At the set up for tonight’s opening night performance, everything that could go wrong did. Sound, lighting, projections, and that’s not even including the moment where – five minutes before showtime, I got locked out of my dressing room – half-dressed. At this festival we have 15 minutes to set up our show before the audience comes in. On an average day that’s enough time if you are going fast enough – and nothing goes wrong.
Two minutes before the audience walked in I was sweating and screaming at the top of a hydraulic lift trying to get my projector into position because it had magically moved between tonight and our tech rehearsal a day ago. My technicians were running around setting up cords and lights, all of us were frantic and frustrated. My beautiful and talented wife, who co-wrote the show with me, is trying her best to calm me down but this tea pot is so steamed it’s about to blow!
Of course, when the audience came in, they had no clue about any of this. The goal is that the crowd sees the beautiful duck on the calm water, not the fast and flustered feet below the surface.
There is absolutely no reason that the show should have gone well, but it did. If I’m being honest, it might have gone too well. The horrific stress and panic of everything going wrong pushed aside any opening night jitters, and the worry that something could go wrong at any second during the show kept me aware and on my toes the entire time. It was a perfect storm of garbage. We fooled the sold out crowd, from the opening to a standing ovation, into thinking we knew what we were doing.
Sometimes it doesn’t go that way.
I have seen shows where the actors haven’t pulled through by the skin of their teeth and you sit and watch an hour-long train wreck in slow motion. It’s like hitting black ice. You have no control, and all you can do is hope it’s over fast and nobody dies. Well, sometimes shows are so bad you wish you died a little.
The very first show I put on for a paying public was in high school and it wasn’t good. We were not prepared and everything went wrong. The black outs between scenes went on for minutes as we loudly moved set pieces around and yelled at each other. To be fair the tickets were $5, but it was less duck on calm water and more turkey dying on the side of the road.
I read once that the heart rate and stress for an actor on opening night is equal to that of a person in a head on collision. I’m not entirely sure how they tested that theory, but I like it nonetheless. That much stress and we do it over and over again. Why? Because we love it. And on the nights it goes right – it’s magic.