Seeing your work performed in front of a live audience is a singular experience, especially for those of us who don’t write for the theatre much. You can read your work to writers groups, or participate in table reads or even do public readings, but it’s not the same. If you work in film or television you can sit in the theatre or living room and hear a reaction, but by that time the work is complete and there’s not much you can do but either bask in the glory or curse at the actors/director/editor/projectionist.
Last night was the first of a two night run for Showpocalypse, a Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance presentation of 17 scenes written, produced and directed by NU alumni at the Lillian Theatre in West Hollywood. We had an SRO crowd – we writers, poor ink-stained wretches, had to stand in the back. The purpose was mainly to showcase our work for industry folk, with support from friends and fellow alums. Looking at the many seats with “reserved” signs on them, I couldn’t help but think of Waiting For Guffman, and I think Christopher Guest would have been sympathetic to much of the material.
My own piece, “The Wiki-Murders” is a slightly macabre vignette with darkly comic overtones. The actors, Angelique Gagnon and Jim Patneaude had worked diligently with director Marcus Folmar to achieve the right tone. Still, until you actually hear it before a live audience, you are never quite sure. The piece is supposed to challenge the audience. Is it okay to laugh at architect Alan Baskin’s predicament? Do we trust his wife, Suzanne? Should he? Are there nuances in script and performance that bring the audience right where we want them? Do we really know where we want them until they react?
A complete play, of course, has a chance to work through the kinks with preview performances and, in the case of major shows, out-of-town openings. The principles continue to make adjustments as they get a feel for the material. There are even night-to-night adjustments, depending on particular audiences.
In the old days, screen performers could take their shows on the road before filming. As you Marx-o-philes know, the Marx Brothers first two films were based on stage plays. They were filming Coconuts on Long Island by day while performing Animal Crackers on Broadway at night. When they were preparing A Night At The Opera for Irving Thalberg, after the commercial flop of Duck Soup, they took scenes on the road, including the famous Contract Scene (“Oh no, you can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Claus.”) and the Stateroom Scene, playing them before live audiences to find out where the laughs were and perfect the timing.
It’s much harder to do that now. It was bad enough that television eats up your material so quickly. But with the omnipresent smart phone videos, it would seem impossible to keep any film preparation from going viral in today’s world.
There is, of course, the proliferation of “webisodes” distributed on You Tube. While that does get you a reaction, it tends to be one driven and manipulated by self-promotion. It has its uses, but I don’t think it is the same as gathering some unsuspecting folks together in a theatre, dimming the lights and putting on a show.
Showpocalypse concludes its run tonight at the Lillian, and it looks like another full house. It’ll be fun to see how tonight’s audience reacts, and how, with a night under our belts, we react to the audience.