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.
Ken Davenport is a mover and shaker when it comes to arts marketing. If you haven’t heard of him before, Ken is the the founder of Davenport Theatrical Enterprises, a New York-based production and management house. Since 2004, Davenport Theatrical has been responsible for both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including the current revival of Godspell, Chinglish, Oleanna, Speed the Plow, You’re Welcome America, Blithe Spirit, 13, Altar Boyz, The Awesome 80s Prom, and My First Time.
Instead of taking the standard, tired approach to arts marketing, Ken injects a freshness I’ve not often seen in the industry with my limited experience. Preparing to graduate from college in a few short months, I’ve been researching both commercial and non-profit organizations for employment, but have been disappointed with the antiquated approaches many take. On the surface, this may seem to play to my advantage, offering a skill set and strategy not yet provided by someone within an organization. Unfortunately, many in the industry do not understand progressing marketing trends and are hesitant to try uncontrollable and sometimes unmeasurable approaches. Davenport Theatrical, on the other hand, spearheads this advancement in arts administration, moving forward from the status quo of glossy mailers and scheduled BroadwayBox discount codes to fill seats. As the yearly attendance figure has remained constant from last year, it is going to take a new approach to draw in new publics.
Trying to “break down the wall between the business world and the rest of Broadway” (Davenport’s own words), his production of Godspell has emerged as a leader of new and social media media marketing, and the results have proven tremendous so far. Godspell was Broadway’s first ever crowd-funded musical. Producing theatre and investing in the arts is risky and costly industry. Given Adam Epstein’s failed attempt to mount a production in 2008 and the recent history of withdrawing investors, Davenport motivation in crowd sourcing was likely to spread the risk of backing from a few large producers ($50,000+) many with smaller shares ($1,000+).
Davenport believes Godspell‘s message of “community” makes it the perfect choice to launch this style of campaign, matching feel of the show with his method of producing — wow, looks like strategy to me! By having a large number of small investors, Davenport has created, as he puts it, “a marketing army,” who has a vested interest in the production’s success and will work with him. People have always wanted to feel involved with what goes on behind-the-scenes and after the curtain falls. What’s Ken’s solution? He sends his community members and investors two personal update emails every week letting them know how the show is doing and gives them a “marketing challenge” to build buzz and group sales.
Davenport also takes a note straight out of Dave Kerpen and Scott Stratten‘s book; he doesn’t let a positive mention of one of his shows go by on social media unnoticed. “If someone is going to take the time to pay you a compliment,” he says, “you best be there to acknowledge it.” People who are vocal about your brand, especially positive, are an invaluable asset and he acknowledges that — many other producers let those good word positive mentions rot in unmonitored online discussion communities. Gone are the days when arts organizations can sit back and wait for customers to come to them — in order to keep the conversation going, arts administrators need to take a step down from their pedestal and Engage.
Davenport is looking toward the future of gamification in arts marketing, something not even on the radar of many others. He’s already launched this strategy by encouraging audience members to check in on foursquare to receive a free prize. He’s also taken advantage of word-of-mouth marketing (WOM) by finding the most vocal fans of his shows and using them as ambassadors with a point system to get free tickets. Now that’s cool. Davenport “gets it” — I hope others soon follow suit.
A terrific interview with Davenport from January where he goes into depth on much of what I’ve spoken about:
With over four billion hits per day and more than 60 hours of footage uploaded every minute, YouTube has changed the way we think of and interact with the web. Since the service’s launch in 2005, we have become publishers of content, giving a platform to all with a webcam — no longer does one need a studio setup or large budget to upload and host video footage in the public domain. Soon after YouTube’s commercialization and acquisition by Google, new services began to emerge developing on the technology created, taking advantage of the fast growing trend. Two short years later, UStream entered the market with something a little different. Speeding up the process of instant gratification again, UStream made it immediate, allowing the live streaming of content to audiences around the world, free of charge. We first saw the wonders of this service in the lead-up to the 2008 Presidential Election when primary reports and debates were streamed immediately online for all to see, building the fascination with this new online technology.
As could have been predicted, it was not before long we saw the arts take hold of this technology. For an industry specializing in audio and visual imagery with a finite number of admissions and high price tag, it was a perfect fit. Since the mid-1970s, established theatres have been attempting to incorporate live broadcasts into their business models. One of the most prominent, Live from Lincoln Center, has brought to our living rooms countless productions every year of their sold-out spectacles, recently Candide, Porgy & Bess, Contact, The Light in the Piazza, and South Pacific. Often aired on PBS, these productions are geared toward grey-hairs, free to watch on local television. Generally speaking, they broadcast Tuesday nights, have a historic biopic during the intermission break, and are hosted by a C-list Dick Van Dyke. Anything fresh or sexy was reserved for movie theatres with a steep admission up-charge (think something like Spike Lee’s Passing Strange, filmed months earlier with heavy post-production). Even these “accessible” movie theatre broadcasts are hard to come by and air sparingly at awkward times, setting them up to fail.
With the advancement of live streaming technologies, we’ll soon see these productions move into this realm. Over the past several years, we’ve seen this on a smaller scale with productions like the Hair revival posting their finale online every night. Streaming (not broadcasting) a full production is the next logical step:
- Live-streaming breaks new ground in the way it merges theater and technology.
- Theatre, in its most basic essence, is a live art form making its live transmission without post production natural.
- Web 2.0 can allow performances to be interactive in a way that a traditional audience setting cannot.
- It combines the excitement of live theater with the community live streamed video fosters.
- Provides an additional source of income, limitless in the number of participants, to an industry with a finite number of admissions nightly.
- Relatively low-cost of startup and almost-guaranteed audience around the world.
- Limits the impact geographic location has on audience members experiencing new pieces, enabling a diverse and limitless experience.
- Transcending quality and personal tailoring of of new technology deeply engages a 21st century audience.
- A new dramatic paradigm that could launch an entirely new dramatic form born of today’s technology.
The biggest forseeable issue standing in the way of this movement is blockades from Actors’ Equity. I foresee the union having extreme concerns with losing control over content, despite their lackluster performance monitoring bootleg traffic. They’ll cite it as distancing from the art and, if passed, push for radical increases in per diem and minimum salaries. I don’t think the move is for all companies, and to be quite honest, never expect to see commercial venues incorporate it into their business strategy, fearing all will substitue the online edition of the performance with sitting in ORCH BB 101. But for fringe producers and festival productions have much to gain by any method to pull in additional profits and build name recognition.
Chris Mellor of The Guardian believes, “Streamed theatre is still an underdeveloped (for some, unknown) tool and most producers are yet to grasp its full potential. But at a time when it can be difficult to fill venues, it represents a new way of helping the box office pull in additional revenue.” Starting small, these organizations should start by streaming rehearsals or press events for all fans to see and share. Arts organizations have little market research on their publics; by engaging them in web 2.0, depth of knowledge can be ascertained quickly, easily, and with little/no cost. By giving this audience what it’s looking for and creating this engagement, smaller arts organizations can use a long-tailed approach, better suited for their niche market. A better engagement strategy means a more involved audience who can grow with the organization — it won’t be long before these patrons pull themselves into seats. The sooner this shift happens, the sooner invested audiences are ensuring financial black for the arts organizations they patron.