Technical Difficulties: When a Show Stops

Lindsay Timmington

It was right after Marya called Natasha a horrid hussy of a girl that the sound cut out in the Imperial Theatre at the Sunday matinee of Great Comet this weekend. Natasha, Marya and Sonya soldiered on; projecting like champs while their mics failed. Seconds later, a voice filled the theatre alerting the audience to something we already knew--that they were experiencing technical difficulties. The show was stopped, and the audience was encouraged to stay put. The actors exited (not pursued by a bear with a policeman on its back) and the theatre erupted with applause.

In Jordan Tannahill's wildly important book, "Theatre of the Unimpressed" he examines why theatre-going is often considered an obligation, and a boring one at that. The difference between a vital production and a dusted off relic (lookin' at you, CATS) often comes down the choice to risk failure or play safely.

There's a prevailing, predictable theatre that's risk averse and wary of failure, and there's a dark-horse theatre that's predicated on risk and failure as preconditions of a transformative live event. And it's the latter of those two theatres that will keep the art form vital in the twenty-first century. [Tannahill, 13]

It's uncommon for a large production to come screeching to a halt, and it was only the second time since opening on Broadway that Great Comet stopped mid-show.  A technical failure can be a disconcerting, frustrating experience for an audience, especially when the production has a strong, established fourth wall. But because of Comets' immersive nature, the audience is asked from the minute they walk in, to not simply sit in front of the performance but to live within the collectively created world. So while the show technically stopped on Sunday, the world we'd all accepted and been living in did not. And damn if it wasn't one of the coolest things I've seen.

The first moments shook with palpable energy and electricity, partially because we were all still coming down off the egg-shaking "Balaga" number that had just roared through the theatre. A few moments later, the last few rows of the balcony started humming the melody and the pit musicians plucked along in time with them. Moments after that, THE WAVE moved through the 1,138-seat theatre with seemingly everyone participating as directed by the conductor, pit musicians and Pierre.

A vital theatrical exchange is one in which the audience feels both influenced by, and influential within, a performance. One in which the audience is not a passive receptacle but an active participant. [Tannahill, 112]

There's an inherent risk in every live event. These days, theatrical productions with big budgets and modern technology can often avoid the risk of failure with the press of a button and enforced audience etiquette.  When we limit the actors to the stage, separate from the audience, we avoid interaction and further curtail potential problems.  There are very few shows on Broadway right now operating with an open invitation for failure. Comet is one of them and as I witnessed yesterday, a moment of failure can create an incredible experience.

There's an understood contract between audience and actors at most Broadway shows that says the audience's role in the experience is in front of the proscenium as an observer and not a participant. Sit down, be quiet, keep your head forward, laugh and cry when appropriate and then clap for us. Great Comet burned that contract and wrote a new one-one I've never seen before in a production this size and one that will be a real shame to see come to a close in a couple of weeks.

Comet takes a million risks every time they open the doors to a new audience, every time an actor sits next to someone in the crowd, flies up and down the stairs to the balcony, hands a letter to an audience member seated at on stage, or dances on a runway five feet wide while strobe lights flash wildly around.  Comet has, for five years pushed the parameters of production to the point where they've now, hopefully shifted audience expectations for a big, commercial show.

 Throughout my many conversations about the theatre, the one consistent reason people gave for attending was a desire to share in the risk of live performance. [Tannahill, 147]

For ten minutes yesterday, Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 was interrupted and stopped by a technical malfunction. The resulting reaction from the crowd was not to shift restlessly in their seats, sigh in impatience, or stomp out angrily, but to sit in the beautiful excitement that only live theatre, and a show like Comet can create.