Theater Jitters

Anyone involved in any theatrical venture has a point in time, if not several, when they get the jitters.

There is a great scene in Day for Night, a Truffaut film, where Truffaut himself plays the role of the director of a film within the film.  Toward the end of the movie, after all hell has repeatedly broken out in the course of making the film within the film, Truffaut’s character is being interviewed.  Asked about what the process is like, he says something like this:  “When you start making a film you think it will be the greatest ever made.  Soon thereafter, as everything begins to fall apart, you despair that you will never be able to finish the film at all and that it will never be released.  Toward the very end, you begin to see that you may actually be able to cobble together enough footage to at least finish the film. Then, in the final days, you begin to see how, just possibly, the film will actually turn out to be good.”

I think every actor, stage manager, set designer, director (and I’m sure a very similar process happens in virtually all creative endeavors) goes through the awful moment where it seems that nothing is going to work out as planned and that, far from being a brilliant display of wonderful talent, the play is going to be a complete disaster. Perhaps it will never even see the light of day.  Perhaps it shouldn’t ever see the light of day.  The sets don’t come together, the lighting and special effects don’t work, the actors don’t know their lines, advance reservations are pitiful. One begins to wonder why one ever thought this would work.

Of course, what makes the jitters intensify is the realization that sometimes one’s worst fears do come to pass. There’s often a point after that initial horrible feeling that nothing is going to work where still more things begin to fall apart: a key actor or technical person gets hurt or sick or disappears; a key rehearsal can’t be run because of a leaky pipe in the theater; a crucial set piece is broken during a run-through.

Live creative artistry is literally like riding an old-fashioned roller-coaster ride.  The whole long process building up to the first public showing is like the slow cranking up as the roller-coaster is pulled up the long incline up. You can’t quite believe that you’re so high up and there’s still what looks like an infinite upward slope before the thing will let loose. And there’s no getting off.  You’re on the ride and it’s going up and soon will come down like a hurricane. Nothing to do now but hang on.

Roller-coasters, though, do tend to stay on their tracks. That’s the fun of it: all of the terror but little if any (hopefully) real danger.  Not so true of theater.  I’ve seen seasoned professionals go completely blank in front of a full house. Set pieces can and do fall apart and crash to the ground. I saw a performance of Porgy and Bess where an understudy had to play Porgy’s part in the second act because the lead actor broke his leg coming off stage in act one.

So jitters though they may be, they can’t be easily dismissed. Contrary to the show biz trope, “The show must go on!” there isn’t any guarantee that it does have to go on.

So if local/community theater has the advantages of not needing thousands of advance sales to be viable, of not having to deal with the egos and personal foibles of big stars, and of not relying on massively complex staging and million dollar pre-promotion, it also has only so much room for error. People are likely to be more tolerant of minor glitches, but there are limits to that even in the smallest theater setting.  The audience is coming to see a show. They want to experience what a troupe actually does, not just what it aspires to do.

A week before opening is when these jitters usually begin to peak. Suddenly, there’s no sense of unlimited time to fix whatever isn’t working, to be confident that actors will learn their lines and the technical folks will make everything happen as planned that doesn’t seem to have happened correctly thus far. Now it’s all got to come together and, nine times out of ten, maybe 99 out of 100, it doesn’t come together yet.  Time suddenly becomes painfully finite. If it takes an extra hour to get a set piece or a costume together, if an actor is delayed getting to the theater, there’s no way to get that time back. Sometimes sleep is sacrificed.  But that too is a finite commodity and sleep-deprivation is rarely an ideal state for optimal performance.

So that’s where we are now with the production we’re putting together of Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde.  A unique conception: Taking the original Robert Louis Stevenson story and Stevenson’s evocative prose and using modern stagecraft to upset audience expectations and make the performance scary, theatrically jarring, philosophically meaningful, and simply fun and funny in parts.  All put together on a tiny, minimalistic stage. Classic black box theater.

If you’re in the Brattleboro, VT, area this coming weekend (the show opens Friday, October 24 @ 7:30, continues the next day, Sat. Oct. 25 and then Thursday, Friday, Saturday Oct. 30, 31 and November 1;  all seats $10.) come see what we’ve done.  Jittery as I am, I’m still hopeful, like Truffaut, that it will actually turn out to be quite good.

If you’re interested in some of the thought process that went into the production, take a peak at the essays I’ve included here, including a new one:  Monsters from the Id.    


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