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?