If I were to summarise the quality of student theatre in St Andrews, I would happily exclaim: ‘so many stars it may as well be a galaxy.’ At least, that is what our journalism would suggest. I am of the belief that we produce much good theatre and it is wonderful to see that other reviewers agree. However there is something fishy about the apparent belief that the vast majority of what we do is gold dust. We should not be so easy to impress. Fearless criticism encourages improvement, but our lax, over-generous attitude has left us stuck in a rut.
We seem incapable of delivering a ‘bad’ review – my search through the archives threw up a total of 5 2-star reviews across all student publications in the last 2 years and many higher rated shows read like 2-stars. Are the reviewers scared? For better or for worse, St Andrews is a close-knit community where the vast majority of people on ‘the culture circuit’ know each other and many reviewers – myself included – have experience on the other side, as it were. It is understandable that we do not want to hurt each other’s feelings, but these considerations should not enter assessment of artistic merit. Granted, I have been guilty of softening criticism in my writing, but I have also known star ratings to have been changed at editorial level for no apparent purpose.
This does not create a healthy environment for the development of arts in St Andrews. So many shows receive 4-stars or the horrendously offensive ‘half ratings’ – 3.5 or 4.5 – that praise is devalued and truly great pieces are lost among more average offerings. Some may argue that this is what 4.5 or 5 stars exist for, but 5 stars should be reserved for the perfect, unique show and not merely to mark out a superior 4-star one. Half stars should not have any place on the spectrum, but seem to have reared their ugly heads to protect reviewers from committing to – heaven forbid – 2-stars, or any real commitment to potentially controversial assertions.
Are our egos so fragile that we are unable to take criticism? We do not take it personally when a tutor criticises our essays: the wise student corrects their errors. Performance or direction works in much the same way – the best actor or director constantly strives to better themselves. How are we supposed to improve if we feel entitled to gushy praise and dismiss our critics? That said, there is a difference between criticising the person and the performance: ‘Bob’s performance was lacklustre’ is distinct from ‘Bob is lazy’ – the former allows scope for improvement, while the latter is simply a character generalization.
Our expectation for generous reviewing has led us to the mistaken belief that the 3-stars rating denotes a bad review. 3-stars is a solid recommendation of a show that is worth the price of a ticket. Sure, it isn’t going to set the world on fire, but comparatively few shows do. We need something to strive for. For that, the bar must be reset.