When a Show Starts to Really Work After Performances Begin

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Skip Maloney

So we’re backstage at the conclusion of performance #10 in a 12-show run of Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, produced by Big Dawg Productions at the Cape Fear Playhouse down here in Wilmington, NC. We’re in the single, narrow dressing room that accommodates all five of us and our two-person backstage crew, changing back into street clothes.

J. Robert Raines, who plays Doctor Watson, is in the midst of changing his shirt, with a broad smile on his face.

“That,” he says, “was just so much fun!!”

Amidst murmurs of agreement all around, acknowledging that it had taken us a while to reach a performance level that was “fun” for all of us, we stumble across one of the harsh realities of community theater; that by the time everybody literally gets their act together, the run is over.

There are shades to this truth. There are times, at all levels of production from the amateur to professional, when a given show is ready for an audience. Aches for it, in fact. Characters have been developed adequately, technical issues have been ironed out and everything’s good to go. This rare occurrence usually results in a fully developed show within a night or two of live performance (although, truth is, a show never really stops developing until it closes).

I’m reminded of the dialogue between Phillip Henslowe and Hugh Fennyman in the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love.

HENSLOW: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

FENNYMAN: So what do we do?

HENSLOW: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

FENNYMAN: How?

HENSLOW: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Indeed, but Henslow’s optimism notwithstanding, not a mystery that is completely solved before a production’s first few performances in front of an audience. It is one of the intangible things, along with a willing suspension of their disbelief, that an audience brings to a production that is irreplaceable, no matter how many rehearsals have preceded live performances.

Not for nothing do Broadway productions expose themselves to a week or two of live performances before they allow anybody with a pen and a review on their mind near the place. Not for nothing do theater people at all levels tend to avoid attending first-night-with-an-audience performances, because like Broadway producers, they’re well aware that shows not only don’t, but can’t really hit their stride until they’ve been done a few times with a few fannies in the seats.

I contend that this is particularly true with comedies, and even more particularly true with a script like Ludwig’s Baskerville, with three of its characters filling 40 roles; changing costumes (sometimes in front of the audience), switching props, set pieces and on occasion, dropping out of character altogether to comment on the theatrical façade of it all.

As actors (not characters), we respond to odd technical additions to the script. When the character of Doctor Mortimer mentions that footprints found near the body of Sir Charles Baskerville were, in fact (with high melodrama) “the footsteps of a gigantic hound!” there is an eerie, ominous musical cue to which we all respond by looking around with a “What the hell was that?” look on our faces.

“Really?” says Watson, when a stuffed cloth mannequin is thrown on stage to represent the dead body of the villain’s second victim. “Is this the best we could do? I guess this is what happens when the checks bounce.”

Each of us, individually and collectively, have to gauge an audience to determine how far to take a joke, which ones work and which ones don’t, which can often vary from audience to audience. And with this show, we’ve been adding embellishments right and left. There are things that our 1st through 4th performance audiences didn’t see that are now part of what we’re doing, two performances before we’re done. On a somewhat more subtle, personal note in this regard, audiences #1 through #4 did not get to see the hand gesture I now employ to punctuate my line about “setting a trap” (palm up and open) and “springing it” (a quick close to a fist).

There is normally, though not always, a bottom-line level, backed by rehearsals and the relative professionalism of a cast and crew which prevents a production from inflicting a truly inept performance on any audience. By the same token, change does happen.

While it’s clear that our performances and the technical aspects that go along with them have changed and yes, improved since we opened a couple of weeks ago, that realization is mostly internal. We know it, but audiences not familiar with the script would have no way of knowing it. They’ve laughed at the jokes and applauded enthusiastically at the end of every performance to date, and we’ve gotten ‘review’ feedback, based on our early performances, which suggests that even early on, we had our basic ‘act’ together.

Twelve performances is a pretty decent-length run for a community theater production, offering sufficient time in front of an audience for significant development. I once played Salieri in a community theater production of Amadeus for three performances and spent a lot of my time on stage terrified that I was going to mix up my (interminable) lines and hurl everybody into the middle of Act Two, 10 minutes after the curtain rose on Act One. I don’t believe I was ever relaxed enough in those three days to have offered any of the three audiences the best that I had to offer. But such is the reality of stage performances in general, and community theater productions in particular.

It’s something of a problem without a solution. With community theater, extensions of a run are impractical, frustrated by a schedule which often dictates the arrival of a subsequent production, as well as reducing a production’s projected revenue, as it exhausts its available theater-going audience. It might make sense for companies to offer free (or low) admission to audiences for a few of a production’s final rehearsals, as Big Dawg did in the case of Baskerville, although only for the very last rehearsal before opening night.

The inherent problem with this is twofold: free or low-cost admission impacts a company’s bottom line and could reduce overall attendance. Community theaters struggle with budgets as it is, and toying with the figures that way is not likely to sit well with the boards of directors who oversee finances. The creation of such low-priced or free performances is also likely to create within a potential purchasing public the idea that they’re seeing a production that is somehow qualitatively less than they might see after a given production opens ‘officially.’ This doesn’t seem to phase theater-goers looking to save a buck or two for a Broadway ticket, but could impact the thinking of those who regularly attend local theater productions.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from any of these somewhat obvious observations, it may be that performers drawing close to an opening night should add to their ‘bag of tricks’ a commitment to the idea of having fun. Make it part of the rehearsal process. Recognize that it’s not an end unto itself, but a signpost, indicating that if you’re having a good time, so, likely, will your audience.

(An author-nod here to the performers and crew that helped make our production of Baskerville a lot of fun: Director Josh Bailey, Set designer Lee Lowrimore, Scenic Painting by Donna Troy, Stage Manager/Lighting and Sound Design Aurora Flores, Running Crew Dana Moriarty (appropriate) and Troy Fullwood, along with fellow cast members J. Robert Raines, Atwood Boyd, Gina Gambony and Tamica Katzmann).