Works-in-process in an everyone-is-a-critic-now world.

If inviting general audiences into the artistic process now means potentially inviting them to share their feedback with the world does this change how we think about presenting works-in-development for public audiences?

Perhaps I have a skewed perception, but it strikes me that over the past couple decades (at least in the US) arts organizations have increasingly presented half- or nearly-baked works to the public and (in many cases) charged them money for the privilege of seeing this work. For a variety of reasons, we have invited patrons into the process and have sold them on the idea that (1) this will increase their knowledge and understanding of an artform or (2) their presence and feedback will be valuable to the creators.

It is perhaps worth questioning whether we are sincere when we say these things and under what conditions these statements are true.

A related phenomenon: sometimes we haven’t invited patrons into the process as much as thrust it upon them. Sometimes works ‘in development’ are not advertised as such; they are rather deceptively called ‘previews’ or ‘world premieres’. By this I mean (for example) preview periods which producers or artists use to make significant changes to a piece, or works that are essentially being developed in performance at one or more venues on their way to New York (though being sold to audiences as if they were finished).

Recently there has been a good deal of chatter and discussion about the impact of amateur critics or passionate patrons (and recently a professional critic or two) blogging or tweeting reviews or comments on works ‘in development’ or shows ‘in preview’. In general it seems these have been seen by artists and producers as breaches of trust. But given the growing power and influence of consumers, and given that we have welcomed them in and charged them money and promoted the importance of their presence and opinions, is it any wonder that they now want (or feel entitled or even encouraged) to blog about their experiences?

While some may wish that we could enter into ‘contracts’ with patrons and require them to respect the artistic process and hold their tongues, this strikes me as impractical, unenforceable, and potentially destructive to relationships with patrons. Here are some other options, posed as (quite sincere) questions:

  • Do we need to do away with works-in process for the general public and simply present work that is finished and ready for review?
  • If we do works-in-process, do we need to be much more honest and explicit with audiences about our reasons for doing them and what we consider their role to be (or not to be)? (We might start by figuring this out for ourselves.)
  • Is it possible that if a work-in-process gets a dig by a patron or amateur critic that readers are astute enough to know that the piece is still being rehearsed and will wait to form their opinions on whether or not to attend?
  • Is it possible that if a blogger writes a piece dismissing a work in its development he or she may return and write again about the evolution of the piece and that this story might be more interesting than simply hearing about the finished product?
  • Is it possible that any conversation about a work (negative or positive) is better than no conversation at all and will likely make people more inclined to see the piece?
  • Is it possible that among the opinions expressed by passionate patrons and amateur critics about works-in-process that we might actually find some valuable insights?

One final question regarding works-in-process that are disguised as ‘previews’ and ‘world premieres’: putting aside for the present moment the (perhaps quite legitimate) reasons why such things occur, we might ask ourselves whether a public performance that is being used to make major changes to an artistic work should be called something else.

Dress Rehearsal, perhaps?


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  1. says

    I entirely agree. In many theatre companies, doing “workshop performances” of “works in progress” has become a substitute for actually doing the new work in proper productions with proper resources — including time. Also, many theatres have a “premiere complex” so if they can’t be the first to do a piece — even in workshop form — they will pass. That leave artists with a problem: they have used up the premiere in a situation that doesn’t really advance the work, and reduced opportunities for subsequent experimentation with other performing arts companies.

  2. DR says

    Can you offer some example? It strikes me some works-in-progress are presented as such and offer fascinating and artistically satisfying experience. What are you talking about particularly?

    Not just Spiderman I hope… Examples please.

  3. says

    I think our acceptance of the work-in-progress is a matter of degree determined by genre. We can expect the standard repertoire in the performing arts to be quite polished on opening night. In classical music, we’ve spent centuries perfecting the performance practices of works that were once thought impossible to perform, such as the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. It can take many years to refine the performance of new, difficult chamber or orchestral work. Composers revise after hearing the works played, and performers often take years to full master the skills demanded in some pieces.

    More than any other genre, new works of music theater and opera are almost never perfected upon their premieres. There are simply too many complex factors that have to be refined after viewing the works and testing them in front of audiences for premieres to be perfect. More often than not, composers have to revise new opera up to their third production. It is one of the great unasnwered mysteries as to why an audience needs to be there for composers and performers to fully hear what they are doing. More needs to be done to help audiences understand the developmental process of creating new operas, and how revision is usually a long and ongoing process.
    Thank you for the interesting thoughts.

  4. Nan Barnett says

    After working on new plays for almost 25 years I am just as conflicted about these questions, and the answers, as you seem to be Diane. Perhaps it is because, like children, plays come with their own genetic makeup, inherited traits, and capabilities, and, as a result of their environment, can grow in so many different ways. At Florida Stage (RIP) where we did exclusively new work, we talked with our audience constantly about the process of development, including readings, workshops, rehearsals, the initial presentation, and subsequent productions. Many of the playwrights we worked with will say that our audiences, because they were made aware that they were a part of the creation of the work, often did have interesting ans credible things to say. In my experience, it is rare that a playwright doesn’t learn something, whether they use it or not, from being with an audience, and very few pieces could be considered finished without that input. As for bloggers and early critical posts, unfortunately the magic of the internet has its dark side. Especially since everyone, with or without credentials, has the ability to get “published” and even small items live on forever with the help of search engines. Educating an audience (and those reaching them) about the stages of a new work’s development can be beneficial to everyone involved.

  5. says

    Great to see some provocative comments already!

    To DR, in response to your question, no, certainly not thinking exclusively of Spiderman. And I know that in the right context (when an audience knows it is coming to a work as it is being ‘created’) the experience of watching the artistic process can be incredibly exciting, intimate, and rewarding; but often it seems that audiences have come expecting a finished work and artists are not quite ready to deliver one and I wonder whether this is beneficial?There are a couple circumstances that seem to arise with relative regularity these days.

    I have seen a number of productions (generally by artistic ensembles of one sort or other) working their way through presenting houses en route to New York (often for a premiere at BAM or another prestigious venue). Often it seems that these works have had insufficient time and resources in their development and so are, in essence, being developed in performance at these other venues. To be fair, some of these same venues are also offering developmental workshops (sometimes for the public, sometimes not). I think it is a sincere question how much the artists or the audiences benefit from public performances of work that are not simply ‘maturing’ (which is normal over the course of a run or multiple runs) but that are not yet finished.

    Second, it is relatively common for plays to premiere outside of New York and have relatively dramatic improvements made to them between iterations. I understand the need for such a process (and understand that it has happened for decades now) … I simply think that this way of working is now running up against an audience in the ‘hinterlands’ (as they think of it in NYC) that is more sophisticated and more vocal and that is paying enough for their tickets to expect to see the best work possible.

    As regards the preview as rehearsal … again, some theaters now have extraordinarily long preview periods. While some use these purely as a method for keeping the critics at bay as long as possible and avoiding the impact of a negative review, it seems that others use this as a way of funding an extra week or two of rehearsal.

    In closing, I have often relished the chance to watch a studio showing for a work … and I love the PUBLIC LAB … which is a developmental workshop but of very high quality and priced right, I believe; but am still left with the questions in my original post.

  6. says

    In my opinion, the Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) has been doing it right since 1968, having developed 6,000+ plays! Admittedly I’m a new member of the Board and I’m biased toward the place, but as a longtime member I find it a highly sustainable model. (Actually I just wrote about it on my Theatrical Intelligence Blog: EST has a new play continuum, which nurtures work in its early, mid and late stages of development. Audiences are fully aware of the in-process status and an ESTpass gives them access to 150 such projects a year. The theatre is committed to artists, as opposed to premieres, and it has two labs for playwrights: Youngblood, for those under 30, and the Playwrights Unit, which is sort of a theatre gym for experienced members. I invite you to visit EST when you’re next in NYC, Diane – it’s shabby, but deeply loved and for good reason! Major talent oozes from it every day of the year.

    • says

      The model you wrote about is so interesting. Actually I´m involved in a dance project called Crown. It´s a research about movement nature and we want to open a door to relfection about what does it mean “dance” in nowadays and what is the role of the spectator in the discurse of the spectacle.
      In “Crowd´s” work in-process, opinions and relfections of all the creative team, the dancers and the “followers”, constantly gives us material to set out new questions about art, the artist´s role and the discourse. We don´t want to tell a story with the spectacle, or to be illustrative. We appeal to the plain action, body´s action own languaje, without manipulate the intention. In this sense, the spectator also creates his own discourse…

      Finally, I think the source of all my speech was the work in progress, and to me, everything is about the intention of showing out a process. We can make it just to cause expectation as a marketing strategy, or to nourish the creative proposal.

      I´d love to have your comments.

  7. says

    Do you distinguish, Diane, between productions of works-in-progress and readings of plays? Because the recent tweeting I’ve seen was inspired by a blogger reviewing several readings of plays-in-progress at the Kennedy Center. To my mind, the fact that the plays were only being read, rather than produced, should have kept them off the table. I agree that, somewhere between a reading and a full production the work should become fair-ish game, potentially, for audience feedback, but I don’t know where to draw that line. At the workshop production level? During previews? It’s hard to say.

    But this wasn’t audience feedback we were discussing; it was critical feedback, and that’s why I blanched. The author of the reviews was issuing them on a blog, but that blog is one of the four or five most important sources of theater reviews in DC. They may be amateurs in the financial sense, but not in the eyes of their readers.

    I think we really ought to be more adventurous about how and when we get feedback from the people we make theater for: our audiences. I admire anyone and everyone who tries to find ways to bring them into the play development cycle. But critics are a special kind of audience, and they deserve to be treated differently. Don’t you agree?

    • says

      Gwydion, I’m so glad you weighed in on this post and I agree with your points. I certainly distiniguish between being invited to a reading at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis vs. going to the Public Lab vs. seeing a rehearsal as part of Steppenwolf’s Theater 101 program, versus being invited to a final dress, and going to opening night of a show (and the many variations between these steps) and I also distinguish between professional critics and audiences. The question is, I think, whether these distinctions will continue to be meaningful to audiences (or even professional critics for that matter). I think that the ‘social contract’, if you will, between professional critics and professional arts organizations is currently still presumed to be in place and so it seems legitimately unfair if either side seems to take advantage; but I also see signs that it may be fraying.

      But I guess what’s really been on my mind lately is that there seems to be a perfect storm brewing between (1) the blurring lines between professional and amateur critics and enthsiastic patron bloggers (and the rest), (2) the near fetishization of the behind-the-scenes ‘process’ (no doubt stemming in part from reality tv programs) which makes the process more interesting to many people than the final product (3) the (all too often) fuzzy expectations of the audience’s role at readings, workshops, or any sort of work-in-process and (4) the fact that when one buys a ticket to a show it’s often not clear anymore whether one is seeing what is considered to be the finsished work (to the degree that live performance is ever ‘finished’) or whether this is an early iteration and is not meant to be critiqued. On the one hand, perhaps chaos in this regard could be exhilerating. On the other, it seems like it could also be detrimental to the artistic process and the relationship with the audience (and the critics).

      You make excellent points and I am glad you shared a bit of the background on the critic-at-the-reading incident. It strikes me that this conversation is coming up on a relatively frequent basis of late …

      Cheers …

      • says

        Hello, Diane! Yes, I agree that there’s trouble ahead, but only (I hope) the natural kind of trouble that comes when worldviews come into conflict and, eventually, strengthen one another.

        I really do think it helps to clarify the distinction between audience and critical feedback, though I’m guessing that my friend Tony Adams below might not agree that there is a distinction. Many of my colleagues have been arguing that such a distinction, furthermore, might be eroding, but I don’t buy it: not one whit. I think we’re always going to have appointed guardians and arbiters of our culture (critics), and that they’re always going to be a distinct class from consumers of — or “interactors with” — our culture (audience members).

        What I think is changing, to be sure, is the balance between them. When the critical opinion was more monolithic, because only major media outlets had access to the means of publication and dissemination of ideas, critics’ thoughts about a work of art boomed loudly across our cultural landscape… but there was always a means by which audience members could resist: word of mouth. Paltry in effect, by comparison, the opinion of a lone influencer could still nonetheless combat any effect a critic might have in how we, speaking broadly, thought about a piece of culture.

        Now, of course, thanks to the internet, every audience member has access to the means of publication; I can visit an art gallery, then write a Yelp review about how shabby I thought the work was, or listen to a symphony, then write about my fantastic night of music on my personal blog. Because the word of my mouth no longer has to pass over a series of backyard fences from one neighbor to the next, or in the beauty salon from one patron to the next — but can instead be broadcast digitally at high speed — my opinion now carries more weight than it ever had.

        But audience members are still not reviewers. The effect they can have is still, at least for now, substantially different than the effect a critical can have. Whereas an audience member’s bad review of a play will often definitively convince a small number of his or her friends to avoid a production, a critic’s bad review can sometimes partially suggest a much greater number of people — strangers — to avoid the same production. The audience member has a greater impact on a smaller number of people; the critic has a lesser impact on a larger number of people. That strikes me as an important distinction.

        Another distinction that matters to me is WHO those people are who are being affected. Among those influenced by the critic are, presumably, arts leaders and decision-makers: those who hold a significant position of authority and have a significant ability to impact the direction of our culture. Those same people are not, I think it’s safe to say, influenced by a random audience member’s blog. Again, this strikes me as an important distinction.

        Yes, there have been for some time ways in which the two groups — audience and critics — are blurring. Many critics now write blogs, and many audience members have devoted a significant amount of time and energy toward the pursuit of providing feedback about the work they interact with. I’m not sure where or how the line should be drawn, honestly; I wish I did. I know that in the case of the Kennedy Center readings, they were clearly critics. I also know, more importantly, that a line feels like it ought to be drawn somewhere, even if I can’t figure out where.

        As for the question of whether work in progress ought to be fair game: in general, I’m of the opinion that an artist should be given no critical feedback unless he or she explicitly asks for it… as long as that artist is not in any way being disingenuous (by, say, charging full price for a full production of said “work in progress.”) On the other hand, any artist who stages a work-in-progress for a public audience ought to be aware that audience members can and will and by all means should offer a response; moreover, said artist should really be actively seeking that response and learning from it, rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. If we can’t figure out how to listen to and interact with and learn from our potential audiences, really, we’re doomed.

        Ultimately, though, I think we just need to keep experimenting. After the fetishizing of “reality” television wears off (which will not come a moment too soon, and which ought to be called “artificial reality” television), we will still need to figure out how much people really want to get behind the scenes, how often we want people there, and what we expect from each other once we are there. That, I think, is the real challenge.

        • says

          Hmm, I wouldn’t disagree that there are general consumers and guardians/arbiters.

          However, I would argue that critics have never had a monolithic control of anything. Artists simply have been blind to the reality that there have always been a plurality of voices. Sometimes they’ve been in alignment and sometimes they have not. Artists (and admins) in their minds have ceded control of their own narratives to a critical body who have never had wide readership in the general public.

          I could name tons of examples, but a simple one may suffice. Who would fill a 2500 seat house quicker, Tyler Perry or Wooster Group?

          ‘If we can’t figure out how to listen to and interact with and learn from our potential audiences, really, we’re doomed.’ I think that’s right on the money. The fields decades-long blindness to this fact is showing on a nightly basis. Even, if we’re just now opening up to that.

  8. says

    I think the breakdown starts with theatres not realizing, if it’s being done in public, it’s fair to talk about it.

    There’s also a ton of dishonesty on the part of producers, not making clear the difference between a show in previews and one that is “Open” charging the same price, and looking on their websites there is no way a general audience would know the difference. The Kennedy Center is one of the worst offenders of this. They had the audacity to charge $65 for the August Wilson readings and are now saying how they produced the cycle.

    If theatres or artists don’t want people to talk or write about works, don’t do them in public. It’s not really a blurry line from my standpoint.

  9. says

    This is very interesting. Did you know that artist in the 18th Century used to present their works to an audience ahead of time to get their feedback and to make changes before the actual performances? It seems to me that we are again coming full circle. Some of us may not like this fact, but others will embrace the opportunities that sharing the creation with our audiences has to offer.

    I do, however, do not feel it is right for a company to present a work-in-progress as the actual final work. This is a bait and switch in my opinion. If it is a work-in-progress, it must be advertised as such. The lack of polish will be obvious which is not only annoying to the audience, but also can degrade the entire industry.

    In terms of the blurring of the lines between professional and amateur critics, I too have been thinking about this lately. We have to realize though that we have always had “amateur” opinions that turn into word of mouth. Blogging is simply making these opinions more public with a wider reach. I also feel that the term “amateur” may not be the best term either. Perhaps “audience” opinion might be better. Not all audience opinions are amateur in stature, although they are not getting paid for their comments. If getting paid is the definition of a professional, we are discounting the viewpoints of individuals that have something worthwhile to say.

    Opinions are just opinions whether they come from a critic or an audience member. I used to religiously watch Siskel and Ebert. Sometimes I agreed with their critiques, sometimes I didn’t. Seeing that this was the case, I learned that the “critic” although more studied than I in terms of movies, is simply giving their opinion with their own filters. It does not mean that this opinion has to be my own. I can see the fear of taking the audiences opinions into account though. Word of mouth is actually more powerful than a critic. I would listen to a good friend’s opinion and take that into account much more than a critic I hardly know. The friend would likely know more about what I would like to see, so I guess this could be considered more dangerous (or beneficial) in a way.

    I think overall our culture is changing. It is no longer an us vs. them and it is becoming more of a we. With the new technologies, everyone and anyone can raise their voice. I have faith though that the people that are meant to see the play will still see the play regardless of anyone shouting from their rooftop what they think.


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