On disappointment

February 11, 2011

Good morning all.

How did you sleep? Good, I hope?

Now. Last night I was pretty angry. As soon as I could I sat down at my laptop, flexed my fingers and drafted a very stern, very peevish response to a one monsieur Trueman’s article in the Guardian claiming that ”bloggers MUST stop this cynical practice of reviewing previews”. Needless to say, said draft contained lines such as ‘steaming pile of pretension’ and ‘Daily-Mail-esque’, so with hindsight, I’m perhaps glad that I slept a little before hitting ‘publish’.

And yet…I find myself awake and still, to an extent, peeved and disappointed, and moved enough to respond. Not, as some will think, because I’m annoyed he took a swipe at bloggers. No, actually. Annoyed because I know him to be a smart individual and a writer of high calibre. So why, I have to ask, would he willfully misunderstand an entire microcosm, an entire community within theatre and write something so shot through with mis-perception and untruth?

Gee. Couldn’t be to, um, chase those hits, could it? Nah. Cause, that’d be ‘cynical’ right?  To court a little controversy, to target a group of people he knows will take the time and effort to respond when riled in order to bump up the viewer stats?

Surely not.

Well, that aside here is the one thing out of Matt’s whole article that I agree with him on: the fact that previews are a useful tool for theatre companies in gauging the heights, breadths and depths their productions have reached during rehearsals, tech and dress.

I don’t agree that bloggers should stop reviewing previews, and here’s why. I’m looking at it with a background in all industries here; I know the growth and process of a show intimately (as Matt also does), I’ve trained as a journalist, and – here’s where Matt falls down – I’ve worked in social media long enough to understand the blogosphere very well.

Let’s start with the obvious: the audience of a blog. As much as we who are surgically attached to our computers would love to think, most of the world isn’t deeply acquainted with a blogging community. Some will skim in and out and have a few favourites, others will know the breadth of blogs on a single topic, others, like myself, will have a google reader so full they can never fully clear it without a Red Bull energy shot and a sleepless weekend. The point is, a blogger’s audience is often very different from a mainstream news outlet’s and, unless you’re say, the Whingers, if you’re reading a theatre blog it’s likely because you have a modicum of theatre interest and knowledge. This is a wide generalisation but I hold that it’s true. Most bloggers are not so skilled in SEO that they can force their reviews to the top of the Google pile within the 24 hour period between their blogging a preview and the press night review of say, The Standard or The Stage.

So. We have our audience for these theatre preview reviews. Someone who knows a little about theatre, has enough brainpower to have searched and found said blog, or perhaps follows said blog’s RSS feed. Can we then infer that the reader then has enough brains to know that a preview is just that? Or that this is theatre, not the cinema, and as such experience is likely to differ from night to night, from audience to audience, from curtain up to curtain down? I’d like to think so. I’d like to give readers the benefit of the doubt. I get the impression, however, that Matt doesn’t want to bestow the readers of these blogs with any such intelligence or admit they may have enough prior knowledge to allow them to read the preview review as it should be read.

Secondly, I take issue with lines such as:

“To write about any performance is to concretise it. It is to hold up an instance as representative of all others”

Prettily written Matt, but actually it’s not. To write is to concretise the performance and moment experienced. As in that moment. As in, not any other night but that one. Someone who hasn’t even a vague understanding of theatre and who picked up a copy of the Metro or the Evening Post may think that this review is representative of anything other than what one person has experienced on one night, may think as you do Matt, but I’d like to give more people the benefit of the doubt.

“Audiences can vote with their wallets; if the discount offered (or not) is not recompense enough, then wait until after opening night”

Easy enough to say when your tickets are free, hey Matt? I’d argue that any price paid that is more that £00.00 means someone is perfectly within their rights to talk about what they have just seen on stage. I’m not the only one who thinks that too.

Thirdly, I’d hold that theatre companies should see blogs of previews as part of the learning curve – as more in-depth response to the show than the call-and-answer of a performer and his audience can give you during a preview show. Start a dialogue with the blogger – see them as an audience member who cares enough to write about their experience, because that is exactly what they are. People who love something enough to talk about it online, which is no different to people who loved or hated something enough telling all their friends that they loved or hated something enough.

Fourthly, given my background in social media PR, I’d hold that theatre companies should embrace bloggers and learn where their intrinsic value lies rather than dismissing them…but this is the age-old (and now incredibly boring) blogger/critic debate, not to mention – as Ian from Ought to Be Clowns does – that some theatres are wising up to this.

Fifthly, another issue with Matt’s article – aside from the superior tone of the whole thing – is that he, essentially, did nothing but whinge. How about you offer a realistic solution Matt other than “stop writing about preview shows even though they may be the only show you can get tickets to/afford to get tickets to”?

Here’s one off the top of my head: bloggers, don’t stop writing about previews, but perhaps we could make it uniform policy to include a better disclaimer in the blog post that it was indeed a preview performance? In the same way fashion bloggers in America are bound to disclose when an item they’re writing about was gifted to them by a company. This is reasonable, no? You still write, theatre companies are mollified (to an extent) that anybody reading your review will know that this is the almost-finished-but-not-quite version of the performance, and even a reader with no theatrical experience, who stumbled upon your blog, knows what the difference is. I’d say, a nice little compromise.

Phew. That was a long and laborious breakdown, congrats if you made it this far – a cup of tea is obviously deserved. I feel there is even more to say, but other bloggers have said it so succinctly, that my repetition would be unnecessary. Scuse me, think I hear the kettle whistling…

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