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Should Bloggers Review Previews? I say, No.

Posted on 11 February 2011 Written by

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.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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12 Comments For This Post

  1. Chris Wheeler Says:

    Totally agree with you Jake. If you look at those comments under Sans Taste’s review.. they just make me cringe!
    I’ve got two sets of tickets to see Frankenstein in April, but it’s hard not to read these ‘black market’ reviews before press night. Bloggers do definitely need to back off on reviewing previews.

    That said, if you look at the huge Spiderman saga over in NYC at the moment.. that becomes an occasion where the theatre are abusing the preview period by making it go on for months, and the press as a whole have reviewed the show already now. I think in that case it was definitely right..

    I think the whole Spiderman thing is one of the reasons that the problem of early reviews has become such a contentious issue this week.

  2. Tim Says:

    As someone who also works in theatre Jake I agree with some of your points, I do think however that the excuse ‘it’s a preview’ is becoming a lazy excuse for bad theatre practice.
    Yes technical problems do occur but to state that during a paid (even if reduced price) preview “Lights were flicking on and off, sound cues were all over the place, and the actors were battling to keep the show going” shows that the show wasn’t ready for a public showing. These are issues that should be ironed out in a technical rehearsal. Previews are for refining the piece in response to audience reaction. Having an audience in has no impact on lighting and sound operation.
    Imagine in that preview you have a first time theatre goer who has paid for their ticket – do you think that having a show that unready for the public will ever tempt them back in for a future show?
    Yes refine performances, scripts and even staging in response to audience reaction but don’t use previews as a substitute for actual rehearsal and tech rehearsal.
    As for reviews of previews – I actually find their feedback (as long as constructive) can help shape some of the tweaks that are needed. If as theatre makers we are saying that previews are there for us to learn from our audience why shouldn’t knowledgeable bloggers have an input?

  3. Jake Orr Says:

    @Chris – I think it’s unfair to call them ‘black market’ reviews. It is not that about the question of bloggers vs critics (the latter being seen as the ‘official market’?). This is about respecting the preview period as still a development period for a piece of theatre, and calling a ‘review’ a review has its implications.

    @Tim – You’re right in suggesting that previews have become a lazy excuse for bad theatre practice. The example I used, and you have fairly pointed out, is possible a bad example! The technical aspect should have been sorted, but as someone who works in theatre, you must see the advantage and need for previews?

    My problem with bloggers reviewing comes under this label of ‘review’, and the definition this has with audience members. Yes, we can assist you in tweaking the show from a critical respective, but what of that review that is now on the internet forever more?

  4. Chris Wheeler Says:

    @Jake – Actually on reflection that was possibly slightly unfair of me.. although interestingly I think if a blog is about a preview, but isn’t framed as a ‘review’ then perhaps it’s okay. I think it’s such a hot issue that my views keep changing as I read more!

    This is an interesting take:

    http://burntarts.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/blogs_previews/

    And I actually agree with most of this I think.

  5. Peter Holland Says:

    Jake I wholly agree with you on this, and this has been a reoccuring discussion in our office this week: Previews should, as you rightly say be the opportunity to try the work out infront of an audience and work with the security that if all goes wrong you have this “get out clause” with the audience that you did alert them that this is a “preview”.

    My issue with Previews and its a BIG issue, I personally believe that a preview run should be no longer than a week… any longer and really there issues that should have been tackled in the rehearsal room. Also if you do indeed have a preview run this MUST be reflected in the price that the audience member is expected to pay. Ticket prices are already SKY HIGH (thats a whole other story) but to pay full price or even 3/4s of the price is too much for something that is a “half baked” work.

    As Chris mentions SPIDERMAN has brought Previews to the fore this week, particuarly as they have pushed back their opening again. What makes me so angry in this particular case is that they netted some 1.3 million last week in tickets… for a show that isnt open!!! The highest ticket price coming in at $300.

    But back to the point that reviews should not be posted during previews, and the power of the internet is one we are all aware of, we at BSC regularly post reviews from Bloggers, theatre goer as more often than not they show a more honest opinion.

    However I think it should be common practice, that previews should not exceed lengthy periods, is this just a result of producers having too much money?

    Pete

    @peterjholland

  6. Jake Orr Says:

    @Peter I think you are completely right. Previews should not last longer than a week. By which point, you can begin to question why the show had not been given more rehearsal time for clearly an ambitious project!

    Ticket prices should also without a doubt reflect that of previews. It is unfair to mark up tickets under the illusion that previews are a finished product. They are not, as I have said in my response.

    There is also a big difference between the commercial and subsidised sectors and ticket prices. This is where the use of SPIDERMAN is a poor example, because it’s reflecting a Broadway show with astronomical production costs.

    Common practice is hard to come by, but one that we will get too eventually. Perhaps it’s time for an organisation/council to set guidelines and force this upon the theatre industry?

  7. Not the West End Whingers Says:

    Sometimes a preview performance is the only one a blogger can afford to go and see, what with West End ticket prices being what they are.

  8. LDuck Says:

    I totally agree. I don’t have a problem with people giving their views on a production they’ve seen on their blogs. But having seen the Frankenstein reviews I actually got angry. Don’t these people realise they are watching a preview? They shouldn’t be analysing individual script issues or lighting/scene changes because these will clearly change. What is more important is the potential of both the play and the acting. That said I think critics and post-preview reviews are often unhelpful too. I went to see Men Should Weep at the National- a fantastic play with amazing set and all I could find on the web were people complaining about how they couldn’t understand the Scottish accents! I think a change needs to be made, not to stop reviews, but to make it clear to people that reviews often don’t do justice to a performance and they shoudln’t put you off seeing it. I think this is more true of theatre than film but it does apply to both. Thanks :)

  9. Kyle Says:

    I think you missed quite an important reason for previews apart from that of finishing and finalising the production, and that being as a publicity tool. Theatres want people who go to previews to talk about the production and by doing so generate sales for the run-proper. They als recognise that those who are willing to go to previews are often doing so out of financial necessity are also probably quite invested in theatre and are therefore more likely to be opinion formers taste leaders in their social networks. For this reason, I would argue that there is a place for blogging about previews as an extension of the social network, but what should happen is that bloggers make it explicitly clear the context of their review, and perhaps partly educate their audiences as to the purposes of previews.

  10. Georgina Says:

    Perhaps another thing to think about is what the role of the audience really is.. even with more ‘traditional’ work, even just sitting there, they will have a profound effect on the work (it’s live remember..)- The audience is your real acting partner. The crazy and scary thing about live work is that, on the whole, you don’t know who your partner will be from night to night. What the creators of work are getting used to in preveiws, is how to interact with fresh ‘partners’. (So its not just a simple case of ‘oh the finished product isn’t ready yet..’ – to which the reply seems to be – ‘well, get more organised then!’) – It’s, how do we best dance with these fresh creative partners each night?
    The iniquity of the situation lies in the fact, few fringe shows can spare more than two nights for a preview where the big boys can rehearse for ages then learn how to dance with their audiences for weeks on end… How can reviewers sense/understand/positively acknowledge this rawness?

  11. JohnnyFox Says:

    I can see it’s becoming a complex issue especially with theatre managements now trying to host press nights over several days and embargo the reviews for several days.

    At the other extreme you have the (occasionally delicious) power of the blogosphere to hole a show below the waterline even before opening night (Imagine This, The Fantasticks, Too Close to The Sun, etc) although I can’t think of an instance where a show which might have stood a good chance of commercial success was mortally damaged by blogging. Bad is bad, after all.

    So for cleanliness, I’m tempted to say that we should stick to what print media has done for far longer than blogging: if you pay for the ticket, write what you like when you like; if you receive a complimentary one, respect the request of the producers to wait till after official press nights.

    The grey area is when bloggers pay £2 or £3 for semi-complimentary tickets via a seat-filling service, as a lot of previews are ‘papered’ in this way. In that case, I’d also be inclined to wait till press night to tell all.

  12. Dreamtiger Says:

    I must disagree with your use of ‘Love Never Dies’/’Paint Never Dries’ as an example. I think the Whingers – whom I don’t usually agree with – were well within their rights to review it. This show and its creator had so much hubris about the show that they doomed themselves. Such was the misplaced complacency of Lloyd Webber that the show would be a hit, thanks to milking off the brand potential of Phantom, that the cast recording was finalised and recorded well before rehearsals even started. The preview period was also shortened because it was thought that the work needed no improvement. Not only that, but the previews were priced at full price (an extortionate £67.50, if I remember correctly) and the countdown on the official website and its Facebook page was not to the press opening night, but to the date of the first preview. All this suggests that the previews were not at all being used to gauge audience reaction – the overwhelming indication is that Lloyd Webber mistakenly thought that the work was perfect and that any changes that needed to be made in previews were going to be merely cosmetic.

    In addition, let’s not forget that the vast majority of the vitriol directed towards the production by bloggers, the public and reviewers alike, was directed at the production’s ridiculously illogical and nonsensical plot. You can’t change something has fundamental as the plot without rewriting the entire show, so the previews would have been far too late to save the show. Reviews from the public were just as negative after the press opening as they were during the previews.

    In any case, when the show closed and opened briefly again to make a few minor tweaks that did not change the overall plot but eliminated some of the more ridiculous aspects, it became clear that the first 9 months of the run were previews.

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