Let’s Play A Game

Pretend for a moment you are the artistic director of an independent theatre company. Your company has  just  taken on a very difficult show. It is is brand new company and this show is the first of the season. It is very important for the success of the company that it is well received.  You are a diligent and conscientious director so you have spent a huge amount of working very hard with a talented cast. Not surprisingly, because of this effort you are very emotionally invested in the play/cast.

 In spite of all this effort, however, opening night is only days away and you realize the show will not be ready. The actors are great but the technical side has not come together well. The set is incomplete and the actors have never run the show with lighting and sound. At best, even with rehearsing around the clock, opening night will be a glorified dress rehearsal.

 To complicate matters further your press relations team has done a fabulous job and reviewers from TV, radio, and print have already agreed to show up opening night to review the piece. It took a lot of effort to set this up and if they all pan the show it may impact severely on future audiences.  What do you do? Please also briefly explain your reasoning.

 1. You delay the opening. You apologize and explain the situation to the reviewers. They might reschedule. They also might not come at all. You may lose money and a little respect, but you turn opening night into a second dress rehearsal and make it a “pay what you can” show.

 2. You fake it! Maybe no one will notice these shortcomings and if they do you will say that you meant the show to appear raw and rough. It was a conscious aesthetic choice. Defy anyone who says otherwise and fire up the actors to give the best performance they can. You charge full price.

 3. You send a letter to the reviewers explaining the situation and begging them to come on a later night to review. You have lots of contacts in the community. By calling in a few favours you might be able to pull this off and the reviewers will agree to come later. You charge full price.

  Question 2: Who is more important the reviewers or the audience? Why?

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9 responses to “Let’s Play A Game

  1. Question One:

    I choose 2.1:

    I would rally the troops and open the show as planned. I’d “fake it” insomuch as I wouldn’t volunteer the information about the lackluster tech. I wouldn’t own it as my artistic choice, but I wouldn’t rat out my tech crew either (unless I was speaking off the record to a friend).

    In matters like these, my “thespian ethic” is the show must go on. If I’ve set an opening date, then that’s the date the show’s going to start. I think there are exceptions…most of them involve death, severe illness and Mother Nature getting bitchy. Beyond that, I feel I have a responsibility to present when I say I’m going to present…even if it’s not where I wanted to be. Would it stab me in the ego? Yes. Would it damage my rep? Possibly. I’d have to find a way to live with it.

    Question 2

    Technically speaking reviewers *are* part of the audience, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking.

    Reviewers are important. Personally; however, the larger audience matter more. There are more of them (I say that only somewhat facetiously)

    • I like your alternative 2.1 seems a very reasonable approach. I take it, you would keep the reviewers as scheduled?

      “Personally; however, the larger audience matter more. There are more of them.” I would agree with this and I’ll discuss it in more detail in my next post.

  2. Correction – the company has been around for 10 years. Actually had you seen the show opening night, you would have had the same show – slight difference in nuances from Actors but you saw better tech. Being part of the company I know why they would choose to ask Media to come a day later – people actually read reviews so there is a lot at stake for “bums in seats”.

  3. The audience is always the most important piece of any theatrical puzzle. The nice thing about opening night audiences is that they consist very largely of invited guests; so while any cast and production team will rightfully bust their asses to make sure that an opening night audience gets the same high-quality show as the audience on any other night, there is some safety built in to the knowledge that most of the first-night crowd are friends and associates of the company who have, contrary to your assumption, NOT paid full price for a ticket. If the show is not ready and critics are present on that night, there is a very real risk that a potential problem could mar the critical reception of the production, which could in turn hurt the attraction of other audience members — which, as I have stated, are the most important piece of any theatrical puzzle. Critics are — to your credit and to our potential detriment — part of the publicity machine, and not part of quality control.

    The request to postpone the attendance of a critic in no way lets the cast or crew off the hook in terms of preparation: I can assure you as someone involved with the production in question that everyone was working doggedly right up to the minute audience members started gathering in the lobby on opening night. Once the opening night performance was over, it was clear from our success that critics COULD in fact have been there that evening. This is the kind of commitment artists SHOULD and DO make to their audiences.

    As a producer, however, who is trying to look out for the best interests of the people who are involved with the production — because critiques survive far, far longer than the productions they are critiquing — a decision had to be made that balanced the interests of the “family” involved in the show with those of the audience and critics who were likely to be there. I don’t envy anyone who has to make that call, and I think the decision was sound, even though in hindsight it may have been unnecessary.

    It’s a touchy and complicated issue, and I’m sure it was aggravating for you. But the decision only affected you and one other person.

  4. Chantale and Kris:
    Thank you both for taking the time to comment on my blog. Chantale, you know how much I value and respect your opinion in all theatre related matters. Kris let me take this moment to welcome you officially to my blog. I hope to hear from you again soon.

    In hindsight, at the top of this post, I should have written a disclaimer that “any similarities to any theatre company real or imaginary are purely coincidental.” This is why the details in my case study are as they are (fictitious). It was not my intent to call out any theatre company, in particular, but instead to talk about the larger issues at play. It is these general issues I am very much interested in. My next post will detail my current thinking on these questions: How important are reviewers really? And what obligations do theatre practitioners have to their audiences if it appears that their production is in very bad shape? Once again my example is fictional account of a production in this situation. My apologies for not making that clear originally.

  5. Well, I’m glad that the question isn’t aimed specifically at a particular event, though I’m sure it played a role in your thinking on the matter 🙂

    My thinking is still essentially the same: audience is always paramount. And it’s tough to say without a specific example what the response SHOULD be because it depends on the situation and the severity of the problem. Last year, one of the actors in GCTC’s “Plan B” was forced to go in for knee surgery about (I think) a week and a half before opening. They lost time in rehearsal due to his recovery and ended up delaying their opening night by two nights. In that case they rebranded the two performances as ‘previews’, didn’t change the invitations, offered refunds or ‘rainchecks’ to existing customers who were miffed, and kept on track as best they could.

    There is a production of ‘Mother Courage’ at the National Theatre in the UK now that delayed its first preview by almost a week because the show wasn’t ready. I don’t know what the story is, there, but it’s a more recent and high-profile example. It happens rather regularly for new plays in New York and at regional theatres in the States as well.

    Opening night audiences ARE, generally, heavily “papered houses” (meaning that lots of free tickets are given out to give the actors a solid-sized house, and to help the production benefit from early word-of-mouth). In a situation where critics have been asked to delay their attendance, I would hope that the crew is still working hard on the production; and if things really are in rough shape, an announcement may be made at the top of the show saying that there may be a rough edge or two, and the theatre would be happy to refund anyone who feels ill-served. As a sometimes producer myself, I’d rather delay a critic and risk offering a less-than-stellar performance to a few hundred people, than have a critic broadcast word of a less-than-stellar performance to a readership in the tens of thousands.

    In an ideal world, productions have a preview periods that allow for these eventualities: a few nights (at least) where the audience is there at a cheaper rate but the show is still likely to change a bit, things may not be finished, critics are not invited, the cast and crew still get notes, there are still rehearsals during the daytime, etc. Previews are terrifically useful for theatre companies, and preview audiences are, of necessity, rather forgiving.

    But the truth is that for smaller companies, previews are becoming less and less common; as an actor I can tell you that this is really unfortunate — the presence of an audience adds SO MUCH to a production and takes some time to adjust to (I think of the audience as the last and most important character in any play). With the cost of venues being such as it is, though, previews are becoming rare; in Ottawa, only GCTC and the NAC technically have them (The Gladstone has, of late, done dress rehearsals as PWYC previews). Without that preview period, deadlines fall a bit later because crews have to get the show “open”, and because rehearsal periods are also short (another consequence of economics), more and more work is done in less and less time. The pressure put on everyone for an opening night is immense ad the effort required to make a show PERFECT for opening night is herculean (somebody recently told me that the average level of stress an actor feels on an opening night is five times that of someone having a heart attack; I don’t know the source or the truth of that idea).

    To complicate things further, many audience members don’t know the difference between a preview and a performance, AND/OR don’t feel obligated to observe etiquette and form as much as a journalist, so a blog post written after “first preview” is fair game and will look to almost anyone like a review. In NYC, the prevalence of people seeing and then writing about the quality of preview performances has led to all kinds of problems — negative buzz can kill a show even before it opens, these days. That’s another issue, perhaps, but is related to the evolving role of the critic. But it reinforces both the idea that the audience is the ultimate “client” of theatre, and the idea that the information that audiences disseminate to the public — via word of mouth, via blog, via email, via critique — is utterly vital to the success of a production and MUST be looked after (hopefully by providing a quality product, as opposed to trying to silence opinion).

    I think less and less of traditional newspaper critics — not because they’re less able to opine on productions, but because their thoughts are lost in a shuffle of those of other people. Newspapers seem to agree with me — full-time theatre critics at traditional dailies are slowly being handed walking papers; the Ottawa Citizen uses the same poor soul to review both community AND professional theatre, without providing any distinction between the two for readers. So the landscape has changed.

    Sorry if this is scattered. It’s a HUGE topic, and should make for great blog-fodder 🙂

  6. What Kris said 🙂

  7. Kris,

    Just to add one note of correction to your brilliantly worded letter – Third Wall has for the past 3 seasons offered pay-what-you-can previews before opening.

    Cheers
    James

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