Thursday, September 20, 2007

Once Again, I Have To Ask....

Once Again, I Have To Ask....

With stories popping up from The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout and Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones in Variety regarding the value of keeping press at bay during previews -- as well as some outright indignation about the recent review of half a preview by George Hunka of Superfluities -- I once again must ask "Are blogs making the time-honored preview obsolete?"

Or at least in the way we currently view previews?

Teachout astutely writes:
[S]ome shows are news, and the fact that the Seattle tryout of Young Frankenstein got mixed reviews in the local papers has not gone unnoticed (or unreported) in New York....With playgoers "publishing" their opinions of new shows whenever they please, is there any reason for producers to keep on holding critics at bay until the last minute? Perhaps for now, but my guess is that the institution of the theatrical preview will soon come to be seen as pointless. As any number of red-faced pols can tell you, there are no secrets in the age of the New Media.
Jones adds:
In an era when a first preview audience disseminates amateur opinions to the world through Internet chatrooms, the out-of-town Broadway tryout seems like an anachronism. Why pay to truck your show all across America if gossip and local reviews will now be almost as widely disseminated in Gotham as if you were playing in Times Square?
Are new media getting an unfair advantage over old media vis-à-vis shows in previews because virtually anything goes in the blogosphere?

In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote and posted my "review" of Young Frankenstein prior to its Seattle opening and labeled it a "preview." I also wrote and posted my "review" of 100 Saints You Should Know just days before the show opened. And for the record, with one notable exception, I never walk out of shows.

I'd love to hear what you think.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Related Stories:
Are Blogs Making The Time-Honored Preview Obsolete? (August 20, 2007)

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At 20 September, 2007, Blogger Aaron Riccio said...

I have to say, I like the way you and Playgoer find the way to balance reportage with reviews. But the quote from Jones is what gets me, and continues to get me: "...when a first preview audience disseminates amateur opinions." What exactly makes these "amateur" opinions? What draws the line between blogs and reviews? If I work professionally, but also publish my personal thoughts, but write both the same way, is there a difference? It's easy to tell the difference between someone who knows what they're talking about, and someone who doesn't; given that you can't bar theatergoers from talking about the show, it's only a matter of time before the industry reevaluates the embargo.

Of course, the point I agree with Jacobs about is: does this ultimately just hurt the artists, or help protect a preview audience that's been more and more taken advantage of. (Seeing less and less of the final product.)

At 20 September, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me start by saying I know nothing about the theatre industry.

But is there no such thing as consultants? People who are paid to come in and watch the show and give some opinions as to what could/should be changed?

I've never understood showing a rough copy of a show to the general public, even before blogs existed. I know they need to try it out, but why does it have to be in front of anyone with enough money to buy a ticket?

I would say, bring some consultants in, and maybe a smattering of family/friends of those involved with the show who will not blab (or blog) and perform it full out. And work from those opinions.

I've also never actually been to a preview show, so let me ask a question - do they ask for the audience's opinions? When you go to a preview screening of a movie, they have you fill out a survey saying what you liked/didn't like/though could be changed, etc. Does theatre work the same way? Or do they just gauge audience reaction and work on the show from there?

Oh well. Maybe I'm crazy and uninformed, but those are my two cents.

At 20 September, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Aaron, I wouldn't read too much into Chris Jones' comments. I don't think he purposely intends to disparage those of us who regularly write about theatre.

Certainly there are many shades of opinion out there ranging from the person on MySpace who just happens to see an occasional show and writes about every experience they have to those of us who are much more narrowly focused, seeing and writing about theatre every day.

As a key part of my professional life, I write. It's part of my professional DNA. It's what I get paid to do, albeit far removed from the world of theatre or the arts.

While I'm a professional writer, I can't lay claim to being a professional theatre writer. Nobody pays me to write SOB. So in essence that makes me an amateur in the best sense of the word.

Of course, according to Webster, "amateur" is defined first and foremost as "devotee, admirer." The second definition, which I believe is what Chris Jones intended, is "one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession." But it certainly would appear that you've read into his statement the third and last definition of "one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science."

To your question of what draws the line between blogs and reviews, I would say the lines are already blurred, regardless of what old media types may think.

I agree with you on your salient points that it is easy to tell when someone knows what they're talking about and when they don't. It's one reason why I read both your blogs every day.

I also wholeheartedly agree that it is only a matter of time before embargoes are reevaluated. New media is necessitating that reevaluation, if not today, then in the foreseeable future.

At 20 September, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Hey Anonymous, thanks for your response.

I've never been asked to provide any opinion while attending a preview, but I'm sure it occurs.

I'll let those on the creative side of the equation weigh-in on why they believe previews are necessary. If you look at the ongoing poll question to the right, you'll see that an overwhelming majority (72.2%) say that previews remain useful to the creative process. Only 13.9% say that they've become obsolete.

Why? It appears that most believe previews still help shape shows (in many cases to see what works and what doesn't based on audience response).

At 20 September, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Post script: Interesting to note that the Guthrie production of The Pillowman that begins performances this evening opens tomorrow night.

At 21 September, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Post Post Script: Hat tip to Interval Drinks for providing a link to a great item from Natasha Tripney in The Guardian's "Arts Blog" that suggests a greatly evolved way of thinking on the other side of the pond by discussing how reviews and blogs should be "best friends."

At 23 September, 2007, Anonymous gene in minneapolis said...

Does anyone remember when David Merrick called off a preview of "42nd Street" because a reviewer from the NY Times was in the audience. He insisted they see the show opening night.
Now, they have press previews.

Are blogs about theater performances now replacing "word of mouth" in much the same way malls have replaced downtown shopping?
I wonder if Mr. Jones doesn't realize that many of the attendees at the first preview are those who are the real theater/show enthusiasts. Seeing a show in the first or second preview is great fun. However, while I may not be paid to offer an opinion, my opinion is as valid as that of a paid reviewer. If I liked the show I would chat it up to friends and co-workers. If I didn't like it my "word of mouth" would be in the simple "don't bother" attitude. Perhaps, going foeward, I should hold out a cup and ask for two cents?
Previews are important to gauge audience reactions to the performance. I understand that the cost of shows now require infusing cash into the show while still in previews yet that tells me the show has not been capitalized where it should be.
The show should be out there for about two weeks max and then open. If the director has figured out what's what in that time maybe this is something that shouldn't be.
Also, is the numbers of producers, the listing of those now looking like the village phone book, hindering some of the movement forward. Do their egos stymie shorter preview period because they want to be heard?

As far as consultants.....who would the producers hire them to please? The theater-goers or the reviewers?
I've read good reviews and hated the show and bad reviews and wondered if the person was at the same show and then I've agreed on both good and bad.

At 24 September, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


The David Merrick 42nd Street episode is recounted in great detail (including how Merrick's own death on opening night gave the show global headlines) in the wonderful PBS documentary "Broadway: The American Musical."

As far as I'm concerned, your opinion, regardless of the venue you choose to voice is, is valid, regardless of if you see a preview or a show once it's opened.

At 26 September, 2007, Anonymous gene in minneapolis said...

Gower Champion, not David Merrick, passed away on the day "42nd St" opened. Mr. Merrick lived well past then and even brought "State Fair" to the NY stage as one of his last theatrical endeavors.

At 26 September, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Gene for the correction! Yes, you're right. It was Gower Champion. David Merrick announced his death from the stage at the end of the opening night performance.


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