I remember when I first fell in love. I remember almost everything from that day. Where I was, the excitement, the thrill, the joy I felt at this new experience. It was spring 1991, I was 10 years old and went to see my first Broadway production, The Secret Garden. I was in love.
I loved everything about that show. How the story centers on a little 10ish year old girl (like me!), how she could achieve so much on her own, affect so many lives around her, find her place in her family. I loved the sets and costumes, how it looked like the book I’d read literally came to life on stage. I loved the music, that hauntingly beautiful score that enhanced every emotion, every scene. I loved how everything came together for a few perfect hours and how it would do so again and again yet each time a little different though no less perfect. There is simply nothing like the magic of live performances. (For brevity’s sake, I’m focusing on live theatrical performances with this post.)
You can rehearse for hours, days, you can know every one of your cues, and your co-stars cues and still you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when you step onto that stage for a performance. A light stand might fall, you might be chatting in the greenroom and realize you miss your cue when you see everyone else exiting the stage, someone might jump an entire page of dialogue and then 2 lines later go back to the part they skipped (all true stories). Anything can happen and that’s the beauty of it. Theater is not about memorizing lines and cues, it’s about feeling and being present.
22 years after I first saw “The Secret Garden” I had the good fortune to be cast as Martha in the River’s Edge Players (Hudson, MA) production. It was a transformative experience. To know that I had the potential to influence someone in the audience to love theater, to see the magic and the beauty in live theater the way The Secret Garden did for me all those years ago was incredible. I tried so hard to infuse Martha with every bit of warmth, love, and sass that I could. I found myself trying too hard. At some point, right around opening night, I realized I was doing the show and the role a disservice. The point couldn’t simply be to make people cry when I sang “Hold On”. Rather the point needed to be my putting myself so completely into my role as Mary’s protector, making the audience so immersed into the story that they themselves felt everything Mary went through. Then and only then could they rejoice in my support and comfort of Mary with that song.
It’s a point I forget to varying degrees from one show to the next. It’s easy to be caught up in rehearsing: memorizing lines, listening for your cue, remembering to touch only your prop that you forget to be present and alive while performing live theater. For those of you lucky enough to be cast (or crazy enough to audition) remember to not think. Once you have the lines in your head, the blocking in your body, just stop. Let the magic of theater envelope you. Become your character while you’re on stage, think as them, speak as them RE-act as them. It’s amazing what happens when you give yourself over to the theater gods. The shows I’ve managed to just be are the ones that have been the most fulfilling, where I’ve received the most compliments and had the most enjoyable experience.
I’ve seen dozens of shows, and had the good fortune to be involved on stage and off with various theater and vocal groups. The work, dedication, time and effort involved by everyone from the lead to the stage manager to the guy ripping tickets and giving you your playbill is nothing short of miraculous. Everything is a separate entity, a completely different moving part and yet all must come together in a very short amount of time. For community theater productions it’s typically around 8-12 weeks. (Shout-out to Cole Porter for vocalizing that stress so wonderfully in “Another Openin’, Another Show) With community theater productions everyone has a day job. So in between you know, making a living, maintaining family and friend connections (sorry to everyone who’s heard my “I can’t, I have rehearsal” excuse) there’s this other “thing” to juggle. But this “thing” becomes your life. You eat, sleep and breathe the show because that’s where your love is, your passion so the idea of not giving it your all is simply not one you’ll consider.