Arts » Art On My Sleeve

Tonight or not tonight

That is the question

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Editor's Note: Art On My Sleeve is theater critic Perry Tannenbaum's new monthly column, in which he'll offer up commentary on the arts scene in Charlotte.

Just over a month ago, an issue came up in the U.K. that was very much parallel to one I had mulled over in my first months and years at Creative Loafing. Noting a blog by a London colleague, Lyn Gardner, who questioned whether ticket prices for ballet preview performances were too high, Guardian writer Judith Mackrell dared to flout accepted tradition and ask whether it was fair to critique ballets on opening night.

For dancers, actors and musicians everywhere who scramble to get it right under fierce technical and time constraints — before they battle the stress of facing their first audience and a jury of journalists — the question seems cogent enough. Citing a tight tech regimen that allowed just three three-hour stage rehearsals, one lighting designer admitted to Mackrell that opening night was still a time when "you're just throwing things at the stage and seeing what sticks."

Regardless of the sturm und drang experienced by performers and techies, isn't it right for ticketholders and critics to fire back, "What is opening night for if not to unveil a finished product and invite reviews?"

Up in New York, Broadway producers have the luxury of ironing out all the kinks in preview performances, where ticket prices are discounted and critics are banned — a practice that is ultimately respectful to audiences and courteous to critics.

But Charlotte isn't New York or London. Nor am I eager to see new productions as soon as possible in order to pounce on their faults and dissect them in print. Seeing performers at their best is far more satisfying and sustaining.

So in the early days, when I encountered raggedness from certain theater companies on opening night, I'd cut them some slack. Quite frankly, I was happy just to be a part of the conversation. There was no CL website in the late '80s and early '90s, so no matter how soon I turned in a review, it wouldn't see the light of day until the following week. Actually, that's sugarcoating the situation a little bit, because I've neglected to mention the sluggish printing process. Until we could push my deadlines back to after the weekend, my reviews weren't appearing before the third week of a run. No need to rush to judgment, so I didn't.

We got real, pushing my reviews out sooner during the second week of local runs, becoming a part of the marketplace as well as the conversation. But my inclination to give local productions breathing room lingered on.

Meanwhile, my beat expanded to fuller coverage of the performing arts — opera, symphony, jazz and dance. With the advent of the CL website, pieces that queued up for once-a-week printing could be posted whenever the store was open. We can be more prolific, more a part of the conversation, the marketplace and the buzz than ever. With a few keystrokes, I can post reviews, reports and CLogs simultaneously to Facebook and Twitter, where the American Theatre Critics Association retweets me within a couple of hours.

Yes, there is palpable pressure on critics in this busier digitized environment to review everything as soon as it opens, ready or not. Just because I'm launching a new commentary print column this week — along with a matching artonmysleeve.net blog — doesn't mean we won't be posting a review of CAST's O Guru Guru Guru online. You'll likely find my full review of PaperHouse Theatre's The Aliens online before the print version hits the streets. That's our world now.

Londoners are probably coping better than Mackrell thinks. I know that Charlotte companies are. Actor's Theatre initiated bargain-priced Friday and Saturday night previews years ago, officially opening four days afterward. That's on a Wednesday night, when every other local company is dark.

Opera Carolina has settled into an equally savvy routine where they only perform on Saturday night on their first weekend, making all local reviews actionable for readers before the second week of their runs and giving us plenty of time to write them. Three of N.C. Dance Theatre's offerings for 2013-14 will be spilling into a second week, and Theatre Charlotte has also taken to backloading their performance schedules, limiting their first week to Fridays and Saturdays, allowing word-of-mouth and review buzz to be more impactful.

By these means, local companies have captained their destinies, gently steering us toward opening nights that are generally later in the week than they were at the dawn of CL in 1987. Cynics might observe that the tone of reviews is subtly skewed when critics are attending shows on nights that draw bigger, more enthusiastic audiences who might sway our reactions. But it's perhaps more valid to observe that the quality of productions benefits when opening night is delayed a day or two, allowing for that many more rehearsals, tweaks and director's notes.

Rather than bewailing the pressure and scrutiny of opening nights, Charlotte companies are refining and amping up their commercial pizzazz. If they're enhancing performers' preparation and confidence along the way, easing that perpetual scramble to get it right, then they're also building better opening nights — with less to worry about.

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