Reviewing Previews… why?

An interesting topic has come up a bunch lately: Critics reviewing preview performances.

Here’s my two cents on the topic:

I don’t get it. I don’t get why it would happen.

I mean – sure, if it’s the final preview when things are essentially done being worked on as “new ideas” and you’re sliding into a rhythm with the piece that everyone’s agreed is final, then, fine. If, in a large city, your review must come out the next day, then go ahead and go to a final preview. Shows that require great reviews to run or close (usually commercial productions) need the (hopefully) big boost on Opening Night so, sure, see the final preview so you can get your review printed immediately after Opening.

But an early preview? First preview? Why would you do that?

A preview performance is, by definition, a piece of work that is having the final finishing touches put on it. This is understood by audiences – the finishing touches happen, in theatre, when that final element is added – the audience.

Yes, the play is essentially done. However, changes can be made! This is the part of the cooking process where the chef says “I have a new recipe I’ve made! I’m testing it – here, taste!” and everyone tastes it, gives their opinions, and the chef heads into the kitchen for a couple of tweaks to the soup. He’s using his taste-testing audience to make it as good as he can, taking their thoughts and experiences with the food and making it as close to perfect as he can make it.

That’s what a preview performance is. That’s why it costs a bit less, and why we invite folks to stick around for a conversation to share their thoughts and experiences with us. We have a few more precious hours of rehearsal available to put those thoughts and experiences to good use!

Would a food critic go into a nice, upscale restaurant and order food, but walk into the kitchen 10 minutes before the food is served to have a bite? Would he taste the entree that’s fully cooked, but missing the chef’s final seasonings, and write a review of that?

No, I believe that would not happen.

It wouldn’t happen, because it would be a disservice.

A disservice to the critic. To the public they serve. To the artist.

The same thing is true for reviewing early preview performances of a play.

It’s work that’s close, but not yet finished. Does reviewing that serve the art? No. Is commenting on that, is critiquing that, helpful or useful to the critic, the audience, the art, the industry, the artist?

No. I don’t believe it is.

Now, to be fair, there are reviewers who, because of busy schedules, will come to a review and A) acknowledge in their review that they saw a work in progress, and B) not slam the production because, quite frankly, they know that they haven’t really SEEN the production yet. Not the finished product, anyway. To them I would say A) Thanks for not being unkind to an unfinished product and B) Thanks for caring enough to come at all, and C) Come later whenever you can – you’ll have a better experience, and it’ll be better overall for everyone involved: You, Us, The Audience, The Art, The Industry.

Because, ultimately, the best experience for everyone is what it’s all about, right?

2 Replies to “Reviewing Previews… why?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more
    I’m with you 100% on this, Tony.
    It’s my (which means OUR) policy NEVER to review a preview performance – and for exactly the reasons you outline.
    The only time I’ll make an exception is because of schedule problems – that is, it’s just impossible to make it to an “official” performance. (I think we’ve had a few occasions over the years when we had four or five openings on the same weekend and all were three-week shows. So to cover them all, we hit a preview.) But on the rare occasion we do this, it’s noted in the review. And yes, we WILL “overlook” the obvious snafu or two that we know will be fixed by opening night.
    A review should discuss the experience a theatergoer can expect if and when they attend that specific show. So why any critic would want to discuss “a work in progress” is beyond me. It doesn’t do ANYONE any good: the theater, the audience OR the critic (who may end up looking like an idiot, but that wouldn’t be the first time).

    1. Re: I couldn’t agree more
      Thanks, Don – I appreciate your thoughts. (Especially on a topic that hits close to home for someone in your position!)
      I, of course, wasn’t calling anyone out on the issue, but it’s a discussion I’ve had a few times lately with folks, and so it was on my mind as we went through our previews for Gamma Rays.
      We’ve been really lucky the last few years at the Williamston Theatre, we’ve built up a very solid group of audience members who enjoy coming to our previews and participating in that process. I’m glad, because that’s one of my favorite parts of bringing a play to the stage!

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