West End previews: Audience-sponsored rehearsals or public performances?

With the opening of Tim Rice’s new show ‘From Here to Eternity’, we had the rather interesting juxtaposition of Rice, outspoken as usual, criticising the practice of endless previews, whilst the producers of the show did their best to convince us that a long run of previews is a fantastic thing, and published a series of posts on their blog from various members of the creative team and cast telling us all about their efforts to ‘improve’ the show while it has started playing to paying members of the public.

The dictionary would tell us that a ‘preview’ is a view which happens ‘before’.  The term preview is therefore only meaningful in relation to something else, in the case of theatre, the opening night. Perhaps this is why, as ordinary theatre-goers, we struggle to understand what all the fuss is about.  We don’t normally go to see a show twice just so we can compare the preview to a post opening night performance – if we see a show more than once it is because we loved it the first time, preview or not.  And in all our visits to the theatre, including many previews, we can honestly say that we have never witnessed things going badly wrong, or felt that the show wasn’t ‘ready’.  We either liked it, or we didn’t and the idea that a show you don’t like is going to transform itself into something amazing in a few nights doesn’t seem very credible. There was one notable exception – ‘The Wizard of Oz’, in which Michael Crawford’s understudy was reading from a script, which has nothing to do with ‘preview teething problems’.  The only explanation we can think of is that it was just a money-saving measure.

Critics complain if they feel there are too many previews because it undermines their status to have too many members of the public seeing the work before they do, not to mention amateur bloggers writing about it.  Hence the mass rebellion by critics buying their own tickets and breaking the embargo on ‘Spiderman: Turn off the dark’ after 8 weeks of previews and an ever-receding opening night.  As for producers, we had always assumed that reduced-price previews were a ‘win-win’ for them: they get to fill up the house in the early part of the run, hopefully garnering good word of mouth, and the public get a discount for seeing a show ‘blind’.  But something has gone badly wrong with this arrangement.  It is pretty unusual to get reduced prices for previews nowadays.  Yet, at the same time as charging full price, we are being told more and more often that previews mean that a show is ‘work in progress’, not the ‘final product’, and that this process must be protected, kept under wraps until opening night when the critics will be allowed to pronounce. Bloggers who break this unspoken rule are considered enemies of the creative process, strangling the fledgling artistic project in its nest.  And even as we were drafting this post, Steve Rich of Theatremonkey fame expressed similar sentiments.

Whilst we can see why critics would prefer not to be trumped by bloggers and forumites, we find this obsession with previews as part of the creative process harder to understand. Take ‘Gone with the wind’, which we had the dubious pleasure of attending early in the preview period.  It was quite clear that Trevor Nunn intended to use the preview performances to finally figure out what needed cutting.  And so an announcement was made to the effect that they wouldn’t be offended if people felt they had to leave early to catch their train.  There was no way a show this long was going to be presented to the critics.  Nobody asked us our opinion so we have no idea what the plan was for gauging audience reactions, but it was clear to us that it wasn’t the length of the show that was the problem, and no amount of cutting or rewriting was going to fix it.  Making cuts is never easy, but leaving it until last possible moment won’t help – did the producers really expect that nobody would be talking about the overblown running time or the fact that one of the child actors didn’t appear because she was not allowed to work after a certain time?

Yet this trend towards ‘heart on sleeve’ discussions about endless tinkering in previews continues.  According to Javier de Frutos on the ‘From Here to Eternity’ blog, during previews the audience becomes ‘part of the creative team’.  What? Apparently the Director can tell whether an audience is enjoying the show or not, and what they think is wrong with it, just by being in the same room.  It is not true to say that technical and creative flaws can only be ironed out with an audience in the theatre, but the idea is repeated so often that it is becoming accepted as truth.  The discussions going on here are not just about pausing for a laugh – they are about major rewrites and changes ‘to tell the story better’.  What is so great about rewrites?  In our minds they are inextricably linked with flops, never better illustrated than in Jack Rosenthal’s play Smash, which wittily dissects the failure to turn his hit play ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ into a musical.  As audience members we are more than happy to let the professionals work out how to tell the story on their own time, in private.  The sight of creatives trying to second-guess the audience and give people what they think they want to see is depressing.  What happened to a Director having a vision?

In a recent radio interview, Frank Langella, who is about to play King Lear in the West End, commented that there is no recipe for success, but there is one for failure, and that is to try to please everyone.  Unless West End producers start to understand that, they risk becoming paralysed by Choice Anxiety, a very modern phenomenon in which more choice leads to less satisfaction and a greater feeling of loss as each decision leaves behind a plethora of options which might have been.  As budgets get bigger and the pressure is on to produce a hit, and with a growing potential for technical wizardry, the obsession with ‘perfecting the product’ seems to be overwhelming.  What better way to try to alleviate this than to parade it ‘half finished’ in front of an audience and convince yourself that they were part of the decision-making process.  The idea of a preview period after which the show is ‘frozen’ and then validated by the press is also a fiction we subscribe to for the sake of convenience.  Thus, the awards and positive quotes garnered by the original cast of a long-running production continue to be used in publicity long after they’ve gone.  But in reality, each show will be different – that is the point of theatre, otherwise why not just record the press night and show it on a big screen to every subsequent audience?

What really annoys us, though, is that it is considered OK to put on a public performance, and to ask people to pay for the privilege (usually full price), but when anybody publicly criticises what they have seen, there is an outcry from all sides.  So, the process of previews, which, we are told, are there to help everyone make the show better, needs to be secret, but nobody is asked their opinion about it, and proffering any suggestions is considered treacherous.  Whatever one might think of the West End Whingers’ review of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ during previews, they could not be accused of being non-specific. Merciless it might have been, but their humourous ‘shopping list’ of ‘issues’ to be sorted out before opening night hit the target pretty cleanly.  And how many of these issues were fixed? Well, we saw the show well after opening night, and we can confirm that all of those issues were still there.  They were an intrinsic part of the production, so of course nothing was going to change.  We may have seen a different show than the Whingers, but the important things, the things which made it a terrible experience for us, were the same. And, we would venture, that is the case the vast majority of the time.  We would love to hear some examples of shows panned at preview stage by bloggers which went on to receive glowing reviews from the press.  They are a rare breed.  The biggest feature of this new ecosystem, with the endless desire for a ‘sure thing’, seems to be a lack of imagination, which perhaps tells us that the wrong people are in charge.

We prefer Einstein’s definition of a preview:

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions”

Well, we can dream.

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6 Responses to West End previews: Audience-sponsored rehearsals or public performances?

  1. Reblogged this on Lucy Sheen actor writer filmmaker adoptee and commented:
    Reblogged from rageoffstage originally posted November 2nd 2013
    This article poses some very interesting questions and points about the theatre in the West End


  2. John Branch says:

    Bravo! I admire this a great deal.

    By the way, your stomping ground may be limited to the West End, or maybe the preview practice is limited to the West End, but I can tell you that the practice is pretty widespread in the United States, in many cities, and at more levels than only the very top (meaning Broadway in New York City). However, I can’t tell you how often the pricing differs; I know that it does in some cases.

    I can tell you that I’ve found the first preview performance and even the first few nights of previews to be unprepared in some cases. I used to see shows early just so I’d know what they were like; I got burned enough that I now deliberately avoid the first week when I can. Everyone who has worked in the theater–which includes me–knows that shows develop in response to audiences. But my personal view, which may be positively antique now, is that you must do everything you can to polish the show before you charge people to see it. The good old practice of inviting people to one or two dress rehearsals for free works.


    • rageoffstage says:

      Thanks John, we definitely subscribe to your ‘antique’ views about polishing a show – it’s all about respecting the paying audience, isn’t it? Having said that, you’ve given us an idea – we think enthusiasts would probably be prepared to pay to see a rehearsal just to have a different ‘behind the scenes’ experience….


  3. Pingback: A winning formula? Cameron Mackintosh reveals the secrets of his success in Musical Theatre | rageoffstage

  4. Pingback: Everyone’s a critic: preview reviews are in for Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet | rageoffstage

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