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On the difference between a preview and a review

Oh, dear, oh, dear. I can see it's time for a lesson in "what stuff means."

I write this after receiving several scorching e-mails, telephone calls and letters regarding some articles that appeared on the Diversions pages in recent weeks.

They were from people who read my previews of live theater shows on those pages, went to see the shows, were less than thrilled by the shows, and wanted my scalp.

The ones who hurt the most were those who said something to the effect of, "I've read your columns for years, and I trusted you, I believed in you, and you led me wrong, you dog, you."

Well, maybe not quite that dramatic, but that's how it came off to sensitive li'l me.

So let me explain the difference between two important kinds of newspaper articles: the PREview and the REview.

I write a PREview before a show ever happens. It may be a single performance or it may be a production that will run several weeks.

Since I haven't seen the show, I have no idea whether it's worth your time and money. I usually interview people connected to the show to try to get a feel for it. If it's a play or a musical, I give a brief synopsis. If it's a solo or group act, I look up what other people have said about them and check out their resumes.

Then I do my best to describe what people are going to see. But, still, I can't tell them how good or bad it's going to be. I walk into the theater as much in the dark as everyone else.

A REview, on the other hand, means I've seen the show, I've evaluated the performances, content and presentation, and I say what I think of it all. Sometimes I say right out whether I think it's worth your time and money, especially if it's very, very good or very, very bad. Usually, I describe the show's elements (casting, execution, etc.), and you can figure out if it's something you want to see.

I grade shows on a sliding curve, too, being much tougher on professional productions than on ones done by amateurs. After all, unlike the volunteers, the pros are getting paid, and the tickets are much costlier, so the performance should reflect that.

Even so, when I review something, I am as honest as I can possibly be about the quality of it, amateur or professional. You may be paying only $5 for your ticket, but it's still $5 and several hours of your life, and you'd like to know if it's all worth it.

Let it be known that I get copious flak for some of my reviews (I won't retell the story of how one local theater once barred me from its shows and put an unflattering cartoon of me on its marquee because they didn't like my commentary on their shows) but I rarely get much vitriol from a preview. Except for the past few weeks.

I wish I could get a sneak peek and "pre/review" a show, but that's impossible if it's a one-time thing, and it's not reliable if it's a rehearsal taking place two or three weeks before a show opens.

Shows that look like a disaster two weeks out can be boffo on opening night. Shows that look almost ready to go two weeks out sometimes still look almost ready to go two weeks after opening night.

Years ago, I used to attend and review pre-opening community theater shows, sometimes called "family and friends night," so I could get a review in the paper one day sooner.

I stopped doing that when I realized I was reviewing a rehearsal where the actors were in front of an audience for the first time and the tech crews were still adjusting sounds and lights to accommodate a theater filled with people instead of empty seats. (That's why tickets are free.)

In short, it just wasn't fair.

So now I go on opening night or the weekend, when performers are doing their thing for a paying crowd. And if I'm paying full price for my ticket, I expect opening night to be as good as closing night, and I don't mind one bit saying so.

In my REview.

On the difference between a preview and a review 06/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 7:05pm]
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