Blogging and previews (in response to Matt Trueman)
Matt Trueman’s Guardian blog regarding the etiquette of bloggers reviewing previews has proved to be incredibly provocative – both the original article and Twitter have been alive with responses from critics, bloggers, theatre makers and punters seemingly either agreeing with his views or suggesting he’s deposed Hosni Mubarak as Public Enemy Number One.
Both as a theatre maker and as a blogger who doesn’t write reviews, I have huge respect for those who do – and who spend their own hard-earned cash to see a show through choice and then let others know their opinions. ‘Opinions’ is a key word here when dealing with bloggers; by-and-large, bloggers aren’t driven by an agenda to serve a particular audience or readership like professional reviewers are – and I think this is where Matt’s choice of incendiary phrases such as “the cynical practice of reviewing previews” has led to people taking exception and focusing on the apparent divide between blogging and professional criticism. The bloggers I’ve met reviews shows because they love theatre, and enjoy analysing and commenting on what they watch; they’re not driven by a cynical motivation to get hits to their site and to trump professional critics. There are undoubtedly some out there who do want to be the first to break the stories about how good/bad a show is, but I’d say it’s their right to do so as they will be paying for the chance to see a show – not getting comps and canapés at the interval like the critics.
That being said, critics should not be seen as the enemies of the blogosphere. The likes of Matt himself and Ian Shuttleworth engage with bloggers and actively encourage their practice, and more people writing about shows sees a richer ecology of critical dialogue – which should serve both audiences and theatre makers well. The internet also has the benefit of archiving previous reviews, so readers can read back to see what a blogger or critic has enjoyed, and can see if their taste matches their own – if not, then they can read another review and repeat the process until they feel they’ve found a voice they can trust. In addition, I’d argue it’s highly unlikely that someone would do a Google search for a show and only read one review; with so many options at their fingertips, then why wouldn’t they read two or three? Obviously where a site appears on a search engine will often mean that only the highest ranked sites may be read, but it’s possible to manipulate page rankings so a blogger can feature higher in the results – and more power to those who understand the system and how best to work it in their favour.
So, to the issue Matt raised – the practice of reviewing previews. From my experience, a large number of blogs out there do (or are beginning to) indicate when they’ve seen a preview, which does go some way to helping balance things out – but when venues and producers continue to charge high prices for such performances whilst being happy to put out an unfinished product, the consumer should have the right to reply before the critics. I’ve witnessed a large, international touring company cut an hour of a painfully long and poor show during previews, with the difference in price between these shows and after Opening Night being negligible – if they wanted the previews to allow them to discover dramaturgical problems with their show (not technical issues, I hasten to add), then how can they justify charging almost full price?
I think it’s perfectly valid for bloggers to review previews, but at the same time there is a right for theatre makers to request they understand the fact that a show isn’t the finished article; what we need is a truce, even an uneasy one. In a couple of response I’ve seen Matt use the phrase “the right to write does not mean it’s right to write, but it’s not his (or anyone else’s) place to say that – the point of blogging is that it gives people a platform to say what they want, when they want. If writing about previews is an issue which is causing problems for the theatre world, then ultimately it is the responsibility of theatre makers to find a way to discourage such writing or to find a solution – not that of the bloggers; the power lies in their hands, as they are the ones making the decision to put out a production which may not be finished, and to charge for the privilege.
Personally, I’d happily invite an audience (including bloggers) to see a preview of a show I’d produced at a reduced price, in order to find out what did and didn’t work before Opening Night; bloggers can provide a level of input which supports ‘professional’ criticism, and which can allow considered and in-depth feedback before the critics with a wider readership come in and potentially make or break a production with their reviews. Everyone has a right to comment on a piece of work they’ve seen – be it in conversation, on a blog/podcast or standing on the top of a hill and shouting about it – but if the theatre world can be more open about what they are presenting, then at least the bloggers can bear this in mind when writing their reviews without feeling misled.
I know this could be a debate which could run and run, so feel free to disagree with anything I’ve said and I’ll willingly respond.