Friday, 11 February 2011

Friday 5: the "reviewing previews" debate

If you're reading this, odds are good you'll have stumbled across Matt Trueman's rather contentious article on the Guardian website this week - Theatre bloggers must leave previews alone. There's already been an array of responses to this article, but I'm still going to add my tuppence (or fivepence) nonetheless.

If we ignore Trueman's inflammatory language and logical fallacies and just look at the basics, there are two real responses to the question "is it ethical for theatre bloggers to review a production they saw in preview?". The "yes" side point out that they are writing more for themselves than a national audience, that there may have been a discounted ticket price but they were still charged money to see the show, that a show may be in previews and have a lot of work to do but if they're charging audiences money then they should be ready for the audiences, and that they always make allowances for shows being in previews and point out to their readers when they're reviewing a preview.

The "no" side, on the other hand, would like it to be known that a preview period is for the production to iron out its flaws - which may involve more than just a few seconds on the theatrical ironing board - with the added bonus of getting to find out what does and does not work for a real live audience. Indeed, it is possible for a show to change so much between the first preview and the press night that it is nothing short of disrespectful and rude to form and publish an opinion in a public forum before the production is properly ready to go.

Both sides of the argument have their merits. Everyone who has an opinion on this subject has thoroughly thought it through, and there have been some good debates on the subject. For the record, I fall down on the "yes" side for myself, and will be offering up reviews of preview performances when applicable. If you'd care to click the "Read more >>", you'll find five reasons why this works for me.

5. I get it.
Okay, I'm nowhere near the league of the professionals, but I'm involved in a lot of amateur theatre in my spare time, on both sides of the curtain. I think it's fair enough to say I have a vague idea of how much work goes into taking a show and making it good. I have nightmares about tech and dress rehearsals. I also have enough imagination to figure out if it's difficult and stressful for us, doing it as a hobby, then it must be infinitely more so for the professionals. If I see a preview, and a few of the lighting cues are off, or an actor or two seems uncomfortable, or the pace is deadly, then of course these things will be tightened up by press night, and of course I won't mention them as negative points in my review. Similarly, if the entire script from start to finish is a stinker, or someone is woefully miscast, then there is very little that anyone can do to effect a transformation by press night. But I'll still give 'em the benefit of the doubt and point out that it is a preview performance and all things are subject to change!

4. I promise to be upfront.
Apparently bloggers used to review preview performances without letting their blog-reading audience know it was a preview. I'm not a dishonest person by nature. All such reviews from me will be clearly labelled.

3. I'm poor.
I go to the theatre a lot. I guess it's healthier than a crack habit, but it's definitely not cheaper. The difference between a preview ticket price and a normal ticket price may be as little as £5, but where you see £5, I see the cost of a ticket for a play at Shakespeare's Globe. An £8 difference? A play at the Almeida. A £10 difference? A play at the Old Vic. A £12 difference? A play at the National. A £15 difference? A play at the Donmar Warehouse. If I studiously avoided previews, the missed savings would add up very quickly. The price difference may not be huge to you, but it matters a great deal to theatre-goers on a low wage.

2. I'm busy.
I already mentioned I do a lot of amateur theatre. I also work full time. I live near enough to London to visit a lot, but not so near that I can just hop along to the theatre after work of an evening (especially as I like to do two-show days in the name of saving transport costs; every little helps!). At the moment, I'm rehearsing two productions in my spare time. Come March, that goes up to three (although it'll go down to one in April, fortunately). When things like this peak, sometimes I only get a couple of days a month when I'm free to head into London for the day. I also book a lot of tickets a long way in advance in the name of getting cheaper preview prices. Ultimately, this can leave me with very few slots to see productions that crop up rather more suddenly. If I want to see a show, I have to be prepared to see it on one of the few slots I have free, and if the only performance I can fit into my schedule is a preview, then I'm going to see a preview. I'd rather see an unfinished work than miss out on a show all together.

I'm not keeping this blog in the name of being heralded as a critic. I don't go to the theatre solely so I can rush home and blog about it. I don't go to previews so I can get my review out first and thus harvest all the hits myself. I go to the theatre a lot because I love going to the theatre. The blog just seemed like a logical idea; my communication skills aren't great, my ability to write coherently needs a lot of work, and I can procrastinate like nothing else on earth. Why wouldn't I start a theatre blog? It allows me to put my passion towards improving things I'd like to improve, and it also helps me gather my opinions on a show into coherent form, which is very helpful for when friends ask "so how was [insert show here] then?". I'm writing this for myself. And maybe the friends who care to ask my opinion on things. So you can disregard all those cynical thoughts of bloggers "wanting to be first!" or "planning to get all the hits!". Sometimes, guys, we go to preview performances because we are SUPER EXCITED for the show and just want to see it as soon as possible. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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