A few days ago Mark Shenton blogged about the response of a ‘Creative’ (ouch, yes that term doesn’t roll off of my tongue either) to critics reviewing Previews.  In some ways it is just a tale of bad communication between various departments, as well as that desire I know so well just to keep on tweaking and changing and well, only one more thing, just one more… Which is fairly standard. But it did get me thinking about Previews and the paying public – specifically the paying public who then go home and write a blog which I (and others) may read.

After all – lots of theatre blogger write reviews having seen what is technically a ‘preview’ performance. It’s inevitable – previews are when tickets are at their cheapest so it’s somewhat obvious that people who go to the theatre lots (and are thus the ones who know about the different ticket pricing) will go during previews. And unlike the critic being given the free seat and the paid column and thus an embargo on reviews, they can go home and write their review whenever they like. It’s their perogative and long may it continue.

Maybe some would say – does it matter what bloggers say? Well for some people no, just as much as for some people it doesn’t matter what Michael Billington says, and of course their quotes don’t look quite as good at the front of the theatre (let it be noted – I will whoop with joy the first time I see the West End Whingers quoted). But I – and I am sure many other people like me – get a feel for the shows through these people. If a show was generally being rubbished amongst the plethora of bloggers I read then I, quite probably, would give it a miss (unless it was reaching To Close to the Sun proportions of cult fame and then, hey, I want to know what I’m missing). Equally if a show that hadn’t initially sent me running for the Box Office queue generates some blogger buzz then the chances are I’ll make the effort to see these people. I went to see Attempts on Her Life on the strength of this review. And that production would make my list of ‘Productions which changed the way I see theatre’. In a way that you feel you know a bit about the person when reading good theatre critics in print, it’s the same with the best of the theatre review bloggers. Only they’re more likely to let you know where you should sit or who the cutest member of the cast is. And I like all that. That’s part of  the experience of going to the theatre.

But does it matter that they’re reviewing a preview? In the days when I was a Duty Manager in a producing theatre in the North we had a big preview sign we would stick in front of the doors to the auditorium. It was big and bulky and utterly unmissable. And on the nights it was out I would get asked ‘What does ‘Preview’ mean?’ at least nine or ten times.  I’d come out with the standard – changes are still being made to production etc etc but it remained that the person asking wasn’t aware they were booking for a Preview. So for them this was the production full stop. And why shouldn’t it be? Discounted though they may be preview tickets are not free (or even close to being free) and paying audience means – I want the technical bits to happen on time, I want the actors to know their lines and cues, I want this show, quite simply, to work. Okay, we can say we’ve put signs up about previews, and that it’s in the glossy brochure but it doesn’t really matter. Paying customer here, not test audience. Maybe, if you’re a producing theatre like the one I was in, this might be the first time this audience member has ever been to your theatre. This might be the one chance you get to make an impression on them.

I know time changes shows, things bed down, new ways open up. It was one of my great delights of last year that I saw the RSC’s production of Hamlet on its final Preview, again towards the end of its run in Stratford and then again during its final week in London. I didn’t blog my thoughts on my first viewing – but it would have been safe to say that I agreed with a friend who wrote at the time: “there is nothing to offend (well maybe the cuts), but there isn’t as yet anything which makes you hold your breath”. By the final time I saw the production I still had some reservations but the cast had become such an ensemble, absolutely attuned to their roles that it made me gloriously happy to have seen part of the journey.

One of the lovely (and some times terrible) things about the time I spent ushering was seeing a production develop and change and grow. During that time I did see shows change during previews but I never saw a bad production transform into a great one (or indeed even turn into a solid one). Of course some things get slicker and tighter but really it’s the performances within productions and the audiences who watch them which change over time. And what is a show if not everything which it is in its final performance? So, ideally we’d send the critics in then (the RSC almost achieved this this week) – but what use would that be for anything bar the scrapbooks belonging to actors and directors? Plus who can legislate for those odd evenings where everything just comes together; the evenings that pull me back to theatre  just in the slight hope I may have one again. And – yes, another and – a good production is a good production is a good production. Even during a midweek matinee.

So Press Night, really, is just an arbitary date in as much as performances are never quite the same and, at least for those involved I would suspect, rarely – if ever – the finished product.

Blog Round Up: 4th September 2009

In another life I, as the half of Blogging By Numbers that wears flowery dresses and cries at rubbish films, write a weekly column for WhatsOnStage which rounds up ‘the best’ of what has been going on in theatrey-bloggery in the previous week. Any such round up (inevitably) can only act as a starting point but it’s something of a representation of what I’ve been reading and enjoying. Plus, I try to step off of the beaten path a bit and I’m rabidly keen to find new UK theatre bloggers (we are, it pains me somewhat, completely outnumbered by our US counterparts when it comes to blogs which are more discursive than review based) – though I would quite probably include Parabasis every week if I could, not least because he has great hair.

You can read my Friday 4th September column here and if you know of any  wonderful theatrey blogs (or indeed write one) that might not be on my radar feel free to let me know.

Tears Before Bedtime

Over on the Guardian Theatre Blog Tim Etchells discussed what makes an audience cry (or indeed laugh) and it couldn’t help get me thinking about my own experience.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m a crier. There are very, very few people in my life who haven’t seen me cry. In my living room, in the cinema, on buses, in trains, in the middle of darkened streets, I’ve cried in buildings I’ve worked in, in front of people I really shouldn’t have and during pretty much every year that Tim Henman lost at Wimbledon in some close-fought five setter. So why, given my prediliction for crying at adverts and Neighbours and even, Lord help me, reality television show auditions, do I cry so rarely in the theatre?

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried in a theatre this year (which might sound excessive but when you count up the number of times I’ve cried whilst reading things on the internet then you might realise that it’s somewhat out of proportion). Oddly enough two of the five times I’ve cried have been in the last couple of weeks (see, you open up the dam and this is what happens).

The first show to get me was Almost 10 at the Pleasance Courtyard during the Edinburgh Fringe and the reason it had me sobbing into my hands was just how unexpectedly its narrative changed. I’d come to expect one thing and then it took me somewhere else entirely, with barely a pause as what I’d thought was entirely a comedy that made me cringe with the memory of being a nine year old girl turned itself into a tragedy that looked you in the face so unflinchingly that I could do nothing but face it and cry.

Next up, Simon Stephens’ Pornography at the Tricycle (yes, we had some fun tweeting that one) when it wasn’t the actual production which got the tears rolling (though it did kick me in the stomach and left me with the feeling that this is an absolutely incredible play) but the footnotes on those who died during the 7/7 bombings which were projected at the end of the play. I sat, hardly able to read them as they flashed by so quickly and were obscured by set and moving audience members and techies beginning the clear up, and felt the tears begin. But this was hardly theatre (indeed, in what was really my only criticism of the production, the projections seemed more of an afterthought, and I was slightly horrified that all but maybe ten or eleven audience members left before the end of them), this was starkly, vividly real life. And it was for real people, not fictional ones, that I cried that night.

I cried during a performance once more last week but that was something rather different: during Michael Nyman’s The Musicologist Scores at the Royal Albert Hall. There’s something about such music that I can’t (and hope I never can) fully express that pierces me and makes me cry for reasons I can’t quite catch. It’s the same thing that captures me in the best of Wayne McGregor‘s choreography, when I cry for everything and nothing.

Of course, some times, the money moment gets me in theatre as much as it will get me in a film like Titanic (oh, yes, we could have a long conversation about how much that film makes me sob but it would be rather embarrassing for both of us). I’ve seen Blood Brothers enough times to be able to pretty much get up on stage and take over from a Nolan should Bill Kenwright need me to. But every time, Willy Russell pushes those buttons and I cry. Same with Les Miserables. But there’s part of me that, though I enjoy it, I rather resent the button-pushing nature of it, oh cue every time. It doesn’t take me by surprise in the manner that Nyman, or even Almost 10, did.

Neither am I immune to a bit of good acting and some rather good writing – David Tennant had me sobbing, tears dripping down my nose, the second time I saw him play Hamlet (but not to anywhere near the same extent either the first or the third time).

Maybe Etchells is right and there rarely is the space to cry at theatre, the reverse side of that, however, is that unlike all those other things that make me cry when theatre does I remember it explicitly. And that, I suppose, is what makes it a little bit more special.

In the beginning…

There was a blog and that blog belonged to Write By Numbers.

Write By Numbers is a new-writing theatre company based in South London and was started by myself, Corinne Furness, and Charlie Whitworth after we (like Blur) met whilst studying at Goldsmiths College. That is, I confess, probably the only way we’re like Blur. What can I say – you win some, you lose some.

This little blog of ours is the combination of far, far too many hours spent over the past six years either writing or reading blogs. So it seems entirely natural that Write By Numbers should have its own outpost on the interweb. In some ways this blog is a bit of an experiment. Basically, I read lots and lots of theatre blogs (I kind of have to, in another life I write a column about theatre blogs), both those by people reviewing or commenting and those by people who are making theatre. And I wanted to combine all of the things that I liked about those blogs, along with my own take on what I think is missing from UK theatre blogging.

So – Blogging By Numbers is not simply a marketing exercise disguised as a blog (I mention no names) but will tell the story of Write By Numbers. It’s about the things that inspire us, the opinions we want to share, the adventures we’re having. It’s about us engaging both with the people who see our work and those who may only ever know it via the internet. It’s about the theatre we’re making and the theatre we want to make.

I should probably also warn you that at some point it may be about David Tennant (my fault) or Arsenal (entirely Charlie’s) but we’ll let you know when that’s about to happen so you can go and put the kettle on while we get over it.

I’m looking forward to sharing this adventure with you.