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Down With Opening Night

February 14, 2007

Sometimes, as was the case with Legally Blonde last week, opening nights are fun. But in general, I tend to avoid them. Because I write for a weekly publication and can consider my reviews more as analysis than news, I have the luxury of seeing a show anytime during its run, as long as the piece I write about it appears in the paper before the run expires.

Occasionally, for a variety of reasons (like deadlines, inflexible PR agents etc) it's impossible to stay away from opening night. My experience at the opening night performance of writer-director Mark Jackson's American $uicide at Thick House a couple of evenings ago underscores my reluctance to attend these events.

Unlike other artforms, the theatre community, because it's generally local, tends to flock to opening night. The fact that Jackson's comedy was playing on a Monday (when few performances in the theatre happen) meant that the industry was out in full efflorescence. Chris Smith of The Magic Theatre was there. Brad Erickson and Karen McKevitt of Theatre Bay Area were there. All the critics were there. The place was crawling with actors: Joan Mankin even turned up in red and yellow plaid trousers.

So before the lights went down, events were skewered in the show's favor. I doubt that there were many regular paying members of the public there at all. Every time an actor came on stage, his or her mere presence seemed to elicit guffaws and appreciative whoops from the crowd.

It further didn't help my attempt to gauge fairly the impact of the performance that Jackson's play is full of insider luvvie jokes about the Theatre Communications Group and the life of an actor. While Delia MacDougall's quite bonkers turn as TCG Executive Director Gigi Bolt was a hoot for many of the people there on opening night who have some kind of inkling as to the role and function of TCG and can therefore appreciate its absurdity as part of the narrative, I'm not so sure the shtick would work so well on non-industry audience members.

As a result, I came away from the performance a bit confused. To what extent should I take the temperature of the house into consideration when I write my review later today? If I could, I would go back to see American $uicide again before I write my piece. But even without the imposition of a daily deadline, that's impossible at this point.

Opening nights should probably be abolished. They don't make much sense anyway when you consider the fact that most productions have actually already been playing for around a week in preview before the opener. Even though previews are an important way of letting a play find its feet before a live audience before the critics come in and evaluate it, the positioning and value of opening night seems rather arbitrary. Opening nights make previews feel like a false start. And I don't think that reviews based on what a critic sees on opening night are as accurate as they might be, thanks to the weird insider dynamic.

Obviously pressure to get a review out as quickly as possible once the show has been "set" in preview is important to the extent that most productions outside of Broadway only run for a few weeks. But it kind of makes a mockery of reviewing a play at all when you're doing it under these conditions.

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