The Playgoer: The Full-Price "Preview"

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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Full-Price "Preview"

Before Ellen Gamerman's WSJ piece degenerates into standard internet-rumor-mill bashing, she does rightly bring up a long standing question--what's with charging full price for alleged "previews" performances (i.e. before the official press opening?

The term is becoming downright anachronistic.  On the Broadway of old--as evident in old movies from "42nd Street" to "The Producers" plays truly "opened"--i.e. premiered--on "Opening Night" (after perhaps some open/invited dress rehearsals).  Then by the 1960s, tickets would be available--at a DISCOUNT--for two or three pre-opening performances as a warm-up.

Off Broadway this didn't matter much I suppose since you were lucky to get the NY Times critic to come at all, let alone to your first night.  But now, not only does everyone do "previews" but when the run is already limited and you control the schedule, some nonprofit companies have specialized in delaying official "opening" as long as possible so that if reviews are bad, the show will already be closing and thus unaffected. In other words, the preview period has been longer than the official "run."  (I think Joe Papp pioneered that practice to get around critics.)

I don't find anything wrong with selling tickets to previews, to a show that may still be going through changes but wants a live audience to try it out on.  (After all, that's what Boston and New Haven used to be for.)  But audiences are right to expect some compensation for seeing something that might not be a finished product.

Gamerman's lead example is actually not the best case to make, but still typical probably:

James Wilson took his orchestra seat at a preview of the Broadway show "Fela!" expecting to see the story of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti unfold on stage. Instead, he spent most of the performance watching the show's creative team across the aisle as they pointed to problems on stage, held flashlights over their notes and, in the case of one staff member, whooped her arm in victory after many dance numbers. His ticket, purchased as part of his season-long $300 Public Theater subscription, seemed to be for a rehearsal, not a Broadway show, he says.
Well, first, maybe by getting his ticket as a Public Subscriber perk the guy took his chances.  Second, I'm not sure this means anything else but that Bill T. Jones should probably not take primo orchestra aisle-seats to do his note sessions.  (Isn't that what the back of the stalls are traditionally for?)

Anyway, I'm sure many of you can supplement your own preview-horror stories that are better than the ones found in the article.  (Such as the "View from the Bridge" actor's accident--indeed that could happen any time.)  What are you saying to your audiences when you pay the same amount for a "work in progress" than the "ready for Ben Brantley" finished product?  That's like charging the same for a reading as a full staging. (Oh wait, some already do that.)

I believe some Off Broadway nonprofits do offer discounted "preview" packages for subscribers who book early perf's.  Good idea.  Those of you not doing that now really, really should.

The bigger point should be that it's time Broadway producers and theatre owners finally just fessed up and offered 20-30% off any and all performances before the press opening.  Why?  A) because it's, you know, honest; B) it would sell!  Do you guys want to fill the house at times like these or what?

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