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Their move: Signature’s preview-period gambit
breaks new ground for DC theaters.

“The show opened at Signature on Aug. 10,” notes the third paragraph of this TBD.com story about the poster design for Chess.

But you didn’t see reviews of the musical last week, did you? And you won’t—-maybe not until September.

That’s because the Signature Theatre, in a move that’s a first for a D.C.-area company, has decided to experiment with extended previews, New York-style. It was those preview performances that began on Aug. 10.

And the press performances, which usually line up with “opening night?” Not until Aug. 28 and 29. Which means that almost half of Chess‘s seven-week run—-it’s set to close Sept. 26—-will have passed before it’s officially open.

And before the newspapers—-even the dailies—-can get their reviews to readers. (Sub-optimal, that, if you’re a newspaper whose subscribers get antsy when a Tuesday goes by without the chief critic weighing in on, say, Sunday’s big Shakespeare Theatre Company opening. I can imagine a certain amount of consternation in the halls of 1150 15th.)

Inviting reviewers is always a crap shoot, of course. If they’re charmed, they can evangelize for your show. If not, well … this can happen.

So the temptation is to wonder whether, with a show like Chess—-a cult favorite powered by a trio of Broadway veterans—-Signature is simply betting that subscribers, social-media campaigns, and word of mouth will get a sufficient number of butts in those Shirlington seats. (The cast is filled out by Signature regulars including Eleasha Gamble and James Gardiner—-who have lots of fans and friends.) Bigger theaters like Signature—-and Shakespeare and Arena Stage — have the staffs and budgets to manage more complicated marketing and social-media schemes. YouTube trailers, Groupons, Facebook fan pages and Twitter contests are all in play now; some companies stage blogger preview nights, complete with talkbacks in the theater and drinks in the lobby. If a theater can start enough chatter among both serious theatergoers and casual looking-for-a-night-out types, it may be able to tip the old critic-producer balance of power a bit.

Not that anyone would say that. Signature Managing Director Maggie Boland—-a veteran of Arena Stage, where shows typically run eight weeks but only play six preview performances—- says it’s all about making performers more comfortable, finding a way “to give the show time to settle.” She points out, too, that more previews and later press nights are something the company plans to do mostly with new musicals. (Which Chess isn’t, though it is a heavily revised one.)

And not, necessarily, that a balance-of-power shift is entirely a bad thing. Limp criticism, uninformed criticism, plain old mean-spirited criticism? Not much more useful than a pile of Likes after a carefully orchestrated Facebook campaign. Theaters have every right—-and probably a duty—-to try to counter it.

But critics can make shows, in addition to breaking them. And with new plays and new musicals, an experienced, thoughtful review can help audiences and artists alike celebrate what’s working and diagnose what’s not. It’s part of a conversation between artists and their audience. At Signature, for the moment, part of that conversation will be starting a little later than usual.

One last note: What, one wonders, is a D.C.  audience to make of a “preview” performance where a prime seat costs $71? As of this writing, that’s what a full-price ticket will run you (before Ticketmaster fees) for the evening of Thursday, Aug. 26—-the last non-special-event performance at which the cast and crew of Chess, in Boland’s words, will be taking advantage of the opportunity to settle into the show.

As it happens, that’s what you’ll pay for the following Thursday, too.