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.