Friday, November 18, 2011

RANT: Defending or Offending Shows on the Net

This is sort of a blogjack, in that I am writing in response to a current blog that I follow.  But it is interesting that I was going to write on this very topic, anyway.  I have ranted about this type of thing before, so it isn't all that new.  But it keeps coming up, and so it keeps getting under my skin.

Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport's producer blog addresses this very topic HERE.  It seems likely that this is a thinly veiled attempt to address those bloggers, Facebookers and Tweeters who have gone to town trashing a show he is producing.  And so it might be easy to dismiss it as sour grapes.  But he is also offering the flip side - a way to recognize those islands of positivity in a sea of negativity.  Good for him.

He writes, "It is always important to focus on customers who publicly air a product or a show's dirty laundry . . . but don't forget about the people that love what you've produced.  If you're lucky, there are a lot more of them.  And if you're smart, you can use them to your advantage to drown out the others." Despite a potential conflict of interest, he is still right.

Before I saw his blog today, I was going to address this very thing after reading a particularly biting strand on a message board for a theatre website supposedly by and for fans of the theatre.

I'll start again by stating that I fully support people's right to free speech and to have whatever opinion they like, even (and in some cases, especially) when it doesn't agree with my own.  

BUT what I find particularly upsetting are the following things:
  • writing about hearsay is if it were irrefutable truth
  • quoting people 'involved in the production" who "say things at the stage door" or "Tweet things" to the writer "privately"
  • discussing aspects of a production that are not only inaccurate, but reflect that the writer has clearly not seen the show
  • throwing around facts and figures as if they understand what is behind those numbers
  • and worst of all, the obvious pleasure that they get from digging at the show in question.
The show in question is Godspell, and the thread addresses a rumor that the show will be closing on January 1.  It could very well end up being the case.  I don't know if it will or not.  I have no access to advance sales numbers or any other of the MANY things which would play into that kind of decision.  But neither do any of those posters who claim "inside knowledge."  

"The People of Godspell"  button.

The popular term for these alleged insiders is "shills."  Um, "shills" don't talk negatively about the show they are "shilling."  And producers don't (and legally probably can't) disclose information about a production before any sort of official press release that has been given the once over by any and every one involved.  (Perhaps they are referring to "marks" who are people that float ideas in public forums to guage the response to potential ideas - "I hear they might cut the intermission of Follies," followed by watching what people say about that potential change.  Again, though, their purpose is to ultimately improve, not todestroy a show or a product or whatever a company hires them to find out.

But back to my point.  The entire thread is based on hearsay, rumor and innuendo.  Apparently, these people have never seen Wicked to see the dangers of hearsay, rumor and innuendo.  They heard that  "someone with the show" said something about being told the show will close January 1, and it must be true because "someone" Tweeted that the show was sold out for the weekend, despite "evidence" to the contrary, and that Arena Theatre's production of Oklahoma! is ready to move in.   Let me address that last one first: I doubt it... at this point Arena Stage has too many other things on their plate.  Either Peter and the Star Catcher or Magic/Bird is a more likely choice.

WWJD?  Did one of these cast members say
something or Tweet out of turn?  I doubt it.

Again, people "with the show" aren't going to say such things where anyone can take that info and run with it.    Among the "evidence" that the show is "in trouble" vis-a-vis the Tweet that the show was sold out when  it wasn't: there were blocks of empty seats at a weekend performance; there were tickets available all weekend at TKTS; they had a low per ticket average price the week it opened, which must mean it is in danger.

First of all, sales percentages/capacity numbers are the total number of tickets sold in a given week of performances.  Whether or not the ticket holders actually show up doesn't effect the percentages.  As described by the poster, there were blocks of seats that were empty in the middle of the house.  That suggests a missing group not a lack of sales.  And group sales tickets are discounted, leading to a lower ticket price average, too.  Tickets available at TKTS, especially at the beginning of a show's run doesn't necessarily mean the show is "in trouble."  Often those seats are sent to TKTS at the last minute when house seats aren't used or a group cancels at the last minute.  Producers often set aside extra house seats at the beginning of the run to accommodate such people as bloggers like me, who the producers are courting to spread the word, contests, and even more likely, secondary and tertiary critics who didn't make the pre-opening cutoff.  Then there are the extra tickets set aside for the friends and family of cast, crew and production staff.  All shows get rid of their house seats at the last minute - through TKTS and/or cancellation lines.  Yes, even the venerable The Book of Mormon gets rid of them in their "cancellation line."

As far as the disparity between the average ticket price and the capacity percentage in the two weeks leading up to the opening... there are called comps - tickets given to critics, news agencies and advertisers just prior to the official opening night when the show is "frozen" and open for criticism by professionals. (And before you write, I know some media outlets pay for their tickets so as to not give the appearance of payoffs for good reviews.)  Comps will lower the average ticket price while adding to to percentage of capacity.  Call it "papering" if you like, it is necessary and has been done by all shows for decades, even sold out hits.  And heavy discounting for the first few weeks of a run, not to mention the difficult winter months, is standard.  All but the luckiest shows do this, and even some of those do, too.  It all falls under the concept of "cultivating an audience."**

Edgar Lansbury
Finally, one poster on this thread likened the producer model to a Ponzi scheme.  Really?  "The People of Godspell" is a group of fans who invested a small amount to get the show on the boards.  Their contract is very specific about not expecting or ever getting a return on their money, let alone profits.  It even specifically states that they may or may not get a free ticket to the show.  And the producers of the show are NOT uniformly inexperienced, starting with Ken Davenport, lead producer, and Edgar Lansbury, who has been producing entertainment longer than most of us has been alive, and the huge conglomerate Broadway Across America.  This not a ship at sea with an inexperienced captain.  Not that that matters, either.  The captain of Titanic was one of the most experienced and decorated, and we all know how that ended.

Now, if you read my review of Godspell (click HERE), you can see that I loved aspects of it and really disliked other aspects.  It is not my favorite show by far, and falls under the same category of Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages in my book.   So I have no particular personal need to keep cheering for Godspell.  But I am a fan of all theater - you can't appreciate the very best if you haven't experienced some of the worst.  And as a real fan of theatre, I take the "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything" tactic to the rare show I don't at least like a little bit.  So I won't write blog after blog about Anything Goes, but if it has some interesting news or makes the Box Office Top Ten, I won't exclude it or any similar show.

Godspell got enough money reviews to advertise with.  And based on his blog today, it wouldn't surprise me if, soon enough, positive Tweeters, bloggers and the like, will be as quoted at Terry Teachout with this show.

If you call yourself a theatre fan, remember that a real fan supports the efforts of anyone involved in the art that you say you love.  If you love a show talk it up constantly.  But if you don't like a show, say your piece and then let it go.  And for Heaven's sake, back up your reasons - good or bad - with some evidence that you actually saw the show in question. 

Where do you stand on this issue?  Leave your thoughts below or email me at  But don't Tweet me - 140 characters isn't enough to say what you might want to say.

(** - For the record, the week of November 6 - 13, Godspell played to a 99.6% capacity, with an average ticket price of $61.30.  The capacity means that over 8 performances, 22 seats went unsold, which is just over 2 seats (but not quite 3) per performance.  That suggests that there were heavy discounts and free seats given away.  Neither thing exclusively means the show is "in trouble.")

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