Reviewing Etiquette during Previews, Industry Respect Rules, or the Morgan James ‘Into The Woods’ Fiasco
Original Post: 7/25/12 :: Revisited: 8/27/12
Since the beginning of the newspaper, it’s been customary to withhold reviewing a play until opening night. Over the past twenty years it has become customary for productions, especially new plays, to begin with an “out-of-town” tryout or preview. Under this system, an eight-to-ten week sitdown would pop up in San Francisco, Chicago, Tampa, or Boston, often during the spring to prep for a fall New York premiere. Each night producers would hand out comment cards or even field questions from the audience after curtain. They’d staff the lobby, outside, and at the stagedoor to hear what people were saying, “the buzz.” What did they love? What did they hate?
Every night when the curtain would rise, a slightly different show would play. Rewrites were constant. Score, book, and blocking changes were dime a dozen, rehearsing one show during the day and performing a different draft at night. Out-of-town previews allowed the opportunity for composers, lyricists, directors, and actors to work on and tighten their show away from the talons of the New York critics and media. Several months later, the show would open in New York, hopefully with a great word of mouth. Today, the out-of-town preview has become more of the exception than the rule due to the high cost of moving a show across the country and the logistics of booking several precious theaters spaces.
Previews – public performances before critics are allowed in to review – are meant as a kind of insurance policy for producers. The idea is that they offer a system whereby shows can “work themselves out” in front of an audience before any kind of final critical judgment is passed, and that tickets will be cheaper as a result. Over the last half century, they have become the norm in theatre. But it wasn’t always this way – and still isn’t for some other performing arts, such as ballet or opera. Paying previews have only been permitted in the West End since 1968. Before that, producers would either stage out-of-town try-outs for their shows or open cold in the West End. – Lyn Gardner, The Guardian
With the decrease in original plays and musicals and an uptick in revivals and adapted works, the need to workshop entirely new content has lessened. Forgoing the out-of-town, preview periods in New York have instead become longer and more drawn out. Where as previously a show may have only previewed for several days, now it is not atypical to see a month or more pass before an opening night. The flattening of communication, merging of media outlets, and the ability for opinion/thought leaders to emerge across the country, has cut into the advantage of starting out somewhere else. No longer is a show “safe” from review simply because it opens in another city. “While a gentlemen’s agreement between critics and producers prevents newspapers from publishing reviews prior to opening night, there is nothing that can be done about paying customers having their say via blogs and internet sites and, in some cases, these unofficial reviews can be just as widely read,” says Gardner. Critics knew a piece of theatre was still a work in progress and only desired to review it once it was ready. Even in the case of Spiderman: TOTD, major reviewers held off months, and 200,000 audience members, before they eventually were reluctantly forced to go in.
Following last night’s first preview performance of The Public Theatre‘s highly-anticipated transfer of Into The Woods, a short, 140 character review was published:
From several accounts, the first performance was indeed a bit rocky, as was to be expected. Also good to note here that tickets to the production are free. The show is in an outdoor performance space with several days of rain earlier this week, throwing off rehearsal schedules for the ambitiously staged show. Certainly with over a thousand in the audience, several others likely posted their opinions online as well. The difference with this reviewer, however, is the fact that she herself is an up-and-coming Broadway actress, a member of unforgiving New York theatre community. Almost immediately after posting, veiled acknowledgements of her “review” seemed to crop up a from social networks Facebook and Twitter to Playbill.com and several online message boards. Soon thereafter, the fiasco began with dozens of @-replies decrying her premature review. Within an hour rebuttals were streaming through theatre fans’ Tweetdecks from thespians, actors, community members, and leaders in the industry. Composers like Scott Alan and recent co-workers (actors) Matt Doyle and Jason Lamon soon pounced.
And it went on and on (many tweets have since been deleted/made private, making this particular discussion with Scott Alan, more difficult to follow):
@morganajames but you shouldn’t tweet about it either. We should support one another in this industry & that tweet was disgusting. sorry.
@ScottAlanNet I’m sorry to offend. It’s not about ‘not supporting’. The prod/dir was offensive (sexually) and it just wasn’t for me.
@morganajames then don’t tweet your opinions, love. it IS about supporting. It’s a FIRST preview featuring FRIENDS and IDOLS we respect
@morganajames people read your tweets & you need to be apart of this industry & be respectful & feel honored to be working in it.
@morganajames it disgusts me to see performers judging art. Theatre is already judged by so many. WE are the ones who need to SUPPORT.
Likely before James even got off the subway back home, she was in one of the trickiest situations of her career; the entire situation blew up out of control, with hundreds, if not thousands, weighing in. While the number may not seem substantial compared to other recent public relations disasters, proportionally to the community, it is massive.
In my opinion (rarely given here), it’s difficult to stomach an up-and-coming understudy/ensemble performer of three highly-criticized shows (The Addams Family, Wonderland and Godspell) to proclaim the death of musical theatre, especially in a show full of industry idols spanning several decades. While her opinion and thoughts may have been well-founded, the arts and criticism don’t operate in the same relationship as does the rest of the world. A industry of positives, support, tact, respect, and relationships, for a non-reviewer to outwardly criticize a non-finished work is viewed as blasphemy. She works in the industry (and would like to continue doing so, I’m sure) and needs to be aware the cast and crew are former or future colleagues. Publicly she should have nothing but praise for any production, similar to how you don’t see your favorite movie stars give thumbs down to a new box office opening. Behind closed doors or with a group of friends, articulate and nuanced discussion (as we are all taught in arts edu) should be had. Instead, James featured far-reaching, polarizing, and contradictory micro-messages to tens of thousands online and for public consumption.
A lone ranger named Matt summed the evening up best: Tact is an art form and one that should be honed by any actor in the business seeking to advance their career. I don’t particularly agree with censorship, but that’s just how the business works. Be critical, but be mindful of your form of expression. In other words, don’t piss off your potential employers. Or their colleagues. Or their friends. It’s just not a good idea.
Edit: Since posting, Morgan has tweeted several times, apologizing for her remarks.
It’s no secret New York theatre is expensive. Often in this blog you’ll see my write “$121.25′s” as a way to denote a single audience member. Right now this is the standard base price for almost all Equity theatre running in a Broadway house. The price for an orchestra or front mezzanine seat can only go up from there: add ten dollars if you’re looking for an aisle, fifteen if you’re coming on a weekend and so on. Let’s not even talk about so called “premium seats.”
I get it. Theatre isn’t a cheap endeavor. Producing and managing even at the amateur level has shown this to be true. Those numbers increase one-hundred-fold when moving to the regional or Equity realm as I’ve seen when working with LORT companies in Boston and in the West End last fall. Every week, there is an endless list of expenses producers must shell out before even thinking about paying back the initial investment to angels, not to mention even think about profitability: rights and royalties, actor salaries, crew and musician salaries, theatre rent, electricity, prop costs, union fees, benefits, etc. Based on size and scope of production, these weekly running costs can range anywhere from $250,000 up to a cool million. This number, or “nut,” of a production is the cost to keep the show afloat every week — the dollar and cents amount is to keep the actors onstage and the lights aglow. My question, is should base ticket prices for these Equity productions be proportional to the amount spent by producers? Should cost of ticket be dependent on the cost actually needed to keep a production open?
The scaling of ticket prices has been an age old debate, coming up every few years, often times when a small show is placed right beside a larger one with both tickets showing the same face value. Flash back to 2008 with the Broadway transfer of [title of show]. Infamously taglined with its own lyric “who says four chairs and a keyboard can’t make a Broadway musical,” the show was as barebones as could be. The cast were the writers and creators and none of the four had a past credit under his or her belt. The set was four IKEA swivel chairs, an almost empty stage, and a white wall. The pit orchestra was non-existant — the music came from a keyboard onstage played solely by the music director. The weekly nut of the show, rumored to be the lowest in Broadway history (with inflation accounted for) was $150,000.
A few doors down, we saw the smash hit Wicked playing at the Gershwin with a nut, cautiously estimated, at four to five times higher. Both shows were advertising a ticket structure based around the then-standard $101.25. Even with heavy discounting, [title of show] failed abysmally. It was the little off-Broadway show that couldn’t. Aside from the show’s subject matter being a deterrent, the second most common remark was that people “couldn’t see where their money was going.” The cast was small with no names commanding a high salary, the set was non-existant, and a lush orchestra pit was nowhere to be found. The intial investment was never published, but it was certainly basement level. With heavy discounting, the show’s attendance improved, but it ultimately closed several weeks later losing its full investment. People were simply not willing to spend over a hundred dollars a ticket for a bunch of no-names sitting in an empty room.
Whether it’s right or not, the casual theatergoer wants to see his or her money onstage. They want a B-list tv star, a huge ensemble cast, a lavish set, and a huge symphony orchestra sunk beneath the stage. And to be honest, at that base price, why shouldn’t they? If a producer is spending less to raise a production, what is the rationale in charging the high ticket price? Regardless of price, producers often only take in $50-70 a seat, save for the megahits — just look at average ticket prices in the weekly grosses. Why not instead lower ticket prices to an acceptable, more suitable level based on the production and people are willing to pay for it. Theatre follows the rules of supply and demand. For many shows (a third of them at any given time), there is little to no demand for a $100+ ticket — those seats are only purchased when discounts become readily available.
Maybe it’s because there are only a few producers controlling a large majority of productions, but why should they band together to monopolize the price of “theatre.” Why, instead, can it not be based on a singular production? I’d love to see a producer mix it up a little: take a smaller show and open it at a lower affordable price. This will get people in the door — fuller houses during previews – and ratchet up word-of-mouth surrounding it. If the show’s any good, this will increase demand, which would then warrant the increase in prices.
How would the public react to such an approach? Would people inherently think a cheaper show to be “not as good”? Should set ticket prices be a thing of the past and should the art realm move forward like the airline industry with a more fluid structure based on what is needed for each show and what you’re looking to see? Not only would this limit the effects of gouge scalping but also deliver the most cost efficient tickets to audiences depending on what they are looking to see and when. In my book, someone should never pay the same for Peter and the Starcatcher as they do for Spiderman – what you see presented in front of you is not financially equal, so why should the ticket prices be?
You’ve waited in a line snaked around the corner outside the theatre, seemingly always in the way of those entering and exiting ShakeShack. Finally making it to the main door, you hand your ticket to the usher and glance up to find a blue or black board, labelled “At This Performance.” On any given night of a large-scale Broadway production, there’s bound to be several cast substitutions due to injury, illness, or other production-related reasons (dance captain sitting out to watch the show, etc). An ensemble member might be filling the shoes of a supporting role and have a swing (understudy for an ensemble track, in layman’s terms) step into his or her place. Maybe a lead actor in the production has an alternate for matinees performances, generally reserved for the most vocally demanding roles. The general consensus among 98% (not scientifically proven, but certainly true) of theatre audiences is understudies are inherently bad; people assume they’re the second string or the “backup.” While most see the sign and exhale in disappointment, a smile comes across my face and my excitement intensifies — I love understudies.
Now, I’m not saying I think “Snow Day” when I see white slips of paper pour out of my Playbill, but in general, understudies get the most unfair treatment in theatre. They’re judged as inferior and insufficient before the curtain even rises. It’s no wonder you can often see them trembling the first moment they step onstage — impossible expectations on placed on them from the start. Instead of eagerly anticipating the performance, audience members are disappointingly texting their friends XYZ actress is out, already bummed.
That said, I would be lying if I didn’t preface this by saying that I often see particular productions more than once and through cast changes. One of the things I love most about theatre is seeing the different choices actors make as they navigate through the role on their own — how two different people in the same production (and with the same director) can interpret a role in two very different ways. It’s always thrilling to see those who originate roles onstage — if the actor’s been involved since development, the part is often times written around his or her own personality and strengths. Even having seen these incredible actors onstage so many times, I can honestly say I am often times more blown away and impressed by those with their single moment in the spotlight rather than by the actor who performs the role eight times a week for a twelve or sixteen month contract. I see a alot of New York theatre, but can only count on one hand how many times I’ve been truly disappointed with an understudy’s performance. Don’t even ask me how many award-winning actors I’ve seen not live up to the expectations set by reviewers, the media, and online fans.
A recent column in The Guardian sums my thoughts into one succinct sentence:
And it’s often been my experience that understudies perform as well or better than the much-hyped actors they replace – because they want it more, because they’re hired for factors other than looks or name recognition, because of the sheer adrenaline of playing a role they haven’t fully rehearsed.
There are tens of thousands of live theatre actors trying to make it in New York everyday. While the understudy was not the first person chosen, there’s certainly a reason as to why he or she was chosen ahead of all others. Often times, this is due to age or lack of experience — producers and casting agents are hesitant to put a show on the shoulders of an unknown entity — it’s easier and more comforting to rely on a recognizable name with a handful of credits under the belt. Seeing an understudy gives a sneak peak to the stars of the future. The big names you see winning awards and featured on marquees were not given those opportunities straight off the bat. They started, like everyone else, at the bottom of the heap, swinging, ensembling, supporting, and yes, understudying. I’m now at the point in my life where I’m seeing these transformations happen in front of my own eyes from Sutton Foster to Alice Ripley, Gavin Creel to Raul Esparza.
People place too high a value on the billed, packaged production rather than the performances in from of their faces — they want to see X show with Y playing the leads or else “it’s not worth it.” Somehow someone giving just as thrilling or honest of a performance is “not worth it,” often times when the audience member has nothing to compare it to. Seeing a show with the “Original Broadway Cast” with “the people on the CD” is for, too many people, more about something they can “check off” on a list no ones cares about.
Seeing the look of thrill on an understudy’s face after their first number is nothing short of astonishing. It reminds me of one of the reasons why I got into theatre myself. These understudies are the ones who are driving “the show must go on” mentality. Their performances are one-of-a-kind and thrilling. Nothing is stale or routine and the adrenaline is visible. In most cases, the audience forgets they’re seeing the #2 by the third or fourth number until curtain call when the actors onstage are showering their colleague with additional applause. Now, I’m not trying to convince you to search out these understudies like I do or follow the last-minute callouts on BroadwayUnderstudies.com/@Understudies. Someone like, Merwin Foard, for example, one of my favorite actors who’s made a career out of being a high-profile cover for the stars. I’m merely suggesting that you think twice before angrily marching up to the box office to refund your above-the-title ticket. Remember the age old adage that actors are real people too and need a day off and that there is someone just as dedicated and talented in the wings whose been waiting for months for this opportunity.
What are your thoughts on understudies and the bias toward them? Have you ever had any notable experiences, good or bad? Any future stars you’ve seen in their early days?