Sunday, February 9, 2014

We Interrupt This Program ...

Seems like all I write about lately is “The Speakeasy.” I suppose that’s inevitable when I’m still in the job market without much else to do (meaning my days are filled with the minutiae of job-hunting and web-surfing, and three or four nights a week are dominated by the show).

And, of course, in discussing the show, I’ve been saying that every performance is unique and we never know what to expect. Tonight’s show, though, was the most extreme example of that. (I’d say it was the most unique, but we all know you can’t qualify unique – and that every performance is unique, anyway.)

We started the show as usual, and things were proceeding more or less as they always do, what with the little subtle differences each audience brings. Tonight’s was actually a little irritating – at least the four people sitting next to me, surrounding me at the bar. Despite the money they’d paid for tickets and drinks, they seemed to think the show was about them, rather than about us. (Please note, I’m not saying that the cast, as people, is the most important part of the show; but when you buy tickets to a show, one supposes that you’re committed to receiving what the production has to offer rather than trying to one-up it.) All through the evening, they kept talking and commenting on events. (At one point in Act One, I finished a scene and one of them wanted to fist bump me, a gesture I ignored. Even had that been in period, I wouldn’t have done it. That’s not what the moment’s about.) When they left at the end of the first act, I thought I was done with them, but they soon returned and kept making their presence known.

But those folks were neither alone nor overly distracting. The show is engaging enough that it can overcome such interruptions.

The interruption we couldn’t overcome came at the beginning of Act Two. We were about five minutes in, with scenes proceeding and overlapping as usual, when suddenly, over the goddess mic, came the unmistakable tones of our intrepid and hard-working stage manager, asking for our attention as she made the announcement that we’d had an emergency of some kind and that we needed to hold the show. (Previously, this had happened only during tech rehearsals.) I’ve been in the theatre for over 40 years, and this is the first time a show I’ve been involved with had to stop in mid-performance. I’ve been in the audience both when it happened. Back in the 70s, while seeing the first national tour of “Evita,” the show had to stop when the actor playing Che took ill and had to be replaced mid-performance, and when it seemed to happen. In the late 70s or early 80s, I was seeing Antony Hopkins in “Equus” in Los Angeles. He suddenly went up in his lines, paused, and apologized, asking the audience if he could start over. He then went on with his lines, since the screw-up was actually part of the script and was so well-directed and –acted that it seemed like an actual flub. It’s still one of the greatest acting moments I’ve ever seen.

Anyway, the audience that had been in the other parts of the building came into the bar, and we were suddenly in a room loaded with confused (though not alarmed) people who wanted an explanation, or a drink, or both. After a few minutes, nothing had happened to change the situation, but actors from the other room began filtering in, giving us what information they had. It turns out a patron had fainted in mid-performance, and was disabled to the point where he had to be assisted by both firefighters and paramedics. I have no idea what caused him to collapse (I heard it was warmer than usual in the space, but I don’t know if that was the cause), or even if he was taken to the hospital, but it doesn’t matter in the sense that he was seen to and assisted. Even with that, I overheard audience members saying that they’d seen the man collapse, but given the nature of the show, didn’t know if it was real or part of the plot. (I’m reminded of the production of Brecht’s “Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” we saw in Berkeley in 1999. It was the final tour of the original incarnation of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, and I thought it was a wonderful production – a sentiment that was not universally shared. At one point in the second act – this is after the intermission, mind you – someone in the audience jumped up, slammed the door open, yelling “This is a nightmare!,” and exited loudly. Being Brecht, though, we didn’t know if it was real or part of the production. It turned out to be the former, though why the guy just didn’t leave at the interval, I have no idea.)

But, meanwhile, back in the bar, things were getting loud and disorganized. The evening was starting to morph from a performance to a party. Our director quieted the audience down and made an announcement that we’d be starting again in a few minutes and apologized for the wait. That sort of reset the crowd, but a few minutes later, they were back to where they’d been. Again, an announcement, and again, the reset. We were all told it would be only a few minutes, but since I saw the stage manager in the bar, I knew that wasn’t really likely.

Eventually, after about a half an hour – during which time we all tried to stay in character (or to at least not be too obviously out of character) – we got the announcement that we’d be starting again in just a couple of minutes, and that, given the need for the simultaneous timing of the multiple spaces, we’d be repeating the first five or six minutes of Act Two. The crowd was given the all clear to leave the bar and visit the other parts of the space, and, indeed, after only another couple of minutes, we got the audio signal that the act was about to begin, and we picked up at the start of Act Two, no doubt giving the audience a case of déjà vu.

The rest of the evening proceeded pretty much as usual, excepting that we were 35 minutes behind. The show runs on a pretty strict timeline, so, by looking at my watch, I have a good idea of where we are, what’s coming up, and how much time I have before my next scene. At 30 minutes behind, it would have been easier to know that, but 35 minutes made me have to do a lot of mental math. There were some touch-and-go moments (there are specific scenes that require a certain number of audience members to be watching and had to wonder if we’d have enough people watching; we did), but most of those would probably have occurred whether we’d had the delay or not.

Probably the worst fallout from the event? A group of cast members had picked tonight to go to see a midnight screening of “The Room,” allegedly one of the worst movies ever made. (I’ll have to take that on faith; I had no interest in seeing it.) With our normal end time, they probably would have made it easily (they’d all bought their tickets in advance), But, given the 30-minute delay, I have no idea if they even tried. It’s less than a ten-minute drive, but still …

But that’s why we do live theatre, boys and girls; we have hopes that stuff like that will happen. Even with everything else that the show offers, tonight’s audience will have a unique experience, even if they wonder if it was all just part of the show.

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