Fishman's finishing touches

January 16, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley

When is a preview not a preview?

Audience members attending Sunday's performances of Signature Theatre's The Gospel According to Fishman had every reason to expect they were seeing a finished show. The same is true for audiences attending 10 of Fishman's first 12 performances.

They were wrong.

Only the first two shows - on Jan. 8 and 9 - were described on Signature's Web site and by the box office as previews - and patrons who chose to attend those shows received a $2 discount on tickets. The regular run began on Jan. 10, and ticket prices rose accordingly, from $28 to $30.

But the director and writers are continuing to tinker with songs and the script, and a theater critic was strongly discouraged from reviewing the show before it is "frozen" on Jan. 20.

So what's the big deal? The minutiae of theater scheduling methods might not seem very interesting. But the problem is that the hundreds of people who bought tickets to performances between Jan. 10-19 are being misled because they have no way to determine what category of show they're attending.

Preview performances are a long-established theatrical tradition, from local productions to Broadway. The Broadway-bound The Graduate, now playing at the Mechanic Theatre, is mounting a full week of previews aimed at fine-tuning the show before its four-day run officially begins tomorrow.

Eric Schaeffer, Signature's artistic director and co-founder, said it's especially crucial that new shows, such as Fishman, be "on their feet" before a live audience before they finally are set. Feedback provided by theatergoers - when they laugh, when they seem bored and restless - help a musical's creators fine-tune the finished product.

There's an implicit contract: Theatergoers know when they walk in the door that the show still is in flux. In return, they usually get a break on the ticket price.

Especially in a new work, it's not unusual for a show to change radically between its first preview and its opening night. It's not just a matter of actors forgetting their lines or a flubbed lighting cue; entire scenes or musical numbers can be added and dropped from one preview to the next. In extreme cases, even the ending can change. (However, the tinkering being done on Fishman is minor, Schaeffer said.)

And there's no problem with that, as long as theatergoers know they're attending a preview. Some patrons love previews because they relish the chance to discover and help shape promising new work. Others loathe them.

"We've always done it this way, and our audience has come to expect and likes being part of the creative process," Schaeffer said.

A check of a half-dozen regional theater companies in Baltimore and Washington showed that all have preview performances. But, only Signature doesn't consistently label them as such.

In the future, Michael Hartman, the show's Broadway publicist said he'll recommend that all performances before a show is locked be classified as previews "to clear up any possible gray areas."

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