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Stop Telling Me What to Think About Your Show: A Manifesto of Love and Annoyance

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…

{ 18 comments… add one }

  • Amanda July 12, 2011, 11:18 pm

    It also doesn’t show a terrible amount of confidence in the piece. Whatever happened to letting the work speak for itself? Saying “Ignore the bad press” or “don’t write about this,” just sounds like you know your show sucks. Ironically, the theatre bloggers who were there seemed to only have positive things to say. I feel like it would drive your point home even more if you just did that.

  • Esther July 12, 2011, 11:25 pm

    Great piece! People who make those announcements are living in a bygone era where they think they can control everything that’s said about their show. They can’t and they should just deal with it. I pay for my tickets with my hard-earned cash and I’ll tweet, blog or discuss your show wherever and whenever I feel like. The creative types should realize that we’re the people most interested in what they’re doing. Theatre is a niche and if you drive away your most loyal supporters, you do it at your peril.

  • Erica Sweeney July 12, 2011, 11:50 pm

    Frank Rich of the New York Times went and reviewed “Kiss of the Spider Woman” when it was at Purchase in June of 1990. This was over three years before the show made it’s debut on Broadway. One of the recommendations that Rich made in this review, was as follows:

    “What is needed in this role (the role of Aurora) … is a dazzling musical-comedy presence of the Chita Rivera sort who has always ignited the flashiest Kander and Ebb songs.”

    As we all know, Ms. Rivera won her second Tony in 1993 for staring in “Kiss of The Spider Woman”. The point that I am trying to make is that this was way before anyone knew of Twitter, Facebook, or blogging. While it is true that the immediate availability of information has drastically changed our world, this is something that has happened in the past. Sometimes, it is not entirely a bad thing either. Maybe if the producers of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” had bothered to actually listen to some of the criticism that their show was receiving, (as Kander and Ebb may have done with Frank Rich) it might be a better show now. Instead of constantly trying to discount the opinions of critics, why not embrace them sometimes?

  • SJB July 13, 2011, 9:28 am

    It reminds me of when studios don’t allow their films to be seen to critics before the release. Whenever I see that, I just assume the movie sucks and stay away.

  • The Mayoress July 13, 2011, 10:29 am

    Excellent editorial. “I would like to beg everyone on earth who makes theater: Can we please just fucking stop this?” I’d like to add – any pre-show announcement that says anything other than “turn of your %^%&* phone” is too much & distracts from the art.

    @Erica – I love that idea, a sort of crowdsourcing of theater… you’re on to something….!

  • Scot Colford July 13, 2011, 11:38 am

    Wow. Thanks for putting this out there! It’s a veritable Cluetrain Manifesto for the theatre and I’m glad I can spread it around on social media, unlike my thoughts about that lab production I saw last season…

  • Seth Christenfeld July 13, 2011, 12:35 pm

    They’ve been saying that as Vassar for a few years now, to which I say, if you’re going to charge me for the tickets, I have every right to talk about what I saw.

  • gdouma July 13, 2011, 3:48 pm

    I have to strongly disagree with some of these comments. I would suggest that the pre-show remarks are not there to “tell you what to think” but to give you a context for the work you are about to see. Some productions are still works in progress, and it is reasonable and fair to tell the audience that at the outset. So, if the work is rough, you, the audience member, will understand that you aren’t seeing it in its final, most polished form.

    Likewise, if you are planning to express a public opinion about what you’ve seen, it’s reasonable and responsible of you, the writer/blogger, to let your readers know that the performance you are writing about is not the work in its finished form.

    It simply isn’t fair to hold a preview performance to the same standard of polish as the performances that happens after opening night. The whole point of previews is to continue working out the kinks. The result of those previews can be changes in design, staging, script, costumes, indeed, almost anything. In the case of a brand new work getting its first public airing, it is entirely possible, even likely, that changes will be made throughout the entire run. That’s precisely how new works get made!

    Also, the quality of the work shouldn’t be judged on whether or not you were charged admisison to attend. Charging admission for preview performances (or works-in-progress or staged readings) is something theaters do so they can afford to develop new works. And having an audience in place for a preview helps the writer, the composer, the actors, the musicians, the designers and the stage crew all know what is working and what is not.

    If you want to blog about theater, then do it with a full understanding of the process for developing new works, so you aren’t making harsh judgements about new works out of context. And while you’re at it, why not also use your writing to help your readers understand that all new works evolve, that previews and staged readings are part of that evolution, and that harsh judgements made too soon in the process may prevent people from seeing something that turns out to be wonderful.

  • Spencer July 13, 2011, 4:00 pm


    If you buy the tickets, then you are under no obligation for any reason not to state what you liked/disliked about the show. I don’t care when you saw it, previews or not, they don’t get to say. I will respect their wishes if they give me a press ticket, because that is the respectful thing to do, but I paid over $100 bucks to see Spiderman and you better damn believe it that I’m going to write what I thought.

    Even if they asked me not to tweet or blog about the show in their pre-show announcement, I probably would still tweet and blog about it. Not out of disrespect, but because it’s silly to ask that in this day and age.

    And my other big gripe with all of this, is the “theatre world” (especially Broadway) still doesn’t count us bloggers as “real news” or “real publications”. They don’t want to offer us tickets (though in the last couple of years it has been getting better), but they blame us (speaking of Julie Taymor and others) for their demise of their show. HA!

    I can’t say this enough:

    IF YOUR SHOW SUCKS BALLS THEN IT SUCKS BALLS. Word will get out, eventually, regardless if you ask us bloggers/tweeters not to say anything. I mean come on!

  • Spencer July 13, 2011, 4:01 pm

    By the way, excellent post. When you told me about that, I was thinking about writing a post myself, but haven’t had the time, so thanks for writing it! It’s fantastic!

  • Cara July 13, 2011, 5:38 pm

    In my experience, a bad review isn’t the end all, be all of a show. Depending on the show, I’ll give it a chance anyway. Sometimes (a LOT of times) I disagree with critics anyway. But if a show feels the need to defend itself that makes me think that they probably think it sucks too…which makes me think I probably don’t want to see it either.

  • Rennie Araucto July 13, 2011, 5:49 pm

    There’s a different way to look at the announcements. Dialogue is healthy, of course but editorializing is not dialogue and posting a review of a work in progress, when the show will still undergo a lot of changes often leads to skewing a potential audiences perception of what the show could be. Dialogue is great between two people who have seen the show but blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, etc., are not dialogue, they are editorials that allow for follow on commentary. And people faced with a negative review (and who have not seen the show) will more often take it at face value than start presuming that the show was good and the editorial is just an opinion.

    Todays shows face greater financial challenges than ever before and managing perception is an incredibly important part of marketing. Consider that even some of the best shows out therese have to close too early because people’s wallets are small and budgets are high. Theres power in the statement “I haven’t seen the show but I heard it wasn’t very good.”. People take that at face value.

  • Erin Merritt July 14, 2011, 2:03 am

    This goes right back to what I always say when I’m asked why I don’t do previews—once an audience is there, it’s a performance. Period. You might still want to adjust things—that’s up to you—but it’s a public event as soon as you let in the public. You want buzz if it’s positive; therefore you must accept the negative buzz as well. Speech is still free in this country, and if the show isn’t ready, then you shoudn’t show it to general audiences. This “preview” mentality is diluting the art anyway—it’s like focus grouping everything. Bring in a trusted friend or two, tweak to your heart’s content for years for all I care, but once you ask me to pay to see something, I can say anything I want about it.

  • Demetrius July 14, 2011, 2:36 am

    I agree that addressing the audience, in general, takes a person out of the “rush” feeling at the very beginning of a live theater experience. I don’t even like the appeal for donations or even “turn off your cell phones” announcements. I think this should be stated in the lobby, or, if in the theater, just a silent sign of some sort. These producers are making a mistake to ask audience not to talk of their experiences. I understand why, as we are all hyper-media-to-death, and well all want to be first with our opinion on FB and Twitter. But nonetheless, they shouldn’t limit audience expression. Frankly, there’s just too much “trying out” and previews these days. Just make a show and deal with the outcome. I know money is tight, but really, have some faith in your creativity.
    I don’t agree with your point about Julie Taymor, however. I think she wasn’t blaming the audience, just that with those electronic expressions that creating a theater piece under the microscope is harder than when it’s got thousands of more mini-reviews before it’s considered “complete.”
    To me, as one NY Times writer put it after seeing a reading revival of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, with the late-great Uta Hagen, the beauty of theater is in it’s impermanence. These days, even theater lives on in the micro-opinions of millions . . . and it’s perceived greatness or failure can be less about it’s actual performance than reputation.

  • Lisa July 14, 2011, 8:40 am

    Well said! Especially as some of us don’t live in or near NYC but are huge supporters of theatre. When I DO manage to make it to the city, how would I know that such things as The Nightingale are even around if not for you guys?!!!! 😉 After all, I might not have ever found the naked picture of Steel if it weren’t for you, and what a loss THAT would have been!

  • Gabriela July 27, 2011, 7:58 pm

    No publicity is bad publicity. No more to say.

  • Paul July 31, 2011, 10:50 am

    I hate even the announcements about candy wrappers and cell phones. Besides, they don’t seem to work very well, as I continue to hear ring tones and crinkles.

    People can talk about a show. How can they not? However, these announcements take place because commentators on the theater–critics, reporters, bloggers, or tweeters–no longer adhere to the theatrical etiquette of a preview.

    Theater artists need previews because they need an audience before they really can call their work “done.” By letting audiences in early, they can get a better sense of what works and what might need work. And ultimately, we all benefit. Certain people get a sneak preview, and can claim they “saw it when,” and ideally, the work on opening night is stronger for it.

    Previews used to be out of town, where entire acts were written, songs replaced and moved, and even titles change. Unfortunately, production costs have forced them to be largely in New York now.

    Theatrical etiquette, if you will, has always been that reviews don’t happen until a show “opens.” And these days, reviews can be not only in newspapers and magazines, but also, radio, TV, blogs, and even tweets. As such, bloggers should adhere to those guidelines.

    The sad fact is though, they don’t. It was appalling to see how many critics wrote about “Spider-Man” before it opened. Some might argue that it had been running long enough. However, it hadn’t “opened.” What was the big deal about waiting? Word of mouth remained the same: audiences were staying away because of it or drawn in because of it. However, the review is supposed to be a commentary on the final product.

    So, anyone with any type of media outlet needs to hold up their end of the bargain. If they don’t, then theater artists become even less bold, and forget about producers, the ones who worry about the money.

    What happened to civility? I’d like to think that we who are in, about, and for the theater could retain it while we see it crumble elsewhere in media, government, and day-to-day life.

  • cgeye August 28, 2011, 2:53 am

    Wow. Spider-man’s preview period was the longest in Broadway history, with tickets above $100, and I’m supposed to feel sorry about producers willing to fleece audiences unlucky enough *not* to read blogs and articles about the disaster in progress?

    Po’ lil’ holes in the wall that are Doing The Best They Can is one thing, but inferior product being shilled by multinational corporations using Broadway as a write-off is another. Covering for their mistakes is repugnant, and bloggers and Tweeters should use every tool in their arsenal to expose the damage done to the craft.

    As for civility, that’s a whine used by “our betters” to hide the frauds and thefts in progress. Fuck that noise — I’ll be angry when it’s justified, and I hope the bloggers I read hold nothing back.

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