I’m not sure when I’ve been this exhausted after an opening. Usually it takes me a few days to recover from the intensity and stress that invades out lives in the run up to an opening night. Maybe it was because in addition to my director and producer hats I was also wearing my playwright hat this time around. But I think a good deal of the exhaustion I’m experiencing had to do with what happened in the hours before we opened Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting The Fuse at Wayside Theatre.
We felt very good about the show after the two previews. Even with the changes we had made in this new edition of the play, we didn’t feel a need to come in and rehearse much before the show. I felt it was more important to give everyone a few hours extra of down time to recoup some energy.
I got into the theatre about 3pm. I had made a few tweaks to the multimedia slide show that runs throughout the production. And I wanted to make sure that if any other tweaks were necessary, I had time to do them. When I fired up the computer and the projector it was obvious there was no signal between the two. So, I rebooted everything and gave it a go. Still no luck. Not really sweating this, I knew we had other computers on hand capable of powering the slides, so I grabbed one and powered it up. Voila, we had a connection. But not so fast. The image looked very dim and the color was off.
I sent a 911 distress call to our TD and scene designer, and I knew our Stage Manager and resident geek were about to arrive. As they all converged on the theatre, we immediately went into troubleshooting mode and simultaneously entered damage control mode.
While we were all working on trying to resolve the problem, we were also trying to figure out how to open this show officially (at that time about 2 hours away from curtain) without the slides. The slides play are a major part of the story telling in the show, giving us dates, names, and places that would be too tedious to deliver in other forms. They also provide backdrops for some of the scenes. They work in a Brechtian sense, and then some. And of course the show is staged and designed around them. In fact, one entire song is sung with the actors completely in the dark, while the slides tell the story and comment on the moment.
Fortunately, the technician who bought and installed the projector for us is also a volunteer usher at the theatre, usually for our opening night performances. When we got him on the phone he said he was on his way. After trouble shooting cables, computers, and anything else we could find, and also coming up with an alternate way to present the show without the slides, he managed to get things back to normal. He hooked up a diagnostic tool to the projector and everything righted itself.
We were now less than an hour from curtain.
Suffice it to see the show opened and opened well. The audience really got into the story, the history it unfolded, and our take on the events of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. We had audience members attending in period attire, but that’s another post. The resounding standing ovation at the conclusion made all of us forget the skipped heartbeats from the earlier hours. But I think we are all feeling that stress today.
It should also be said that when we debuted this show in 2004, we had a similar thing happen the night before the first preview. The projector failed that night and my wife spent the evening calling all over creation to find a replacement part that we managed to score for the next day. Maybe there’s something about this show and slides?
I couldn’t be more pleased with the cast and the production last night. They did an outstanding job. This is no easy show to perform. The story moves quick, and more most of the ensemble, they are in constant motion as they change from character to character in the blink of an eye.
The comment that meant the most to me last night came from an historian who has spent most of his career dealing with John Brown. He said that he did not know what he was in for when he planned to come see the show. But when all was said and done, he was simply astounded at how we managed to make this intense moment of our American history come alive on stage. He marveled at the detail, and just how many of the individuals involved in the real life events, we were able to bring to life. His comment? “Never in my life, would I have imagined seeing something I know so well spring to life so accurately in front of me. I’ve lived with John Brown for 35 years and know a lot about him. But seeing him on that stage frightened me tonight.”
We’ll take that.
More pictures of the show at this Flickr feed.