This past Sunday was the first performance of Books & Bridges. I was sick to my stomach the whole day, running to the bathroom almost every hour, trying desperately to be calm. It was the first time in 6 years that one of my full-length plays had been heard/seen by an audience. I saw all the “flaws” in the piece and wondered if they (the audience) would tear it apart. There are two specific places in the play where my delicate, fleshy underbelly is exposed and vulnerable and they are both in the final moments of the play: a monologue and the ending. Once I stood in front of the audience, introducing myself and the play and said a couple of jokes, I fell into a trance-like acceptance of the situation and finally felt myself relax. Until those vulnerable moments showed up… But somewhere in there, I relaxed, too.
In the past, I had issues watching my plays when they were performed. I would listen, close my eyes, put my head down. I used to say that I was “riding the audience” and listening for how they were experiencing the play. I now think that I was, to put it bluntly, bullshitting myself. I think I was scared of watching what was happening on stage because I wasn’t confident about the play. In the reading of Books & Bridges, I didn’t take my eyes off of Erin, Nikki, and Andrew as they moved around the playing space. I almost, ALMOST, looked down when Erin started the monologue, but I looked up, and forced myself to watch and experience it with the audience. I felt myself try to look down again about 3 more times, but each time I said to myself, “What the hell are you doing? Watch them work! Watch them play! Watch them be amazing!” And they were. I’m not just saying that because they might read this blog post. I mean it. They were awesome. They found new moments, new energy, new connections, and they made me smile, laugh, and made my heart warm with pride for their work, Joe’s work, and, yes, my work.
A couple of audience members took to Facebook and wrote tiny comments about the play on the “Event” page. One said: “Wonderful play, terrific story and dialogue and exceptional performances by Erin, Andrew and Nikki! This one is a MUST-see!” A “MUST-see.” That hit me. That hit me hard. At least one person felt strongly that people should see the play. “How does that make you feel?” my wife asked me. “I’m not sure,” I answered.
After the reading there was an Q & A session, which always makes me a little nervous. One person asked me about the “theme” of the play. I stumbled, but did pretty well. I should’ve expected that question, but didn’t prepare answers. I probably should’ve, like a practice debate… Another person asked, “What feeling do you want people to feel at the end?” Umm… I want them to be entertained, I said. I want them to feel… Something. Maybe hope. Maybe sadness. I stumbled really hard on that one. I hadn’t ever thought about what I wanted people to “feel” at the end of the play. My concern was that the ending spoke to the beginning of the play and was the ending that the play called for, that the play was leading to. The audience’s feelings weren’t ever on my radar. I figured they would laugh at the jokes and just hoped they would feel “something.” I wasn’t very articulate with that answer, but I’m prepared for it in case it comes up again.
After the Q & A, the gentleman who asked me about how I wanted people to feel came up to me and gave me what amounted to a mini-lecture about what a play is meant to do: it can move along a spectrum from making people feel introspective to making people feel outward (I forget the exact phrase he used, but the example he gave was people hating World War II). He said that my play was mostly introspective. Yes, I said. And then he started speaking about my characters and how they relate to the audience and how the audience relates to them and told me that two of my characters were unrelatable. “Okay. Sure. Thank you for your comments.” I was very friendly and didn’t argue or speak. I let his comments wash over me without judgement (it was damn hard to not address his comments in the moment, but I didn’t want to get into deconstructing my characters or the play, beat by beat to prove points because that’s just silly and I shouldn’t have to). I wondered if what he said had any merit or if what he experienced spoke to something that might be missing from the play. What I decided (I’m still thinking about it) was that I disagreed with one of his assessments of a character and that another of his comments might speak to something that is missing. But mostly, I disagree.
Anyway, I exposed my fleshy underbelly last Sunday, I was vulnerable, but I emerged unscathed. I am so satisfied with the experience and can’t wait for next Sunday to do it all again! But, then again, I don’t want next Sunday to come because then this experience will be over. The return to the day job and the “normal” day to day looms on the following Monday. I need this experience to carry me until the next one. I hope that the relationships made during this process continue.
My fellow theatre-makers, I hope that you’re being energized by your work, whether it is in front of an audience or still baking in the back of your minds. Be excellent to each other.
PS- I’ll post some video highlights of the play to this site soon!