This afternoon on Twitter, journalists were decrying the proliferation of the word “premiere” in theatres’ marketing and press materials, especially in cases where the usage is parsing a point rather finely or declaring an outright untruth. I feel for Jason Zinoman, Johnny Oleksinski, Charles McNulty, Diep Tran, Kelly Nestruck and their peers, because at times they may have editors wanting them to take note of important distinctions, but don’t necessarily have a complete production history in order to insure accuracy. Having previously explored the obfuscations of arts communication in Decoder and Decoder II (which remain inordinately popular), it falls to me to dissect this phenomenon.
How has “premiere” metastasized? World premiere. U.S. premiere. East coast premiere. West Coast premiere. Professional premiere. New York premiere. Broadway premiere. Regional premiere. Area premiere. Local premiere. World premiere production. Shared premiere. Simultaneous premiere. Rolling premiere. I’m sure I’ve missed some (feel free to add them in the comments section).
So what is this all about?
It’s a sign of prestige for a theatre to debut new work, so “world” and “U.S.” premieres have the most currency. This is the sort of thing that gets major donors and philanthropic organizations interested, the sort of thing that can distinguish a company on grant applications and on brochures. You would think it’s clear cut, but you’d be wrong.
If several theatres decide to do a brand new play all in the same season, whether separately or in concert with one another, they all want to grab the “premiere” banner. After all, it hadn’t been produced when they decided to do it, they can only fit it into a certain spot, and they can’t get it exclusively, but why shouldn’t they be able to claim glory (they think). Certainly they’re to be applauded for championing the play, and reciprocal acknowledgment is worthy of note.
But still I imagine: ‘Oh, there was a festival production, or one produced under the AEA showcase code? Well surely that shouldn’t count,’ I can hear some rationalizing. ‘We’re giving it more resources and a longer run. Besides, the authors have done a lot of work on it. Let’s just ignore that production with three weeks of paid audiences and reviews. We’re doing the premiere.’
Frankly, sophisticated funders and professional journalists aren’t fooled. But there are enough press release mills masquerading as arts news websites to insure that the phrase will get out to the public. If anyone asks, torturous explanations aimed at legitimizing the claims are offered. When we get down to “coastal,” “area,” “local” and the like, it’s pretty transparent that the phrase is being shoehorned in to tag onto frayed coattails, but at least those typically have the benefit of being honest in their microcosmic specificity. That said, if multiple theatres, separately or together, champion a new play, they’re to be applauded, and reciprocal acknowledgment is worthy of note.
In the 1980s, regional theatres were being accused of “premiere-itis,” namely that every company wanted to produce a genuine world premiere so that it might share in the author’s royalties on future productions, especially if it traveled on to commercial success. Also, there was funding specifically for brand new plays that was out of reach if you did the second or third production, fueling this dynamic. Many plays were done once and never seen again because of the single-minded pursuit of the virgin work. To give credit where it’s due, that seems less prevalent, even if it has done a great deal to make the word “premiere” immediately suspect. But funders and companies have realized the futility of taking a sink or swim attitude towards new work.
To give one example about how pernicious this was, I was working at a theatre which had legitimately produced the world premiere of a new musical, and the company had been duly credited as such on a handful of subsequent productions. But when the show was selected by a New York not-for-profit company, I was solicited to permit the credit to be changed to something less definitive – and moved away from the title page as is contractually common – lest people think this was the same production and grow ‘confused’. I didn’t relent, but it’s evidence of how theatres want to create the aura of origination.
I completely understand why journalists would be frustrated by this semantic gamesmanship, because they shouldn’t have to fact check press releases, but are being forced to do so. That creates a stressful relationship with press offices, and poor perception of marketing departments, when in some cases the language has been worked out in offices wholly separate from them. Have a little sympathy, folks.
That said, at every level of an organization, truth and accuracy should be prized, not subverted. What’s happening at the contractual level insofar as sharing in revenues is concerned is completely separate than painting an accurate picture of a play’s life (the current New York Theater Workshop Playbill for Fetch Clay, Make Man provides a remarkably detailed and honest delineation of the play’s development and history, by way of example). Taking an Off-Broadway hit from 30 years ago may in fact be its “Broadway debut,” but “premiere” really doesn’t figure any longer, since there’s little that’s primal or primary about it. If you’re based in a small town with no other theatre around for miles, I suppose it’s not wrong to claim that your production of Venus In Fur is the “East Jibroo premiere,” but does anyone really care? It’s likely self-evident.
Let’s face it, any catchphrase that gets overused loses all meaning and even grows tiresome. If fetishizing “premiere” hasn’t yet jumped the shark quite yet, everyone ought to realize that there’s blood in the water.
P.S. Thank you for reading the world premiere of this post.
Thanks to Nella Vera and David Loehr for also participating in the Twitter conversation that prompted this post, which has been recapped via Storify by Jonathan Mandell, including some comments I’d not previously seen.