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Hooray For Audience Reviews

September 11, 2007

One of the most interesting aspects of attending a fringe festival is the outspokenness of audience members. At other times of the year, theatergoers tend to be reticent about airing their thoughts about productions they see on stage. A play might be something to talk about at a dinner party or over a post-show drink in a bar. But unlike the thousands of consumers who weigh in freely on books they read and films they see on web-based chat forums and the review areas on websites like and, theater audiences tend to leave public commentary about the shows they see to professional critics. Beyond misguided politesse, the shortage of major public media venues available for audiences to air their thoughts about their performing arts experiences is one reason for this. At best, theatergoers can respond to a professional critic's review on a newspaper or magazine's website.

Things are different at the fringe. Perhaps because fringe festivals attract the most hardcore and opinionated theatergoers and because there are simply too many shows for professional media outlets to review, audience feedback takes on a very important role.

Like many other fringe festivals, the San Francisco Fringe rises to the occasion by offering audiences the opportunity to review shows on the festival website at With the exception of just a few productions that don't seem to have attracted any reviews at all, these forums are full of intelligent commentary.

Fringers aren't afraid to air their opinions of shows right there in the venues. Before and after the lights go down, strangers exchange tips on what they've experienced so far in terms of what's worth seeing and what's worth skipping. The conversation at the Exit Theatre bar runs along much of the same lines. Here's a bit of a conversation between two people I overheard just before lights down last Saturday at fringe show Frisco Fred's Cabaret:

"What have you seen so far?"
"A Strange Black Passion and Class Notes."
"I saw A Strange Black Passion too."
"Did you like it?"
"Nah, not really. I found it quite slow."
"Yeah. Me too. Class Notes was pretty funny though."
"What's that all about?"
"Some guy reading stuff out of his Harvard yearbook."
"Hmm. Maybe I'll check it out." etc. etc.

Buzz is good. I like it when theater audiences -- normally so reserved and polite -- are this vocal. After all, it's only when we talk about art that it takes shape in our minds. These discussions often inadvertently affect the way we think and even behave in the world. At the very least, the chat creates full houses for shows that deserve them and -- this is going to sound mercenary but that's life -- empty ones for those that don't.


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