Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oh, the Joys of Live Theatre

I recently made a reservation to see a show at a local theatre. I received an email back from the artistic director, who had also directed the show, saying that she hoped I still wanted to come, but that she felt that she had to tell me in advance that she would be going on carrying a script in place of an actor that had left the show. Of course I still went, not only because I know her to be a great actor and wanted to support the theatre, but also because I had great deal of interest in seeing this particular show. I replied as such and also added, in jest, something to the effect of “I hope you aren’t also house managing and running the light board!" Imagine my surprise when I walked into the theatre and she actually was house managing!

I was reminded of an opening night performance I attended a number of years ago at a large Equity house, where the lead actor had left the show a few days before opening and the director went on in place of the actor, script in hand. It was one of the most memorable and moving nights of theatre I have ever experienced. In that case, the artistic director made a pre-show announcement providing the context of “Oh, the joys of live theatre.” In both cases, the script became virtually invisible, either due to the skillful physical handling of the script, the performance/skill of the director/actor or some combination of the two.

What struck me most about both of these experiences is that there was an almost palpable electricity onstage. There seemed to be a renewed focus and increased energy from all of the players. The actors and the entire production team rallied together in a way they couldn’t have possibly done in the absence of this adversity. The end result, though likely very different from the rehearsed "product," was, in my estimation, probably a more energized, committed and focused performance for all.

The audience in both of these cases approached their experience differently as well. They were almost uniformly rooting for the team to pull it off and even looked forward to the story they would be able to tell their theatre-going friends: “I was there when….” They also were, probably unconsciously, even more attentive, observant and gracious than they would have been otherwise.

While none of us would ever wish for something to go awry during the run of a show, such instances epitomize some of the things I love most about theatre: its risk and its immediacy. As an artist, these brushes with theatre "disasters" remind me to challenge myself: am I always bringing as much focus and commitment to the work I am doing as I can?

I’m sure we all have many similar stories, at theatres large and small. What are some of your best "I was there when..." stories (either as an audience member or as an actor)? How did the theatre "disasters" affect the experience as a whole, either for the actors or for the audience members?

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At October 27, 2010 at 3:13 PM , Blogger Jonathan said...

One of the most personally memorable experiences I had with this actually came from my college theatre days. I was in a very ensemble-driven production of Ubu Roi--you know, the kind of production where every actor plays 12 or 15 parts and brings on and off all the set pieces and whatnot. About an hour before curtain, we found out that one of the ensemble members was going to be too ill to perform that night. To make matters worse, the director was schmoozing with donors before the performance and was completely unavailable. So the cast and crew gathered together in front of a giant blackboard and brainstormed every thing that the missing actor did, and decided amongst ourselves who would be available to take each responsibility. Then we grabbed our scripts and frantically began to learn new scenes. We left the blackboard backstage as a reference for us during the performance. I don't know how the audience felt watching the show, but it's rare that I've experienced that level of camaraderie during a performance.

At November 4, 2010 at 4:26 PM , Blogger mingle said...

I watched a ballet performance once where the music was piped in. Probably a bad idea to begin with, but in this case, the sound system completely dropped out. The head dancer then started counting out the beats to keep everyone together. I'm sure it was the way they rehearsed the piece, but it had a stunning effect. It was so amazing and transformed what was simply an enjoyable piece into a real story that we were watching.

At November 9, 2010 at 10:02 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

In one of my first ever performances - Romeo and Juliet with a youth theatre production - the entire cast came down with a horrible bug. Most of us were barely functioning at our 7:30am matinee call, and those who were were kept busy administering decongestants and herbal tea to the invalids. Our lead performer was so bad we weren't even sure we could go ahead with the show! However, having such adversity made us all try that much harder to push through and pull it off. What had initially been a decent, relatively high-quality performance suddenly became totally enthralling experience for us as well as the audience. Under the absolute worst conditions we, collectively, created one of the single greatest experiences of our lives!

At November 13, 2010 at 12:16 PM , Blogger SMLois said...

At a fairly large regional theatre I was ASMing a production of Guys & Dolls and got a phone call at 8:45am - the woman playing Sarah Brown had laryngitis and we would be putting in her understudy for the 2pm matinee. But the understudy also played the General and there was no understudy for her, so we called the AD and he went on script in hand. He was quite convincing until he started to dance and just didn't know the steps. It was quite hilarious. But I have never seen a cast/production team so invested in a show - gathering around the TVs backstage to watch the show and cheering each other on in a massive way.

At November 18, 2010 at 11:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was performing in Smokey Joe's cafe in the role of DeeLee. My cast was full of amazing singers...but I must admit that they were kind of a conglomeration of people who only moonlighted in the theatrical world...including the director. Anyway, I figured out what I was in for and decided to make the best of it and just do my best, because that's all I can control! (learned that along the way too!) So, as DeeLee, I get to be the lead fly girl for the Shimmy! I had 2 other guys I was dancing with, and the lead singer. One night...the lead singer just didn't enter from behind the curtain. I literally "knew" this less than an 8 count before the song began. I just turned to the audience and started singing the song as though I was always supposed to. I was SO glad that I had been present and in the zone all those times when the actual actor was singing! All the more reason to know the WHOLE show that you're in so you can always step up to the plate to fill in if necessary!

At November 23, 2010 at 11:26 AM , Blogger nicnik said...

A few years back, I was part of a regional theater production with a large cast where the leading lady was having a hard time vocally throughout our run. Some days, she wasn't sure if she was going to go on or if her understudy needed to step in. She managed until we reached the closing performance.
At intermission, we were told over the intercom she couldn't continue and the understudy went in. We rallied behind our new leading lady, who is immensely talented, looking out for her and ready at a moment's notice if we needed to help her out with staging. One of the supporting actors, before the curtain went back up, gave her a few words of encouragement telling her, "You got this."
For the show, we normally had a letter painted on the side of our eyes for the main character but for the second half of the show, we wore her initial instead, as a silent way of cheering her on. It was a flawless performance.
She brought down the house and received a standing ovation. Both ladies came out for the final bow and the entire 2500 seat house exploded with cheers. The energy in the theater that day was palpable and to this day, the memory still thrills me.

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