Friday, February 14, 2014

Meet the Press (or Press the Meat)

Well, that was interesting.

So “The Speakeasy” opened tonight, or did it? It’s either our fourth or fifth or sixth week of performances (I’ve obviously lost track), but tonight was the first press night (apparently, all the reviewers couldn’t come tonight, so there’ll be more, even if they don’t have a dedicated night), so, as I said on Facebook, we’re open – I guess.

As I’ve said ad nauseum, this show is a unique one. But tonight’s show stood out even in that context. It started early. I got there at 6:00, as usual, but the energy felt different from any other night; it was not business as usual. I assume it was because we all knew we’d have reviewers in the house, making it feel like everyone was on edge. I always find that interesting. While we never want to give a sub-standard performance, everyone seems to want to turn it up a notch to impress the reviewers. (I find this rarely works for me, by the way; things feel forced and squeezed. Nothing flows easily or naturally.)

Now, in spite of my remarks of yesterday about not being able to gauge a performance I’m directing, I think I have a pretty good handle on whether or not the acting I’m doing is any good. There have been some shows – and some reasonably recent shows, unfortunately – where I’ve felt I’ve just been going through the motions. I could all but feel the lines coming stiffly out of my mouth; that I was just repeating words from a page (even more than usual). There was no thought process other than “Is that my next line?” And, for the most part, I’m happy with the work I do, but I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough to know if I’m getting across what I want to (whether what I’m trying to accomplish is any good is an individual decision).

But, a lot of actors tighten up a little when they know a critic is in the house or a review has come out. There are a lot of companies where even the discussion of reviews is verboten. While I don’t subscribe to this prohibition myself, I honor the tradition for the sake of others. (Much as I do for the whole “Macbeth”/”Scottish play” thing. I don’t think there’s a curse on the play. It’s a play with a lot of battle scenes taking place on dimly-lit stages; accidents shouldn’t be surprising. But if someone is superstitious about mentioning the name of the play, I’ll go along with them. Why rock the boat?) Personally, I enjoy reading reviews, even bad ones. It’s always interesting to see if the reviewer got it or thought we missed the mark – and why. And I’m not saying they’re wrong and I’m right – or vice versa. It’s always just one person’s opinion; it’s just that this particular person has a more public forum than most. My concern used to be “Will it sell tickets,” but I realized tonight that it’s actually just the opposite: “Will this hurt ticket sales?”

I understand the importance people place on reviews, though. A good review can get an actor noticed and lead to possibly bigger and better opportunities and there’s a natural tendency to want to be in a well-reviewed show. It just feels like more fun. And audiences who have read the reviews are primed to enjoy it. (That said, I’ve seen plenty of well-reviewed shows at which I’ve had terrible times.) But there was an itchy quality to the cast before the show tonight. Everyone seemed just a little on edge and everyone went around wishing everyone else a good show, which hasn’t happened until tonight. (People have done the “break a leg” thing, but not so many people to so many other people.) It’s like everyone wanted to make sure they’d personally ensured everyone else’s success.

It didn’t help things, though, that we got a couple of a things thrown at us that we’d never experienced before. It’s sort of an unwritten rule – and one I certainly try to adhere to – that you never give a cast something to do in performance that they’ve never done without rehearsal or preparation. This can include new props, new costumes, new cues, or new staging. You never know how something’s going to work and trying it for the first time just might throw off the performance. But we got two new things tonight. (I won’t detail them here; not only do I not want to give anything away, but they may well change again.) The changes were abrupt, though, and not in keeping with what we’d been doing up until tonight, so we were all disrupted in various degrees. I was mostly okay, even if my mood was a little disturbed; I didn’t think the changes were as effective as the old stuff, but it’s not my call. I’m happy to go along with them; it’s just they were so unexpected tonight. (They were a popular topic of conversation among the cast at the after-party. No one seemed to like them, but we shall see …)

One of the peculiarities of this show is that, for various reasons, cast members check the audience in. Normally, if critics are in the house, we suspect it, but don’t actually know it – and even if we do, we don’t know where they’re sitting. They get good seats, but we can’t see them. With this show, though, not only did some of the cast know exactly who was there, but, since they had checked them in and they’re right on top of us during the performance, there was little doubt who the critics were, where they were, and who and what they were watching (and even how they were reacting). Of course, if nothing else, seeing all those people taking notes in their notebooks would have been a giveaway even if we hadn’t checked them in.

Overall, it was as typical a performance as this show gets. In the post-mortems, some of us felt like we’d had a good show, some of us felt they were just okay, and others thought they’d had an off-night. In my experience, it’s rare when everyone in the cast – and especially in a cast this big – feels like they all had a good – or a bad – night. The range of reactions varies from performance to performance.

The upshot is that, whether we sparkled or sucked tonight, we’ll be back twice more this week, and, no matter what we did tonight, both performances will differ from that one. That’s the beauty and the frustration of live performance; that you never know just what happened. I’m reminded of the famous story about Laurence Olivier’s “Othello.” Olivier had worked for a year on lowering his voice an octave or so to portray the Moor, and I think the results are quite successful. (I think the movie version of the production is the most consistently entertaining of his filmed Shakespeares.) But the story goes that, one night, he was just on fire. He’d probably never ever been better in his entire career, to the point where most of the cast spent the night watching him from the wings. After the show, Maggie Smith (who was playing Desdemona) went to his dressing room to congratulate him. She knocked on the door, went in, and found Olivier in tears. She said, “Larry, what’s the matter? You were brilliant tonight.” He replied, weeping, “I know. But I don’t know how I did it.”

Whether we shine or stink, we generally don’t know how we did it – unless something goes really wrong. Then we know. All we do know is that, come curtain time, we have to do it all over again from scratch and hope for the best.

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