Thursday, February 10, 2011

I could have screamed but instead I wrote this.

Let me throw something out there before I write my response to Matt Trueman’s post on the Guardian Theatre Blog. Trueman’s someone who, as a theatre critic (and indeed the owner of a blog), I respect. I enjoy reading his long-form criticism (criticism which his blog allows the space for). I think he writes intelligently and articulately about theatre, something I rate quite highly. And the note on his blog does say that his views should be shouted down. So this is me doing just that.

I’ve no desire to get into the critic vs blogger debate (seriously, I can’t believe that we’re still here), though it’s difficult not to smell the whiff of the ‘superiority’ of that debate in some of Trueman’s post. What I want to talk about is the blog post itself. The sentence that got me? “Equally, bloggers must stop the cynical practice of reviewing previews”. If the “must” in that sentence didn’t compel me to throw something at my computer screen (where was I when Matt Trueman was voted commander-in-chief of theatre bloggers?) then the “cynical” did. I am cynical about many things (including but not limited to TFL, possible British success in any sport that doesn’t involve sitting down, anything that comes out of Nick Clegg’s mouth, the fashion trend of leggings and haggis). Theatre and blogging would make the top ten list of things I am least cynical about. They both involve far too much personal effort to be otherwise.

But let me give Trueman’s reasoning a chance. Reason one: bloggers attend previews to save money (but then undermine this by stating that the lack of discount entitles them to blog). Let me use my example of buying Hamlet tickets this week. I booked for a preview performance because it will save me £10. Ten pounds for me is half of my weekly travel budget. Any discount (however small) is a good thing when you see as much theatre as the average theatre blogger does. I still paid £17.50 for my ticket though. That’s not an inconsiderable amount for me (even living in London there’s still a lot of other things I could do with that money). Am I less entitled to write about that show than when I’ve paid £10 for a dayseat at the National? Or when I’ve paid £8 to go to Southwark Playhouse? Or £12 to the New Diorama? Or when I’ve been papered? What Trueman’s statement doesn’t take into account is that a discount is HUGELY important on a financial basis when you’re paying your way but this discount doesn’t mean you’re not giving out a sizeable chunk of your weekly budget to this theatre.

[There’s a bigger question about previews that I’d like to note. As long time blog reader will know, for 18 months I was a Duty Manager for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The WYP have previews that usually last for 4-5 shows. Every time there was a preview we’d pull out a big PREVIEW SIGN that bruised my ankles on more than one occasion and generally got in the way of everyone. And I lost count of the number of times an audience member asked me “What does preview mean?”. These were people who’d bought tickets and didn’t understand what a preview meant. In truth previews only mean anything for people who regularly go to the theatre or for the people who make it. For anyone else, given they’ve paid for their ticket, this is the show “concrete” (to borrow a word). At the point that you charge people to view your work this is the inevitable reality.]

The second reason given for blogging previews being “cynical” is that they are “chas[ing] hits”. And y’know what? It’s nice when you get hits. And writing early in a run means you’re more likely to get them. However, if I were really after hits I wouldn’t be writing about theatre. I’d write about Justin Bieber EVERY DAY. Or I wouldn’t, because I only know who he is because of twitter, I’d write about David Tennant a lot more than I already do. I can only marvel at those bloggers who keep up with their viewing in a less chaotic manner than me. I’ve pointed out before that theatre blogging takes effort and rushing out to see every show first and then rushing home to write about it rather than sleeping or going to work or spending time with your family or friends just so you can get some hits which only you will know about (because it is 2011 and no one has a stat counter visible any more) seems utterly ridiculous. Moreover in terms of effort and reward that’s a pretty skewed equation. Writing that blog post and getting hits isn’t the reason theatre bloggers go to the theatre (something that Trueman’s post forgets). They go to theatre for the theatre.

My disbelief doesn’t, however, stop there. I’m bewildered by the notion that theatre bloggers must have “ethical responsibilities” to productions. As a blogger I have ethical responsibilities to my family and my friends and the people I care about. I have ethical responsibilities to the theatre that pays my rent. I have ethical responsibilities to my reader (in terms of those productions that I may write about which involve people I know, or when, as sometimes happens, I get sent free stuff). Personally (and this is just me from my own experience as a writer) I have ethical responsibilities to companies/writers if I’m at “Scratch” event (either for free or for some nominal fee). If you invite me into your rehearsal room I have ethical responsibilities to you. If I come to your dress rehearsal I have ethical responsibilities to you. If you charge me £10, £17.99 or £35 or more for a ticket and I do not know anyone involved and have no connection to the building or company I have no ethical responsibilities to you other than arriving on time, paying attention and being polite to the FOH staff. I am a paying customer. I make no claim for my writing being the official view of anyone other than my own subjective, meandering self. My blog isn’t a newspaper or a carefully curated academic journal to be preserved in someone’s archives.

I also can’t help but feel that Trueman conflates some of his own reasons for blogging with those of other theatre bloggers. I’d suggest that few bloggers want the same “respect” as critics (if we take respect to principally mean industry acknowledgement). I just want as much respect as anyone who has paid to see your show, has bought things in your bar, has supported you. Which I’d suggest deserves at least as much respect as any critic (if we take respect here to mean something much more important).

It’s nice in some ways that Trueman considers theatre bloggers to be influential enough to merit such a post (bloggers are most useful to smaller theatres/companies/those who are not in the London centric gaze of the “dead white male”, thus those who are least likely to have extensive previews) . In other ways it’s laughable that Trueman felt the need to expend the effort on the post – a futile attempt to hold back the sea by wagging a finger at it and pulling a stern face. Theatre criticism isn’t the same as it was ten years ago. Bloggers and web forums and twitter and onwards. Who knows what it will look like in ten more? Bloggers are here to stay, bloggers reviewing previews (for all the reasons listed above) are here to stay. It might not be the brave new world that Trueman would like to envisage but it isn’t for us to adapt to the existing system – it’s for us all to invent something new.


Tim Nunn said...

I had to leave the Guardian debate as I think it was pissing me off as much as it has you - although for different reasons. My own grievance was that the debate was so stuck in the West End of London it was irrelevant.
I think the real debate is about the abuse of 'Previews' by producers. It's great that you've opened the debate to include 'scratch' performances. Or are they 'work-in-progress' or 'development' or some other tag or even 'previews'. The truth is that I think responsibly staged previews will work better for the development of a show if the company are confidant that a description and judgement on what they are doing on that occasion will not be published by someone. They will be happier to experiment and risk something different. And that is what previews should be for, and they should be cheap or free. The abuse of Preview shows by charging substantial ticket prices and using them just to 'bed in' a show is wrong.
Your comment about audiences not knowing what they are coming to see is worth producers noting. It was not that long that a director of a substantial show in this neck of the woods stopped a preview performance mid-way because she felt that continuing it would be damaging to future shows. Now that it what previews are for, and that is why audiences shouldn't be paying (much) for them.

Keely said...

What an excellent article. I don't read many theatre blogs, only recently started to do so from seeing links on Twitter, but I will certainly be reading yours in future.

Glen Pearce said...

Wonderfully composed response. Like you I'm getting fed up by the critic v blogger saga that seems to be the main topic on the Guardian blog any given week.
Like you I've a background of working in theatre and find his tone about bloggers motives and lack of understanding about the preview process misinformed at best.
I've admired his writing in the past but think this Guardian post does come across as patronising at best.

Matt Trueman said...

Hi Corinne,

I want to stress that I do not see the post as part of the critics vs bloggers debate. As I hope you know, I think the blogosphere is, generally, a great thing. Rather, this is about bloggers and the work itself (or theatre-makers, if you prefer).

My point is not the one that you have argued against, namely that bloggers have no right to write about previews. This is not about the blogger’s entitlement (or lack thereof) to express an opinion in writing in the public arena. Of course, having paid for a ticket – even just having seen the show – bloggers are absolutely entitled both to have an opinion and to air that opinion publically, as is any audience member at any (public) performance.

However, the right to write does not necessarily mean that it is right to write.

I have the right, should I so wish, to stand on a soap-box and slag off my neighbour or to call for the deportation of an ethnic group. That doesn’t mean that I should do so.

Writing publicly has consequences. If one is writing about a production, I do believe that one has an ethical responsibility – though not necessarily to it. You are representing other people in writing. That doesn’t mean that one should do them a favour or only say nice things. It doesn’t protect them from negative or critical responses. But it does mean that you can’t be abusive or unfair. Had you started this blog ‘scrawny little bastard Matt Trueman…’ – regardless of libel laws – you would not have been acting ethically (true though it may well be).

In terms of previews, there is an unspoken request on the part of a production. It says, implicitly, “This is not quite ready, please respect that.” That doesn’t mean one oughtn’t to form a judgement, but that the nature of that response should take into account its unfinished status. That has two sides. First, what one says ought to be qualified accordingly (as in, ‘but it was a preview, after all’) and second, how or where one says it should be qualified accordingly. It is this second part that is important here. It is one thing not to like it, another to express that privately and personally, and another to get a megaphone out after the applause. Sure, there’s nothing stopping you from ignoring that request – hence the right to write – but I think it is courteous and right to do so. It is, after all, not an unreasonable request.

To address your points about cynicism, I’ll start by saying that I have not been clear in the first place. I don’t think there is anything wrong with seeking to save money – I didn’t mean that as a reason that the practice of reviewing previews is cynical, but as a reason for going to previews rather than non-previews. It is not the cost of a ticket that affects the ethics of reviewing, but the status of the performance as a preview or not. Expensive previews are not fair game because they are expensive, just as cheap non-previews do not win immunity by price.

I do, however, think it cynical to chase hits by getting in early. When critics review is irrelevant here actually; its about when the production holds itself ready. (Say the critics visited a week after opening night, and you reviewed the first non-preview – that’s fine in anyone’s book.) That theatre being a minority interest subject – likely to get fewer hits than others – doesn’t make chasing hits impossible. You can seek to increase your hits without seeking the absolute maximum number (by writing about Justin Bieber). In fact, the headlines on the Guardian Theatre blog chase hits, even though they won’t get as many as, say, Charlie Brooker’s column, which doesn’t. (We don’t chose the headlines, by the way.)


Matt Trueman said...

Behind all of this is the fact that there is no obligation to write publicly about a show. Anyone can go to the theatre and not write about it. Anyone can go to a preview, saving money, and not write a review. You can go to the theatre for the theatre without writing a response/review/blog. To do so, then, is a choice. I absolutely believe that you (and all bloggers) write out of a love of theatre, but that doesn’t have to be the only reason. One can love theatre, love writing about theatre and still chase hits.

Perhaps it’s worth thinking about different types of blogger. One has a diary-style blog, the other a theatre blog with regular reviews. Both go to a preview. I’d suggest that there are different intentions at play. The first goes and writes about it as an afterthought – ie reporting on their experiences. The second goes with the intention of writing about it – ie reporting on the play (albeit subjectively). I think there is a difference there. Admittedly, that makes it a very blurry area and comes uncomfortably close to making devoted Theatre Bloggers (and professional critics) the only party shouldn’t write about previews.

But then, maybe, that’s exactly how I feel. Maybe that is where the line falls (for me) in this sea of blurry grey. If one is consistently and expressly writing about theatre, one has to consider one’s practice when doing so. Bloggers should take that as a compliment, I think, as it treats them (us?) on a par with critics in terms of status.

(Beyond this, you’re probably right that I extrapolate my reasons for blogging onto others. But then, Ian Foster’s output isn’t a million miles away from Michael Billington’s, is it? And, if I came across as superior or patronising, it was unintentional. I won’t go so far as to apologise, because I would stand by everything I wrote in that piece. Ian Shuttleworth’s first comment beneath – about directions and not starting from here – correctly skewers the whole thing, which was dreamily idealistic, totally unrealistic and overly moralistic in the first place.)

Best wishes and thanks for such a considered response.