One of my favorite things to do as both an audience member and as a writer is to go and see a theatrical performance on its opening night. There’s something about that particular performance that makes it different from any other performance. Over the past few years I, as not only an audience member but as a reviewer, have been fortunate to see many opening night performances. It is from those experiences that I would like share a bit of insight as to what makes the opening night performance stand out from all the others.
Firstly, there is both nervousness and excitement radiating from the stage throughout the show. It is often times the first time the cast is performing in front of an audience; unless the show had an open dress, which means there was an audience watching the dress rehearsal. This is great for the cast because they are able to get real reactions to their performance. They may have to pause at the end of a song for applause or at the end of a line for laughs. But with these reactions comes the need for more performer focus. If someone in the audience gets a tickle in their throat and starts coughing during a dramatic scene; the performers need to be fully engaged in their scene so they don’t allow the coughing to distract them. That being said, the performer must also be prepared for the audience to not react as planned. During rehearsal the cast may find a line or part of a scene funny but when it comes to the audience, all they might get for feedback is silence. Even though reactions from the audience happen during every performance and the performers need to be prepared for whatever the audience does or doesn’t do, it’s the opening night audience that provides a good idea of what is to come.
It is said that performers feed off the energy of the audience. This can be a huge positive for the performer because they are instantly getting feedback and can sense if the audience is enjoying themselves. With this energy they up their performance because they want to give the audience the best show they can. However, a lack of audience energy can quickly drag down the performers’ energy. From there it’s a slippery slope to where mistakes are made and in the end: a lackluster performance. If the performer feels like the audience isn’t enjoying themselves they may either push things over the top hoping for improvement or they may give up and decide that the audience doesn’t care about the performance - so why try so hard to make a good impression. Either path can be a dangerous one.
Something else that makes the opening night an exciting performance is the rawness of the performers and the show itself. Unless there have been a number of previews the show is not in a seasoned rhythm yet; meaning that anything can happen. The individual microphones for the performers may not be set to the correct levels yet, the scene changes may not be as smooth as they should be, quick changes may not be so quick, spacing for dance numbers may be off if they are not used to dancing in and around the set on this particular stage and so on. There are any number of things that can make an opening night more interesting. While some may find these things to be negative and that they can make or break a performance or lead to bad reviews, I find these things exciting because after all, it is live theatre. Nothing will ever go exactly as rehearsed or play out with precise timing; at least not until the show has been up and running for a while. But even then people need to remember that it’s live theatre and no performance is the same. They all have their snags or mishaps, but those things add to the color and reality of the performance. How boring would it be if a show was always the same? There is a medium out there for those that wish to see the same show every time: it’s called film. But this is live theatre where the stakes are high, the audience is always different and you never know what might happen.
One sign of a seasoned performer is his or her ability to roll with whatever happens. If they need to improvise a few lines because someone missed a cue, they are able to, all while staying in character to ensure the audience hasn’t a clue that something isn’t going right. If someone gets injured or sick mid-show, the rest of the cast works together to cover the absence or to help the understudy through the show. If someone trips over a set piece or a prop is missing or a sound cue is late; the ability to handle whatever the show tosses at the performer gives them experiences they won’t get anywhere else and teaches them how react and cover without the audience knowing that they are reacting to something unforeseen.
As a performer, I know that I need to be ready for anything. As an audience member, I get excited to see every performance I attend. As a reviewer, I understand it is live theatre and anything can happen and if the cast and crew are good I won’t notice anything unplanned. But if the cast and crew are inexperienced and unable to handle what live theatre throws at them; I most certainly will notice even if the rest of the audience doesn’t.
Above everything else, my favorite part of seeing an opening night performance is supporting the cast and crew by being the best audience member I can. Sometimes I know people in the cast and am excited to see them on stage. Or to surprise them afterwards when they didn’t think they had someone there supporting them. Sometimes the show itself is one of my favorites and I can’t wait to see what the company does with it. On opening night having a full audience can be a huge confidence booster for the cast and crew especially if tech week has been rough; which it usually is. Hearing robust applause at the end of the night after singing and dancing your heart out, it’s then you know you’ve done your job and done it well. After all the stress and hard work you and your company have put into the show, hearing the audience’s excitement makes it all worth it.
So, if you haven’t attended an opening night production before, I highly encourage you to do so. Things may go wrong or they may all go right, you never know, but enjoy the experience and support the people who put in so much hard work. It’s an exciting experience that only comes once and you never know when you’ll be seeing the next hit show or breakout performer.
Photo: Renée Elise Goldsberry (third from right) with the cast take their bow on the opening night of Hamilton's off-Broadway run at The Public Theater.
(© Seth Walters)
For more of my reviews and theatrical thoughts check out: http://intheatresome1isalwayswatching.blogspot.com