Arts Desk

Signature Theatre Adds Preview Nights (But At What Price?)

Their move: Signature's preview-period gambit
breaks new ground for DC theaters.

"The show opened at Signature on Aug. 10," notes the third paragraph of this story about the poster design for Chess.

But you didn't see reviews of the musical last week, did you? And you won't—maybe not until September.

That's because the Signature Theatre, in a move that's a first for a D.C.-area company, has decided to experiment with extended previews, New York-style. It was those preview performances that began on Aug. 10.

And the press performances, which usually line up with "opening night?" Not until Aug. 28 and 29. Which means that almost half of Chess's seven-week run—it's set to close Sept. 26—will have passed before it's officially open.

And before the newspapers—even the dailies—can get their reviews to readers. (Sub-optimal, that, if you're a newspaper whose subscribers get antsy when a Tuesday goes by without the chief critic weighing in on, say, Sunday's big Shakespeare Theatre Company opening. I can imagine a certain amount of consternation in the halls of 1150 15th.)

Inviting reviewers is always a crap shoot, of course. If they're charmed, they can evangelize for your show. If not, well ... this can happen.

So the temptation is to wonder whether, with a show like Chess—a cult favorite powered by a trio of Broadway veterans—Signature is simply betting that subscribers, social-media campaigns, and word of mouth will get a sufficient number of butts in those Shirlington seats. (The cast is filled out by Signature regulars including Eleasha Gamble and James Gardiner—who have lots of fans and friends.) Bigger theaters like Signature—and Shakespeare and Arena Stage — have the staffs and budgets to manage more complicated marketing and social-media schemes. YouTube trailers, Groupons, Facebook fan pages and Twitter contests are all in play now; some companies stage blogger preview nights, complete with talkbacks in the theater and drinks in the lobby. If a theater can start enough chatter among both serious theatergoers and casual looking-for-a-night-out types, it may be able to tip the old critic-producer balance of power a bit.

Not that anyone would say that. Signature Managing Director Maggie Boland—a veteran of Arena Stage, where shows typically run eight weeks but only play six preview performances— says it's all about making performers more comfortable, finding a way "to give the show time to settle." She points out, too, that more previews and later press nights are something the company plans to do mostly with new musicals. (Which Chess isn't, though it is a heavily revised one.)

And not, necessarily, that a balance-of-power shift is entirely a bad thing. Limp criticism, uninformed criticism, plain old mean-spirited criticism? Not much more useful than a pile of Likes after a carefully orchestrated Facebook campaign. Theaters have every right—and probably a duty—to try to counter it.

But critics can make shows, in addition to breaking them. And with new plays and new musicals, an experienced, thoughtful review can help audiences and artists alike celebrate what's working and diagnose what's not. It's part of a conversation between artists and their audience. At Signature, for the moment, part of that conversation will be starting a little later than usual.

One last note: What, one wonders, is a D.C.  audience to make of a "preview" performance where a prime seat costs $71? As of this writing, that's what a full-price ticket will run you (before Ticketmaster fees) for the evening of Thursday, Aug. 26—the last non-special-event performance at which the cast and crew of Chess, in Boland's words, will be taking advantage of the opportunity to settle into the show.

As it happens, that's what you'll pay for the following Thursday, too.

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  • Patrick Lynch

    I too was confused as to why a review of this hadn't come out yet. I called the theater yesterday to get tickets for one of two possible dates and one of the dates was completely sold out and the other was almost sold out, with limited availability in the dress circle. I have a feeling word of mouth has already picked up on this show, as I was told by a friend to get my tickets before it sells out completely. Something tells me they're not struggling to sell tickets to this show.

  • Brian Martin

    Sounds smart to me. If they can sell tickets without a review why not. Reviews in this town are so out of wack anyways and can kill a show so quickly for no reason. I hope Chess sells out before a review is even up.

  • Mercutio

    But what do they tell the audience? Do they tell the audience that the actors are still "settling into the show" or does Signature stay quiet and reveal nothing. Sure, on Broadway previews last for weeks, but so do most runs of shows. This is not the case at Signature.

    If you're going to sell rehearsals, then sell them at a rehearsal price.

  • J Kumsky

    Playwrights Horizon which is a non-profit theatre in New York City, very similar to Signature, does the exact same thing. They preview for almost a month and then invite the press later on. And the tickets are the same price the entire process, whether you are seeing a preview or a performance after the show has "opened." The same applies for the Manhattan Theatre Club. It's not just Broadway shows that have extended previews, many non for profits around the country that have the means are doing it as well.

  • DC Arts Lover

    I LOVE this move by Signature. Wish all the theatres in DC would do the same. Ticket sales of so many shows are hurt by the opinion of 1 reviewer in this town. LOVE LOVE LOVE this move, way to go Signature, Brilliant!

  • Ghost of Hamlet’s Father

    I am not surprised that Signature is charging Performance prices for Previews! I am sure they are doing whatever they can to make money. I worked for a vendor that they use on a regular basis and they were always THOUSANDS of dollars behind on the bill. One time my contact was trying to charge something and when the CC was rejected their response was, "our credit cards never work around here. I don't know why I even try."

    If they are so hard up for money they should stop wasting money on all of these NY actors who aren't any better than the actors and singers around the area.

  • LJeanne

    Let's be realistic here, people. If they were selling tickets to, say, a stop-and-go (anyone out there reading this even know what that is?), yes it should be at a reduced price. But if the only reason it's called a "preview" is because it's before the press comes to review the show, there is no reason to reduce the price.

    No professional company in NYC charges a reduced price for a preview. I saw "Billy Elliot" in previews and a stagehand walked out in the middle of a scene to fix a fog machine. Big deal. Was the ticket still $126.50? You bet.

    In a world where critics feel the need to find every little flaw and harp on it based on what they think the show should look like, I have no problem with delaying the press' inevitable bashing. Seems these days that critics are only looking at the names on the marquee and expecting every production to be something that will revolutionize the landscape of the theater.

  • Ghost of Hamlet’s Father

    There are reasons to reduce the price of preview performances.

    During the preview process the show is not finished. There are typically rehearsals during the day and the show itself is actually considered a rehearsal. That is why many people who subscribe to a theatre during their preview period also come back and see the show once it has opened. This is the time in which songs get added, cut, rewritten, re-staged and sometimes assigned to different performers.

    As for the claim that professional theatres in NYC do not reduce the prices for previews... that is just not true. The majority of Broadway producers offer preview performances at lower prices... some of them drastically lower. Cry-Baby had at least six weeks of previews and all seats were $54.

    Regardless of what theatres in NYC do (BTW: A theatre's location has no bearing on if it is professional or not. Same goes for actors) the standard practice among not-for-profit regional theatres is to not charge full price for a show that may not be finished.

  • Bruce Coston

    So tickets have gone up from $71 to $83. Guess you were wrong after all Trey, it looks like the tickets have gone up from preview prices due to demand. The night I saw it the only ticket I could get my hands on was a standing room only ticket.