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Should Critics Get Free Tickets?

February 21, 2008

An interesting discussion with the artistic director of a small theatre company here in San Francisco about whether theatre critics should be entitled to get in to see his show (and shows in general) for free prompts me to write this post.

The artistic director -- let's call him Fred -- asked me for information about the "protocol" with regards to giving out press tickets. I told him that the decision about free tickets is always at the discretion of the theatre company. But I added that pretty much every company, big and small, local and national, gives away tickets to critics. In fact, with the exception of a few Broadway shows which I saw on the fly in New York and a handful of productions where I was offered free tickets but decided to pay because I was attending 100% as a friend of the creator and not in a critical capacity, I don't think I've paid for a ticket to see a performance (whether theatre, concert, or dance) since I started working as a professional arts critic.

Fred, as far as I can tell from our discussion so far, thinks that critics should pay for tickets unless they're absolutely committed to writing a review of his show. The arguments for this are understandable: Why should a critic get a free ride and not give anything back in return? Plus, his theatre company is very small, operates on a shoestring and is truly hungry for every dollar.

The thing is, often a critic needs to see the work of a company (especially a small, young one such as Fred's) to familiarize herself with it in order to decide whether to devote a 1,200 word column to that company in the future. Furthermore, sometimes critics write about productions in avenues other than their main publishing vehicle. I, for one, frequently comment on shows in this blog and I also review theatre every few weeks on the radio (on the local NPR affiliate KALW's Artery program.) Then there's the possibility of having the show crop up in other areas of a critic's work. For example, if I'm writing an article about the many faces of San Francisco theatre, or the way in which companies are using space in an innovative way, I may refer to Fred's company and talk about his show.

Theatre professionals know this which is why they usually do what they can to get critics into the house, thinking about their shows, and hopefully talking and writing about them too. I might also add that just because a critic promises a theatre company a review, it doesn't guarantee that the review will appear in the media. The editor may decide not to publish the piece for whatever reason. The paper may go bankrupt overnight and cease operations. Some things are beyond the critic's control, making it hard for a theatre company to discriminate between reviewers who say they'll definitely be writing a piece about a show and those who have other less direct reasons for checking out a company's work.

In short, I believe that if theatre makers want to generate discussion about their work, they should provide critics with open access to it. Of course, there is one notable exception to the rule, which I should mention. If a theatre company doesn't want its work reviewed (e.g. because it's a workshop production and still too "raw" for public comment) it shouldn't feel obliged to let critics see the show for free. Obviously a director can't stop someone like me from paying for a ticket. But in this case, I would personally probably respect the theatre company's wishes and keep my thoughts to a dinner table discussion with friends, at least until the run is over.


  • I occasionally pay, depending on how late in the run I'm seeing something and how well I know the company. If I'm familiar with their work and just want to see something they're doing that I've heard is good, I'm perfectly happy to purchase a ticket and support their work. One of the good things about paying for the ticket every so often is that it reminds me the investment that non-critics are making with their purchase (not just in money of course -- time is also at a premium for most people, which is why I sometimes get cranky with shows that really feel like a waste of time). Naturally I don't think shows should be reviewed solely on the "bang for the buck" scale. But it is a factor for a lot of people when they are choosing a play, and I've found it's helpful to be reminded of that every once in a while as a "civilian."

    But I do hope that artistic directors who don't want to give tickets to critics who may or may not review their shows don't go begging tickets from productions featuring actors that they may or may not cast down the road. (That last bit is tongue-in-cheek. Sort of.)


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 25, 2008 at 8:54 PM  

  • Kerry,

    Yeah, you a some good point. I don't mean to sound arrogant or like I feel like I'm "entitled" to free tickets to everything I see. I do ordinarily pay for work that I'm seeing without my theatre critic's hat on. But having said that, it's rare that I don't have that hat on -- especially since I started blogging. Funnily enough, the last time I tried to pay for a ticket to see a friend's show, he wouldn't let me pay. So I ended up donating the money to him on his website -- he has a podcast and accepts donations for his work there.

    I think the thinking like a civilian idea is a good thing for a critic to be reminded of. Perhaps I should start paying to see shows more often...


    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At February 26, 2008 at 10:00 AM  

  • Oh, I'm hardly a saint on the issue of paying, trust me! In fact, I'm going to NYC this weekend and would like to get some comps to things that I know I'll end up paying for, if I can even get in (after Isherwood's rave for "The Adding Machine," which I saw at Next a year ago and loved, I'm sure that's gonna be a hard ducat to come by!)

    The funniest thing I ever heard vis a vis the relative value of an entertainment-related ticket: many years ago, someone I know in Chicago was doing PR work on an independent film. He got a bunch of us to buy tickets to the premiere, which was $10. Believe me, in late 80s money, that was a lot for us downwardly mobile types to pay for a film.

    Anyway, it wasn't a terrible film. But not a particularly good one, either. As we walked out after the screening, my friend Norm looked up and said "Ten bucks! Ten bucks we spent on this. Christ, it may as well have been ten bucks we spent on brussels sprouts!"


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 26, 2008 at 10:21 PM  

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