Friday, November 16, 2007

The show *must* go on or there are no "do overs" in live theatre

My son is in his first play and he's nervous.

It's an elementary school Thanksgiving pageant, so we're not talking Broadway or even with a local theatre troup.

It's also about fifteen minutes in length, so it's not a big production. However, it will be his first time in front of an audience. He also has one of the leading roles.

Today is his dress rehearsal and I am at work. I cannot be there with him to help settle his jitters prior to his first performance.

Last night as I was trying to get him to focus on finishing his homework, he had a minor meltdown. After a little questioning, he told me about his nerves about the play.

I was expecting that it was due to mere procrastination and dislike of homework, but once he admitted his fears I was able to give him a pep talk explaining my own tales from the stage.

Back when I was in high school I had been in a few plays and enjoyed those experiences thoroughly. I told my son about the magical nature between actors onstage and the audiences. That actors cannot know exactly how audiences will react to their production until their first performance.

One scene I remember vividly was where the character who played the patriarch of a family appeared to be dead. He sat in a chair motionless. Two characters approached him with apprehension and quietly suggested a morbid possibility.

His wife then came onstage and quickly assessed the situation realizing the others' fears.

She went up to her husband, gave him a hard shake and said, "Sander wake up!"

He shook his head, gave a grunt of "what?"

She followed with, "The children thought you were dead!"

The audience howled with laughter. They had been led to believe that the play was now going to be dealing with a death, and instead it was a false alarm. Their nervousness was replaced with laughter.

The first night that happened, I was surprised because for some reason I had not understand that scene at all. Its significance was not clear to me until we had an audience and heard their reaction.

I was not the only actor who was surprised by the audience's laughter. Only then did we truly understand the material we were working with and knew what to expect from audiences.

I told my son that he would have this same kind of magical experience the first time his class performed in front of an audience. Only then will they know when to expect laughter or gasps, etc.

A week earlier my son asked me, "What if I mess up my lines?"

I told him the old adage, "The show must go on."

Then I told him the story from that same play that had been a production of Flint Community Players entitled Time Steps by Gus Kaikkonen.

The second act of that play used several scenes using different parts of the stage. It was the start a scene - freeze - have other characters speak - freeze - continue until the act is finished style.

The first scene showed four characters playing a board game. I was in later scenes in that act where my character (I was seventeen and playing a fifteen year old girl) was with a twenty-something young man. One of those scenes included a stage kiss.

On closing night, the actor who played my grandfather made a mistake. His mind jumped ahead to the lines which opened the ending scene of the second act rather than the opening scene. So he said something like, "That's enough for tonight, I'm going to bed."

Everything could have been saved at that point if the next actor realized the problem and said, "No, come on, Dad, let's play just a little longer." Instead, he followed his cue and started to pack up the board.

I stood offstage with my partner in horror. There was the entire second act that now needed to be salvaged. We had to wait until there was a pause in the action for us to make our entrance.

The four actors did their best trying to insert lines of dialogue in a frantic manner to cover all the important plot points. Finally the actors quit talking so it was a "freeze" for me and "Benny" to enter the stage. We started our scene, but as soon as we kissed - the other actors started talking again!


That meant we had to keep our kiss frozen until they shut up, so we could finish our scene.

I remember thinking, "I'm going to kill someone over this."

I felt bad for my fellow actor since it probably was worse for him than myself to have a prolonged stage kiss. He had to have developed a krick in his neck having to keep it lowered to accomodate my short stature, because I'm sure I had not leaned upward to kiss him. If I had, I would have probably lost my balance holding that position for so long.

Later when the other actors stopped talking we finished our scene. At the end of the act, we left the stage.

I remember that the actor who played my father apologized to me backstage. He felt awful.

The man responsible for the debacle did not make eye contact with anyone. He slunk into the men's dressing room to change for the third act.

The thing was: the audience never knew we messed up.

They didn't know there were any problems whatsoever.

The most surprising thing to me was when I realized that the crew did not recognize the problem either. The backstage crew who had watched our rehearsals for over a month, and our performances for two weeks, did not realize that the second act had not gone according to the script.

The woman who was in charge of the props looked at me and asked why I was upset. I whispered, "Didn't you see what happened out there?"

She had no idea.

Because we covered all the bases so well.

I realized then how good of a theatrical team we had become. We had pulled together and avoided a potential disaster. The audience left without knowing how much different that performance was from all the previous performances.

I also had some extended family members in the audience and I asked them if they noticed anything amiss. They didn't.


Lo these many years later, I still remember the nervousness and anxiety I felt that night when things did not go according to plan and feeling relieved when our teamwork had worked and the play continued.

We did not break the scene and ask that we start anew. We did not laugh with "bloopers" or "out-takes." Nope. We simply continued and made it work.

Being in live theatre means that you are performing without a safety net and the show *must* go on. No matter what happens onstage. You must keep going.

Now, my son will not have any stage kisses in this production, but he at least knows that his mother has survived theatrical mishaps and did not die of embarrassment.

He also knows about the phrase "break a leg."

Go get 'em tiger!

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