I was wary of posting this response to Matt Trueman’s theatre blog "Theatre bloggers must leave previews alone", a draft sat on my laptop for a good few hours yesterday as I tried to make sense of the wilfully provocative rhetoric and the sentiments that lay behind its writing. Ostensibly a defence of the preview period as part of the creative process, it soon moves onto yet another attack on bloggers and their conduct. I could have refined it, clarified some of the points I struggle to make, but it came out of me fairly stream-of-consciousness-like yesterday lunchtime and so whilst I’ve separated it into two main strands, this is me speaking pretty much unedited from the gut.
There is a debate to be had about the ethical responsibilities around preview performances, but Trueman does not pursue this fully despite it being the set-up for the article. In focusing so hard on and damning the bloggers, an amorphous community who act as one for the benefit of this argument apparently, whilst simultaneously skating over those same responsibilities also held by the producers, the theatres, the PR companies, the actors even, the argument is fatally undermined. The actions of all the key players need to be interrogated and challenged in order for this issue to be truly understood and dealt with in a manner that can then be addressed.
Take a theatre like the Almeida: nowhere on the website are previews mentioned, nor on the tickets you receive, yet the process of a press night a few shows into the run is still observed. Their social media team regularly tweets audience quotes and yes, blog reviews, from the very first show. Yet they do not come in for the same level of opprobrium here even though it does not square with the idea of radio silence argued for. What element of silence should be, or indeed can be, enforced during these preview periods when theatres themselves are publicising feedback from audiences?
PR teams are wising up to the realities of a world in which social media is playing an ever-larger part. Invitations have been proffered to blogger nights, as opposed to press nights, and in some cases the former has taken place before the latter. What then, should the invitation be declined because “theatre bloggers must leave previews alone”? When people involved with the show itself have issued that invitation?
And whilst I am not a creative, others will doubtless provide that perspective, I find it hard to agree with the idea that sums of money close to full ticket price can be charged for a show that is considered “unfinished”. Once a financial transaction takes place, there is a responsibility to the audience which surely has to supersede the creative process unless there are serious changes made to the way in which they are advertised and priced.
I don’t think there are any easy answers to any of these things and it may be (almost certainly will be) that different strategies work better for different people, theatres and shows and I applaud those theatres and companies that taking this issue by the scruff of the neck and trying out new and different ways of dealing with this challenge. This is a subject that really is worth debating sensibly, but free from the sneering attitude towards bloggers that permeates the original blog.
It must be nice to live in a world where the savings made on preview tickets don’t mean a thing to you: for the record, that would be £90 for two tickets at each of the last three shows at the Olivier to pluck a random example. Multiplied over a year of regular theatre-going, it does make a difference. And as for chasing hits, it cannot be denied that it is nice to have a lot of people read a blog-post, thereby satisfying the early demand and this is something I have been quite open about, but to suggest that this is foremost in my mind whilst getting up early when booking periods open and websites crash regularly under the demand, spending evening after evening (and some afternoons) in the theatre and then using the spare time left over to write up reviews whilst working a regular job, who’s the cynical one there? Corinne at Distant Aggravation articulates these points, and others, in a wonderfully eloquent post here which is well worh a read.
This condescending attitude takes its worst form though in the assumption that bloggers “want the same regard as critics” as if every blogger is a wannabe professional critic. Every week it feels like one critic or another is laying into bloggers for what they are or aren’t, for what they write or don’t write as if one has to be defined by the other. I have a job thank you very much, blogging is my hobby and this site is my personal record of what I’ve seen. I am quite clear about who I am, a regular audience member writing about his experiences doing the thing he loves the most, watching theatre. That others choose to read and share what I write is a genuine honour for me, and the key word there is ‘choose’, no one is forcing people to read this blog. And let’s be honest, for all the talk of influence or power that is mentioned and the consequential responsibility, there is a relatively limited amount of people who actually read this blog no matter how high it might appear in a Google search and I would wager that very few of them would confuse this with a formal, professional reviewing site.
Critics come to their work from a world of huge experience and knowledge, I don’t have that nor do I pretend to; there’s a discipline to critical writing that I do not have, nor do I crave. I choose to write in an informal, accessible, sometimes rambling style because I can and that is how I express myself and I would hope that any respect that I might happen to garner would actually stem from that rather than from a direct comparison with professional critics. And though you dismiss it so easily, the fact is is that you are pretty much saying that bloggers ought to observe the same professional etiquette as critics whilst receiving none of the attendant benefits. Will you ever hear a critic talk about the experience of paying £70 to sit in a restricted view seat or having to put up with the worst seat in the house: no, because different briefs are being fulfilled and you know what, in the end, that is absolutely fine. On blogs, in the theatre industry, as in life: respect and regard cannot be demanded of people, it is earned through hard work, the demonstration of your passion and, let us not forget, the way in which you treat other people in the world, no matter where you perceive their position to be.
So Mr Trueman, you get what you wanted: you raised the red flag and I duly charged and I thank you for your condescension, it serves to define how I am perceived by some and I’m grateful for that. But to point the finger so definitively at bloggers and to maintain such a myopic view of the multitude of factors and responsibilities for all concerned that swirl around this issue of previews is more than just a little irresponsible and does the industry that you obviously care so passionately about a great disservice.