Theatre, to paraphrase Hamilton, is first and foremost about being in the room where it happens. If for Hamlet the readiness is all, for theatre the liveness is all. That’s why theatre, which has existed since the ancient Greeks, has survived the churn of new technologies over the centuries, from printing press to wireless, cinema to television screen, the internet and social media.
But we are now in an era where we are learning to harness these new technologies in the support of the theatre. And smart performers have capitalised on social media to build their own followers and profiles. Look at Carrie Hope Fletcher, with some 650,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. As she told the Evening Standard recently: “I’d seen Justin Bieber using YouTube as a platform to get himself noticed and I thought it could be a way to get my voice out there.”
YouTube gave her a self-made route to an audience.
It certainly gives actors an autonomy over their own publicity and messaging. But by wrestling the control away from publicists and the producers who employ them, it can also create tension.
In 2016, Cameron Mackintosh Ltd enforced a long-standing term in performers’ contracts that they could not publicise their schedules on social media without prior management consent; this had a particular effect on understudies being able to announce when they’d be appearing.
Cameron Mackintosh Limited managing director Nicholas Allott told The Stage at the time: “We see [social media] as a very important way of promoting our shows, through our own efforts and through our associates, however there is information that could be commercially sensitive that we believe needs to be controlled by the management. We don’t feel it’s right that an understudy should let the rest of the world know when a principal is going to be off. Once we have announced it, they are completely at liberty to use that as much as they like but it needs to come from us first.”
Social media is a beast that can run out of control all too easily, and create its own unprompted narrative.
For example, there can appear to be no need to wait for official reviews to find out how good a show is. In recent weeks on social media, we’ve seen negative reactions to Lulu taking over as Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, long ahead of this week’s designated media night; and also for Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr’s stage musical debut in the West End return of Chicago. But who knows how either will actually fare when they have settled into their roles?
Sometimes a narrative begins even before rehearsals have got under way, let alone performances have actually begun.
There was an immediate outcry when Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff was cast in Fat Friends – the Musical, but when I actually saw it at Milton Keynes, I wrote here: “His presence in the show generates enormous reservoirs of goodwill, a commodity whose effect it is impossible to underestimate. No, he’s not the greatest actor – he really doesn’t know what to do with his hands – but he puts his solo song over with verve and nerve. While he brings a slightly homespun quality to the show, this only makes it more intensely relatable for audiences.”
And there’s another problem with social media: the premature rush to judgement. We do, of course, live in a world of ever-accelerating speed; a tweet takes seconds to write. A considered review takes a lot longer.
As a critic who writes both, I am aware of the risks of tweeting my opinions about a show too quickly – not least because once you have committed to them in a tweet, you have to stick by them for the review itself, or else run the risk of contradicting yourself.
And I often find that I discover what I really think about a show as I write the review. Writing reviews, as well as reading them, provides you with time to think about a show you’ve seen. And it’s been a real and rare pleasure to watch serious critics wrestling with a serious play such as Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, like my colleague Matt Trueman did in Variety. I was also pleasantly surprised that it was a show that got a genuinely respectful review by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, too. Neither considered response would have been possible in a tweet.