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Preview Reviews, or How Blogs Are Changing Everything

Previews are an important time on Broadway, usually 3-4 weeks of performances in front of a live audience, where the creative team makes constant changes and improvements to a show. Out of respect for this dynamic creative period, critics traditionally wait until they are invited to see the production and write a review to be published after opening night. However, the concept of reviewing shows during the preview period has recently garnered increased attention because of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, whose numerous delays lead multiple critics from major newspapers to publish their reviews prior to an official opening night. These critics felt their voices were becoming irrelevant while waiting for an opening night because theatre bloggers were already blasting their reactions on their sites and social media outlets. This exception for critics, who have returned to obeying the opening night convention for reviews, has raised the issue of whether bloggers, like critics from major media sources, should also wait until opening night to publish a review, or whether they are free to ignore this tradition — a dilemma we were unintentionally caught in during our recent trip to New York when 6 of the 7 shows we saw were in previews.

If bloggers pay for their own ticket, are not associated with a major publication, and are otherwise not given the same treatment as a traditional critic, why should they abide by this old convention? Of course there are no official rules to prevent them from doing so. In fact, there are several reasons to think that early reviews by bloggers are a great idea. Potential audience members who are only available during previews might want to hear about the quality of the show, and because preview prices are no longer steeply discounted, a pre-opening review could be very useful in making a decision about which show to see. If members of the creative team are reading the reviews, a blogger’s criticism or suggestion could help shape the show for the better while changes are still being made. And posting these early reviews could result in quite a bit of traffic to the blog — after all, none of the mainstream critics have posted reviews yet.

However, these potential benefits come at a considerable cost. If the audience members do not understand the preview process, they might be confused if what they read and what they see don’t match. Another risk is that an audience member decides to not see a show because of negative blog review, despite the show having been greatly improved since the review was written. Although it is possible that a blogger’s review could impact the creative process, it is unlikely. Typically there are too many cooks in the creative kitchen rather than too few. The only feedback the creative team has ever needed during previews is the audience reaction itself —  laughs, gasps, awkward silences. Increasingly early reviews might pressure producers to finalize creative decisions before considering feedback from the preview audiences, slowly devaluing the preview process. Finally, while bloggers might get great traffic from these early reviews, we don’t think that this should influence the decision to publish them. In our opinion, all critics work to support the theatre community, which includes the theatre-going audience and the creative process. If either of those groups are negatively impacted for the blogger’s own gain, well, that’s a little sad.

We suppose that we might be able to agree with the statement that reviews of preview performances could be beneficial to the theatre community, but only if they are positive. We don’t see any harm in a blogger spreading good buzz about a show that is in previews, that can only benefit the show. But this would be impractical — either bloggers would produce uniformly positive reviews of shows, which would no longer help audience members decide which shows to see, or the omission of a review would speak volumes about the quality of the preview performance. So, we can really come to no other conclusion than it does not benefit the theatre community for bloggers to post reviews of shows in preview performances.

For the record, while we may run our own website and use a blogging platform to host our site, in Denver, we go through media representatives at various theatres and receive press tickets to agreed upon performances and in return we write a review after the show has opened. On Broadway, we paid for all of our tickets, and so most would agree that we are free to write reviews of these shows, if we so desire. However, we ultimately decided that the risks outweighed the benefits involved in posting a review of a preview performance.

For those who might read our website in hopes of getting advice on what to see in New York, we feel that it would be unfair to comment publicly on what are/were unfinished products. This distinction might be slowly fading in importance. While the issue has had increased attention recently, it certainly isn’t a new one and in a short time reviews of previews might be considered absolutely normal. But if bloggers are causing that change, we personally don’t wish to accelerate it. We are planning on publishing a review of Arcadia, which we saw on its opening night. As for the rest of the shows, we are completely open to sharing our thoughts on what we saw in private conversations in person or via email.

If you were in our shoes, would you do the same? Would you publish reviews? If so, why? Do you think bloggers should abide by the traditional convention, or not? As potential audience members, do you wish more reviews for shows in previews were available? As theatre participants,  have you ever been part of a creative team that used a substantial preview period and how would you feel if reviews panning your show came out before you were opened? We’d love to hear YOUR thoughts on the decision we made, so leave a reply below or comment on our facebook!



3 thoughts on “Preview Reviews, or How Blogs Are Changing Everything

  1. One important question not raised in this post involves the procedures on the local media scene, and the timing of their print/ online arts coverage. Here in Denver/ Boulder, major theatre reviews tend to come out on Sundays or Thursdays(online)/ Fridays(print), in other words either a few days after opening or almost a week after opening. For local companies with two or three-week runs, even strong positive reviews aren’t published in time to bump sales for opening weekend. From a business perspective, for shows with a single preview night before opening, it would be great if the press came to preview and then published on Friday. I realize from a writer’s perspective that’s a pretty tight turnaround, and understand that given the number of local companies this kind of timely coverage is quite difficult. But for companies with shorter runs, previews better be darn close to audience-ready, and the quality level is unlikely to change drastically in 24 hours.

    For the issues you raise around Broadway, where a show may be in previews for several weeks or months, I think the ethical situation may vary from reviewer to reviewer. For your blog, I’m guessing most of your readers come from our geographical area, so how likely are they to fly to NYC (or not) based on a review you’ve written? And is it possible to take an angle to talking about these shows that doesn’t fall neatly into the categories of “pan” or “plug”? I would be interested in reading your thoughts on how far a play needs to go to be ready for opening, and your other reactions to the basic storyline, dramatic concepts, acting, and design elements. As long as you provided the disclaimer that you saw a preview, I don’t think such an approach would be disingenuous, and could be quite informative to readers completely unfamiliar with the play titles.

    Posted by Heather | March 24, 2011, 4:41 pm
    • Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. This response is kind of long, as we wanted to address all of your insightful questions and points.

      You are completely right that we didn’t go into detail about previews in the Denver/Boulder area and that was intentional since previews don’t play are large role in the region. While we can’t speak for anyone else, we would be open/willing to attend earlier performances with the hopes of getting a review out on opening. In that case, we would still be sticking to the traditional agreement of attending an invited performance and holding off our review until opening. However, that isn’t entirely up to us and the current model from most theatres (including the Denver Center who previews for a week) is to invite press to opening nights. That leaves us with getting reviews published a couple of days (or even a week) after opening which may not be a boon to sales for opening weekend, but might help sales for later weekends or even boost the rep of the theatre for future runs.

      As for your questions regarding our blog, our known readership (including facebook and email subscriptions) is mostly from the Denver/Boulder area, but not much less than half is from across the nation – SF, LA, NYC, Chicago, DC, etc. – and we’re also getting substantial traffic from general google searches. While our review may not inspire someone to fly to NYC to see a show, people already heading there may avoid certain productions because of the bad things they may have heard from us or other blogging sites – especially if those are the only voices being heard during previews since traditional critics are silent.

      Concerning the Broadway previews, we agree that critics must come to their own conclusion. We know plenty of bloggers that write reviews of shows in their first week of previews. We’ve considered the disclaimer approach, because we agree that readers who are theatre savvy would be able to take our thoughts with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, we can’t ignore the general public who can find our review from a google search and might not be aware of what that qualification means. As an example, general audiences are occasionally audibly upset when a preview performance has to stop and start, even though that is the nature of the process. So while we’d like to write for our most informed readers, we also have to ensure that our least informed wouldn’t take the reviews as a final word.

      This also relates to the issue of whether reviews can achieve a grey area (between pan or plug, as you say). We always try to make our reviews nuanced – celebrating the parts of productions that work well in addition parts that could use improvement. Many are able to recognize that, but more often than not we get feedback about our ‘good’ review of one show or a ‘bad’ review of another. We love the idea of writing about what a show would need to achieve before opening, but inevitably, if we talk about the twelve improvements one show needs to achieve versus the one small tweak another needs, some people will likely interpret those as bad and good. Without limiting ourselves to impartial summaries of the plot and creative team, it’s impossible to comment on storyline, acting and design without offering a critique or review that won’t be able to be ultimately categorized as a pan or plug.

      Thanks again for your response. Since you expressed your interest in hearing our thoughts on certain shows, feel free to email us and we’ll be happy to pass along our impressions.

      Posted by He Said/She Said Critiques | March 26, 2011, 5:45 pm
  2. I agree with you. There’s a reason it’s called Opening Night. Once it’s officially presented the world, say what you will. Until then, give the performers and staff the time to finish the creative process.

    Posted by Joe | March 26, 2011, 4:56 pm

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