Friday, February 7, 2014

A Man Talks About Walking Into a Bar ...

My original plan – well, more like a thought – had been that I was going to discuss the show tonight, but there wasn’t a lot of fodder there. It wasn’t a bad show, or particularly great; it was just kinda there.

This was the first week we hadn’t done extensive rehearsing on a Wednesday (the producers have kept that day scheduled as a rehearsal even well into previews in order to break in new actors and add new material or tweak existing stuff, based on audience reaction), and it kind of felt that way. We’d been away for a week (more or less) and our own timing was off in places. It certainly wasn’t a bad show by any means; in fact, some of it was pretty good. It was just a different energy.

So far, our Thursday audiences have been the rowdiest; meaning they’re usually the drunkest and the ones who talk back to us the most, and tonight was no exception. They weren’t as obviously drunk as usual (and “Mac,” the bartender, didn’t seem to get swamped as he sometimes can [he just gets so damn many orders, and all at once]), but they were talkative. There was one woman at the bar who tried to engage all the characters near her in conversation and another sitting next to me who was having a discussion with her boyfriend or husband and wanted me to validate her position. (I didn’t know enough to give her a clear opinion, one way or the other – and, besides, I had my antepenultimate scene coming up any moment. I spoke to her, but not in a detailed way.)

Here’s the thing about this show: any performer knows (or should know) how to play off the energy of the audience. If they’re responsive, you can play it one way, knowing that, whatever you do, you’re going to get a good reaction. If they’re sleepy, you play it another way. And then, there are those quiet audiences that (we tell ourselves) aren’t bored (“they’re listening; they’re just not reacting.” Riiight.) And, of course, the reverse is true. Some nights, a cast has really good rapport and energy or sometimes they’re just really logy and there’s no way to goose the energy; it’s like acting in glue. Regardless, you can gauge the crowd. For “The Speakeasy,” though, there whole sections of the show that some audience members will never see (for myself, I have no idea what goes on outside of the barroom); I’m sure there are some people who saw the show and didn’t see or hear me do anything (and it’s their loss, believe me).

Even if you wanted to try, you couldn’t see everything in one visit. The two main spaces are completely separate – and even the scenes in the bar, where I am, have distractions, with as many as three scenes going on at once. I have a monologue at one point that I direct to just one or two people. The vast majority of people never even know it’s going on, but it gives a unique experience to those people to whom I direct it.

Even then, it’s not a matter of just our playing to an audience “out there in the dark;” we’re right next to them, having to get out of each others’ way, literally moving them out of or into position, even drinking with them. Speaking for myself (and I’m sure I’m not alone in the cast), I have material that, just before I deliver it, I have no idea to whom I’m going to direct it. There was even one night where I started my big Act Three monologue and was talking to a guy a few feet away. The stool next to me was empty, and he made a gesture that said, “You want me to sit next to you?” I thought, “What the hell?” and waved him over. He sat next to me and I just talked to him; the rest of the bar heard (it’s that kind of speech), but until he came over, I had no idea it would go that way. (On other nights, I’ve directed it people further down the bar or across the room; tonight, it was two guys at a table to my right, about four feet away.) Regardless, it’s the kind of speech that everyone in the room quiets down to hear, because they can’t believe someone is actually saying that. (And I do love it when I can feel the temperature of the room change like that. It doesn’t happen every night, but when it does …)

So, because (in a real sense) we’re part of the crowd, it can be difficult to wrangle them; there’s no separation or sense of “we’re acting and you’re listening;” we’re all in the same place at the same time and, even though they’re supposed to be listening to or watching someone from the cast do something, there’s no requirement for them to do so. (You could come to the show and just ignore all of the performers all night, if you were determined to do that. Though why you’d want to is beyond me.)

We have to wrestle the crowd into submission every night, and, even as I write this, I’m realize why it’s so exhausting for me to just sit at on a bar stool for three hours every night; we’re constantly on and constantly judging how to control and overcome the audience. It is exhilarating, though.

900+ words later, I see I did indeed have nothing to say about tonight’s performance …  

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