The play is the thing ESPECIALLY while onstage

Cross posted from Reactionary Meter.

I’ve been realizing, with a certain level of disappointment, that it has been nearly a year since I last worked on a major performance project. (Meaning something that was rehearsed for a set period of time, then performed for an audience for a set period of time.) I have been making up for this absence by attending an abundance of live theatre productions as an audience member, and chronicling them, too. However, the relationship is not identical.

I feel rusty from not getting opportunities to practice my craft. I also feel some envy at those who are getting the gigs and the work, and some tension over my union membership’s possible role in all of this, but I don’t want this post to be a meandering whining vehicle.

I thought about this conundrum while in the audience on Wednesday night watching Hugh Jackman perform the opening night of his current revue in San Francisco. The audience was a real hodgepodge of theatre fans and people who may have attended solely to see him live onstage. The level of theatre ettiquette was troubling to me, with several people in front of me texting during the performance and getting out of their seats to use the restrooms during the performance, all following lots of initial audible grumbling about there being no intermission in the show.

And yet, through it all, Jackman never lost his cool and seemed to be enjoying himself more as the crowd reacted loudly to his onstage shenanigans and personal stories. He seemed to intuitively know that people would be there for different reasons and naturally appreciated that. He also, crucially, was prepared to ride the wave of spontaneity and precision that a performance generates, as when a technical element failed early in the show, and his later invitation of an audience member to join him in an onstage cover of “Fever” by Peggy Lee.

Jackman’s ease and delight seemed to exemplify that in-the-moment effect that performing onstage brings – and watching it day after day from the stage management booth, spot op overlook, or some other location. One never knows what to expect in live theatre, and there is a clear visceral, addictive and distinct thrill from the unexpected…and the reaction… and the satisfaction of performance.

It seems that this topic is also perhaps a “hidden” dilemma of modern professional theatre. So much emphasis is placed on the art of getting the gig, with little consideration of what happens to those who are still in the wings, or want the gig but don’t get it. I’m sure there is some commiseration and support amongst informal groups of friends, but I might be interested to see a more formal group or acknowledgement, somewhere.

I also recognize how it plays into the tricky professional dance where you are generally going for the work (unless you are working for your own company or have a certain level of stature) rather than the work coming to you.


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