A Tip for Regional Theaters
Just read this post on Andrew Haydon's blog for The Guardian, and was thrilled to see its relevance to a thought that's been fermenting in my entry box for some time. What's more useful: reviewing a new work with no advance reading of the material, the better to judge its success as a piece of performance, or reviewing said work after a thorough read-through, the better to tease out author-director contributions and its success as a translation from written to staged?
Unfortunately, here in Philly, we almost never receive advance scripts, and I believe that's to the detriment of producing theaters. I recently learned that on Broadway, scripts for new or new-ish, and not readily available plays, or even older scripts that have been reworked, such as this season's Gypsy, are given to reviewers as a matter of course. How has this practice not made it past the island's bridges and tunnels?
Apparently, London's critics also receive these privileged press packets, but the thought that they might choose not to plow through them before opening night is a total shock. (You mean, you get them and don't read them? Don't you know how lucky you are? I'm reviewing King Lear for the millionth time in a couple of weeks, and still feel compelled to give it a good going over before curtain.)
Obviously, I'm in the translation camp, and believe the more you know about a production, the better informed your review will be. There's something to be said for first impressions, but as Chicago Tribune film critic/writing teacher extraordinaire Michael Phillips pointed out in a NEA seminar this year, they're not paying us to be like everyone else, they're paying us for our expertise. After all, if every schmuck was qualified to be a critic... Well, never mind about that.
Another point Phillips made was that there's possibly no greater waste of a reviewer's time than copying lines during a play. And it's true. I can't recall how many times I've been scribbling away and a.) forgot what I was writing mid-sentence, or b.) heard gasps or sudden laughter while looking down, and by the time I looked up, missed the moment entirely.
Phillips also suggested asking for the scripts beforehand, but I don't know, it feels a bit unseemly. Isn't it enough that we get two prime seats for free on opening night just for the chance to shred all that hard work? So I'm issuing an urgent call to regional theaters, with plenty of time before the '08-'09 season. Please make it a regular practice to hand out scripts along with press packets, or even better, to attach PDFs containing them right along with early press releases. After all, why should Broadway and the West End (and their attendant interpreters) have an edge over the houses that feed them?