Mark Titchner, 2009 for Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre (found on Tim Etchell's blog)
So, preview performances – fair game for the non-professional reviewer or not?
You’d imagine by this point in proceedings that pretty much every argument for and against would have been aired and I’d be loathe to undertake a point-by-point rehash of a 50-comments-+ thread as well as articles broadly in favour of his position from Jake Orr and Dan Baker and varying shades of against from: Laura Tosney, Corinne Furness, Glen Pearce, Ian Foster, “Sans Taste” and even half a podcast on the subject, not to mention some rather unpleasant tweets. But, annoyingly, so far no one seems to have made some very obvious points.
Trueman has accused “bloggers” of “the cynical practice of reviewing previews”.
As is clear from Tosney and Furness’s defences, the term “blogger” is far too broad. Clearly neither of these blogs is primarily or exclusively a theatre reviews blog. The front page of Tosney’s [at time of writing] takes you back as far as September 14th 2010, with not so much as the slightest hint of a review of anything in a theatre, preview or otherwise. Similarly, Furness’s Distant Aggravation blog, while clearly more theatre-oriented, gets back to 12th Jan (an article about tie-dying, I think) without any actual reviewing. There’s a bit of personal grumbling about the Old Vic’s A Flea in Her Ear (22nd Jan – A Year in Theatre: Show # 2 – no idea if it was in preview or not at that point), but it is in no way seeking to be “a review” in any conventional sense. It’s an entirely personal set of observations ranging from “I suspect that I would prefer to sit through a glorious failure than a well made-nothing.” to “I have an ongoing debate with some friends about which theatre has the best looking ushers. Two words: Old Vic”.
Obviously Trueman’s piece isn’t aimed at them, although this could have been made clearer in his original piece.
Furness’s A Flea... review, however does offer an excellent example of what Trueman isn’t talking about. A common complaint about his argument is the reductio-ad-absurdum conclusion that to stop “bloggers” or indeed any “paying punters” from blogging about, Tweeting, or discussing a show they’ve just seen, be it in preview or otherwise, is essentially to stifle a genuine human reaction – albeit channelled through some oddly contrived means. But if we accept “To Tweet is Human” as a maxim, or at least put it on the level of “as natural as chatting” then I suppose we have to live with it.
I don’t think Trueman would really argue otherwise.
On the other hand, surely anyone can see that there’s a qualitative difference between someone who blogs many mundane details of their life, their to-do lists, and so on, to someone keeping a blog which consists entirely of reviews of plays, perhaps round-ups of reviews of plays, “What’s On” features and monthly round-ups of plays and has a Twitter account named after such activities: @Dave’sTheatreView or somesuch. There is, in short, a qualitative difference between marketing yourself as a person and marketing yourself as an opinion on theatre on social media, n’est pas?
So, let’s focus this discussion on Theatre Review Blogs.
And so to the charge of cynicism...
To be honest, I’m rather surprised it’s this which has generated all the outrage. This is reflected in the way that many respondents have floundered in their attempts to refute the charge. There Ought to be Clowns’s Ian Foster in the “As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast” seems to admit as much while claiming that regularly booking into one of the earliest possible previews in order to steal a march on embargoed “professional” critics “isn’t” cynical. Of course it’s cynical. The only question is why bother denying it?
There are two main points which torpedo this innocent “What? Me? Cynical?” stance:
Firstly, if a preview period runs for let’s say two weeks, if you’re only buying preview tickets because they’re cheaper, why not buy them on the last night before press night? That way, if you’re aiming to write about the show, you’ll get the closest thing to the finished version that will be “opening” the next day.
Secondly, if you’re not chasing ratings by having your review out two weeks before the critics, and you only blog “as a personal record of what you’ve seen”/“as a hobby” why not observe the press embargo anyway?
I mean, if it’s only just this hobby of yours and you’re basically only there/writing for your personal satisfaction, why not hold back your review until press night, and then post it on your blog along with a full disclaimer saying “I saw this on its first preview because I like to see plays as soon as it’s possible to pay to do so, I hope you like this entirely personal record of that first preview”?
Otherwise, why not cut the cant and admit what you’re up to?
It’s fine. You’re cynical. You’re saving yourself *some money* so you can see a show. You’ve weighed up the pros and cons of seeing a preview and have decided in favour, and are then writing about the show you saw. You’re also blogging your thoughts in a way that very frequently purports to be authoritative. Theatres are unlikely to stop selling you tickets, and you’re unlikely to stop buying them and writing about the show you saw. Fine, and fine. But why pretend otherwise?
Unlike Trueman, I’m not sure I have an enormous problem with people writing about previews on the internet, per se. After all, the West End Whingers have made it their stock in trade for years now, and apart from the not unwelcome discomfort which they caused Andrew Lloyd-Webber, it doesn’t seem to have deeply troubled the theatre establishment. Indeed, let’s be honest, the Whingers are now more a part of the theatre establishment than ANY PROFESSIONAL CRITIC. A point worth remembering, I think.
Indeed, I think in many cases what I see as the mainstream-theatre blogosphere *can* - and I stress *can* - act as a welcome corrective to the equal cynicism of commercial theatre producers whose "previews" *can* (again *can*), be ludicrously expensive and whose product might well just be a cynical attempt to exploit a perceived market. As with all ethical considerations, I’m not sure it’s just a matter of black or white right or wrong.
On one hand, if theatres are charging virtually the same (or actually the same) for a preview as for a post-press night performance, there does seem to be justification for missing the distinction which the theatre is pleading.
On the other hand, if there is a reasonably generous discount and three or four different theatre bloggers arrange to all attend a show on its first preview... Well, perhaps the bloggers in question should be prepared to weather accusations of cynicism for trying to get in as quickly before the press as possible.
After writing the main part of this, a playwright friend suggested that perhaps very-first-previews really should be considered properly off-limits and correspondingly enormously discounted – with perhaps a change of title to “Public Dress” or similar. Although, currently enough, I note that “Theatrigirl” has just published a “review” of the Royal Opera House’s Anna Nicole Smith opera, the conditions of which she describes thus: “On Saturday morning, the ROH allowed a small audience – mostly students –in for a rehearsal/run-through of their much-talked-about new work”. Given the unbashed rave she’s given it, I don’t suppose the ROH are going to be too cross, and I'm sure she wouldn’t have written up a dress rehearsal unless she was going to be so positive, but even so, it does seem to be reviewing public dress rehearsal as final product, albeit with a disclaimer and glowingly.
Still, Actual Theatre Bloggers might want to have a think a bit more about Trueman’s initial premise. Maybe there should (and, quite possibly already is, in the mind of many) be a sliding scale of correlation between size-of-discount and nearness to observation-of-embargo, for a start. And maybe also a bit of slack cut for more laudably artistic ambitious projects in order that they might find their feet (i.e. go on the last preview before press night if the tickets are substantially discounted and it's the sort of work that might plausibly need time to fully find its feet).
Given the public facing-ness of blogs, behaviour will probably continue to be dictated by public interest. Hence the two reviews [at time of writing] of the NT’s Frankenstein already circulating. Of course, being solidly sold out, such reviews can’t really do anything more than tell people who haven’t got tickets what it’s like (really great! or really not-great! depending who you read).
However, as ultimately a question of public interest, it boils down to whether you consider the embargo-breakering bloggers to be Wikileaks or Andy Coulson, in much the same way as some readers will ultimately return to blogs because they find them well-written, reliable, entertaining and insightful and others will read any old badly written drivel if it’s “an exclusive”.