WORKSHOP performances and previews are an important step in the process of staging a theatrical production. Generally, workshops are presentations of works in progress, in the forms of semi- or full staging, or even just readings. Previews usually feature the end product, either a complete performance of, or just highlights.
Both workshop performances and previews are crucial in allowing members of the public and the press a taste of what’s to come. A well-received presentation can generate good “buzz”, which could translate to more bums on seats. But both previews and workshop performances serve a greater purpose: to obtain feedback, so as to shape a better end product.
If the audience only has good things to say, wonderful — albeit rare. But what happens when feedback is negative? With workshops, there is the opportunity to rework, rewrite and refine. But who do you pay attention to, when opinions are so subjective? Sometimes a criticism might go against a writer’s or director’s specific intention. There needs to be a balancing act: between sticking to one’s vision, and taking into account the audience’s observations.
Clearly, though, the journalist plays a different role from the everyday audience member. The journalist has to be more informed on the topic being evaluated, and he or she has greater resources to provide feedback as well as to create “buzz”. But that does not mean that the everyday audience member’s opinions are any less valid; they, too, are able to shape and spread the word on a particular production.
As a general rule, if a particular criticism crops up frequently from many quarters, some attention should be paid to that point being criticised. This also applies in the case of previews, though there’s less time to make changes since previews tend to happen mere weeks or days before opening night.
Still, that’s why theatre productions have — or should have — sneak peeks: because the last-minute tweaks to a show can sometimes be crucial. A scene might go on for too long, or a song might be unnecessary, or the plot itself might be unconvincing. By this point it might be hard for those in the production to judge objectively, so consensus from an impartial audience could prove useful.
A love-hate relationship
Snapshot of The Edge (© Nick Choo)
In 2008, I presented a workshop production of a musical titled The Edge, which was performed at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac). The goal was to see how the material would stand as a performed piece, as well as to get feedback from audience members on what they thought of the show as a whole.
I was surprised by the decision to obtain post-performance feedback through the use of a written questionnaire. Firstly, not many people would be willing to write down their opinions in detail. Secondly, there lacked the interactive communication between the creative team and the audience — something which could have been better achieved through a question-and-answer session after the show. Thirdly, not everyone would be willing to fill in a written survey, even if they had opinions.
When I questioned why we weren’t doing a Q&A, I was advised that it would “open up the floor to haters”. That said, a Q&A would still have had its share of limitations. For instance, the willingness of people to participate and be honest — honesty is sometimes easier expressed non-confrontationally.
The point is, whenever someone presents their products in the public sphere, they naturally open themselves up to criticism. They open themselves up to praise, and attacks. It’s part and parcel of the deal. Indeed, it is only through constructive criticisms and critiques that one is able to improve one’s work. But it’s not easy. Some of the more negative feedback I received for The Edge did upset me, and it was a struggle to try to see the positive side of it.
I was rather amused to read that this happens to everyone, even the immensely experienced and successful. In February 2010, British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber previewed Love Never Dies, the much-hyped successor to his hit musical The Phantom of the Opera. Bloggers who disliked the show nicknamed it Paint Never Dries. This incurred the indignation of Lord Lloyd Webber himself, who reportedly responded that “those attending previews need to understand that they are not seeing the final cut, but a ‘work in progress'”. This was in anticipation of opening night in March.
Freedom of the press
Poster for Adam: The Musical
On 28 April 2010, members of the media were invited to a preview of Adam: The Musical at The Actors Studio (TAS) in Lot 10, Kuala Lumpur. It was a semi-formal staging, with costumes, lighting, and narration between songs to introduce the performers and vaguely contextualise the musical numbers. A piano provided the musical accompaniment. But it was a good enough offering to demonstrate what one can expect out of the actual show.
I posed this question, hypothetically, to Adam director and TAS artistic director Joe Hasham: What happens if the media doesn’t like what they have seen, and decide to write about it? Wouldn’t this impact negatively on the production?
His response: “[Negative reviews] may impact, but then again, if we put ourselves out there for viewing, then the viewer has every right to express his or her opinion. I honestly believe that the press should always write what they believe. Sometimes the press are friendly [towards a production] because they like the [people involved]. That’s nice, but I would rather they be honest and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t like it, but here’s why…’ Though remember, it’s one person’s opinion.”
So, conscious of what it’s like to receive criticism, here are my impressions, predominantly on the music, of Adam: The Musical. These thoughts are based on the press preview, of which I managed to observe five of seven featured songs:
Tunes were melodic and likeable, with occasional moments of complexity; otherwise mostly in straightforward metre, rather “pop”. This might be the composers’ intention: to achieve a more contemporary sound. Only the main song of the show, We Are Alive, lingered after the performance.
Hard to comment on the storyline, but I am ambivalent about the character of a ghost patient. I hope she doesn’t get too over-the-top. Not sure if the cross-dressers necessarily need to be as crude, almost as if just to elicit laughs.
Good choreography and vocal harmonies. Some of the leads were slightly off-pitch, but this could be part of the characterisation.
Lyrics are serviceable at best, but awkward where the inflections of the words don’t fit well with the music. Then again, given that the show is based in Malaysia, might it be too far off the mark to suggest that Malaysians generally speak with awkward inflections anyway? And so the lyrics actually work from that perspective?
My conclusion? See the show and judge for yourselves — but without malice, insults or personal agendas. If you have a space to present these opinions, by all means do so. As an audience member, you have every right. Those who have shed sweat and tears into putting on the production will — one hopes — be all the more thankful for it.
Nick Choo invites readers to provide feedback on this article in the comments section.
Adam: The Musical runs from 12 May to 20 June 2010. More information at www.theactorsstudio.com.my.