I've just spent the last five intense weeks at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York. It's a beautiful, 650 seat theatre and I did eight shows a week, and in one week I did nine shows. It was both intense and fascinating.
There's a beauty in the ritual of theatre. I would be in my dressing room and hear over the speaker, "This is your half hour call. Half hour. Thank you." Then there would be a fifteen minute call and a five minute call, and finally "Places, please, places. Thank you." I would walk down a long corridor and Mike, a cheerful fellow in his late thirties with his baseball cap, would open the door and we would step backstage. It would be dark there and Mike was wearing his headset. He would whisper, "We're at places, stage west." Then we would wait in the dark. Chopin's Prelude 11 would begin. I would listen to a few notes. Mike would tap me on the shoulder and I would walk out onto the dark stage. I would stand center stage and the light would come on, and I would listen in silence to the end of the Prelude, and then begin. And so it went night after night. One Saturday when I had two shows, the afternoon show was going fine. It was the first Act and Fritz, one of the characters, was having an intense conversation with his wife, Ludvika. Fritz was warning Ludvika that their son, John, was going to be hurt because he was beginning a union at Bethlehem Steel in the late 1930's. As Fritz was talking, I was aware that a bird flew over the audience. The audience of 650 people made a strange gasping sound. Fritz went on talking and the bird flew back. This happened several times so that Fritz then said to Ludvika, "There's a bird in this house. It's a crazy house." The audience roared laughing. They needed a release from the tension. They needed an acknowledgment that something very odd was happening.
I finished the Act and Nanci Sochol, the stage manager who was calling the show, came backstage and said if it happened again, they could stop the show and open the doors. But I said, no we'd go on. It turned out that Nanci stumbled onto something in the backstage. It was a bat. They got the bat outside. Fortunately the audience hadn't realized it was a bat.
I started Act II talking about the neighborhood I grew up in. I said, "It was a neighborhood of big old houses and we had no screens so birds were always flying in and out of the house." The audience roared. It's strange how an unexpected happening like that can bring everyone closer together.
The ritual of theatre is like an invisible box. The ritual is created and within that box fire and explosive things can happen. I do love the ritual of theatre.