I want to present a story that demonstrates why I love theatre.
Sure, I could write some sort of complex essay about the reasons, including the service to man and the primordial importance of story telling. But I won't tell, I'll show. I will re-post here today a story I posted on the one year anniversary of this blog of mine. A story which is an excerpt of a much longer memoir that I wrote after completing what to me was in many ways a pivotal point in my relationship with performing. The play was "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged." The time was college. The place was the Lincoln Theatre in New Martinsville, West Virginia.
And now, the extended excerpt from that memoir, which is just as relevant now as it ever was to the reasons I still do this.
The Lincoln Theater turned out to be the largest one we would perform in on the road, as far as seating. If I had to guess, I would say a full house would be able to hold roughly 700 people or so. By no means were we getting a full house, but from what we had heard in the proceeding days from their ticket office, it was nonetheless going to be a large crowd.
The stage itself was much bigger than the space we had to work in at Marietta College. There was some space in the wings, and backstage, but not much. Off to the side both left and right, there was a depth of about 5 feet from the walls of the building, to the actual stage, on both sides. Both wings were separated into little sections by a series of mini-curtains, which, in effect, created 3 or 4 cubicle type areas on either side of the stage. It was in these areas, (which were already cluttered with folding chairs, pipes, and other various stage related material), that we had to place all the costumes and props. Kind of a tight fit, but it worked.
I spent most of the prep time in the dressing room in the basement. (The rickety staircase to which was behind the back stage curtain, stage left.) I never did wear any make up during those road trips, mainly because I did not own my own, and did not know how to put it on or anything. Yet the dressing room is where we actors hung out and got psyched for a show, and so in the dressing room we convened.
Once our stage manager called for places, I made my way back up the staircase, and took my usual spot, in the down stage right wing area, between two of the mini curtains, giving the sort of feeling of having my own private warm up booth. I could hear the large murmur of the crowd, and I just had to peer out very slowly from behind said mini-curtain, (The house curtains were not closed for our show opening). It was the largest audience we had yet performed for. I estimated maybe three or four hundred people.
There was a sense of anticipation in those last few moments before starting that night that was somewhat different than previous nights. There just seemed to be a bit more of an edge to the energy of the crowd. Finally, the lights dimmed a bit, and Gloria, who opened the show, walked out on stage. The large crowd quieted down.
Right away, I noticed something different. They clapped when she entered, which no one else had done. Furthermore, as her speech went on, they were laughing at several of the jokes. This was unique, because normally Gloria would go through her speech, and audiences would generally laugh, (modestly), at the same two jokes, if they laughed at any of them at all. (This speech was in the original script.) This audience was laughing at things that others had never laughed at; things that we as a cast had basically forgotten were supposed to be funny.
This was also true of the first few gags of the play. This crowd was not only laughing more heartily at moments that others had only giggled at, they had showed signs of enjoying things that no one else had yet laughed at. In fact, more than once or twice, I think our timing was thrown off in the first few minutes, during the opening sketch or two, because this crowd was actually laughing at things that even we as the writers and actors had forgotten were supposed to be jokes.
The energy of the crowd only built as the show went on. The folks in the house were not just watching a showl; they were letting themselves be drawn into the show. As though they all knew us personally. As a result, the cast took on a new, more exciting dynamic, unlike anything we had accomplished up until that point.
With each passing sketch or joke, the audience became even warmer, and as a result, everyone in the cast became bolder, and more confident in their individual performances. Lines were delivered with new power. Jokes were punched with better timing than we had ever had. Ad-libs came flying forth at a pace unmatched by any of our previous performances. The audience kept eating all of it up. Nothing felt like it was failing, as I was able to lose myself totally in this audience before the end of Act 1. Speaking for me, it felt fabulous.
During intermission, a very excited cast chattered about how well the show was going, as we all got into out “costumes” for the beginning of Act 2. For me and two others, this entailed putting on makeshift Roman togas.
About halfway through intermission, the toga wearers had to exit the building through a side door, so we could walk up an alley, and enter the house at the top of the Act from the lobby of the theatre. Our director had told us that we could, during these moments, interact with audience members if we so chose. All audiences at all the venues found this mildly entertaining, or in some cases confusing, when they swathe actors walking amongst them at intermission, but this crowd was impressed by it. Their excitement at watching me walk by on my way to a seat in the house was palpable. Some woman I think even whispered, “that’s him”, as I walked by.
When we interacted with the audience at this time, we could choose to do so either as ourselves, or as the character we were portraying. I myself, chose the former, opting to be myself. But I did not seek out interaction with the audience. I simply sat there quietly, and responded if anyone had anything to say to me. (Which several people did.)
One the total opposite end of that spectrum another one of my cast mates was on the other side of the house as dressed as Richard III. At that moment, he was attempting to start "the wave" with the audience members. At first I thought it a bit much to ask of them, but the audience complied! Nearly everyone in the theatre was doing it, including myself. Wonderfully fun, for all involved.
Act 2 finally got under way, and it went even better than Act 1. This crowd was giving me all kinds of energy. The audience itself was so energetic throughout the entire show, it would be hard to be performing for them and not have energy yourself. All my life I had desired reach out to a group of people like that; warm, intelligent, willing to have fun. We had all been interacting with them the whole time, of course. But I had two special chances to reach out to them all by myself.
There were two points in this particular show where I was left on stage all by myself, to deal with the audience. The first of these took place during our Hamlet sketch. When we announced plans to present Hamlet, one of our actors would get nervous, have a breakdown, and run down the aisle of the theatre to escape the show, with everyone in the cast pursuing him, except for myself. This of course left me on stage alone.
This audience totally adored this part. They applauded as the cast rushed out of the building. I knew soon enough, however, that I had not been forgotten in the fray; for when the clapping died down, I heard a girl from somewhere in the middle of the crowd shout "Yeah Ty!"
At this point in the action of the play, I would yell after the rest of the group, telling them not to “leave me with these idiots”, (referring to the audience.) Most audiences rolls with that punch. But not that night. This audience moaned at the notion of being called idiots! Imagine, 300 or so people going "hey!" collectively because of something you did. Now, I am sure they knew it was all part of the show, and were willing to go along with the jab, but so surprised was I by their response, I knew I had to make up for it somehow. Simply continuing with the bit as written would have felt false. So I bowed at the waist unto them, in an apologetic manner, saying;
"No, ladies and gentleman, I was just kidding, of course. You are not idiots. You are in fact probably the best audience we have had so far."
At this point, I pointed to some of the people in the balcony, (yes, they had a rather large balcony with a particularly enthusiastic crowd) and added,
"Especially those of you in the balcony".
The balcony applauded and waved at me.
Getting back to the script, my job was to explain that the cast would be returning any minute. When they did not after a few moments, I was to awkwardly stall, until they had the cue to come back to the stage. To accomplish this, I had written two very lame stories about how the cast knew what their duty was, or something. Everyone seemed to really enjoy these lame tales.
Perhaps that is why when I finished each story, this group applauded as though they were good, instead of being amused by the lameness of them. Even the parts that by design were supposed to appear bad and poorly constructed were adored for what they were. I am not sure if they, or I, was having a better time, though I would guess them, despite how high I felt. They just really seemed to click with me, and I with them.
That was always one of my favorite parts to perform, and that night it was even greater for me than usual. I dare say here and now, that during that part of the play that night, I ruled. It was just me, and four hundred people, who paid total attention to everything I was saying.
Of course that segment could not last forever. But less than an hour later I would get to be alone with them all over again. So I ended that bit, and cued the rest of the cast to come bursting back in through the doors.
The Hamlet sketch, like the whole show, was received far better than previous performances. I will never forget one particular example of how the jokes in Hamlet went off much better that night than ever before.
After the Hamlet segment, we would begin to close the show. We would thank everyone, mention where our next performance would be, and one by one re-introduce ourselves, before declaring unison “We are the Reduced Shakespeare Company”
But it was a false ending.
We had written our version of the show, so as to in a very subtle manner avoid all mention of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The gag was, the cast would claim to be done, and I would send them off ahead of me, while I would“clean up”. Once they had left, I would reveal to the audience that my cast has totally forgotten to mention that particular play. I would then proceed to provide the true closing of the production, by reciting, in a straight manner, Puck’s closing speech from that play. Afterwards, the lights would go down, come back up, and I would call back the rest of the cast.
As you may have come to expect, it did not work exactly likethat on this night of night. After our false ending, I heard someone yell "hell yes!" moments before the place erupted in very powerful applause. I assumed many of them thought it was over, as was the point, of course, but for a moment I was worried that the audience would start leaving before the final speech. I could not be heard at first, over the roar. Yet I still had to tell the cast to leave without me. Though it somewhat broke the apparent spontaneity of the moment, I felt I had little choice but to raise my hand to call for quiet, in order to deliver those lines. I honestly thought if I had not, people would either keep applauding, or begin to leave.
Thankfully, not one person stood up to leave early.
Just as the crowd was quieting down, I sent the cast on their way. As soon as they were all out of sight, I heard someone in the front row say something to the effect of, "They left you all alone again, Ty." I looked down to said person and replied, "Yes, they did, but this time I wanted them to."
I then began my usual bit. I looked out on that amazing audience. Four hundred quiet faces looking right at me, wondering what I was up to. Yet you could feel they were, as ever, open a receptive to anything that was coming next. You could feel them waiting to be delighted.
I mentioned to them that we had not done all of the plays, but that we had skipped "A Midsummer Night's Dream". In response, a female voice in the audience called out, "I knew you had missed that one!"
These interruptions may have bugged other people, but it never really bothered me. I figure they would not be so anxious to be a part of the play if they had not enjoyed it so much. This particular time I was not sure who exactly had said it, so I looked in the general direction and said, "You are the smartest person I have ever met." Laughter all around.
I have to say that although the nature of the show allowed for this back and forth with the audience, with ad-libs and everything else, at no time during the run of the show did it feel more natural than it did that night with that crowd. I was one with this audience, as clichéd as that may sound.
I gave my speech, and ended the play with the snap of my fingers. The lights went out. The darkness in the large theatre made it more dramatic when thunderous sustained applause again erupted. Our hands down greatest performance in front of our greatest audience had ended.
And the "ups" did not stop once the show was over, either. In fact one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole experience took place after the cast exited the house at the end of the show, and waited in the lobby.
We all stood behind this unused receptionist desk type thing, (or perhaps it was an unused concessions stand). It resembled a bar and faced the entrance to the house of the theater. The idea was to greet the audience as they came out, and to thank them, if any of them should come to us with comments and congratulations and such.
Come they did. In droves. Within moments fans surrounded us. Not simply those trying to exit the building, but those who gathered around us for a chance to meet us. (Which is why I call them fans as opposed to merely audience members.)
There were small spurts of applause, handshaking, chatting, and a great deal of autograph seeking on the part of the fans. It was a very constant stream of people wanting us to sign things, (Who were very excited to have us do so.) I signed programs, flyers, notebooks, memo pads, just about anything. I had never signed my name so many times in one night before. (Not that I minded for a moment.)
I was amazed and very humbled by this. For a time, I caught a glimpse of what the Beatles must have felt like.
These people were no fools, either. They wanted to engage us. They talked to us at length about theater, about the play we had just did, about Shakespeare. Several people mentioned that they had seen the "Complete Works" performed according to the original script, and had found our adaptation to be much better.
After a few minutes of mingling and signing and vigorous hand shaking, three girls came up to me whom I recognized right away. They were the girls who were in the front row of the audience during the show, one of whom had been the one I had talked back and forth with during my closing bit. I would say they were between 15 and 17 years old.
One of the girls identified herself as the girl who said "I knew that", when I mentioned on stage that we had skipped "A Midsummer Night's Dream". I remember telling her that I hoped she had not taken offense by my remark of her being the "smartest person I have ever met." She had not, and I suppose had I been thinking, I would have realized that she would not have been talking to me at that moment, had I pissed her off.
I talked with the girls for several minutes, taking measures to maintain humility in the face of such adoration for my performance. They invited me to come see them in the play they would be doing for their high school in a few weeks. I told them honestly that I was not sure if I would be able to make it, but that I would certainly try, because I was sure that they had enough talent to put on a performance that was just as enjoyable as mine had been to them. (I was not able to attend, as it turns out.)
At one point the younger of the girls asked me if I had seen any of her signs while I was on stage. She said, "They were small, so I was not sure if you would be able to see them." I confessed to her that I had not noticed them while I was performing. She then pulled out a small assignment pad, on which she seemed to have written in bold letters during the show, several messages that she had intended me to see from my vantage point on stage.
Flipping through the pages slowly, I read each of the make shift signs that I had missed during the performance
"You rock!" "Awesome!", and "We love you" were all among the little notes she had scrolled, in hopes of being seen from the front row.
It was at that moment that I began to realize that we had not simply entertained that night, but had overjoyed people. During these moments, I became certain that theatre was not simply a hobby, or a way of passing time, but when used properly, could do good in people's lives, and make a significant impact, if only for 2 hours at a time. Though I did not know what the future would hold for me and theatre, in the lobby with those people that night, I ceased to view it as merely an exercise.
I humbly thanked the girl, and told her she was very kind. I asked to see the pad, so I could sign it. It was the very best way I knew how to show my gratitude for her gratitude. The more I would have tried to say, the less sincere I am sure it would have sounded. So, for better or worse, I left it at that.
This fan-fest had been going on to close to 20 minutes, when out director announced that we had to be moving on. I bid goodbye to those I had been talking to, and followed the cast back into the house of the theatre, in order to retrieve our stuff from the stage.
While we were picking up our props on stage, several cast mates began to complain about botched lines, costume problems, and the like. We had obviously knocked everyone dead that night, but I started to wonder if anyone else knew that, given the banter of regret I heard from various corners. One or two people did agree it was our best audience ever, and understood where I was coming from with the power of the evening. Sadly, they all did not seem to.
But as we piled into the cars to head back to campus, it did not matter to me what the others thought. I knew, though I could not define it, that I had been immersed in something that transcended inner monologue and blocking technique. In fact, it transcended theatre. It was a night I brushed up against a sort of immortality, brought about by what I have come to believe is the most potent combination in life; people being made happy, by other people working their ass off at something the enjoy doing.
That show, and many shows have opened and closed in my life since that night. Yet the impact has never fully left me. I think back on that night whenever I question why I choose to continue acting, and wonder if it is worth the time I put into it all. So far, despite years having past, upon review of those events my answer to that question has always been, “hell yes.”