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Howard Sherman: Should there be a RottenTomatoes.com for theatre?

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Among the most frequently heard reasons offered by movie studios for this summer’s box-office decline, with admissions at their lowest in 25 years, is the influence of the website RottenTomatoes.com. For those unfamiliar with the site, it’s a review aggregator that assigns a pro or con grade to every review a movie gets, and then creates an overall average grade for the film. Films that rank at 60% positive or above are rated fresh; below that they’re tagged with a squashed tomato symbol.

As a patron of films both highbrow and low, I side with those who lay the blame for the box-office decline with the studios themselves, and the low quality of so many films. Executives blaming an admittedly reductive system seem to be shifting their own responsibility elsewhere.

Do I sometimes check Rotten Tomatoes? Sure. But I am an inveterate reader of reviews, so my filmgoing decision-making is hardly a result of just that one site. Still, let’s face it, when only 20% of a film’s reviews are rated positive, that’s a pretty good indication that something may be amiss.

Obviously the next question is whether review aggregation could come to be an important resource for, and influence on, theatre. For most of what’s produced, likely not, because runs are sufficiently brief and the pool of critics grows ever smaller. For Broadway shows and national tours, with extended runs for the former and multi-city engagements for the latter, it’s not impossible to amass enough critiques to rank them.

For a few years, the people behind the Zagat restaurant guide attempted a consumer rating of New York theatre, but despite their scores even being featured in the Wall Street Journal weekly, it never took hold. The website Stage Grade focused solely on critical reviews, albeit with greater nuance than Rotten Tomatoes employs. After the loss of a key corporate backer, it was sold to the producer Ken Davenport, who already ran his own, much more simplistic, somewhat arbitrary aggregator, DidHeLikeIt.com. When a computer snafu invaded the Stage Grade coding causing a loss of years of data, it was ultimately shut down.

Two years ago, Show-Score.com took up the mantle of theatrical review aggregation. It assigns numerical scores to both reviews by professional critics and the opinions of its ‘members’, creating separate figures for each. Critics scores are weighted according to the relative influence of their outlet and frequency of their reviews; the same holds true for members, who are ranked by frequency of their critiques, as well as other users saying they found the member’s reviews helpful. Show Score then, once again weighting for influence, combines the critics and members scores for a single figure by which shows are ranked.

In the early weeks of a run, scores may fluctuate wildly, both as preview audiences begin to weigh in and then again when reviews come out. Over time, the rankings prove unsurprising, with the longest running shows and biggest hits doing very well, even shows that overcame mixed-to-negative reviews to become audience favourites. Tom Melcher, founder of Show Score, says the site has 196,000 members, who have written 260,000 reviews. Melcher notes that 60% of those who sign up write a review.

As someone who has never cared for star ratings on reviews, because they simplify nuanced opinion gained from reading reviews, I’m actually rather sanguine about review aggregators. Yes, there are those who will look at a number and make a purchasing decision accordingly, and that’s a shame, but Show Score and Rotten Tomatoes happen to also link to all of the reviews they aggregate, creating an excellent index for those who seek fuller detail.

In the case of Show Score, the effort to capture personal opinion is a point of differentiation. Since word-of-mouth is typically the most cited reason for buying theatre tickets, aggregation is just another form of getting word-of-mouth from a larger pool of people. After all, the internet, especially since the dawn of social media, is nothing if not an accelerator and democratiser of public opinion.

Rotten Tomatoes isn’t the sole movie review aggregator. Its most prominent peer is probably metacritic.com, which also rates TV, video games and music, and surely there are others. It’s too bad that Stage Grade isn’t still around to run alongside Show Score, so that consumers have more than one major rating site from which to choose, since Did He Like It isn’t comprehensive enough to compete.

But the bottom line is that, in theatre, as in movies and restaurants, aggregation is just a new way of looking at opinions. Yes, it’s all reductive – even the opinions can be as well, in relation to work they assess – but instead of getting aggravated with these sites, theatre producers should just focus on creating great work, as I believe most do, instead of trying to kill the messenger, as their Hollywood brethren wish they could.

This week in US theatre

The expertly funny Paul Rudnick opens a new play, Big Night, on Sunday at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. It’s certainly the right town for it, as the show is about an Oscar-nominee coping with family fuss on awards night. Walter Bobbie directs.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A receives its first major New York revival at Signature Theatre as one of the two “Red Letter Plays” by Parks staged by the company this fall, opening Monday; In the Blood joins it at Signature six days later. Christine Lahti stars in A as Hester Smith, an abortionist, in this drama suggested by The Scarlet Letter. Jo Bonney directs.

Having previously mounted productions of his Harper Regan and Bluebird, Atlantic Theatre Company stages the New York premiere of Simon Stephens’ On the Shore of the Wide World, opening Tuesday under the direction of the company’s artistic director Neil Pepe.

Sarah Ruhl’s mother was a community theatre aficionado and that forms the kernel of Ruhl’s latest play, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons on Monday night. Kathleen Chalfant plays an academic who, after a personal loss, imagines returning to her signature role of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Les Waters directs.

The biggest opening of the week is Thursday at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, as Disney’s Frozen makes its official stage debut prior to New York in the spring. We know the story and one insistent song quite well, but we’re promised even more music and saga from the authors of the film, Jennifer Lee, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who repeat their responsibilities here. Michael Grandage directs.

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