It’s happened twice now, at two entirely different kinds of performances. The first time was before a dodgy, early-January preview of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The second was just this past weekend, at a concert staging of the new Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical, The Nightingale, at Vassar College.
Before both performances, a well-meaning member of the production staff got up, addressed the audience not about the show itself, but about what people were saying about the show. In the former case, a producer essentially asked the audience, among other things, to stop listening to all the negative press the show was getting, because it was clearly all a crock. In the latter, the audience was asked, point blank but in a way that was intended to be nice, not to blog or tweet or otherwise converse on the internet about what they were about to see.
The messages were different, but the goals in both cases were the same: to control the discourse about the show beyond the walls of the theater. Their logic, in both cases, was that the work onstage was new, in development, and somehow “unready” for critical analysis.
In light of that, I would like to beg everyone on earth who makes theater: Can we please just fucking stop this?
As an audience member. As someone who loves theater. As someone who has a head on my shoulders that is capable of independent critical thought. I’m positively begging. Because I don’t want to hear it anymore. Here’s why.
It’s wrecking my theater experience.
Pre-show instructions about how and when I am to discuss the art that I’m about to see is more than just a basic drag. It’s an imposition on how I think and communicate. I had my first blog when I was 16. I’ve been tweeting for four years. These technologies are part of the intrinsic fabric of my life. Artists have a lot to say about their “process.” These technologies are an integral part of mine.
To tell me not to blog is essentially telling me not to think. Or not to chat with my friends. It’s telling me to enjoy theater in a vacuum. It’s also telling me to enjoy art in a way that is only useful to the artist. At The Nightingale, the point was clear: The creators used the audience at Vassar to test new scenes and songs. The audience’s reactions to those scenes and songs helped to determine whether they’d stay in the show.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But please don’t act like my thoughts and reactions to the piece somehow belong to you and not me. Or, in the case of Spider-Man, please don’t assume that I’m incapable of evaluating the bad press—or understanding the preview process—for myself.
The other thing that gets in my craw about all this production-side audience intervention is that it destroys the basic fun of going to the theater. Theater is a dream. Musicals in particular, in the day and age when they’re competing for my entertainment dollars with broadband cable, a Katy Perry concert, and Six Flags Great Escape, offer the most precious and precarious kind of belief suspension. Please let me enjoy that without disclaimer or interruption, and in a way that lets the work—not the misguided fears of producers, or jittery PR departments—speak for itself.
That I paid for my tickets in both cases is important, but that point has been made ad nauseum and clearly theater producers don’t care. As Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark so beautifully illustrated, the show’s creators were happy to take your money and then blame you for the show’s failures. Check out Julie Taymor’s recent interviews for proof.
Here at The Craptacular, we do our best to only review shows that are open, and open to the public. In the few times we’ve breached that policy, we’ve done it carefully, and with more consideration than is probably necessary for a blog. That’s only fair, and is as much a part of critical formality as it is deference to artistic process. But in the case of The Nightingale, that may very well be the show’s loss. I know that our readers care a lot about a new Duncan Sheik musical. And who knows if this show will ever be produced anywhere else? Like most fledgling musicals, it may never get near a Broadway stage. Maybe this was our one chance to tell you something about it. Guess you’ll never know. (Unless you want to grab coffee this weekend…)
As a blogger and an audience member, I straddle a weird line. But this is the future of theater, baby, so all the producers and audience-dev types, all the PR mavens and the marketing gurus, I have a message for you: Get used to it. We are not going away. Your audience is only going to get louder, and savvier, and they will embrace the newest technology before you will.
You can’t control the message. Now stop waking me up from my sweet dream. This one in particular is pretty awesome. I mean, Michael Esper is in it…