Yesterday I woke up and the thought that slammed into my consciousness as I opened my eyes was that in less than 12 hours CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF would be in its 1st preview performance. I was a bundle of nerves, anticipation and hope. I had that queasy stomach ache I seem to recall from my awkward childhood as I woke to first days of schools or final exams or big trips to the big city (Winston-Salem and Greensboro for a boy growing up in Boone. I was very impressed by revolving doors and escalators). After 4 weeks of rehearsals, after hundreds of hours of talking, attempting, dreaming and experimenting, after learning how to collaborate with this brave group of artists, halfway through our journey, last night we welcomed the missing and much anticipated character: the audience.
Last night at 7:30pm I walked down the center aisle and welcomed an audience (right), many of whom have been celebrating watching me in that terrifying 1st preview vulnerability for 15 seasons. I know so many of them from hundreds of conversations in the lobby, from comment cards and Monday morning emails. They’ve seen me and my work more raw and exposed than any other audience. And they have truly shaped the productions Triad Stage shares with our community. They alone witnessed the huge walking skeleton in PROVIDENCE GAP, the improvised final light and sound cues in DRACULA, the failed spin the bottle magnet trick in NEW MUSIC and so many more moments that didn’t make it to the 2nd preview. Their laughter, silence, coughing, comments and applause (or lack thereof) has inspired 14 seasons worth of artists to roll up their sleeves and head back into rehearsal Tuesday morning to risk more and strive for better. We make our theater here from scratch and unlike Broadway tours, the audience is an essential partner in the process.
I suspect last night’s 1st preview audience saw a fireworks display that will be very different from the final version. For the past week, we’ve been in what the theater calls “tech” – short for technical rehearsals. I don’t like the name because it sounds so scientific. I wish we could call them something like “discovery rehearsals”, because it is in this week that the actors and I leave the rehearsal hall and join the designers and production staff in the theater to weave together the set, costume, lights and sound with the lives we’ve been creating. We don’t layer design on top of acting, but discover new language, new moments and new possibilities. It’s an exhausting but thrilling week. And some of the discoveries we make open our eyes to opportunities in the play we had not yet discovered.
One of these ideas grew out of the references to the fireworks in honor of Big Daddy’s birthday. Our original thought was that we would have a couple of loud sound cues and a flash or two of light. But as we bridged Williams’ 2nd and 3rd act, we began to feel we needed a moment to bring the outside in, to make palpable the upset of the night and to contrast the outer and inner confusions confronting Brick. And so, we began to build a fireworks display. We combined lights and sound, developing a design vocabulary. We debated and experimented with how it would start and how it would end. We added two of the kids to the confusion, then added almost everyone else. We tried the fireworks watchers moving in slow motion then tried fast motion. We tried them standing stock still. We convinced five children to listen closely and to run at the exact boom in a long series of booms, snaps and bangs. We altered the moment when Big Daddy rushes from the room and we carved out what we hope will be the perfect moment for Brick to enter his own world. And after hours of shaping and re-shaping, tonight our 1st preview audience showed us something wonderful that we had missed.
I never know how a 1st preview will go. I suppose that’s part of the thrill that keeps me making live theater. I do know, however, I will be back Tuesday making changes from fresh discoveries. The fireworks display will change. On Wednesday it will change again. I have no idea what it will be by Friday’s opening.
And, if you’ll forgive this personal confession, last night (or rather this morning) right before 2 am, I ordered my last bourbon and lifted it, as I always do after a 1st preview, in a silent toast of gratitude for the audience who become artists on our journey towards opening night.
Preston Lane, Founding Artistic Director