Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Reviewing and Free Tickets

There has been quite a consternation over bloggers, ethics and free tickets lately The best summary of the thread of discussion is here at Gothamist.

I thought I would just post something about this blog, my situation, and my thoughts on reviewing/comps.

First, I have a full time job, I teach classes at night, I write plays, I produce plays and I act and direct. This means that my time is extremely limited, but I do try to see as many plays as I possibly can, and that is quite a few.

Second, I am not a critic or a reviewer. I write reviews and critiques occasionally, but mostly I don't have the time. (More on this later.)

Third, I see far more plays than I review or even mention on this site. In the past, people have e-mailed me to ask how it is that I can comment on Boston theatre so much when I really don't see many shows. My favorite e-mail was from somebody asking why I never come to see their shows. The e-mailer didn't realize that I had seen many of their of their shows, and enjoyed them.

Fourth, I know lots of people in the Boston Theatre Community. When I do review something, I disclose fully when my wife or a really good friend is in the production. However, I usually don't do this for acquaintances, or for people in minor parts: "Jane Doe does a great job in the part as the maid. FULL DISCLOSURE: I met Jane a few times while we were working on different short plays in a festival two years ago." This seems a little unneccesary to me, maybe I'm wrong.

Fifth, I rarely paid full price for tickets before I started this blog, and I rarely pay for them now. I get most of my tickets through a massive combination of professional and organizational discount offers, papering efforts, pay-what-you-can nights, friend's comps, free dress rehearsals and volunteer ushering opportunities. Yes, I do still pay for tickets to some shows, as I did this past weekend.

In the past year or so, I have received more offers of comps specifically because of this blog.

Do I take them? Yes.

Do I write reviews for all of them? No.

If you have been a producer of theatre, even of very small theatre, this should not bother you. In my experience as a producer, there have been many times over the years in which a reviewer, (whether they work at a mainstream paper or on-line,) was comped, attended the show and never published a review. Mostly this is because of space issues, or timing issues, etc. Did I offer the comps to my own productions in the hope that they will come and write a stunning review of my show? Of course. Does this mean it is a quid pro quo? No.

How do I handle comp offers I receive here at this blog? Well, I just accept them or pass on them, based mostly on my schedule. (Hint to anybody looking to offer comps to me: Try not to send the offer during the third week of your three week run.)

The first time I was extended an offer of comps solely for my identity as a blogger, I was a little confused about what to do. I sought advice from several on-line reviewers, a working print reviewer, and several bloggers.

Pretty unanimously, their advice was to just accept the comps as long as the offer did not explicitly outline any type of quid pro quo. Most veterans of these things told me, "Of course, the offer of comps always implies an understanding that they are hoping you write something or mention something about the production." But almost every one of my counsels reminded me that comps are given to people for all types of reasons. When a theater gives comps to the Mayor, they are not expecting the Mayor enact legislation that week based upon the performance he has seen and they certainly don't expect him to write a review.

Early on in the theatre blogosphere, I remember Spearbearer Down Left, (Where is he or she anyway?) posted something about how a local theater was offering bloggers comps based on the following criteria: 1. They had an average of over 30 visitors a day. 2. They did not have to review the production, but they had to mention it somewhere on their blog.

At the time this seemed more than fair, although I was only getting maybe 12 hits a day.And it is really the same deal theatre companies give the larger press. The Boston Globe gets offered comps for a show, but they usually give people at least a free listing in the Calendar Section and, if you are lucky, a picture in the Go Section.

There are three types of comps offers that I generally receive:

1. Press Releases Regarding Opening Night with an e-mail to rsvp for complimentary tickets. Usually these come from more established theatre companies, but also from some smaller and younger companies. These are actually very stress-free. I look at these as an invitation, and I know why they are inviting me. But I also know that they are professional enough to have probably perused my blog a bit and they know that I might not write something about the show, or even mention it.

2. Direct E-mail inviting me to see a show that they think I might like. They usually state it almost that plainly too. Then they mention that they can arrange for comps. There is a little more implied intent in this offer. They usually state that they read my blog and they think I will like the show, and I read that as: "We want to offer you these tickets because we want you to write a review." With these offers, I usually respond with an explanation that I appreciate the offer and I cannot gaurantee that I will be able to write anything about the production. This always runs smoothly, but one time, after sending the e-mail, I never heard anything back from them.

3. Direct Request of a Review or Mention. These are starting to come more frequently. The text usually reads: "Hi, we were hoping that you would like to review or mention our next production, let us know if you would like to do that and we can arrange for comps." This is the most uncomfortable of all, and when I send my response about not being able to guarantee a review or mention on the blog, the comp offer is usually rescinded or I don't hear a reply.

4. Direct E-mail that asks me to see the show, but doesn't anywhere mention that there are comps involved. I treat these as a press release about the show, and I value them as they keep me informed. And I have gone to see some of these shows. But I rarely see a need to respond to these e-mails.


These methods of offering comps are not competing with each other in terms of ethics, and I don't blame people for not wanting to give a comp with nothing guaranteed in return. If anything, the third example is the most direct and truthful about the underlying exchange.

(Oh, I also get comp offers for shows that are done way, way, way outside of my geographical area. And one time I got an offer from a Network to pre-view a new television show.)

There is really no science as to what I review and what I do not review. When I started this blog I made a promise to myself that I would only post about things I wanted to. I am way too busy to start feeling obligations to write about every show I see. Mostly, I will write a review if something about my response to seeing the show interests me enough to write about it. Now, this may sound like I am saying that I only write about shows I think are good. Not true. I have seen many shows I think are very good and worthwhile, but I don't feel compelled to write anything about them.

Two examples:

a. I wrote a review of the Huntington's production of Well, not because I thought it was great, but I thought it was interesting that while I was enjoying the show, and having a good-time watching it, I knew that on another night, in another mood, I would have not liked it. I thought I would write about the production in order to see if I could pinpoint how this could happen.

b. When I saw Thom Pain at the New Rep, I was surprised by how moved I was by the production, and how, in reading the text a year earlier, I had missed the big shaggy heart at the center of the play.

Sometimes I will write the "Contra-review," if I feel a production, is being either overpraised or overlooked by other critics.

So, after all this being said, even if you don't want to offer comps, please do send me press releases and news about your shows, seasons, companies, grants you have received, etc. I do read these and, just as I do with reviews, I post when I find something interesting. The e-mail is up in the upper-right hand corner.

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