It started this morning with a tweet from Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck:
If you click on that image it will take you to the majority of the online, public, conversation (though there have been a number of side conversations about it on twitter throughout the day and I’m sure many more conversations held in private). The gist of the issue is thus: For the upcoming show at Factory, The Art of Building a Bunker, the producers are hosting an opening night five days (three performances) in advance of the date that the media are invited to.
Aislinn Rose, one of the producers of the show and the general manager of The Theatre Centre, is supportive of this new experiment around openings & when critics are invited because it is artist and audience driven – a mantra she repeated multiple times over the course of the day.
In one tweet she wrote, “Full disclosure: I’m on the
#bunkerlife team, and I support this message” and later in the day she commented that she has been contacted by a handful of people who do not feel comfortable joining the twitter conversation.
Factory’s goal with this new delayed media date seems to be to make the opening about the community – reducing the stress of judgement and engaging with celebration. This idea is the basis of the press night model where media are invited a day or two prior to the gala opening and then embargoed from posting reviews until the official opening date. I know Obsidian is using that model for their production of The Mountaintop later this year and it is common in Broadway.
The main argument I’m seeing from Kelly Nestruck is that until a company believes that a show is ready to be seen by the media it should be considered to be in previews and tickets should be at a reduced rate, while Steve Fisher is arguing that, “You’re attempting to silence (for the v. important 1st week) the ppl who are best qualified to publicly evaluate your show.”
But I think there is a larger concern at play here that I would like to voice. I think that the company is doing itself a disservice. Companies across Canada are fighting desperately to reach a “non-theatre” audience and to expand their brands outside of their existing circles (which I believe is a laudable goal). Steve Fisher goes as far as saying that indie companies are BEGGING him to attend their openings. When companies eliminate mainstream critical discourse (ie The Globe & other reviewers), the initial conversations about the show will be had by a limited group of people, which sounds like the intended purpose of this experiment. My concern is that those people having the initial conversation will be mostly theatre insiders who know about the show already. The likelihood of that conversation reaching beyond the inner circle seems small.
I took a look at the dates on the Factory Theatre website. From the time that the show begins previews on Oct 11, there will be 8 public performances before the media are invited to see the show (4 previews and 4 full price performances). After the media are invited there will be another 11 performances. As an independent producer, a sometimes publicist, and a stage manager who works for independent companies, I frequently feel like I AM begging for media to attend openings. Why? Because even a review panning the show in a mainstream newspaper will garner more attention than a rave facebook comment by someone in the community. Maybe we are giving the critics more power than we should, but I have not yet seen a better idea and inviting the media to attend halfway through the public performances does not seem like a solution.
But that said, I wonder if there aren’t additional ways that Factory is planning to encourage critical discourse amongst their patrons at those first three performances in lieu of media criticism? If so, how? An online message board, a newsletter or survey, talkbacks, a social media scheme, or some other engagement policy?
I don’t have the answers. I do understand that the current model isn’t ideal for anyone but I fear that Factory’s new policy is more likely to further divide artists and critics than it is to forge a new system that is mutually beneficial. And ultimately, we will all be the losers if the divide grows.
Edited to add: If you’re looking for some other perspectives, check out what Mike Anderson had to say at http://www.mikehatedit.ca/2014/09/24/bunfights-factorys-bunker/ or Holger Syme’s take at http://www.dispositio.net/archives/1987 or Jacob Zimmer at http://minorexpletives.ca/a/on-the-outrage-over-who-gets-comped-when/ or Amanda Campbell at http://www.twisitheatreblog.com/archives/2381 or Theatre Ontario at http://theatreontario.blogspot.ca/2014/09/ontario-off-stage_26.html or Phil Rickaby at http://www.philrickaby.com/2014/09/27/factory-theatres-opening-night-kerfuffle/.