GETTING A PLAY READY for an audience can be exciting, hard work. It can also be torturous, expensive and maybe even fun. But I don’t think it’s the producers who experience much of that last one. Understanding ticketing (the subject of the previous post) and all its 21st century permutations will likely be the least of your concerns. Filling seats may be critical to your show’s financial viability. But being artistically ready for that audience trumps all in terms of the show’s critical success and your play’s future. If it’s not, you might find yourself returning money when you delay opening or close early because you never should have opened in the first place.
Villa Thrilla needed more time to be ready for an audience but we forged ahead, despite encountering more than our share of obstacles. We had four weeks for rehearsal, which could have been enough, but one week in we lost a key actor in our 10-character show and it took another 10 days to find a replacement. Several actors were sick, or otherwise didn’t make it to rehearsal a lot. They had auditions, sick parents and/or needed to leave the state to attend religious holidays, which had somehow appeared on the calendar after they turned in their conflict sheets, a situation that made us pull our hair out and surely contributed to the lack of readiness.
Villa Thrilla was also a brand new play, which could have benefited from workshopping, a luxury I couldn’t afford. Rewrites were needed for any number of reasons—bits didn’t work, actors had trouble with lines, our set would not accommodate the actions I’d written or, and here’s a good reason to rewrite, I found ways to say things more concisely. All these rewrites meant new pages daily until Gary (our director) finally said “Stop!” I didn’t want to kill multiple trees in this process so I’d bring in new pages to insert into existing scripts. Well, this was a failure with most actors having the “old page 6–A-2” or whatever it was. This reached a devastating conclusion at what must have been among the worst designer stumble-throughs in the history of theatre. It brought new meaning to the phrase “not on the same page.” Our well-mannered lighting designer wore an expression of embarrassed dread. I was feeling it too.
Then there were the stage and set preparations that went awry. The scrim was measured wrong or so said the construction crew. Or was it that the construction crew cut the scrim wrong, thereby screwing up the designer’s measurements? We had to buy more of this expensive scrim. Critical personnel were rarely there at the same time so communication broke down. We had plenty of time to build the set before opening (though all would agree it was an elaborate set) but we had delay after delay with causation and responsibility difficult to ascertain. Promises made, broken, remade and broken again. And if you’ve been reading these posts, you might remember the “couch” issue, where I drove all over LA wasting gas and checking out couches that would meet the expectations of the set designer, Gary and my wallet. I painted the floor myself, because it had to be done on a certain day and there was no one else to do it. And there were lots of other challenges with getting the set ready in time, though once it was up and functioning we were all very happy and it received its own share of good reviews.
Failure is not an option as one is negotiating all the obstacles one is faced with in getting a show up. It’s just a question of how you will compromise on your vision with the materials you have to work with, keeping in mind that vanishing time horizon as opening night draws near. Then you get to tech week, which can be so torturous Anne Washburn wrote a play about it called 10 of 12, in which the entire show within a show implodes.
Our first day of tech represented the first time all the actors were present for rehearsal since the first read-through, so for me it was less torturous than most other rehearsals. Tech is the rehearsal when actors run through the bits of the show when light and sound cues occur. All that gets put into a computer for the Stage Manager to run during performances. Fortunately for Villa Thrilla, we had an unbelievably patient, knowledgeable and kind stage manager in Josephine Austin. Throughout the entire process and despite all the turbulence, Josie remained unflappable and held us all together.
With tech over, Josie took control and we were ready for our two previews. No obstacles to overcome appeared on either night. Costumes, the set, make-up, the board—everything worked. People came to watch and both previews went well. We made a tweak or two to sound/light cues but nothing major. There were still quite a few bungled or forgotten lines—no wonder with so few rehearsals— but with ten actors onstage, someone usually knew where they were and could get the play back on track. All of us felt pretty good about the show we’d made and were looking forward to opening.
Finally, the Saturday morning of opening night dawned. Everything was ready to go. Our associate producer, Jerusha Aimee Liu had arrangements for the after party in hand. Wine, beer and concessions to sell at intermission had been purchased. A few critics would be in attendance though none from the top newspapers or blogs, despite our publicist’s best efforts. I knew what I was going to wear and there was nothing more to be done. So I rose early and went on a hike. About halfway in, my brother called throwing down the last obstacle I would need to surmount for the coming evening. His call was to tell me our father had died. Though it wasn’t a complete surprise it was still devastating. Not only because I loved my father, but I had planned to see him two days later, as soon as the show opened. I sat down on a rock and cried, questioning the timing of it all. I might have spent several hours on that rock but I had to get on with it. As things went, opening night went by in a blur. I was too filled with sorrow to be worried about anything that might go wrong and yet being at the theatre that night kept me from wallowing in grief. I didn’t watch the show but from the audience response, I knew it had gone well.
Next up: Critics