two stars or less. (Unless the show was so absolutely atrocious that you gleefully assign it a bomb – 0 stars – to feel that thrill of vindication at taking something back from a part of your life that was otherwise completely wasted.)

Performers only like star ratings when they get four stars or higher, because anything less is seen as a bad review – which is absolutely untrue but also kind of actually true, in a festival where you’re competing against 200+ other shows for the attention (and money) of festival-goers.

I think the only people who like star ratings are some of the patrons, sifting through those 200+ shows, trying to find something worth spending their money and time on. Even then, Edmonton has an experienced theatre community and many will disregard star ratings and go see shows for other reasons – maybe it’s an actor or director they really like; or a play they’ve always wanted to see; or something that just looks totally wild. These are good reasons to buy a Fringe ticket. A star rating is not.

SEE Magazine Fringe reviews
These are my very first Fringe reviews from my first year as as Fringe reviewer, 2008. Yes, I dutifully clipped them out and stuck them in a scrapbook – along with every wine column I wrote for SEE from 2007 to 2009. I dropped this habit shortly after starting at Vue in 2010. I am aware it is extremely nerdy but it’s also a pretty cool artifact of alt-weekly history.

 

This is also the first year that not every show will get a star rating, after the shuttering of Vue Weekly at the end of 2018. It was sad (and angering and disappointing and many other feelings) to watch the decline of that paper while I was there, and especially after I left. Its deficiencies became really obvious at the Fringe last year. They managed to review all the shows, posted on the also-defunct edmontonfringe.ca site. (Side note: that site was created by a former sales guy to generate ad revenue while masquerading as something official and/or hosted by the festival itself, and it didn’t even mention Vue Weekly anywhere – much to the editors’ ongoing chagrin). It was really obvious that nothing was being edited before going up – not even for spelling and grammar. There was also a debacle over one particularly heinous review where a show got absolutely panned by a particularly cruel reviewer, only to be pulled the next day and then replaced by a glowing review. The whole thing just felt kind of sad and a little icky, especially to someone whose career as a theatre reviewer was launched by reviewing Fringe shows for an alt-weekly.

Yes, there will still be some star ratings this year – I’m sure Postmedia (The Edmonton Journal/Sun) will keep up the tradition, as will Global. But the number of star-less reviews is growing. It’s also the first year where there will not be a review for every show. Beer Tent Reviews is only covering about a quarter of the festival. Postmedia usually does about half, give or take.  

A Fringe without star ratings has been a long time coming and I’m looking forward to it, both as a reviewer and a festival patron. I’m curious to hear other people’s feedback too and I wonder if it will make any noticeable impact on ticket sales. The latter may be impossible to determine in any definitive way, but the obvious lack of both stars and online reviews will certainly change the feel of this year’s Fringe.

See you in the beer tent – review booklet in hand.

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