By Isaac Butler
As longtime readers of this blog know, over three and a half years ago, 99Seats (then writing at his old blog) floated the notion that someone should make a metacritic for New York theater reviews. The basic gist was that, as we were all getting frustrated about the overwhelming weight carried by the New York Times, perhaps creating one place where you could read what everyone had to say about a given show would be illuminating.
A few days later, Rob Weinert-Kendt e-mailed me and we got matzoh ball soup at Café Edison and, after a process Rob talks about here, Critic-O-Meter was born. When we originally started it, it was just a blog, hosted by google. After many conversations (and permission from 99 to proceed without him), we decided eventually to assign reviews grades rather than numerical scores and to take the average of these grades to get a final grade for the show. We hand cranked all the math ourselves (leading to occasional hilarious errors on my part) and, like any good blog, included comments so people could discuss (or, as the case might be, gripe.)
I still remember the first show I felt like I got right for Critic-O-Meter, the Frank Langella “Man For All Seasons” which received a B-. The photo we used had Langella looking towards the grade, seeming stymied at his fate.
We used to do regular blog posts on the site where we’d try to articulate what we’d learned from the past couple weeks of assembling reviews. Our goal was to be the 538 of critic aggregators. We would be open about our biases, blog about our process, and try to learn what we could.
Evenutally, this changed. We took on business partners, the site became Stagegrade and become less oriented towards theater insiders and more towards the actual ticket-buying public. The comments section went away, replaced by user reviews and we stopped blogging about our findings. I think these were all good and necessary changes and Stagegrade looks much better and is much more usable than Critic-O-Meter ever was. As with any hobby that becomes a business, I do miss the days when it was just this weird experiment, when Elisabeth Vincentelli and Aaron Riccio would argue about the merits of a particular show in the comments, and when we’d get to opine from time to time.
I’m quite proud of the site, really. We were hailed by some as the death of criticism when we arrived, but we’ve helped spotlight great unsung reviewers like David Barbour, helped demonstrate when the Times is with the consensus and out of it, and (I hope) spread the word about lesser known but critically beloved shows. And frankly, I love that we’ve created this weird conversation by bringing the critics all to the same table. Given how often they disagree, for example, seeing the times that David Cote and Terry Teachout love (or hate) the same show is illuminating, and seeing one reviewer praise the very thing that another deplores, or reading multiple interpretations of a play’s key moments is really fascinating.
The secret is, of course, that it’s still an experiment a couple of years on, and we are still trying to learn what we can from it. A friend who has his ear more to the ground than I do mentioned to me over e-mail that he feels that what StageGrade has done, in fact, has shown how valuable and relevant reviews can be en masse:
Here's one of the major things StageGrade has proved: critical consensus is largely correct. Much like in polling, where individual polls can be outliers, but the averages are largely correct, the StageGrade for every show always, without fail, replicates the word on the street. And it shows that most critics actually do understand that their job is to consider the work on its own terms. Sarah Ruhl and Amy Herzog are really different artists, but the same group of critics agrees that they are fulfilling the aims that their work sets up. When there's a legitimate split decision -- Lonergan's The Starry Messenger, Shinn's Picked -- it's generally because the work is legitimately divisive. In both those plays, audiences who want to see long, uncommercial plays by each of those writers weren't disappointed.
When I started blogging, I used to rail against reviewers and reviews in all the de rigeur ways. But these complaints betrayed my lived experience. I’m related to a retired (once prominent) critic. Jason Zinoman and I have known each other since I was in short pants. Through my years of blogging, I've become friends with many critics (which made getting my own work reviewed tricky at times). The first theater industry person to notice and champion my directing work was a critic (Terry Teachout) rather than an artistic director. And, as Critic-O-Meter grew into Stagegrade, I found my own opinions about the values of criticism growing with it. Heck, I even wrote a piece recently praising (in certain circumstances) harsh reviews!
When I read my colleagues complaining about critics, about them existing, about the discipline, I just kind of shake my head now. Artists seem particularly confused about the intended audience for reviews. Many of us seem to think reviewers are writing for us (or to us) about our and our colleagues work. They aren’t. Hopefully they spare a thought for us, but their writing is—and should be— intended for the audience.
I do wish that there were more good reviews, though. Reviews that are well written, cogently argued, closely observed, rigorous and generous at the same time. There are a lot of reviewers out there who aren’t good at their jobs. Every time a Broadway show opens, I end up reading at least two dozen reviews and only about half of them would get a passing grade in my writing class. There’s a particular crisis in arts journalism in the editor’s chair. Many of the reviews I read—and I’m even talking about ones for print publication—clearly haven’t had someone else reading over them and asking how the ideas fit together, or, in some egregious cases, checking for basic grammatical issues. But I can’t join my friends in wishing critics didn’t exist. Where would that leave me, after all.