When Theatre Fails...

Elizabeth Stinnette

  • OnStage Virginia Columnist

“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” – Estragon, Waiting for Godot

When we named Waiting for Godot as the first play of our community theater’s premiere season, my worst fear was that no one would show up for auditions.

They have a saying about this, don’t they?

Our auditions played like some meta-version of the show itself, with our team cast as the hapless Vladimir and Estragon. Two actors wandered into the community center where we set up. They auditioned, they left, and we waited.

As the first hours passed, we treated it like a joke. Surely people would come after dinner, we agreed. We stared out the front windows every time a car drove past. Most circled through the parking lot without stopping.

Midway through the next morning’s callbacks, which we turned into another round of auditions, our director and producer succumbed to the inevitable. We canceled the show. 

When I got the news, I was traveling out of the city from a meeting. I leaned back in my metrorail seat, determined to take the news calmly.

Our team had given at least eight months to this show. We had gotten the rights and secured a venue. As the company’s communications director, I had shot a promotional video, searched for props, and advertised the show like crazy through social media. Now none of us would get to see this work bear fruit.

Or would we?

Nothing is guaranteed in the arts. Even if you do a good job spreading the word, there’s no promise that people will show up, either for auditions or the show itself. Our team decided that we could have done a better job following up with those who expressed interest in trying out. We realized that it’s hard to make a modern play with an absurd reputation fly even in the best of situations. It can be well-nigh impossible when your theater company isn’t established. These lessons will be invaluable as we continue to put on productions.

Because more than anything, our team learned this: When theater fails, we pick up the pieces, thank everyone for what they did right, learn from our mistakes, and move on to the next show.

One failure doesn’t end a theater. We’re more hard-headed than that. And so should be any artist who receives form letters or never hears back from casting agents. We don’t make art in spite of the struggle. We make art because it’s hard, because it refines and fulfills us.

I won’t lie and say that the experience didn’t hurt. It still does. Every time I look at the Beginning with Godot series published on this website or see a lonely tree on a country road, I think about the show that could have been. I believe audiences would have liked our take on the play, and that they would have enjoyed watching their neighbors tackle these challenging roles.

But it’s time to move to the next show, which for us is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s based on a popular novel. It has child leads—a draw for any community theater.

I already have a feeling that this play will do much better. At least, it can’t do any worse.

Three months ago, I invited you to join us as our young theater company put on a show. I took you through the fundraising process, getting our team together, letting people know that we exist. Believe me, our journey isn’t over. 

And I hope in your theatrical journey, whatever form it takes, that you will never give up either.