//Ad libs: To life and to live theater

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

To life and to live theater

I got a cute email yesterday from Bridget Summers, who is doing PR for Paly's "Fiddler on the Roof" and had a story to tell from Friday's performance. Apparently the power went out right before Tzeitel's wedding. Pause. Then, in the dark, the cast started dancing and singing again. (Mics, shmics.) The audience cheered, the show went on, and the lights came back up in time for the Bottle Dance.

Why would a publicist want to tell a reporter about something that went wrong? Clearly, my friend, you haven't spent much time in the audience. Messes, near-misses and glitches that get overcome create some of the best moments in live theater.

If you're an actor, nothing gets the adrenaline jiggling like realizing your castmate has missed his entrance -- and you have to stand there ad-libbing and holding a duck. If the audience laughs at one of the lines you made up, you're golden.

If you're in the audience, how great is it when something breaks and you see the cast keep going? Auntie Mame drops her cocktail and the glass shatters. She immediately puts her hand out to Ito and demands, "Another." Sitting in the audience, you're thrilled for her. It's like watching a car crash that didn't happen.

I do community theater. The kind where you go on stage with your tutu held together with gaff tape. So I've seen lots of power outages, mics go out and set doors stick, and even tiny kid actors just keep belting out their songs. You kind of want to hug all those Paly students.

The best part about seeing a near-miss is that it is a near-miss. It's something that no one expected to happen, and so it's perfectly human. It's an unrehearsed exchange, the man behind the curtain, a test of the stage manager's mettle. It can't be Photoshopped away or edited out. And in that moment, you see what that scrappy little theater company's really made of.

When I was in a Sunnyvale production of "Fiddler" a few years ago, one of my favorite times was during that notorious Bottle Dance, when four men cavort with wine bottles balanced on their heads. Everything looked great, and then suddenly two of the guys dropped their bottles. It could have ruined the dance, but instead the guys looked at each other, grinned through their beards, shrugged, and kept going. The rest of us rooted for them like the close community of villagers we were supposed to be.

Later, another actor told me that an audience member had been doubtful about the dance up until that point. The bottles just looked too perfect, like they were glued on. Then the whole scene became real. The dancers, the shtetl. You could even go out on a limb and say the bottles were a metaphor for the precarious position of the Jews in Anatevka. All because a couple of guys slipped. And that's live theater.

Pictured: Alex Nee and Ryan McLeod in the foreground, with Alex Browne, Marc LeClerc and Jovan Bennett in the background, in Paly's "Fiddler" production. Photo by Carla Befera.