Over the past couple weeks I saw showings at Velocity Dance Center from two prominent local dance groups (zoe | juniper and The YC). I’m nowadays averse to writing anything resembling a review about a showing because by definition it is a work in progress, and publicly airing an opinion on that work in progress serves more to undermine the work than improve it. If an artist wants my feedback on a work in development, typically their best bet is to solicit that advice off the record. (I will say that I did enjoy both showings)
I go back to a previous point: Once you are charging an audience admission for the explicit purpose of seeing a show, the game changes and your work becomes subject to the scrutiny of interpretation. The zoe | juniper showing was free. While the YC solicited pay-what-you-will donations at the door, the event was more of a gathering/party than for the showing that took place therein. It’s a formula Kate Wallich has utilized before (she also presented a piece called Smoosh, a precursor to this most recent presentation, as part of a larger Cornish art gallery party), and a formula I support.
I like the idea of showings for larger, abstract works in progress, and realize it can be difficult to get an audience beyond your inner circle for a showing, but to offer the showing as part of a larger community-oriented event (especially if the event is in part a fundraiser) fosters goodwill and widens your reach for said showing.
George Lewis once told me, “There’s nothing like a deadline.” A show itself is a deadline, but you court disaster when your full length piece’s first real test is when you’re presenting it for a paying audience. A showing offers your material a deadline with a softer landing, plus gives you the luxury of presenting partial or incomplete material. As long as the showing is taken as seriously as a show, it can be very helpful.
On the flip side, this is a friendlier route for dance than it is for theatre. Dance’s generally abstract approach lengthens the stale-date for presented material compared to more contextual dramatic theatre. The YC and zoe | juniper, for any additions and changes, can do the same choreography in their final show months from now and it will still look fresh to audiences that recently saw the current product. Audiences only retain a general memory of what they previously saw when that product is based in aesthetic and abstract elements.
Conversely, if you do a scripted showing now, then do a slightly revised and expanded final version of that scripted show the following year, viewers who see both will more distinctly remember the material they previously saw, and the final product may come across as a re-run of sorts… even though the final product is the one you most want to be taken seriously. They will remember the context and key lines even if they don’t remember the exact words. But your exact words will jog their memory and they’ll know what’s coming next. The suspense and surprise is gone. Never minding the challenge of making an emotional moment you’ve gone through 100 times fresh and real, it can be really hard to surprise and impact an audience full of people that have previously seen large bits and pieces of the work you are showing them in a ticketed theatrical presentation.
(This is also one reason of many that I am not a fan of the default theatre approach of reproducing old plays. But that’s another subject for another time.)
As an artist, I can still derive value out of seeing the same work or recycled work again. I remain fascinated in how you get to point B and other nuances. But a more casual patron may not be as fascinated with knowing how the story ends.
That said, the theatre artist has a lot to gain from showings, while walking that fine line between presenting too much too soon and making sure to present enough that they get the needed feedback, not necessarily audience opinion but a gauge of audience reaction and how it feels presenting it to said audience.
The Satori Group is an example of effective showing. They showed a small, entertaining opening scene from the play Fabulous Prizes in a works-in-progress showing before soliciting audience feedback (of which they got a copious amount). The final product months later included that opening scene with no more than slight revisions but the rest of the play, which evolved and diverged significantly from that scene, was unseen and brand new to those same audiences. The feedback played a helpful role in crafting the rest of the play. Even if you remembered that first scene well, you did not know what would happen in the rest of the play.
It’s here where I can see the prime argument for utilizing a director. The director in effect provides a helpful, ongoing audience for the work, albeit one that gives direct feedback and assists in construction and refinement. The risks I previously discussed remain: The director actively steers a work in progress and a director can easily steer the work away from what you’re seeking as a creator. The director is, after all, a different perspective, and your vision is not the director’s vision.
In collaboration this difference in perspective is not only fine but essential. In personal vision, creation and composition this is a compromise. If you’re trying to explore and investigate new ground in your work this can completely undermine that movement unless you and the director are creative and psychological yin and yang.