January is a very busy month in theatre-land as new shows open, taking the place of the Christmas themed productions. Yet in this scramble amongst critics to attend all the press nights, I'm increasingly of the opinion that social media is making press nights redundant.
For those unfamiliar with the traditional set-up for theatre, it goes like this. A show opens with a number of preview nights. These run for about a week with cheaper prices. This gives the production time to see how audiences react (are they laughing in the right places?) as well as iron out any technical glitches before the big night.
The big night is press night. That's when all the theatre critics are invited to come along and review the show. After that, the show is in its run, ticket prices are higher and the success (or otherwise) of the production becomes apparent.
So there we are. Sounds straightforward, right? Not anymore. Not in the age of social media.
As soon as the curtain drops, audiences are straight onto Twitter to tell their followers - and the world - just what they think of what they've seen. Is the show good? Is it bad? What's the acting like? etc etc. And this happens straight away. There's no social media embargo for paying audiences - not at all. As soon as they've seen the preview show, they can tweet about it all they like.
In fact, you can even get this kind of info during the interval of the first show - the hashtag #intervaltweets is now a very popular way of following feedback on shows. Indeed I use this hashtag myself for all the shows I go to see.
Pretty much all the theatres in the West End are clued up to this and scour social media for feedback on the show straight away. When they spot great feedback, they might even 'favourite' or 'retweet' the comment to their followers - spread the word. (I've no idea what they do if the tweets are overwhelmingly negative. Feed that back to the production team, maybe??)
But anyway, there it is. As soon as a show opens - the first preview night, not press night - you can read all about it on Twitter and Facebook.
Yet press review conventions have remained. Tweet about it all you want but news outlets are requested to review only from press night onwards.
However some bloggers are now filling this gap between first preview night and press night by writing longer reviews online. They are not bound by the same rules because, apart from anything else, they buy their own tickets and are not employed by traditional outlets.
I've been burnt by this convention in the past - twice.
On both occasions I bought my own ticket, tweeted my (as it turned out, positive) thoughts straight away then posted my reviews here on the Huffington Post, a largely blogging website.
Yet on both occasions the theatres concerned retweeted my positive comments on Twitter straight away but complained about my full review going up on the Huffington Post.
Can theatres have it both ways? Can they both flaunt positive feedback on preview nights yet censor longer reviews being posted online?
Social media is crucial to the future of theatre. Theatre has to interact with new audiences, the next generation, if it's going to compete for a share of the entertainment audience with television and film. Yet this new generation they're trying to win over largely reject traditional media outlets for reviews on shows, preferring bloggers and the diversity of opinions on social media instead. Even the award-winning actor Hattie Morahan added her voice to that last year saying she too likes to read the blogs.
There certainly is a growing number of theatre bloggers. In addition to me on the Huffington Post there are also others such as West End Whingers, West End Wilma and The Other Bridge Project. Some of these abide by the press night convention; others do not (for the record, now I do).
Maybe some will argue that theatre cannot change the set-up, that they need preview nights. Yet that's not always the case.
For some shows, especially where runs are short, the first night is the official press night. This often happens at the Southbank Centre and Sadler's Wells, for instance. So it is possible that in the medium to long term, theatre could adapt and follow suit. If it does, if preview nights disappear, it will be because of social media and the impact that has had on disseminating feedback and reviews.
For all the issues social media brings to the theatre, let us also focus on the positive in that being integrated into such a dynamic platform, hopefully theatre will attract a broader audience to its shows. And it needs that to survive and thrive.