Thursday, August 30, 2007

What Do We Do? - It's Still In Previews!!

A couple of things have been brought to the surface over the last couple of days. And they are somewhat tied together.

Playwright George Hunka wrote a very scathing review of 100 Saints You Should Know, which is a production at Playwright's Horizon. Here is just a taste:

100 Saints You Should Know, a play which can only be described as
earth-shatteringly mediocre, opens the Playwrights Horizons 2007-2008 season; one can only call it "a meditation on spiritual life in 21st century America" because, like ill-disciplined meditation, it meanders and hews left-to-right, its dialogue as naturalistically drab as any that has come out of an MFA playwriting program and new play development workshop.

And that's just the nice part. But, the paragraph that has sparked a little debate is the following:

Poor 100 Saints, perhaps -- workshopped within an inch of its
well-intentioned but pale, weak life. I left at
, I'm afraid, not compelled to return by the
tree-injury ex machina that closes the first act...

At Matt Freeman's Blog On Theatre and Politics, he asks about "walking out" on shows. Have we done it? Why? Is it right for reviewers to leave a show? The comments are humming.

However, Leonard Jacobs at Clyde Fitch was the first to point out another ethical condideration about George's review:

I have no opinion regarding the fact that George Hunka isn't exactly
giving burnin' love to Kate Fodor's 100 Saints That You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons. But I do have an opinion about the fact that he
published a formal review of the play on his blog, and the play doesn't open until September 18. Talk about breaking the embargo!.....

Now, let's be clear: if a print and Web journalist like myself did
that, oh my God, the walls of Jericho would come crashing down, Lucifer would be salivating to get his claws into me, Dick Cheney would be cackling monstrously and cranking up the burning fires of hell and everyone in the blogosphere would rake me over the coals and attack my ethics and call me names and wonder why my
ancestors didn't burn in the Holocaust. But it's ok for a blogger to publish a formal review before the official opening?

It is a very good question. Apparently, as the fallout of this continues, we are learning that Playwrights Horizon sent an invitation to many bloggers to come and see the show and the only understanding was that they "blog" about what they saw. (Not review.)

We are still getting information, but this seems like a marketing ploy gone horribly wrong for the folks at PH.

I did an experiment yesterday. (You can try this at home.) I went to the Playwrights Horizon webpage, went to the 100 Saints page, went to the online ticketing service, and chose tickets for tomorrow night's performance. I did everything but actually purchase. Now, nowhere along theway did anything mention that the show was in previews, mention the official opening night, and I couldn't really deduce any type of discount either.

Leonard Jacobs claims the opening for 100 Saints is September 18th, but the website and ticketing just mentions August 24th - September 30th. So, opening night is taking place more than halfway through the run? Isn't this the same type of shell game the commercial producers of Merlin tried about 20 years ago?

Just last week Brendan Kiley published a review of the Seattle tryout of the Broadway show Young Frankenstein:

This isn't a review of Young Frankenstein. It's not supposed to be, since Young Frankenstein (adapted from the 1974 Mel Brooks movie, now in a pre-Broadway test production at the Paramount) has been in previews for two weeks and will only be officially open and subject to reviews for one week, starting August 23.

It must be said: This preview situation is tilted toward obscurantism. Reviewers aren't allowed to write about it for most of the run, so people have to guess whether they want to spend $25 or $100 or $0 on their tickets. The producers' argument is: This is a work in progress, we're changing things as we go, it's not fair to review that. That's fine, except ticket buyers aren't told they're paying for previews—unless they look very carefully, they don't know they're paying for a "work in progress." That's disingenuous.

The press may not have access to previews, but my credit card does, so it bought a ticket and brought me as its date.

Playwright's Horizon appears as if they were trying to whip up some hype during the long run of previews, and they were somewhat relying on bloggers to....what? I don't know really.

Maybe they thought bloggers would be enthusiastic supporters . Perhaps they thought that even if a blogger didn't like the show, maybe the blogger just wouldn't write anything at all, being grateful for the tickets.

I don't review that much, and when I do, I think I have always published the review after opening night. (If I ever did differently, it was because I wasn't aware that there even was an official opening night. ) Most of the time though, I see productions either on opening night or well into the run anyway.

As far as walking out on a show:

I have never walked out during of any live performance while it is actually being performed.

However, in all of my theatregoing, I have left a few shows at intermission. This is very very rare, but I have no regrets about doing it. I have only left a show at intermission when there is absolutely nothing in the first act that gives me even a shred of hope that the second act is going to get any better.

From reading the comments on Freeman's post, some people are very noble in their conviction that decorum requires us to stay at a performance, no matter how bad, until the very end. They proudly proclaim that they have never walked out of a show at intermission. I do applaud them.

But when somebody tells me they have never left a show at intermission, my inner smart ass wants to say, "Oh, you just haven't met the right show, yet."

The conversation continues at the blogs mentioned.
I will be moving this weekend, getting ready for the fall semester and I am already into the onslaught of the hiring season for my recruiting job. So my posting will be spotty over the next week or so.
If you want know what is going on in Boston, check out Larry Stark's Theatermirror, Thomas Garvey's Hubreview and Bill Marx at the Arts Fuse.


Mac Rogers said...

Hi Art,

I am one of the commenters you're referring to. I certainly didn't intend to cop a self-righteous pose. I was trying to explain my position as a personal choice. As regards your inner smartass, I find it difficult to believe that you have seen worse shows than I have. We've simply reacted in different ways. I don't in any way criticize your reaction.

Art said...

Hi Mac,

Sorry if you thought I was criticizing your choice. It really wasn't my intent either.

I got an e-mail from somebody else about that. (I think it is the "noble" bit that makes some people think I am being snarky.)

About the inner smart ass comment:

Out of I don't know how many shows I have seen over the years I have only ever left at intermission 4 times. (So we are not talking about a lot here.)

I don't think of myself as somebody who would ever leave a performance. I have acted, written plays, directed plays, produced plays. I have empathy for every level of a production. I am rooting for a show to be good every time I enter the theatre. And I have hung in there through countless bad shows. (I have also had the experience of having people not return after intermission of my own shows.)

So,I would expect to have had some guilt at leaving the shows I did. But the strange thing is, as Alison Croggon stated about her own experiences : It was an easy decision, and I still have no regrets.

I will give an example, it is not from the Boston area and I will keep the location out of it.

I saw a production of Lanford Wilson's play The Hot L Baltimore that I still cannot accurately describe to this day. I have no idea what they were doing on that stage. They all seemed like professionals, with legitimate credits in the bios. The set was designed proficiently and the cast at least appeared to have memorized their lines.

Beyond that, I can't really explain what was happening. The best I can do to describe it is to say that it resembled a production in which the director told the cast to try and memorize their lines, and then instructed them all to just show up on this stage and do the play one day without any discussion or introductions or direction. And, Believe it or not, I still might have hung in there if the first act had not clocked in at a little over 2 hours.

At intermission, there was no agony in my decision, nor the decision of most of the audience. It was almost a flight response.

"FREEE!" we seemed to shout as we headed for the exits.

I believe you, Mac, that you have seen productions as bad as that one, and I thank you for not criticizing me. After all, I couldn't help it.

Freeman said...

Hey Art -

It is entirely possible I just haven't met the right show yet. Your inner smart ass might be right. I wasn't trying to be sanctimonious, just talk about my own attitude.

What can I say? Someday I'll watch a play that drives me to drink at 9pm as opposed to 11pm. As of yet, not so much.

Either way, interesting discussions all around.

I'd like to say that I don't believe the marketing ploy for Playwrights Horizons has gone "horribly wrong." In fact, there is an argument for the idea that their show and their theater company is the center of precisely the amount of buzz they could have hoped for.

I sort of want to see the play, just to see what all the fuss is about.

Art said...

Hey Matt,

Actually, you are right about the marketing ploy. In the end, it has created buzz in the blogosphere, which was precisely what they wanted. Though I am not sure they wanted it in exactly this way.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen a ticket website that tells you if it's a preview performance or not? That sort of stuff doesn't matter a lot to the average single ticket buyer, and I've never seen that kind of info on a show poster, either.

I suspect most of us know when Press Openings are due to our industry connections and not info gleaned from a website?

The discounts and disclaimers are there for those understand them and know what info to look for, but if the folks with the cash are willing, and their credit cards can shell out for the date, why discount and/or discourage?

Art said...

Hi Anon,

You are right, it doesn't mean that much to the average ticket buyer, (especially not the average ticket buyer to Young Frankenstein or Wicked etc.) But I am not so sure that that makes it OK.

And, yes, there certainly was a time when theaters did very prominently distinguish between previews, opening and then regular performances. I will say that many still do it prominently in subscription packages. It is becoming a rarer and rarer occurrence though, (almost extinct) and like the frog in the boiling water, we all got used to it.

The question I guess I am asking is: Is there a difference in the overall quality of the performance and production between preview performances and the performances on opening night and after? Of course, I do realize that bad performances can happen at any time, what with theatre being a live entity.

If theaters can say honestly that there is no real discernible or major difference, and therefore they can charge full price to the audience, then that's fine.

But if that is the case, let's not put down message board reviewers, bloggers and others as being, "unethical" when they write a review or express an opinion on something in "previews," when the artists and the theater institution have determined that these aren't "previews." (Especially if they have been invited by the institution to do so.)

So I guess I do take issue with your last statement. "If people with the cash are willing," you said. But "willing" to do what? Pay for a full price for a preview performance they don't know is a preview performance?

Sorry for the long post, but I guess I am saying if you are going to hold the Embargo Breakers to the fire, shouldn't we also hold the theater's to the fire?

Thomas Garvey said...

You know, Hunka probably has some twisted rationale for his behavior, but frankly, he's so far over the line it's almost funny. And the naive marketing ploys of Playwrights Horizons have little to do with his own decisions, I think; ditto the quality of the play in question (it would be just as problematic to deliver a rave based solely on the first act). Hunka accepted an invitation to blog about a show before it had opened - that was a mistake. He then left at intermission - another mistake, if he intended to review it. Then he panned it - strike three, I'd say; Hunka's out - and has probably given all of theatre blogging a black eye in the process.

Art said...

I'm still a little curious as to the content of the e-mail invitation that was sent out to bloggers from PH.

More than a few bloggers received it, but we haven't seen what it actually said.

Come to think of it now,I guess even I wasn't as hard on PH as I should have been. The tone of the general discussion of this seems to be: George is unethical, should have known better, etc, but Playwrights Horizon seems to be getting away with the Ambien defense. ("They were just crazy in doing this! They musn't have been thinking straight.")

What do you think of the "full price preview" issue? I know that doesn't appear to be what George was about in writing his review, but I am interested in people's opinions.

Is it a ship that has already sailed, and it isn't worth expending any effort talking about?

I am beginning to think it is. But I guess my point is...If there is no point in distinguishing between opening night and previews, then why have the arcane tradition of Press Night anyway?

Thomas Garvey said...

I'm sorry if I didn't make clear that I disagree with Playwrights Horizons' actions in this case. Based on the late opening night, and the pathetic attempt to generate "blog buzz" without letting in professional reviewers, I'd say they're well aware they have a bomb on their hands. (The case of "Young Frankenstein" is a little less clear, I'd say, as technically the show is in "development" all the way to New York, but certainly it's debatable.) When it comes to previews, yes, I agree, they should be cheaper, and obviously marked as "previews," but I also have to agree that the audience doesn't seem to care half as much about these issues as reviewers do. (Indeed, several local theatres have been charging full price for previews for some time.)

In the end, producers have no real incentive outside of market repercussions to abide by any of these rules, and if the market will pay full price for a preview, it's hard to see why they shouldn't take advantage. As for pushing "opening night" as close to "closing night" as possible - again, that simply means they have to market the show sans reviews. Hunka's mistake was stepping into that situation - of reviewing a show that was transparently trying to dodge reviews. If he wanted to pan it, he should have bought a ticket and just avoided the whole mess. On the other hand, though, perhaps his actions were a good thing - in that they've demonstrated to Playwrights Horizons, and no doubt other producers, that at least some bloggers won't play ball.

Alison Croggon said...

All this fuss makes me feel that the NY theatre reviewing thing is very uptight, old fashioned and hierarchical. I'm sure it must be a mistaken perception.

Anonymous said...

"Then he panned it - strike three, I'd say;"

Why is panning it strike three?

Thomas Garvey said...

Do I really have to walk you through it? Panning a show without waiting till the end is widely held to be unprofessional. Ah, you say, but he was going as a blogger, not a critic! WELL THEN HE SHOULDN'T HAVE REVIEWED IT. He's got a rationale for everything he's done, sure - the problem is, the rationales all cancel each other out.

Anonymous said...

Thomas - I was hoping you would "walk me through" the difference between your strikes two and three, which seem to me to be essentally the same thing. Preferably without getting all Clyde Fitch on my ass. ; )