One of the joys of theatre is that it is constantly evolving: there is no ‘fixed’, final cut, as in a movie when it is ready to be released. Instead, every single performance can be, and often is, different from the ones that preceded it. Often this is especially the case with press nights, where — charged by pressure from the critics in the house on the one hand and the over-eager friends and investors on the other — a show may not be seen at it’s best.
But there are other changes possible, too. At Tuesday’s opening for the Menier Chocolate Factory’s new production of Torch Song Trilogy, for instance, David Babani told me beforehand that until that night the audiences had been more gay than straight and roughly 70% male. On opening night, the audience was far more mixed — and he worried aloud to me how this might affect the show, with laughs landing in different places and so on.
The night before, there was another press night — for the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I wasn’t there (as I was on a plane returning from New York at the time), but was mightily relieved not to be: Michael Coveney summed up his own experience in his blog by commenting, “I’ve never been so cold, wet and miserable in a theatre as I was at the opening last night”. Rain stopped (the) play; and as he went on to say, “I thought I was well wrapped up in four layers, including two weather-proof jackets, but I was still soaked to the skin when I got home. Mind you, my inexpert application of the plastic poncho hadn’t helped. I think I’d put my head through one of the arm-holes. Or possibly put the poncho on the wet seat and the plastic seat-cover on my head. Either way, I betrayed, said Michael Billington, a woefully clumsy and uncoordinated condom technique.” (As for the performance onstage, as opposed to his own, he reviewed the part he did see for The Stage).
Obviously those reviewing conditions — and the abilities of critics to use the plastic ponchos so thoughtfully provided — were beyond the control of the theatre; and I can’t help thinking that Timothy Sheader’s job as artistic director there must be the most stressful, depressing in London theatreland. If depression can be characterised as a loss of control and a feeling of helplessness, there’s nothing that’s more likely to inspire it than depending on the matter of the weather that is entirely beyond your control.
But though the weather can’t be fixed, previews are there to get the show in as ready a condition as possible before the critics arrive. In a feature in The Guardian last week, however, Mark Lawson wondered aloud what the purposes of previews are, and whether they had become redundant: “all shows are a collaboration between performers and audiences, and so it’s reasonable to contend that this relationship benefits from the fine-tuning of previews. A problem with this argument, though, is that lengthy test periods for productions - a habit that developed on Broadway - were not driven by courtesy towards performers, but by the neurosis of producers. With budgets so expensive in commercial theatre, backers wanted to give themselves time to turn lead into gold if a show reached the stage lacking shine.”
So previews are driven by commercial imperatives as much, if not more so, as artistic ones. But the idea of keeping public comment, in the form of critics, away from shows before they are ‘ready’, has been undermined by the rise of social media, which means, Lawson says, “that it’s only accredited critics who are silent until the official opening night. Bloggers and tweeters spread their verdicts as soon as a production lets in customers.”
Again, like the weather at Regent’s Park, it’s a beast that can’t be controlled or tamed; theatres have to live with it. But does that mean we need to throw away the baby with the rainwater? In a feature in the New York Times last week, Patrick Healy tracked the progress of John Patrick Shanley’s new play Storefront Church ahead of its official opening on Monday this week at Atlantic Theatre Company’s home theatre in Chelsea.
The playwright, he reported, re-wrote the final scene 20 times during rehearsals. “But it wasn’t until the production’s first preview, on May 16, that he discovered other scenes needed revising too. The evidence came from audiences — the sort of patrons who pay to attend Off Broadway shows early on and have more power than they may realize to shape new plays, even one by a Pulitzer Prize winner like Mr. Shanley.”
As Healy went on to say, “Some of these theatergoers fidgeted restlessly during a scene, catching Mr. Shanley’s eye as he sat nearby. A couple of jokes fell flat. And a key moment for one character, Mr. Shanley realized, was undercut by a bit of dialogue — ‘You’re kidding me’ — that landed with a thud. So he spiced up the line: ‘Is this one of those reality shows? Cuz I’ll kill ya both’.”
As Mr Shanley told Healy, “Preview performances are like trench warfare. You troubleshoot scene by scene based on your read of the audiences. They know when something isn’t working. You respect them or you’re dead.”
Carole Rothman, artistic director of another off-Broadway company Second Stage on 8th Avenue, is also quoted in the feature saying, “You get subtle information from audiences during previews, from laughter and gasps to long, uncomfortable silences and people looking at their watches in certain scenes. At some theaters you can hear the seats creak, but luckily ours don’t.” And Tim Sanford, at Playwrights’ Horizons, points out, “Rehearsals can become very insular, and you almost lose your objectivity when you’re burrowing deep inside a play in rehearsal. You need to see the production through the audience’s eyes to fully know what you have.”
So the audience is an intrinsic and valued part of the creative process; plays are, after all, written for them, not just as acting exercises. But there’s also a danger to previews, says another director, Paige Evans, who runs Lincoln Center Theatre’s new LCT3 project. “You can overtinker, obsess, and then a production might feel overthought or overdesigned.” So it’s always a fine balance.