The Problem With Previews–Version 2.0

by Becca Kidwell

[This is based on the article I wrote in November, but then deleted because I did see the production after its opening and I wanted the theatre to have the opportunity to have a successful show, if warranted, without prejudice.]

Preview performances are not a new invention in the theatre. In fact, although I could not find the origin, I have found news articles dating back to the 1900’s regarding theatre previews. Most theatres will agree that “preview week is about nuance. For the creators, cast and crew, the seven [preview] performances will be a chance to fine-tune before the official opening night four days from now. They will make changes during the day and try them out at night before an audience.”1 However, that definition allows for flexibility and abuse to the detriment of the audience.

Some theatres have begun to use previews as an open rehearsal process. No one is questioning the “creative process” that happens when a theatre puts on a play (having directed around ten minor productions, I completely understand that); my problem with current theatrical previews is performance quality and price. While some theatres do reduce prices a fair amount level for preview performances (I have seen up to 50% off and “pay what you can” performances advertised), many do not. Many people who want to see theatre, particularly with the current economic state, will jump at the chance to save some money whether it is 2% or 50%. Some producers and directors have misused previews recently (possibly as a way of offsetting production costs) and still try to claim that severe lapses (that would not be allowed in school or community theatres) are acceptable and under the auspices of the “creative process”.

The most notable example of a failed preview performance is of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway. Most Broadway shows do give a reduction in ticket price and Spiderman is one of them. Broadway ticket prices range primarily from $35 (“nose-bleed”, last rows of the theatre) to $300 (“premium seats” in the first few rows) with the majority of seats in the orchestra costing around $120. For $120, audience members of the first preview of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark received a performance that was indeed stopped four times during the first act, and once in the second. A sympathetic, enthusiastic audience was ’on side’ for the most part, though a longish pause in the first act drew a small slow handclap, and the second act breakdown drew one loud heckle that what we were watching was not so much a first preview as a dress rehearsal.”2 Yes, difficulties for shows will be worked out during previews, but they should not be so significant that the mistakes outweigh the performance—it is still a performance. While there have been a few positive words about the show around the Twitter, the main attraction of the production has been the four serious injuries and the major technical malfunctions of the production. A part of the “creative process”? For those people who go to shows for spectacle over substance, perhaps. But $120 for a story that one may or may not be able to piece together amidst the flash and the wreckage? Regardless of the cost to the production, previews should be discounted; if Broadway producers do not believe this is possible, they should return to workshop and out-of-town tryouts prior to bringing the show to New York.  Particularly as part of the tourist industry, the producers should consider the damage they are bringing to theatre (why go to Broadway and spend $120 to watch actors fall on their face, when I can see a $20 community production in my town that’s biggest flaw is that the sets look like cardboard?)  I spend close to $600 (including tickets, bus, hotel, and food) when I go see a Broadway show—give me good reasons to go down to New York (like Next to Normal, Fences, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening…).  When the show’s performances are cancelled because the show is nowhere near ready to be presented, what happens to the people who only budgeted enough time and money for this one trip?

This phenomenon does not limit itself to Broadway mega-musicals, however.  A recent production in Boston demonstrated that the “creative process” of the preview was an excuse to have a completely unprepared production and that $55 was an acceptable price to pay for this experience.  Huntington Theatre’s production of Vengeance is the Lord’s the majority of the actors visibly did not know their lines four performances prior to opening.  While this was a new script and some actors do take until the performance to have all of their lines memorized—this was a performance.  I stayed for the talk-back after the show not to uncover the enigmatic nuances of the performance, but to decipher what the story was even about with so many lines muddled.  Huntington’s response was “…each performance this week until Thursday’s has incorporated numerous line changes in order to ready the production for this Friday’s Opening…”.  If this was the only problem, then the actors should not have been in any better shape to perform the show than they were on the preview night that I attended.  Most major changes should not be made during previews, but during the regular rehearsal process.  At some point, there has to be a goal to be reaching for or the play will never have a clear vision; when theatres decide to show their performance to the public, they should be at the point where the production can stand strong on its feet and make minor adjustments as the previews head to opening night.  Yes, many theatre buffs might enjoy sharing feedback and seeing the development of the play, but the question remains:  is it worth the price of the tickets?

Perhaps that is not the correct question; are theatres using the correct term?  Some theatres that specialize in new plays go through a workshop process where everyone involved knows the show may not end up looking anything like the original product.  If a theatre wants to bring in outsiders to provide feedback:    there is an audience for this type of production:  students. They are more opinionated, less polite, and more enthusiastic about the process; they are also the ones who are looking for the new styles and inventions that will draw them to become patrons in the future.  The problem is the price.  If tickets were significantly reduced for “workshops”, major flaws could be worked out in that setting that is not expected to have a performance even close to performance standards.  For $50-200 previews, theatres are going to get the same people who may enjoy the “creative process”, but may also be used to the “process” that they are not really looking critically at the production and helping the production to evolve.  Economically, this would benefit the theatre by providing more ticket sales (I am not saying to cut the preview performances) even if it just a small amount.

Not all theatres suffer from a prolonged “creative process”, however.  Trinity Rep, Hartford Stage, New Rep, and other theatres that have preview performances that still maintain quality while allowing actors to get comfortable and to fix minor problems.  As someone who has had a “preview performance” subscription, I can say beyond a reasonable doubt that they can and should still merit a competent performance for the audience.  Preview performances can be a saving grace for theatre lovers that cannot afford the exorbitant prices of main performances.  My only advice before buying tickets is to find out the theatre’s philosophy on previews (if possible) and follow the maxim “caveat emptor”. TNETG.  12/27/10.




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