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Shenton's View

Press night confusions and conflicts

As this blog is part of an industry-orientated media company, which reports, supports and assists the theatre business, I make no apologies for occasionally using it to cover matters that relate to what happens inside it that are usually hidden from public view.

The public, for instance, don’t and won’t really care about how exactly critics go about their business; yet there are, of course, finely tuned mechanisms for how managements and the press interact. We (the theatre press) don’t exist without the work they put on; yet they need and want us, too, presumably, to let the world know that their shows are happening at all.

Of course, the dark arts of marketing, and the more transparent workings of social media, mean that traditional media outlets are becoming less central, and you may occasionally detect a note of anxiety amongst those of us who write about the theatre for a living (and not just a hobby) that the writing’s on the (Facebook) wall for us instead of in print.

We have to adapt or die, and keep pace with the changes. It’s why, for example, I have embraced Twitter so keenly. But we also need to defend the territory, and watch out for the (sometimes not so) subtle ways that it is being re-defined.

Just last week I pointed out one way here, with a new attempt being made to control when reviews are actually published. This coming Thursday a new production of Hay Fever opens at the Noel Coward Theatre, but an embargo on of any reviews appearing has been placed until the completion of four invited press performances first.

Suddenly, what would have been the opening night is no longer one, but a “gala night” instead — but it has the trappings of a traditional opening, given its earlier starting time of 7pm (the traditional first night start time to enable overnight critics to get away sooner, and the post-performance party festivities to begin earlier); they are duly holding those festivities that night; and are no doubt inviting celebrity and other non-review press coverage of the occasion, too.

After my blog appeared, I wrote to the show’s producer Matthew Byam Shaw to voice my concerns at this apparent contradiction of holding a first night but requesting reviews not run, and he patiently replied explaining the timetabling pressures that had led to this decision with a clash at the Young Vic of another high-profile production on the same night (in fact, it was an even higher-profile one given that it stars Patrick Stewart, even if this is actually the third time he has starred in the same play).

“We had to go with the Monday embargo to ensure the best possible coverage for the play, otherwise reviews would clash with Bingo and trickle out over several days if we also opened on the Thursday”, he stated.

The aim to “ensure the best possible coverage for the play” is entirely understandable, but it also suggests a new rule of engagement to control when and how the reviews are distributed, which is not ultimately in the gift of a producer. The danger is that critics will end up at the beck and call of producers who wish to arbitrarily change the rules all the time, to suit their own timetabling and publicity convenience.

Mind you, here’s a producer who, through the offices of their appointed press agent, is at least still trying to invite the press to their show at all, and not deliberately keep us out. Zach Braff’s All New People, by comparison, begins performances in the West End tomorrow night, and utter confusion seems to be reigning as to if and when they are even holding press performances. Two dates are listed in the SOLT diary for this coming Friday and Tuesday week, yet no invitations have been issued yet.

This is not the first time I’ve written about a publicity failure on this production — back in December, I wrote here of having to chase down a press release for the show, even though there was one (without a media contact) already posted on the production website. As I said then, “Of course, a play with Zach Braff may have its own PR value built in - but it seems peculiar to make journalists chase down your press release, instead of making sure that they received it en masse.” 

Now the same production is making critics chase down invitations to see the show, and when my Stage colleague Jeremy Austin did so last week, he was shunted from pillar to post (and performance to performance) by a separate PR agency who handle the show’s online media, before they realised that The Stage exists on multiple platforms and he therefore had to go to what they called the “offline agency” to fulfil his request.  

As he said to the online agency in increasing exasperation as they moved his tickets yet again, “Reviewers aren’t just there at the beck and call of PR firms. There are other press nights we have to go to etc.”

I meanwhile e-mailed the (offline) agency last Monday with my ticket request, given that I knew already (even without an invitation) that I couldn’t make either of the two dates booked in the SOLT diary. They replied saying they would come back to me. When they hadn’t done so by Friday, I wrote to them again — copying in the joint chief executives of the producing company behind it. Funny how it spurred the PR company into action. But it shouldn’t have been necessary to do so to get them to do a job which is hardly rocket science.

And sometimes it appears that critics are being kept out of a show for no good reason at all. There’s no comedian on earth more tried and tested than Jackie Mason; he’s been going strong for some fifty years now. He returned to the West End last week for a five-week run of what is being billed as his “farewell show” — but critics are not being invited in until the beginning of the third week of it.

So, exasperated by the prospect that, as he says, “the official ‘opening’ night isn’t for another fortnight”, the Daily Telegraph’s comic critic Dominic Cavendish went in to review the very first night of Jackie Mason’s return to the West End instead, and his review ran last Thursday.

As he wrote, those long previews “seems wrong — firstly because the theatre is charging £55 for stalls seats, never mind the ‘preview’ period, and secondly because the guy has been making people laugh for 50 years - if he’s not ready now, when will he be?” 

In fact, it sounds like he wasn’t actually ready: “As it turns out, the very first night is a bit of a shambles but a rather charming one - with Mason shuffling over to the wings to confer with an unseen assistant as to what gags are up next. When he repeats himself, loses his thread, confesses to never having been so nervous, it’s oddly touching - he gets more sympathetic ‘oohs’ than a pantomime Cinderella. When he hits the spot, though, he shows he has still got it. There’s nothing pitying about the standing ovation at the end. I imagine the show will not only get tauter but more topical as the run continues.”

So we variously have producers trying to stop reviews appearing, even after they’ve opened the show, until they decide when they want them to; or press agents not bothering to invite the press in a timely way, and mucking them around when they make requests; or inviting critics a long way into a short run. No wonder critics are starting to take the law into their own hands.


Mark - something we agree on!

This practice has been going on on Broadway for years now. Kind of like trying to find the origins of the term "the Green Room", the reason for numerous full price press previews, with an opening night that is NOT press night, is lost in the mists of time. One reason put forward with a straight face is that critics dont want to come to the actual opening night, because they dont want to sit amidst friends and families who laugh and cheer at everything. They want to see your show with a 'normal' audience. You dont have to be a rocket scientist to realize that Producers pack ever press preview now with friends and families and those pre-disposed to yell and scream and carry on as if in an unexpected nirvana. At many Broadway musicals, this is curiously a few rows of young people at the back of the stalls, well dressed, who seem like a claque. Hmmm.

The other, equally risible justification put forward is that the critics have asked for press night to be before 'opening', because the poor dears found the strain of writing overnight reviews too draining.

Of course its all bull. The old, traditional, system, that until relatively recently the West End abided by, is that 'press night' and 'opening night' are the same.

Why is this better? Well, first off, it worked a charm for almost 100 years (or more). There was an excitement, a frisson to openings. How many times do we read 10 critics and say, "I can't believe they saw the same show!". Well, in todays theatre, they haven't seen the same show.

Perhaps The Guardian sees the new play with a buoyant, expectant, responsive audience on Thursday. The next night The Stage sees the same play, perhaps an actor has been in emergency with the flu, but goes on anyway. The audience (its perhaps a Friday night) are in their cups, and just not with it. The whole night seems flat. The critic is caught up, undesrtandably, in the dullness of the performance and the audience around him.

And then the investors and producers and their friends see the actual 'opening' gala night, and can't figure out what any of the critics are talking about, since the show they saw - the one on the night when all are atwitter with opening night fever - was so much different. The one the critics didnt see because they've already written and turned in their reviews.

I know from experience how difficult the SOLT opening night calendar can be. SOmetimes one is at the mercy of when a theatre owner finally grudgingly decides to rent you his theatre, and you try to maneuver through bank holidays and pre-planned holidays by your long waiting cast, to find an opening night that gets a review to run on a day when papers are actually read, and on and on and on.

And you finally find that perfect night, and half the media outlets inexplicably send along their second and third tier scribes anyway.

Certainly in my West End experience, crix are always given the option of coming on the actual opening night - thats first choice. We allow them (you) to come in earlier, only if you beg and plead. But embargo the reviews,

At the end of the day - it should be opening night, or post opening only.
But then of course all the crix would also have to agree to come on the night
that you plan.

But you're right Mark - the current situation in the WE and on Broadway is a bloody mess.

(As an addendum: you go to New York and write mini reviews. Ben Brantley comes to London and does the same. Why does the Film critic not do the same? A film opens in America and its a dog. Not a breath of a word in the UK press. Then all the puff pieces and interviews about that film come out in the UK. All the actors and the director, and the writers talk about how excited they are about their new movie - and all the UK newspapers publish this swill - basically free advertising. When everyone involved in the film knows it has already played one week in America (3-10 months ago) and was pulled because they sold 11 tickets. Yet the UK press acts as if none of this is known - wow this could be the next great film! Doesn't the film industry have the most pernicious news/review embargo system of all?)

Critics should put their feet down & force the P.R. people into keeping to a proper opening night (or press night)... The public like to have an idea about the show they're going to see & it's stupid for the industry to muck them about. If they walk in blind & have bad experiences they'll be even less likely to try out new shows than they are already.

There is currently an article on the Reviews Gate website referring to an unnamed theatre and production at which "the management will not allow any reviews". How can a management "not allow" anything? They don't employ you (i.e. critics) so if you choose to go and see their production, and then write about it, surely there is damn-all they can do about it.

Next time the awards season comes around can I suggest a new category - most ineffectual PR agency?

There are some great PRs out there, who make life so much easier but there is also a growing number who like your experience above never return calls or emails until you cc in the producer.

Glossy brochures and websites may look good but producers really need to think about the damage these PR companies do to their product.

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