Addison — “She really uses her previews.”
This is something that was said to me during my first production as a staff member of Steppenwolf Theatre. I was just a couple of months out of college and had recently become the receptionist, sometimes moonlighting as a house manager. The comment was made during previews about a director who became an artistic hero of mine, Tina Landau, a Steppenwolf ensemble member and co-developer of the now-famous Viewpoints, she holds a strong creative vision that mashes with a collaborative theatre making ethos I philosophically share in my own work.
“She really uses her previews.”
I wondered what that meant. To “really use” your previews. The person telling me, another staff member, said it with an air of gossip in their voice. I couldn’t tell…was that a bad thing, a good thing, or just a thing? It felt exciting and dangerous: she used previews to experiment with the play in front of an audience. These artists were risking the shame and embarrassment of failure during this two-week period of performances. How could they possibly do that? How could the producers encourage it? Why does an audience want to participate in it? And fundamentally, what is a preview for?
First off, previews are, as most people who read this column probably know, the public performances before opening. At opening, the show is “set” artistically and so the press comes to witness and write about it. Unless there are some extenuating circumstances, that play will remain basically as it is on opening through closing; save from the live theatre aspect of the production that makes it slightly different every night. Depending on the theatre the number of previews varies. A Broadway premiere could have months of previews. I’ve worked on productions off-Broadway that have 21 previews, in regional theatres that have 6-12 previews, and smaller theatres that have 2-4 previews. At WaterTower we currently have three previews. During the preview time, most theatres also schedule technical rehearsal time interspersed in that preview period, so that we can change and shape things as we learn from performances.
The implied tone of “she really uses her previews” seems to be saying that previews are to polish the already set production, to refine the almost-perfect play and work out issues of timing, stopping for laughs, maybe. Some might believe that previews are a time mostly for the actors to let the play “settle in” before opening night.
On the other hand, I and most of my colleagues in the American theatre really use our previews. I’ve worked on new plays that have had major rewrites, new scenes, characters cut completely during previews. I’ve directed plays where I’ve shifted major staging ideas during previews, cut aspects of the design, or overhauled the method of transitions between scenes with my creative team. I use previews to try out ideas and see how they work, taking the information from audience response in consideration to see how the story affected them differently by changing the pace, music, ending moment, etc. There are so many small details that go into a finished play; each moment and it’s timing requires many drafts and looks before a play opens.
Theater artists undergo this delicate and important phase of finishing our work with an audience. Why on Earth do we do that? In what other art-form would we publicly show and sell our rough drafts? It seems crazy but it’s essential. The reason is precisely what makes theatre such a special and unique experience: the audience is the all-important final ingredient to live theatre. The audience co-creates the experience of the play with the performers every night. Without being able to try things in collaboration with an audience, we cannot be completely sure how they play. This is an incredibly valuable component of the work. We cannot call a theatrical production complete without a thorough preview process.
A colleague reminded me a year or so ago, Odysseus was very close to home when he took a nap that changed his course for the next several years, sending me a chapter from Stephen Pressfield’s book The War of Art. “The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight,” he theorizes, because artists must push against resistance, and the professional artist must be vigilant at finishing their work. As I now say, “no naps.” Previews aren’t the time, I believe, for the director and the creative team to back away and abandon the actors to “settle in”, they are the time to finish the work. No naps until opening!
That’s what the artists get out of it, but what of the audience? “Even the best production in the world can be a little shaky at first,” wrote Anita Gates, in her 2008 New York Times article on the pros and cons of going to previews. The obvious “pro” of going to the preview is that you pay less than the regular run, but there’s more than that. They get to see it first, and tell their friends about it, it’s a sneak peek at the work. And it’s certain to be fresh and energetic to watch actors and crew members with adrenaline working out the play in front of you. Think back to some of your most memorable moments in theatres. I am guessing that at least one of them is when something went wrong. Not to say that things are going “wrong” in a preview, but that same energy is there between the performers because so much of what they are doing is risky and new. Will it work? Can we pull it off? The audience gets to be in the energy of a high-stakes rehearsal. What a thrilling room to participate in! Laura Collins-Hughes wrote a beautiful ode to previews in a 2015 New York Times article: “The performances might not be all the way there. Technical elements may well be rough. There’s a good chance the script will change before opening night. But whatever ails a show, there is still—theoretically, anyway—time to fix it. To me, that feels hopeful. And dynamic.”
The “cons” however are just as obvious: the play isn’t done. The production might feel incomplete, unpolished, it might just not work yet. In fact, the more creative risk being taken onstage, the more the previews are going to be “really used.” Some shows could feel like disasters during previews, and pull through to be the most fulfilling productions by opening. As an artist, I often find myself in a crisis in this period—will we pull off the impossible task we set before us?—the question spins in my head during sleepless preview nights. I tangibly feel as an artist that I need preview audiences—their visceral responses in the audience, the energy I feel from them, and the overheard lobby conversations—to complete the work.
17 years after hearing in that gossipy voice that Landau “really uses her previews,” I am proud to say that I do too. I encourage all theatre artists at WaterTower to use the heck out of their previews. And I’m thankful to the audiences that come take the ride of previews with us. I ask you, my dear preview audiences, to come with an open mind and heart, and know that the work is under construction. And take heart in knowing that you are an essential part of completing an art-work.
» An Artistic Director Prepares runs on the last Friday of the month in TheaterJones.