Saturday, May 5, 2012

Going Up

For those of you unfamiliar with theatrical lingo, the expression “Going up” refers to putting on a show. It also happens to be the title of a song from a musical called “A Man of No Importance.” It also happens that last night the production of “A Man of No Importance” that I am performing in went up.

It’s difficult to explain to someone who has never performed on stage exactly what the emotions of an opening night performance are like. Standing backstage, waiting for the house lights to go down and the overture to begin, is a bit like standing at the front of a line to get on a roller coaster. You’re excited, you’re terrified, you’re suddenly wondering why the hell you thought this was a good idea in the first place. But you realize that it’s too late to back out so you take a deep breath, step out with a leap of faith, and let the ride take you where it will. And right afterwards, that rush of adrenaline gives you a high like nothing else in the world, and you can’t wait to do it all over again.

And just like roller coasters, the experience of performing is not for everyone. Some people get on a roller coaster and never get that happy, excited rush. They just feel like throwing up. And theater is the same way. Some people just don’t enjoy being on stage. They only experience the terror and never reach that euphoria of connecting with an audience, that delicious terror of teetering on the edge of disaster at every moment. And I’m a bit unusual, in that I have a bit of both extremes. Up until performance time, I am completely neurotic. Anyone who has ever performed with me knows that I always have a cheat sheet with me, I don’t deal well with any last-minute changes, and I completely freak out with nerves during tech week. But come opening night, I’m cool. I know that I can manage anything that happens. And, in live theater, anything can – and will – happen.

My mom was always impressed with how composed I am on stage. She definitely fell in the “only feel like throwing up” category of performing, and she told me that my composure definitely came from my grandmother, not from her. My mom told me a story of how, when my grandmother was in high school, she was performing in a play and just as the curtain began to rise, she felt the elastic band of her underpants snap and her panties fell down to the ground. (This was in the early 1920s, mind you.) Without missing a beat, she stepped out of them, kicked them under the couch she was standing in front of, and went on with the scene. Now THAT is a performer who knows how to roll with the punches.

So although last night’s performance went beautifully smoothly, as with any show, there were a few glitches, and I like to think that I managed them in a way that would make my grandmother proud. When I came onstage for a scene and found that someone had accidentally cleared the chair I was supposed to sit in, I calmly went backstage, grabbed another one and walked right back into the scene as if that was supposed to happen. When I started to exit another scene and saw that an apron had fallen in the middle of the floor, I nonchalantly scooped it up on my way by and tucked it out of sight behind a set piece. When I noticed that someone had left a prop on a table that wasn’t supposed to be there, I simply took it with me when I exited the scene. When another actor closed a door but it didn’t quite catch and swung back open, I surreptitiously closed it behind her. If those things had happened during tech week, my mind would have been spinning: “Did someone mean to leave that prop there? If I clear it, will someone kill me backstage? Is someone else going to come through that door so it’s supposed to be open? What if I hide the apron on stage but then someone else needs to pick it up backstage?” When there’s no audience, I overthink things so much that I get scattered. But when there are people out there watching, I somehow know that I can manage anything. If someone needs that apron, I know I can figure out an ad lib to take me on stage for a moment to grab it for them. If someone needs to come through that door and can’t open it themselves, I trust that they’ll know to knock with an elbow and I’ll open it for them. And if I can’t figure out how to fix it, I know that someone else will.

The beauty of theater, for me, is how deeply you come to trust not only yourself, but your fellow actors. Even if you’re alone on stage, if you blank out and suddenly find yourself staring at the audience without the faintest idea of what you’re supposed to be saying, you can trust that someone backstage will either hiss you a cue or find an excuse to come onstage and get you back on track somehow. My favorite actors to work with are not necessarily those who are amazingly brilliant actors, but those who can be trusted to save your butt if necessary. They’re the ones who’ll figure out how to say your line for you if you screw up. Who’ll roll with whatever happens. One of my favorite theater “oops” stories is from a production of “Cabaret” that I did a number of years ago. In one particular scene, we were in a nightclub and I was supposed to cross the stage and then begin to dance with someone. As the lights went up, I looked up to see the man I was supposed to dance with standing in the wings, wearing the wrong costume, staring at me with a horrified look on his face as he realized he’d skipped ahead and there was no way he could come out for the scene. Thinking quickly, I crossed the room and grabbed another actor that I knew I could trust to go along with whatever I did, and pulled him up to dance with me. He looked a bit alarmed and whispered to me, “Um, I don’t know this dance!” even as he followed my clumsy lead. I whispered the steps a beat or two ahead and he gamely obeyed. When I exited the scene, the director ran up to me and literally threw himself at my feet, he was so thankful that I was able to cover the mistake. But it wasn’t that hard, because I knew there were other actors onstage who had my back.

Good theater is nothing if not teamwork. Actors need to read each other, to trust each other, and to help each other. And when that happens, there is no feeling in the world quite like going up!

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