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Everyone's a Critic... even of Critics—Notes from New York Times Critic Watch

The NYT Critic Watch project was designed to gives us some numbers about modern theater criticism. We are awash in opinion, in curiosity, in hurt feelings, in hopes for a hit, and in the dual notion of wanting not to care but desperate for praise. 

Reviews have great power on the life of a new play, especially ones from the New York Times. But do we agree with them? Do we enjoy reading them? Are they focusing on the right elements of a new play? Are the helping or harming us as theater artists?

Reviews have great power on the life of a new play, especially ones from the New York Times. But do we agree with them?

The project picked out every review of a new play printed in the New York Times in the year 2010. We crafted a survey to determine what reader thought of the review itself (not of the play being reviewed). We let this loose on the internet and had generous volunteers read a review and fill out a short survey.  
Here's what we found:
1) Mostly Thumbs Up!
Frankly, we expected a lot more slams. Based on the way our colleagues discuss reviews over post-show drinks, you'd think almost every review is catty and brutal. But the collected answers to the first survey question: "Rate the Review from 1 (rave), 2 (liked almost all of it), 3 (Meh, Neutral), 4 (Didn't really like it), 5 (complete slam)" were these:
Only 3% of the reviews were judged as slams. 13% were judged as raves. The largest percentage of reviews at 40% were rated as 2s, or "liked most of it." Ratings of 3 and 4 ("Meh" and "Didn't really like it") were almost exactly the same at 23% and 21%.
So it seems that most of the reviews land in the positive. The second largest is the "neutral", which we understand would read as not a good review to many of our colleagues. "Meh" might be just as bad as "bad" in our "raves only" sensibility. But "meh" is not always bad. Half the time it's good, as you'll see later. And most of our crafty marketing colleagues can find a few good lines to splatter on posters from a "Meh" review.


2) All About Playwriting
The second survey question was: "On what element of the production was the review mainly focused?"
Hands down this one went to playwriting. No big surprise here. But what did surprised us was that the lowest categories discussed in the play is design (0%) and directing (1%). Wow. No mention of directing in a review of a new play? Now this might be mitigated by the admittedly vague category of "Everything", which received 20% for this question. It seems that a director's work is both obvious and invisible, and the play is truly the thing.


3) To Go or Not To Go
Our third survey question was simple: "Does this review encourage you to go see the play or not?" The numbers landed like this:
"Go See This Play" = 65%
"Do Not Go See This Play" = 35%
In our rough math we found that the percentage of "raves" + "liked most of it" + half of the "meh"s from the first survey question add up to 64.5%, or almost exactly the "Go See This Play" percentage noted above. So this helps our theory that a "Meh" review doesn't completely suck. It only half sucks. 


4) Dead Even
The answers we got to the final question made us laugh. 
"If you saw this production of this play, did you agree with the reviewer?"
Dead tie. Not a bit more or less of either answer. Precisely even. Of the people who actually saw the play in question exactly half said they agreed, and half said they did not agree. I think most bar conversations after plays would follow this math. A play is a gesture of art, we think. Art does not affect us evenly, we think. Now we know that in this case it affects exactly evenly—evenly uneven.
So yes, everyone is a critic even of critics. 


Our next post will unpack the tone of reviews, and what our surveyors said they want from a fair review.


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Not surprised to read that few reviewers mention either design or direction. I've been reviewing theatre in Victoria BC—way out here on the west coast of Canada—for nearly 15 years now (after spending a decade as a stage manager) and I've earned a reputation in the local community for being the one critic who always mentions both direction & design. How is it possible to accurately review any show without those two essential aspects? I'm constantly haranguing my fellow reviewers to include both direction & design and focus less on the acting and writing—especially if it's not a new play.

(Seriously—it astounds me how many critics waste valuable word count recapping or critiquing the script. Trust me, there's really nothing new to say about George F Walker or AR Gurney. Instead, let's hear how the director handled it, or the designers updated it.) I've had countless conversations with new reviewers who say things like, "But I just don't get what the director does" or "What difference does the lighting make?"

Perhaps the onus is on us more veteran critics to educate the next generation of reviewers.

I also meant to note the curious comment about "unpacking the tone" of reviews, which ties into the odd "data point" at the end (it doesn't quite rise to the level of data, but whatever) that the folks compiling these results only agreed with the reviews in question "half the time."

Hmmm. So . . . they thought the reviews were too positive or too negative? (Or was that decision precisely split as well?) This is only of interest in that it casts a light on the judgments (or at least about a quarter of the judgments) that this post is trying to conjure into statistics. If the "reviewers of the reviewers" tilted one way or another in the manner in which they disagreed with the original critics, that implies that their original categories (of "rave" to "slam") might be quite biased as well.

What a great project! Trying to quantify the unquantifiable . . . I love it. Seriously.In brief answer to the following comment, I'd say that based on my experience (30 years a critic, reviewing 150 or more shows a year until I semi-retired a couple of years ago, now reviewing about half that) about 2/3 of the new plays I see are indeed worth the time and interest. After all, a group of theater artists have considered them worth their time, skill and care, so the odds (2-1?) are that there is indeed something worthwhile. They may not be finished works of art or even of entertainment, duh!, but they deliver something and may promise more. The critic's job is to try to describe and explicate what that might be.

A post that's amusing in its naive sense of entitlement, but one that at least validates the widespread - though privately expressed - impression among critics that reviews of new plays are generally too soft. (Of course the seeming sample size of under 100 responses is too small for real statistical validity, but this plagues most efforts at quantizing theatrical events and responses.) I mean honestly - are two thirds of new plays really worth the price of a ticket and an evening out? Hardly - but even though most critics privately feel that we're looking at the weakest crop of playwrights in a hundred years, and there is no new voice as exciting as Shepard, Churchill, Albee, Barker, Miller, Williams, or even Mamet in his heyday, we dutifully pretend that 2/3 of new work is up to snuff. Nevertheless, the authors wrap their post with the admonition that they intend to tell critics what what they really feel new playwrights deserve in "fair reviews" (in addition to oft-unwarranted praise, I guess). It seems the takeaway here is, "New playwrights are already being overrated, but not overrated ENOUGH." Never fear, however; something tells me that as arts organization pay for more and more reviews themselves, this oversight will be corrected.