A response to Matt Trueman

I was wary of posting this response to Matt Trueman’s theatre blog “Theatre bloggers must leave previews alone“, a draft sat on my laptop for a good few hours yesterday as I tried to make sense of the wilfully provocative rhetoric and the sentiments that lay behind its writing. Ostensibly a defence of the preview period as part of the creative process, it soon moves onto yet another attack on bloggers and their conduct. I could have refined it, clarified some of the points I struggle to make, but it came out of me fairly stream-of-consciousness-like yesterday lunchtime and so whilst I’ve separated it into two main strands, this is me speaking pretty much unedited from the gut.

There is a debate to be had about the ethical responsibilities around preview performances, but Trueman does not pursue this fully despite it being the set-up for the article. In focusing so hard on and damning the bloggers, an amorphous community who act as one for the benefit of this argument apparently, whilst simultaneously skating over those same responsibilities also held by the producers, the theatres, the PR companies, the actors even, the argument is fatally undermined. The actions of all the key players need to be interrogated and challenged in order for this issue to be truly understood and dealt with in a manner that can then be addressed.

Take a theatre like the Almeida: nowhere on the website are previews mentioned, nor on the tickets you receive, yet the process of a press night a few shows into the run is still observed. Their social media team regularly tweets audience quotes and yes, blog reviews, from the very first show. Yet they do not come in for the same level of opprobrium here even though it does not square with the idea of radio silence argued for. What element of silence should be, or indeed can be, enforced during these preview periods when theatres themselves are publicising feedback from audiences?

PR teams are wising up to the realities of a world in which social media is playing an ever-larger part. Invitations have been proffered to blogger nights, as opposed to press nights, and in some cases the former has taken place before the latter. What then, should the invitation be declined because “theatre bloggers must leave previews alone”? When people involved with the show itself have issued that invitation?

And whilst I am not a creative, others will doubtless provide that perspective, I find it hard to agree with the idea that sums of money close to full ticket price can be charged for a show that is considered “unfinished”. Once a financial transaction takes place, there is a responsibility to the audience which surely has to supersede the creative process unless there are serious changes made to the way in which they are advertised and priced.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to any of these things and it may be (almost certainly will be) that different strategies work better for different people, theatres and shows and I applaud those theatres and companies that taking this issue by the scruff of the neck and trying out new and different ways of dealing with this challenge. This is a subject that really is worth debating sensibly, but free from the sneering attitude towards bloggers that permeates the original blog.

It must be nice to live in a world where the savings made on preview tickets don’t mean a thing to you: for the record, that would be £90 for two tickets at each of the last three shows at the Olivier to pluck a random example. Multiplied over a year of regular theatre-going, it does make a difference. And as for chasing hits, it cannot be denied that it is nice to have a lot of people read a blog-post, thereby satisfying the early demand and this is something I have been quite open about, but to suggest that this is foremost in my mind whilst getting up early when booking periods open and websites crash regularly under the demand, spending evening after evening (and some afternoons) in the theatre and then using the spare time left over to write up reviews whilst working a regular job, who’s the cynical one there? Corinne at Distant Aggravation articulates these points, and others, in a wonderfully eloquent post here which is well worh a read.

This condescending attitude takes its worst form though in the assumption that bloggers “want the same regard as critics” as if every blogger is a wannabe professional critic. Every week it feels like one critic or another is laying into bloggers for what they are or aren’t, for what they write or don’t write as if one has to be defined by the other. I have a job thank you very much, blogging is my hobby and this site is my personal record of what I’ve seen. I am quite clear about who I am, a regular audience member writing about his experiences doing the thing he loves the most, watching theatre. That others choose to read and share what I write is a genuine honour for me, and the key word there is ‘choose’, no one is forcing people to read this blog. And let’s be honest, for all the talk of influence or power that is mentioned and the consequential responsibility, there is a relatively limited amount of people who actually read this blog no matter how high it might appear in a Google search and I would wager that very few of them would confuse this with a formal, professional reviewing site.

Critics come to their work from a world of huge experience and knowledge, I don’t have that nor do I pretend to; there’s a discipline to critical writing that I do not have, nor do I crave. I choose to write in an informal, accessible, sometimes rambling style because I can and that is how I express myself and I would hope that any respect that I might happen to garner would actually stem from that rather than from a direct comparison with professional critics. And though you dismiss it so easily, the fact is is that you are pretty much saying that bloggers ought to observe the same professional etiquette as critics whilst receiving none of the attendant benefits. Will you ever hear a critic talk about the experience of paying £70 to sit in a restricted view seat or having to put up with the worst seat in the house: no, because different briefs are being fulfilled and you know what, in the end, that is absolutely fine. On blogs, in the theatre industry, as in life: respect and regard cannot be demanded of people, it is earned through hard work, the demonstration of your passion and, let us not forget, the way in which you treat other people in the world, no matter where you perceive their position to be.   

So Mr Trueman, you get what you wanted: you raised the red flag and I duly charged and I thank you for your condescension, it serves to define how I am perceived by some and I’m grateful for that. But to point the finger so definitively at bloggers and to maintain such a myopic view of the multitude of factors and responsibilities for all concerned that swirl around this issue of previews is more than just a little irresponsible and does the industry that you obviously care so passionately about a great disservice.

10 thoughts on “A response to Matt Trueman

  1. Bravo, encore.

    Now breath 😉

    And I would add: as someone who regularly books late preview performances to save the odd tenner I appreciate a little honest feedback to help me make an informed decision. Preview tickets will often still set me back £30/40 so although I understand there may be some evolution, I also think it's fair to expect a show that's pretty damn close to the final article.

    Theatres take note…charge me less money for preview tickets and I will happily lower my high expectations.

  2. You're completely right, and it's ironic that the original badly-argued article is the product of the Guardian being the biggest culprit around for publishing controversial blog posts in order to chase hits.

    It's pretty sad to see the theatre, of all places, as the site of people trying to regulate public debate and enforce standards of supposed right behaviour through assumptions of shared ethics and moral duty. But I might be over-thinking this aspect of the debate just a little bit!

  3. Good points well made.

    Also Matt's view is not as impartial as he may wish to make out: I understand that his 'day job' is with a West End agency that represents actors and creatives. And it is arguably in the interests of those clients that previews are observed as a 'comment-free zone'…

  4. Jim – that's not fair. Let's keep the personal out of this, shall we? Stick to the topic. For the record, I have had to make sacrifices (on both sides) to maintain integrity as a result and I will not have a conflict of interest casually tossed around by someone who doesn't know anything about it.

    (Sorry to intrude, Ian. Just had to clear that up.)

  5. If bloggers clarify they are commenting on a preview performance (you always do in your articles) I really don't see the problem. Whether someone chooses to see a preview – and rely on a report made by someone who attends one – is a personal choice IMHO. Personally I attend less previews these days as I have often regretted seeing something where the cast or production clearly wasn't really ready and I was paying full – or near full price – for the privilege. I simply don't have the time to go back and see a show again later in the run, so I prefer to wait. However, I appreciate the thoughts of bloggers because – to be frank – I prefer the style of reviews such as yours to the output of professional reviewers.

    Your point about the way theatres use (favourable) comments from preview audiences is a very valid one – theatres can't have it both ways.

    Pricing of previews is a thorny topic. Previews always used to offer a generous discount to reflect the unfinished article that is being presented. Increasingly, the discount is small or non-existent. It's nice to see some theatres still follow the old trends. Curve (Leicester) still offers generous reductions on previews of their shows and goes one better in offering the chance to attend a public dress rehearsal for £2. This must be good for the public and for the cast.

  6. Thanks for your contributions.

    I think part of the problem also stems from the fact that no matter what resolution (if any) can come out this debate, it will ultimately be impossible to regulate. This perception of bloggers as a whole is an utterly false one: I am part of a group of relatively-like-minded theatre bloggers who have made tentative attempts at trying to form some sort of collective association and maybe even come up with a code of conduct. But it is incredibly difficult to even get us all in the same room at the same time to just discuss these things as we're all individuals with jobs and healthy theatre habits and there is a sense of 'do we actually really want (or need) to do this. And furthermore, even if we were to come up with something, it would be simply unfeasible to enforce it: blogging is an individual act, something those who might get a little wrapped up in their insular world need to remember.

    And for reference, I aspire to Lyn Gardner's output rather than Michael Billington's, so the 'analogy' (and I am well aware of what one is) is flawed.

  7. I wouldn't worry too much about it Ian. The whole debate is riven with people with multiple agendas, even on the blogging side, and so nothing is as simple as anyone would make it seem. And ultimately it is framed by people with a perhaps disproportionate view of the importance of their craft who spend a lot of their time at events called things like "What is the future for theatre criticism"
    Keep on doing what you love doing.

  8. I think you're one of the least cynical people, about the theatre at least, that I know.

    Don't let the needlessly negative comments get you down.

  9. What it comes down to in the end is a small coterie of people trying to protect their own. Even in the 'round-up', the writer can't help but make judgements in favour of the existing critical model.

    I rather enjoy your particular informal style, there's a refreshing honesty to the way in which you write and I would take the (far-from-constructive) criticism on Haydon's blog a) with a hefty pinch of salt and b) as a compliment that he sees you as a threat.

  10. Hi Ian

    Thanks for the mention. We've been following the Matt Trueman saga with interest and enjoyed your response and the link to Corinne. As you can see we've entered the fray 😉

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