Sunday, February 24, 2013

Shifting Gears

There’s a little feeling of disappointment after a show has opened. The rehearsal period was so full, and so full of changes that made working vibrant. The week of Previews had that “smell of the greasepaint, roar of the crowd” excitement, capped off by the hoopla of Opening Night. Did you know GEVA has a champagne toast onstage before every Opening Night? The actors were there, half ready for the show, in curlers, double-fisted with coffee and champagne, feted by the staff and patrons of the theatre. Fun, fun, fun. And then, Opening Night is over. The show is a success. The play works, but everything shifts into a different gear.

It feels a little reminiscent of returning home from a big vacation. Gone are the weeks of planning that had immersed you for so long, looking at different options, talking about preferences and possibilities, packing and repacking, and then the vacation arrived! It was fun and fabulous, you had a great time, and boom, it’s over. You are back home. Done. It does feel good to sleep in your own bed and you do have the photos to share…
I have been thinking about how it is for the actors. The show is set in stone. It is now all about doing it again, each performance, the way that works, the way that has been set. The upcoming weeks of actual performances will be different from the rehearsal weeks. The focus of the actors is less on creating and playing with their craft, and more on authenticity and connection. One of the actors spoke about developing “muscle memory,” where the script lines and blocking become second nature requiring less conscious thought, so the actor can concentrate on qualities like emotional build and flow.

Comedy in particular relies on the build and flow. The rehearsal period established a pace that works – done like this, the preview audiences laughed. This is how it will be performed. There is however an element of unpredictability – the audience. The director foresees a tricky balancing act now that the show is “real” and in performance mode.  There is a need to read the audience each time and shift a little, but also a caution to not let the audience rattle the actors. It’s important to not overreach or work too hard with the funny parts which, on any given night, may not receive such big laughs. The mantra is “do what has worked,” tried and true, and hope the audience catches up or catches on. That’s the advice for the audiences that aren’t laughing quite as much or quite as soon. I think, with this show, the more pertinent issue is how and whether to shift for the audiences that laugh a lot, or laugh unexpectedly at times that were not funny before, or that laugh in smaller chuckles throughout. The actors on stage are the constant in this equation; the audiences are the variable each night.

The Book Club Play’s characters each have their own personal growth trajectory through the play. There are many aha moments and parts that can strike a familiar and funny bone. The audience member brings to the show their own background, and when they hear something familiar in a character, that realization can express itself in innumerable and not predictable ways. On the Thursday evening preview, many book clubs came to the show and they really identified with quite a bit of the show. This was their world, at least in parts. The audience was really alive. Once even the title of a book got a big guffaw – only with a book club audience! The character of Alex, wild card that he is, invites a range of reaction; he’s as likely to be seen as profound, crazy, sweet, literally insane, or in the throes of a life crisis, any one of which will touch someone out in the seats. On Saturday, Will’s revelations got some big big chuckles on the right side of the audience, again and again.  Someone was very closely identifying there. It was infectious and the following scene with Will’s song and dance entrance touched off the whole audience.
There are the dependable audience reactions, and the characters of Jen and Rob may be the ones who receive these throughout the run. As these characters grow in self-confidence, the audience is right there with them. They are the kind of characters that you cheer for. However, I have seen variation in terms of when folks start to warm up. Jen is initially a lot of hijinks, lost keys and blurted-out thoughts, but at some point, the audience starts to see her strengths. And then, they stop laughing at/with her and shift to a silent nodding and “hmmmm”ing of recognition. I’ve seen this shift occur in a couple different places. Because she is SO funny, I wonder if it’s better when that connection comes later, or earlier because her character is pivotal. Rob, on the other hand, is played more like a slow burn, but his facial expressions and the largesse of his movements seem deliberately attuned to how the audience is reacting. For instance, in the last hidden scene, he sometimes comes off as tender and sometimes as silly. Both work, and Rob plays either equally well, sealing the audience’s love for his character’s humanity.
The characters of Lily and Ana seem more volatile under audience scrutiny. Who will identify with them? Who has a friend like them? Who “gets” Lily’s vulnerability and hipness? Who “gets” Ana’s best self and then loss of control? And most importantly, if you do get them, how are you going to react in public? Lily is far younger, and hipper, than most of GEVA’s patrons (sorry but it’s true), but her role focuses on the universal need for friendship. She has a great scene of recognizable, even if a tad exaggerated, social embarrassment. All audiences will “get” this and will allow the sophomoric character to embellish and heighten what we fear, without losing credibility. Some audiences, however, may roar and others just titter. Through much of my Cohort time, I have felt that Ana’s character gets the most laughs, but she is by far the most serious one on stage. She herself rarely laughs, but I do. Early on, the laughs are at her because she is played as an uptight caricature, and then later, the laughter comes as a release because of the tension she is creating, and then finally, the laughter embraces her because she’s so like our inner child needing acceptance, skipping over to join the group.
The actors become these characters for the 1 hour, 48 minutes runtime. Then, they eat, sleep, talk, sing, dance, call their families, hang out with one another, and eat and sleep some more. They read a script for their next play and check audition listings. They get to the theatre on time and give the show 100% effort. As a cohort, I have found them each to be remarkably friendly and genuinely funny without scripts. They are lovely human beings. Each performance they will get back up on that stage, and do what they’ve practiced and what they have trained to do. And, they will throw it all into the hands of the audience.

Who is that audience? You. Me. That guy who was a little cranky on Friday night? Someone loose with Saturday night drinks? Out on a Date Night without the kids? Fidgeting with the FM loop? Sitting with a best friend, or an acquaintance who offered to come at the last minute? Season subscriber or a new-to-town theatre wannabe? A book aficionado or a sports fan dragged along? This is the audience variable. This is who will shape the show, again and again at each performance.

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