Should Bloggers Review Previews? I say, No.

I have come close to writing these thoughts for some time now, spurred on by a niggling desire to send a certain message to those who I have come to know and appreciate within this critical mass called ‘the blogosphere’. Thankfully Matt Truman has taken a crow bar and forced open a flood of opinions, debates, and foul comments (from those that disapprove of him doing so) on his blog titled “Theatre bloggers must leave previews alone” on the Guardian website yesterday.

I agree with Matt’s suggestions that bloggers should leave previews alone.

I say this as a blogger, a theatre maker and as someone who works in a theatre. I write this from three very clear viewpoints.

Previews are not finished products. They are half baked cookies gently coming to firmness in the oven. There is ultimately still time for disaster to strike no matter how carefully you followed the recipe. Essentially that is what theatre creatives are; chefs at work on a masterpiece that has the potential, like a soufflé, to sink on presentation.

Theatres offer discounts on previews because the show is not a finished product – because if you returned night after night, you would see changes that have taken place to make the show better. I can not stress this enough: acting in front of an audience is nothing like acting in front of a director and an empty theatre. An audience brings real blood-pumping life into the auditorium. I say this because I have been on the stage and felt the shift in dynamics. What works in an empty theatre may not work in front of an audience. Whole scenes may get rewritten, reblocked, reworked to find out what is missing during the previews. Putting theatre in front of an audience actually exposes every fault that it has – because audiences aren’t stupid, they see the glaring mistakes because they are there to enjoy the experience, and they know when they are not.

This is why previews exists. As Matt so brilliantly puts it:

Only by putting work in front of an audience can theatre-makers understand what has been made and how it functions. Without gauging audience response, they have only worked in theory. They’re reliant on the assumption that others will see the work as they do in the rehearsal room, in other words, that everything will be received as imagined.

Previews exist because a performance evolves during those first few nights. I also say this because I have sat in an auditorium watching a show during every single performance from previews to press night, as someone who works in a theatre. I have seen a show develop, come together, and realise its potential in previews. On the first preview of a show in a theatre I work in, I was devastated to witness a technical breakdown. Lights were flicking on and off, sound cues were all over the place, and the actors were battling to keep the show going. Three days later, and I could hardly believe the transformation.

If I had reviewed the show on that opening preview, I would have slated it. If I had reviewed it on press night I would declared it an outstanding piece of theatre. The previews worked the performance into a sell out run.

This is why I implore to my fellow bloggers to not review preview nights. You have to understand that there is a creative process involved, and previews are not a finished product that should be reviewed.

A review is something which is (and here I quote my dictionary) a “formal assessment or examination of something with the possibility of instituting change if necessary”. Bloggers offer their reviews not as casual thoughts but as critical assessments, which can be easily accessed through the internet. The fact that my fellow bloggers often perceive the theatre they see during previews as a finished product and review it as such is not fair.

Why is it not fair? What responsibilities do blogger have?

The answer is quite simple, and it relates to the internet and search engines. We live in a world that is more hyper-connected to the internet than ever before, where even the verb “to google” has entered the English dictionary. Bloggers’ platforms are on the internet. Blogs are naturally geared towards search engine optimisation (SEO), meaning that by entering keywords into the titles, adding tags to posts, and the ability to share content easily,  makes it delious cookies (yes again) for the cookie monsters of this world (ie, Google). You write a review of a show during a preview. You put it on your blog. You include a title which makes it SEO friendly, and wait until people begin to search for those keywords. This is where the problem lies.

I’m now your average audience member who does a search for: “Review Frankenstein National Theatre” and the above image is the result. Sans Taste, a well known blogger has written a review, and it comes up at the top of the search results. Now on this occasion this review both praises the show and mentions the press performance (making it obvious that this review is of a preview), however this blogger is according to Google, the most relevant website in the world relating to reviews for Frankenstein. As an average audience member, I have no idea that the press night for the National Theatre isn’t actually until the 22nd February. All that I know is that I want to find out if the show is good or not, and here is a review at the top of the search engine list telling me blah blah blah..

This is the problem. For the next 12 days Sans Taste will have dominance over this search, and will undoubtedly receive hundreds (maybe thousands?) of click-throughs – from all sorts of potential audience members/readers. If Sans Taste had torn Frankenstein to pieces, and has called this a ‘review’ it has a power. It won’t bring down The National Theatre and make it flop but look at the affect of the West End Whingers with their ‘Paint Never Dries’ title for Love Never Dies and the impact that had.

Bloggers have to understand that what they are classing as reviews can be picked up easily and be placed at the top of search engines and this does have negative (and positive) impacts.

Why should theatre bloggers not review previews: (To wrap up)
- The internet has changed, allowing blogs to have a much wider audience than ever before.
- Previews are not finished products, they are still being developed.
- Bloggers go because they love theatre. Their outlet is writing about it. We have to be more aware of how popular our blogs are becoming.
- Why do some bloggers purposely attend the first preview, instead of waiting a few days? Is it just about cost?
- Think of the creative teams involved! Give them some slack, that’s why a preview is a preview in the first place.

Other responses to Matt’s blog:

- Distant Aggravation by Corinne
- Ought To Be Clowns by Ian
- Burnt Arts by Dan Baker

Edit Fri, 11:23am: By request I have made it clearer that Sans Taste review of Frankenstein is actually positive and includes a note about the press night. I have used his review as an example of the power of a review on the internet from a blogger, in relation to search engines.

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