Critics & Criticism: Why Critics Should Dread Opening Nights

Audience / Critic (Addison DeWitt)
I love going to the theater. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in this business. Whether as a critic or a civilian audience member, I look forward to it.

What I specifically dread are opening nights. And of course, ironically, these are precisely the performances – in regional theaters, at least – that critics are expected to attend.

I see two fundamental problems with opening nights. The first is that they occur too early in the process to be optimal. Ideally, you want to see a show when the cast has had a period of weeks or even a month or two to live in the world they’ve created. Rehearsals provide some of this, of course, but they do so in a vacuum – it’s enormously different to perform in front of an audience, and plays develop in startling and interesting ways once they open.

Brief digression: Then there are previews – that strange world of theater that is beyond rehearsals, but presumably not quite ready for prime time. Previews are vital to directors and actors because they give them an opportunity to test things out in front of an audience while there’s still time to change them before official opening. The worrying economics of theater means that rehearsals periods are ever shorter, with previews beginning as soon as possible – often too soon for comfort. Previews really shouldn’t be rehearsals in front of an audience, but sometimes that’s really what they are.  (But that’s really a topic for another time, and in any case, previews are off-limits to critics, who by time-honored tradition don’t attend a show till they’re invited to do so.)

Beyond the issue of seeing a show too early – an unsolvable problem for a critic, since reviews need to be filed quickly – I don’t like going to opening nights because they are events. Depending on a theater’s resources, there are meet-and-greets before, parties after, and sometimes a pre-curtain welcoming speech. (One theater in Philadelphia regularly does these with such panache that I’ve sometimes wondered if they should find a way to put the opening festivities on the stage.)

More crucially, opening night audiences are studies in careful social engineering. It’s no secret that a big percentage of the audience is invited – this includes critics, but also friends and family, and supporters of the theater. Publicists go to great pains to ensure that an opening night vibrates with a sense of festivity and success. (I mean no disrespect to publicists, who have a job to do. The theater needs them!)

All of this is fine, even terrific – but it does make for a skewed perspective. I’ve learned that one thing I can’t judge from an opening night is audience reception – it’s simply too consistently positive to be real. And that’s a shame, because it’s very useful for a critic to have a genuine sense of how viewers are reacting. But you won’t get it at an opening.

So that’s my problem. As I said, I can’t solve it, and I’ve learned to live with it.

But when should you see a show? It depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a window into the development, process, see a preview (but be aware that the show may change in small or large ways). If you like a sense of occasion, then by all means go on opening night – I object to these only for critics. (But be aware that the audience response you’ll be seeing may be deceptively more enthusiastic than average.)

If you simply want to see a show under the best possible conditions, I recommend a performance several weeks or months into the run, and – to the extent its possible to predict this – with a thoughtful, quiet audience of ordinary adults. For me, this generally means evening performances mid-week, rather than weekends.

I treasure the memory of a rainy Wednesday evening in London when I saw Judi Dench in Amy’s View. By then, the show had been running for a while, but watching her you would have thought she was discovering every moment for the first time, and that her entire life depended on it. The audience (not full) went wild, as they should have. Now, that is what makes great theater.


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