About Me

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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Completed Vision

Charles Isherwood dives into the "to review or not to review Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark in previews" discussion with this blog post on the New York Times.

He writes a defense of the practice of withholding reviews of Broadway previews in this way:

"...if a critic’s job is to assess the total merits of a work of art – or at least a gaudy chunk of entertainment – reason also argues that the entertainment should be allowed to achieve the completed form its creators had envisioned before judgment is rendered. Painters do not show their work until they have deemed it finished, although the undiscerning eye (and even discerning ones) might not be able to tell the difference between a finished Jackson Pollock and an unfinished one. Film companies run test screenings of uncompleted films to see how they fare with the public.

Works of theater are, thanks to the preview process, vulnerable to early public assessment. But if anything they are more in need of extended gestation. They don’t properly live until their metabolism has been tested, and almost always tweaked, by interaction with a live audience. Lines of dialogue, bits of business, even whole scenes that seem surefire in rehearsal can fall flat when they meet the objective eye of an impartial audience. For this reason the preview period can be viewed, at least from an aesthetic perspective, as the crucial fine-tuning process that can sometimes make or break a new play or musical. And with the price tag of production a musical on Broadway now in the tens of millions of dollars – “Spider-Man” has set a new record at $65 million – the possibility of employing the once-standard out-of-town tryout to work out the kinks in a show is rarely financially viable."

Isherwood notes that with price tags this high, producers who hope to recoup their investment must get Broadway priced tickets sold as quickly as possible - a dubious defense of charging over $100 a ticket for a show that is (by his own words) unfinished and not open to the press. In short, investors won't spend top dollar on a musical if unwitting or curious consumers can't be charged early and often.

The primary reason that Isherwood cites for not reviewing a production, though, (and I suspect he's ambivalent about it from the tone of the piece) is that theatrical performances need a chance to breathe and grow and find their footing in front of a live audience. "Reason argues" that a play should achieve the "completed form the creators had envisioned" before it is ethical to judge the work. The work, in essence, must be judged on it's best day, all the kinks worked out. A 'painting' should not be shown before the 'painter' deems it worthy.

His arguments are pretty straightforward and sound. All this hoopla about previews shouldn't be that remarkable. It is, after all, about an outlier: Spider-Man's producers are pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable to demand from the press and from audiences.

But, Mr. Isherwood's standard for when a play should be reviewed made my eyebrows go up. For hundreds of plays produced under the guidelines of the Showcase or Seasonal Codes all over New York City...the small, uncommercial works, the weird stuff, the "Indie" theater... that standard does not apply.

Plays with budgets as low as $20,000 can scant afford more than sets and a publicist and stipends for their Equity performers and rental costs. (For example, my production of Brandywine Distillery Fire at Incubator Arts Project cost around $12,000 for a two week run.) With that budget, they might even squeeze out some decent production values. They will receive a run of ... 25 performances? At their longest. If the New York Times or Time Out New York go to see them and review them, it is likely they will come to the very first or second public performance. Whatever benefit that these small productions might receive from months of extra work, whatever "completeness" they have yet to achieve before a reviewer check them out, is not in the budget.

The reason is just as financial for small producers as it is for Broadway producers. Smaller producers raise as much money as they can, use much of their own money as well, and they can't afford even a week of "previews" for a four week run. Instead, they get their plays up as quickly and cheaply as possible, trusting in their luck, in their perseverance and in the talent of those involved. They hope that a few good reviews will garner enough interest and paying customers to either broaden their industry profile or break even, or both.

These practitioners, I think it's safe to say, largely create works that can rival the artistic mert (if not the scale) of superhero musicals or dancing versions of feature films. Still, they are rarely reviewed at all, and when they are, they're given scant time to "achieve the completed form their creators [have] envisioned."

This isn't an argument that the New York Times, or any other major press, shouldn't come down below 34th Street or past 9th Avenue and see what there is to see. I'm glad they do, and I think they have shown they care a great deal for the theater created beyond the limits of Broadway. (I won't, though, go so far as to treat these Off-Off Broadway reviews as community service. A part of covering the arts is covering the arts.)

I'm also not arguing that a reviewers should use kid gloves with a production because it is making due with less. If a production is set before an audience for their time and attention, it should be judged as complete. Caveats in this area help no one, not the artist who is struggling to be heard, nor the critic who is making an assessment.

In short, I'm not decrying the treatment that Off-Off Broadway productions receive. I am highlighting this disparity to challenge the notion that those in previews have an unassailable right to create their "art" unmolested by the judgment of the press In fact, they have purchased that "right."

One could produce more than 3000 showcase code productions with the entire budget of the Turn Off The Dark. That doesn't mean people shouldn't spend money on Broadway- I honestly don't mind if a commercial producer raises funds for a commercial production and then tries to make that production a commercial success. What I object to is treating expensive public rehearsals as untouchable and holy, even as those of us who are making cultural artifacts for breadcrumbs are given far less time and room to breathe. If those of us with light wallets are expected to withstand the creaky process of a single dress rehearsal before a major reviewer stops by; I think a $65 million musical about a Marvel Comic book character directed by Julie Taymor with songs by Bono and the Edge...can withstand a few blog posts after several months of performances.

I think we all realize that these things are not equivalent, and that's the nature of the marketplace. All of us whose budgets consist of next-to-nothing still work overnight to bang sets together and throw our best at the critics, firm in the belief that they will see us on a good night, with generous hearts, and give us the legitimacy that won't come from pay. Heck, even if the New York Times shows up and gives us a swift kick in the ass, small productions know that we will have risen above the noise for a moment, and we're grateful for the amplification. If we fail to live up to our "ideal," sometimes it's a failure of imagination, sometimes of will, sometimes of resources. The preview option, though, is simply not in a tool in our toolbox.

That's why, I guess, I'm skeptical of the argument that defends previews as a way to serve Art with a capital "A." It feels more like an elaborate game of "Mother May I?" The standard mapped out ("never review the play until it's completed to the producer's satisfaction") is neither universally applied, nor could it be feasibly - at least not until the Showcase Code is adequately reformed. In the end, there's a brilliance to the profit model of charging your audience to watch you develop a show and keeping the press at bay as long as possible. Let's just not pretend that, in all cases, it's in service of more than protecting an investment. The rest of us aren't given such generous allowances.


Leigh Hile said...

This is a really interesting take on the whole preview debate, and one I hadn't considered. Although, now that you mention it, a very valid point. I spent most of my time reading this post thinking, "Heeyyy! Yeah!" So, thanks. I wish the NYT could see this response.

Unknown said...

I agree with Leigh. Please send this to the NYT as a letter to the editor--if you haven't already.

Brendan said...

Thanks for writing this article, Matthew. It made me think of how the lack of a "preview period" is true not only for the Off-Off-Broadway community, but also for many other performances in NYC, such as contemporary dance. Frequently, they have briefer runs than even an Off-Broadway show, and the more experimental / avant-garde may only perform for a week. Nonetheless, these performances and artists are a crucial part of the city´s community. They are on the edge, on the "fringe", taking chances. Why can´t these artists get reviewed more often, and more intelligently?

Also, independent theater around the world often does not have a preview period. Since living in Norway for the past 2.5 years, none of the independent theaters have previews, and none of the state-run / institutional theaters (whose deep pockets rival those of Broadway) have nearly the same length of runs as they do in NYC. Most plays here have a lifespan equal to or shorter than that of a typical preview-period on Broadway.

So, while Mr. Isherwood may bring up some valid points, it seems that this is only applicable to a very select segment of American and world theater practice. Surely the New York Times, representing the city´s theatrical culture as a whole, should have more critical articles written of all the work happening, not just the work done in midtown?

Brendan McCall
Founder & Artistic Director
Ensemble Free Theater Norway