Saturday, May 28

In defence of the weird and wonderful world of the theatre chat message boards

The simple thought of the theatre chat boards like BroadwayWorld or TheatreBoard is enough to send writers, directors, performers and producers running screaming into the night. Before the curtain drops on your first night performance, the message boards have already lit up with reviews, comments and thoughts on the latest show, and unlike paid critics, they don’t hold back if they do not like something. If producers had magic powers, they would make these boards vanish, but why, why do they have such a bad rap?

I have been a member of the Broadway World chat board for well over a decade, I have seen everything you can see from smartly written reviews, bitching and fighting, gossiping and paid shills (more on that later). Over the years my mind has flipped back and forth on the idea of these message boards, are they simply a way for theatre fans to express and share opinions, or do they do more harm to the industry than good?

As a playwright/director and an audience member, I have experienced both sides of the dreaded message boards. Years ago, I would be one of the voices on them screaming ‘Carrie the Musical is a misunderstood masterpiece’ whilst also reading comments on my own plays (‘The play kinda sucks’ said one member about my first play ‘3sum’ back in 2007). Here is the thing though, with all the drama that can happen on these boards, they also contain members who I think offer a valuable contribution to the art form, ones who give smart critiques of shows, often far better reviews than the critics themselves. Oh, and that message board member who thought my play sucked, well he was right, it did.

These outlets allow theatre fans to connect from around the world, share casting gossip, backstage stories, news from workshops of upcoming shows and more, it can be a fun place for a theatre nerd like myself. However, one of the things the message boards are most notorious for are reviews from the paying public, starting straight away with the first preview performance, and the industry HATES these. Previews are a period where a show is still fixing things, seeing what works and what doesn’t in front of a live audience, the official opening/press night, is when the show is locked after a few weeks of preview performances. However, that does not (and should not) apply to message boards where members will review the show from the first preview onwards. And don’t get me wrong, i can see why creatives might be annoyed by that, the team are still working out all of the issues, it’s a crucial time for a show, but honestly, the PRODUCERS have no right to be annoyed any more.

You see, many years ago, when a new show was in previews the tickets used to be discounted, after all, you are not seeing the final locked show, you are seeing something that is still in a state of flux, you are essentially a test audience, and producers would be far clearer in their marketing when a show was in previews. However, running costs for shows are now much much higher, so producers are now charging full price and quietly whispering that it’s a preview.  So now, you could be paying over £300 to see the first night of a show on Broadway, or £90 plus in the West End to essentially see the first or second run through of the show.

So here is the thing, if audience members are paying full price during previews then that person who purchased that ticket has every right to share their opinion on a message board, it’s as simple as that. Producers and creatives might hate that their work gets judged early, but this is a reality that the theatre industry not only needs to accept but embrace.

You see, comments after first previews like ‘it’s rubbish’ or ‘I hated it’ with no context or criticism don’t really add anything and are more than a little frustrating. However, multiple members of these boards do in-depth smart reviews that allow others to decide if they want to spend their hard earned cash on tickets. After all, we can’t all afford 100’s of pounds to throw away, so these early thoughts, especially if consistent by most who are posting about it, can often be a god send to the wallet.

And here is an important thing, something I wish more creatives would pay attention to (though I do know that a few secretly do). The people who see every new show and review it on these message boards are incredibly knowledgeable. They have paid £1000’s and £1000’s over the years to see these shows and with that comes a lot of knowledge. Frequently these posters will suggest cuts, changes, things that can make it better, the whole message board is normally in agreement, so maybe creatives and producers should spend more time listening to what they are saying rather than arguing that they are saying it?

Multiple times I’ve agreed with assessments by these posters, I mean, these people are genuine lovers of theatre, not jaded critics, these people are the heart of theatre, the one’s who we should want so desperately to impress (critics don’t pay for tickets, these posters do), so maybe, just maybe, they know what they are talking about? I know I listen to them and audiences when it comes to my work, I mean I won’t compromise my writing to please the masses, but I will fix what is clearly not working when multiple people who paid to see the show are saying ‘it’s not working’.  I personally find these kind of message board posters invaluable.

Let me give you some examples.

Over on the BroadwayWorld message boards, one member seemed to have everybody engaged when it came to their reviews of first previews and also often re reviewing after the show has opened. This members username is WhizzerMarvin (though sadly they have not posted since 2020) and when a new show opened on Broadway, Whizzer would always review it, and the message board members would wait in anticipation for this persons review, myself included. The reviews are well written, full of detail, suggestions to the creatives and more often than not, they were right. Another poster goes under the username Jordan and seems to fly between the US and UK to see shows, that is someone who is passionate about theatre and frequently shares their balanced opinion and overall thoughts. These are the people who keep the theatres lights on with their ticket purchases, not only do I want to hear from them, I NEED to hear from them.

I have heard several in the industry say the message boards are toxic, that the members hate theatre, they just want to bring a show down, and that is simply not true. Yes, like every message board regardless of topic it has some bad apples, some who just go there to cause drama, but this is nowhere near the majority. Over on TheatreBoard, it’s a pleasant place full of please and thank you’s and what seems to be some lovely theatre friendships that have developed.

You see these message boards, social media etc. have become a far more important tool for theatre than standard critics and print press. Theatre takes advantage of these things to promote shows, they even pay for adverts on these message board sites, well you can’t have it both ways. In fact, some of the most unfortunate incidents on these message boards are from the industry itself. Actors, writers, directors have often jumped on the boards to defend their shows that are failing, often insulting the posters and their intelligence, a terrible move by any measure, and then we have shills (I told you we would return to that). Shills are paid by producers to join these message boards and post fake profiles with glowing reviews for the show that said producer is working on, this normally happens when the show has terrible word of mouth. Producers, listen, THEATRE PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT SHILLS, they joke about them when they post, please stop, it does nothing to help and only signals problems with your show, these idiotic fake reviews are far worse than anything anybody can say about your show, because it shows defeat (this practice should be put to bed forever).

And here is my final defence of the message boards, some of those message board members who posted frequently went on to write or star in some of the biggest shows around. Lin Manuel Miranda often posted on Broadway World before his success, and I think it’s safe to say that he has done OK for himself (and he still pops up to this day, normally thanking fans). Knowledge of theatre comes from watching, understanding, loving and absorbing every part of it, it’s about passion and how it makes you feel, and if that’s the case, then it makes these message board reviewers more than qualified.

I hope you enjoyed this little insight, next week I will be picking some upcoming shows in Manchester to look out for, as well as my thoughts on ever rising ticket prices.

Until next time

Stay safe.

Craig.

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