Last night after the show I went and grabbed a burger and a Sprite at George’s, a dive bar next to the theatre where the fiction writers hang out. This is not to be confused with Foxhead, the poetry bar on the other side of Gilbert Street. The Foxhead is cash only, and in our crazy, mixed up, jumbled up world, a poetry bar that doesn’t accept credit cards somehow makes complete and total sense.
The show had been amazing. It wasn’t a big crowd, maybe 50 people, but they came to see a play, dammit. They came to go on a journey. And we took that journey together.
As I waited for the food, I pulled out my script and started reviewing the show. The past hour and twenty minutes had felt more like a conversation than a performance. A conversation where I do 100% of the talking, but a conversation none the less. My shows have been feeling more and more that way for a while now. I don’t even get nervous. Which is very odd for me. I’m nervous constantly. But now when I’m backstage, it’s more a feeling of excitement. Eager anticipation of what these people gathered in the dark are going to say back to me.
What they had collectively said last night had me seeing the show in a whole different way.
As may of you know, when I left graduate school, with a Master’s Degree as a Classically Trained Actor, I started doing stand up comedy. The reason I started doing stand up is because I was sick of people lying to me. It’s a common experience for actors. You enter the lobby after a performance, and audience members come up to you and tell you how much they loved the show, when you know and they know that what they just saw was horrible.
I get it. I mean, what else are they going to say? “You were awful! What were you doing in Act Three? You call that a choice??”
But honestly, I would rather have had that than have people I saw sleeping, literally sleeping in the audience, tell me how much they loved it. “Oh really? What did you love about the play? The fact that it cured your insomnia?”
That’s why I started doing stand up. It’s not that I had some great yearning to make people laugh, I just liked that no one could lie to me. Because in stand up, there is one objective. Laughter. You win or your lose. People can’t not laugh and then come up and say “I loved you so much!”
Really? Is that why you threw beer at my face?
But stand up was never really my home. So when I started going back to the theatre about ten years ago, I had to learn to listen for the truth in a new way. I’ve had to learn to discern what they were saying.
What I’ve learned is that while laughter might be the most obvious response, audiences also speak in oohs and ahhs. They speak through applause. But most of all, they speak through silence.
For someone who spent a decade doing stand up, this is horrifying. Because in a comedy club, silence is the enemy. That’s where the hecklers live. It can ruin a set, a night, a weekend. Too much of it will ruin your career and land you in rehab.
So it has taken me years, YEARS, to learn how to not be afraid of the silence. How to sit with it. How to use it to my advantage.
To see the silence is a gift. A gift that I want to build and hold and nurture. Because in much the same way that a stand up audience can’t lie with laughter, a theatre audience can’t lie with silence.
The silence I’m talking about isn’t just the absence of noise, it’s the absence of anything that isn’t in that room right then, right now. There is no coughing or shifting in the seats. There is no unwrapping of cough drops, there is no applause. There’s barely even breath. The audience becomes a single entity, and we go on this story together. And once you have that silence, you better not break without a good fucking reason. That’s what I learned last night. I ate my burger, headed back to the writer’s house, and stayed up until way past one, working on my script. Working on a play I’ve been doing for almost two years. As I took notes, sipped water, and listened to the Golden State Warriors in the back ground, I knew more than ever that theatre was alive. It’s never set, it’s never stale, and woe to us when we act like it is.
I was exhausted when I woke up this morning. I went and grabbed a coffee and looked through the notes I had taken the night before, just to make sure they weren’t the midnight ramblings of a madman. They weren’t. Well, maybe they were, but they were on to something.
I might not know much, but I know I cannot wait to get back to that theatre again.