If a theater production isn’t firing on all cylinders, wouldn’t you want to know?
Most theatergoers probably would. But because of a cynical trend among theater producers trying to extract every last dollar from their patrons, many of us don’t.
This is thanks to the way so-called “preview performances” are being scheduled and advertised – or rather, not advertised – in small markets such as Buffalo.
In the last several years, the trend of inviting the paying public to a show before declaring it ready for the media has become increasingly common. And under the right circumstances, there’s nothing remotely wrong with this practice.
Producers are well within their rights to give shows a warm-up period, as long as the tickets are discounted and ticket-buying public is aware that it is paying for a show that may not be shipshape.
But increasingly, producers and theater promoters are trying to engineer good press at the expense of the public by failing to fully inform ticket-buyers about which performances are previews and which are the real deal.
Imagine if the Buffalo Bills sold tickets to preseason games and advertised as if those games were the same as the ones during the regular season, hoping ticket-buyers wouldn’t notice the difference. Football fans wouldn’t stand for such treatment, and neither should theatergoers.
The latest case in point is the 710 Main Theatre’s production of “I Love Lucy Live on Stage,” which opens Thursday after two preview performances. If you bought your ticket for the show before last week, you likely had no idea that Tuesday and Wednesday’s performances are previews.
That’s because until last week, after I placed a call to the show’s local promoter, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the fact that the first two performances were previews had not been listed anywhere on the theater’s website, in ads for the show, or on Ticketmaster. In several news releases from Shea’s, the opening date was listed as Sept. 17, with no mention of previews.
Shea’s public relations officer Lisa Grisanti chalked up the failure to a graphic design error. Be that as it may, those who bought tickets to the first two performances through the website and Ticketmaster were kept in the dark. That’s despite the fact that tickets to the first two performances were discounted by $5, the one thing Shea’s got right in this case.
Shea’s President and CEO Anthony Conte said in a statement that the theater follows the same policies as other theaters that present touring Broadway shows. “The only shows presented in all of Shea’s venues that designate preview performances are multiweek engagements,” Conte said. “In the past four years we have presented 66 shows and only 14 of them have had preview performances. It is our policy to identify preview performances on our website and in our printed monthly calendar of events. This is standard policy for Broadway presenting theaters across the country.”
But too often over the past few years, after repeated prompting from this newspaper, Shea’s has not lived up to its end of the bargain. It needs to try harder.
Other small local companies also have been prone to last-minute announcements that the first public performance was now, in fact, a preview, and therefore not yet ready for a professional critic. But ready for paying customers? Sure.
A theater as successful as Shea’s has no need to resort to such tactics. But as it has shown in past actions such as firing elderly ushers who complained about not being allowed to sit down during shows, the local institution’s concern for the little guy is sometimes wanting.
For theater outsiders, this may sound like inside baseball. But it has wider implications: It’s about understanding that the public responsible for your success deserves at least a base level of respect.
It’s about treating people as intelligent human beings in your programming and marketing .
It is just about being honest.