Dec 10, 2008

Today on (and About) Critic-O-Meter

Two plays with war and family on the brain: Craig Lucas' Prayer for My Enemy and Keith Reddin & Meg Gibson's Antigone remix Too Much Memory. Read all about 'em.

In other Critic-O-Meter news, LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris offers a longer and more thorough version of his blog entry deploring Isaac's and my new review-reviewing site. I'm honored that Steven takes our site seriously enough to take it apart so vigorously (and I'm kind of tickled by the piece's illustration, by Justin Renteria), but of course I'm disappointed that he relates our venture to the culture of standardized testing and a reductive "one-click-fits-all" model.

While I admit feeling a sting of truth when Steven writes, "To assess a play with a grade is mildly insulting to the critic but deeply insulting to the creators," I also have a response, having been on both sides of that coin--I've been reviewed as well as reviewed others, and both I and my targets, last I checked, are still standing. And the response is this: that at least part of what Critic-O-Meter is intended to do is to serve as a corrective to the undue power of a few daily critics, both in the area of consumer advice and in the realm of setting the terms and boundaries of the critical conversation. I have felt firsthand, and heard secondhand over the years, the deep frustration with the way one or two critic's tastes and distastes too often become the final verdict/conventional wisdom on a play for all time--in the markets I've worked in, it's been whoever has "Times" on his side--when I and others who care about this kind of thing know that the critical conversation about a given play is/was much, much wider and more diverse than any one critic's writing could possibly reflect. So what could I do with this knowledge? Ramble on about a particular undersung show when asked, or even when unasked; advocate favorites with theatre awards or year-end lists.

Critic-O-Meter, in that spirit, is our way of broadening the conversation to include everyone writing about every show we can find (and have time to include); if we want to drop our thoughtful two cents about our favorite shows and issues into the giant wishing well of the blogosphere, well, that's what a blog like this or this is for. The grading process at Critic-O-Meter, as Steven rightly notes, is entirely subjective, but that's the essence of our gamble: that the grades, and the paragraphs of summary we add about each show, are the value that Isaac and I add beyond a simple review aggregator.

As a critic, sporadic practitioner and occasional paying theatergoer myself, I know I can handle the insult of being reduced to a grade, particularly if the so-called "reduction" in fact holds out the chance of a more abundant, noisy, and spirited conversation.


Esther said...

Hey Rob,

I'm really enjoying the Critic-O-Meter.

I think Steven Leigh Morris' comment that it's insulting to give a play a grade is a bit over the top. He might as well say that to have an opinion about a play is offensive because basically, that's what a grade amounts to - an opinion.

And no one is reducing it solely to a grade - you're including a summary of what each critic said. The grade is simply a way to give an overall sense of the critical reception. Nothing wrong with that. People are free, as I do, to read the entire review.

Besides, how does he think plays get judged in the "real world?" If I see something and a friend or colleague asks me the next day how I liked it, and I know they don't want a long discussion, I might well answer with something like excellent, mediocre or poor, which is basically A,C or F.

Steven Leigh Morris said...

I don't "deplore" Critic-O-Meter at all. You left out all the positive references I made to your efforts. I see it as paradoxical and it opens up a healthy discussion about what criticism is for, which it has done on both coasts. I'm amused that you think I gave you a D or an F (I infer this from your word "deplore"), where I think I gave you B. That's part of the mercurial nature of assigning "objective" letter grades to your readings of a review. You and Isaac deserve praise for your labor of love, and I'm not reluctant to offer it.

Colin Mitchell said...

Rob - hang tough, brother. Check out my response over at I'm going to be adding both this site and critic o'meter to my blogroll, love it if you would do the same for Bitter Lemons?

Just trying to spread the word!

Relentlessly yours,
Colin Mitchell

silent nic@knight said...


Steven doesn’t issue a report card grade of D-plorable on Critic-O-Meter as you suggest. He simply describes and attempts to position the web site within the larger context of a one-click culture. His blog entry and short article is more an examination of cultural phenomena than a value judgment on Critic-O-Meter, which is exactly the philosophical divide he argues that your enterprise highlights.

Mark W said...

Hey Robert, i.e. Destroyer of Theater Criticism. I kid. The Critic-O-Meter concept is simply and for the most part an intellectual experiment, isn't it? As a reviewer you're interested in how your response to a play dovetails with that of your peers. If there's any difference between this and the cumulative tallies of movies on MetaCritic and Entertainment Weekly, isn't it only in the way it might eventually effect ticket sales and theater profits (which could be favorable or adverse)? Just as an anecdote, however, I would add that I'm growing to distrust MetaCritic. There's a weird highest common denominator effect, where some movies receive top scores due to what I imagine to be reviewer demographics.