Zero Stars for Star-Ratings
by Wes Babcock
How many stars? Four stars? Two stars? Five stars? Three stars? Zero Stars. Okay, you can stop reading now.
This is the only time I will participate in the star rating system, because it’s clear that the star rating system is fundamentally reductive, and serves no one’s best interests. Let me be clear, the interested parties include: theatre practitioners, audiences, critics, art itself and society generally. Yep, that sounds like pretty much all the interests theatre ought to be serving.
A word of warning: I’m not going to support my argument with any statistics, because I actually think what I’m saying is self evident, and also because I don’t have any. Incidentally, this reflects part of the problem. Namely, critical star-ratings are a quantitative measure of a purely subjective thing: the opinion of a single human being about a piece of art, about which there can be no meaningful statistics. I acknowledge that I could conduct an investigation that provides numbers about the effects of star ratings on theatre or other art, and that might actually help my argument, but that is not what happens in a critical review. In a critical review, one person engages with some human-made thing, and provides their opinion about it. Rarely do they support their opinion with any numerical data. So I am going to assess my experience of star ratings like any other subjective phenomenon, and provide an argument that you can choose to believe (seek corroborating evidence for it if you like) or not.*
First, let’s examine the star rating system itself, before we get to its effects. According to this system, it is possible to condense the experience of an entire hour (or more or less) of life into a score between zero and five. Inherently, this number has no support or clear meaning on its own, and yet there it stands: alone. Countless hours of effort are reduced to a single quantity, which purports to be a measure of the quality of the culmination of those hours of effort.
As a critic, you may go on to explain the reasoning behind the way you’ve assigned this value, but you have already reduced your contribution to this rating. Whether or not people read past the star rating, you have provided a convenient summary of your own work in the form of this number as well. “She gave it a 5, she must have loved everything about it.” Why would anyone read about the substance of what you think, if they already know what you think from this number? As a critic, literally the only thing you have to offer is your considered opinion. That is your purpose: engage with a work, and speak your considered opinion into the discourse surrounding the piece and the art itself, with the intention to always make art better. It is not your job to tell people what to think, it is your job to tell people what you think, and get them to think about things in turn. Star ratings devalue the content of your opinion (read: mind) and do nothing to improve anyone’s art. Star ratings are bias masquerading as objective truth.
As an artist, the star rating is a ticket to paradise, purgatory, or a special sanctum of hell reserved for performers without audiences. For example, performer-playwright and Fringe perennial Martin Dockery has performed his show The Exclusion Zone at several Fringes. In Winnipeg 2015, it received a 4-star review. Then, when he did the same show at the Edmonton 2016 festival, it received a 1.5-star review. Attendance at his show, corrected for total festival attendance, declined by nearly ⅔ from Winnipeg to Edmonton.** (Ok, so I lied about statistical support for my argument. If you’ve read this far, you’ll forgive me). The substance of the show didn’t change at all between these two reviews. The only thing that changed was the person handing out golden star stickers to the class. And subsequent attendance at the artists’ performances.
These numbers breed a culture of fear in artists, whose livelihoods (read: ability to eat) depend so heavily on the opinion of these number-wielding critics. The artists become reluctant to push hard on the boundaries of their art for fear of financial ruin. Talk all you like about how artists ought to be idealists and not care about money, but then also please do something to change the culture of scarcity that pervades working in or participating in art.
As an audience member, these numbers encourage you to be lazy. They encourage a blind trust in the critic. And they provide an excuse to divest yourself of the obligation to see things that aren’t pleasing to everyone. This isn’t your fault; this is the fault of the system of star ratings, but like any pervasive or oppressive system that encourages sloth, blind trust in authority, and the perpetuation of safety in the status quo, it takes constant effort to overcome. When you encounter a reductive opinion that you feel yourself adopting nearly unconsciously, I encourage you to feel cheated out of your agency as a human. Out of an opportunity to engage in discussion and debate about the issues surrounding a piece of art and its resonance with society at large. And though I am not claiming to have the final say on anything, I want to point out that this includes mine. I encourage you to engage artistic effort with effort of your own: to think about what the artist is attempting; to speak about how that works or doesn’t work for you in their product; to encourage effort in positive and thoughtful directions. Related to stars: make an effort to read the review itself and think about how well the critic engaged with the piece before you form your own opinion based on theirs.
I want to go back to this idea that star ratings are bad for art. Ostensibly, everyone (artist, audience, and critic) has an interest in the creation of better art. What exactly constitutes better art is, of course, pure subjectivity. As a result, regardless of what qualities you think makes art better, it is bound to be different from what anyone else thinks. By reducing your considered opinion about what makes a piece or art work or not work to a single numerical value, you are suggesting that the ultimate goal is to make a piece of “art” that everyone right now agrees is worth the highest number. There are several problems with this: the highest number today will not be the highest number in a year; there is no perfect piece of art; pleasing everyone is not the point.
I contend that the “best” piece of art will actually have a significant distribution across this scale, because part of what makes art “best” for me is that it uses the technical proficiency of the artist to challenge some deeply held notions in our world (and art itself) and ask us to consider them in a new light. It speaks a truth that has not been spoken in this way before. As a part of this, not everyone is going to love it. This is how art serves society at large: by providing a platform where marginalized voices can make themselves heard on their own terms. If it is indisputable, it’s not pushing hard enough. Of course, some people disagree with me. Some people think the theatre should always be “a safe and special place” for audiences. Safe? Yes. Free from challenges to your way of thinking? Distinctly not.
So what do we do? For our part, the New Ottawa Critics will continue to express our considered opinions in words, even as we situate ourselves within the development of a new world of theatre criticism. We will strive to consider the voices that don’t get heard (if you have a voice that feels unheard, please reach out; the nature of our world make it hard to see you, but we are listening). We will always aim to foster active participation in the dialogue about theatre and what makes theatre work or not work. We will engage with artists to push the boundaries of their craft to tell stories that challenge us, and hold them to account when they don’t. And we will count on you to engage with us in this spirit of optimism and commitment to making art better.
*. This article is dealing with specific instances of the star rating system as part of the Fringe touring ecosystem. Many of the statements about star ratings in general apply well beyond the world of festival touring.
**. Dockery’s show in Winnipeg 2015 had 0.72% of total festival ticket sales. His Edmonton 2016 show had 0.26% of total festival ticket sales.