Public performance #16 was Press Night. The official opening night of the show. There are a lot of little customs and traditions associated with this very important night. One of those traditions is to give cards and gifts to cast and crew members that you have worked with during the rehearsal and preview period. My personal way forward on this idea is to write out a little card for everyone and give little tokens as well to the folks I’ve worked most closely with. On a Shakespeare play in Central Park this can be a daunting task because of the size of the cast. The last few previews I and my colleagues in the “old man’s dressing room” were silently scribbling away at note cards during our offstage moments. By the time I was done I had inscribed about 30 note cards and wrapped 4 small gifts.
I really love this particular theatre tradition because it speaks to the sense of community and familial connection that is the basis of a really good theatre ensemble. While every cast is a theatre community in itself, they are all part of a larger community of Theatre Folk who all speak the same language, share the same history, practice the same traditions. Opening night is a bonding moment. It’s a public declaration of our pride in the work we have done together, and an invitation to the fraternity of critics to witness our work and offer their opinion to the audience at large. Opening night is our collective shout to the universe, tho all the players who have gone before, and those yet to come that we have come to the stage to tell a story and it’s a damn good one.
Our press night got off to a wonderful start. Artistic Director Oskar Eustis was in attendance. Funny thing, I arrived at the Delacorte early in order to distribute the cards and gifts I had prepared, entered my dressing room and found Oskar Eustis, barefoot and shirtless, pulling on a pair of trousers that matched a jacket draped over a chair nearby. He was getting ready for press night as well. Tonight he would be making an introductory speech on stage just before the show. He greeted me warmly and we chatted about the show, the big night, the possibility of precipitation on the night. He offered some very kind compliments about my work on the show and we both agreed that this was a really great reading of the play. Oscar was finally dressed and about to leave, saying, “Sorry to have hijacked your dressing room.” I responded “No worries Oskar, you can drop trow in this dressing room any time you like!”. We laughed and he bustled off to meet with the wealthy donors who were gathered on the stage right patio sipping Sancerre and munching on grilled chicken.
After Oskar left I took a look at my dressing station and found that some of my co-workers had already been by and dropped off cards and small gifts. Our dressers had chipped in for a bottle of good vodka for the four “old men” in our dressing room. It’s great to see this tradition carried on. I distributed my cards and gifts. One gift was a cork screw for a co-worker who had asked to borrow one from me on our first day at the Delacorte. Another was some mind tea for a co-worker who seemed always to be brewing and sipping fine teas from around the world. A third gift was for a co-worker with whom I got to sing a song in the famous tavern scene. It was a drinking song, so the gift was an ale tankard. The final gift was for a co-worker who I had a lot of business with on stage. The gift was a pair of opera glasses and the card advised him to “look to her, if you have eyes to see”.
By the time the cast had assembled for this big night there were gift cards, bowls of candy, an edible arrangement, gift bottles of wine, booze and champagne arrayed all over the dressing room area. The words “happy opening” were repeated over and over. They became the mantra for the evening. And yet the routine was maintained. 7pm vocal warmups, 7:05 have my microphone placed and checked, 7:15 take out my script and go over my lines a couple of times, 7:25 go to the coffee station and get a hot cup of black no sugar, 7:30 Half Hour. This is time for 15 minutes of conversation, quiet jokes, and observations about the day, the prior night’s performance. 7:45 I don my Act 1 costume and begin mentally running through Act 1, picturing my movements and speeches. 7:55 I join hands with my dressing room mates and stand for a benediction offered by the “Reverend” Peter Jay Fernandez, a devout and highly spiritual man who never fails to pray for a “hedge of protection” around the cast, crew of Othello so that we might complete our work in safety. I love that part of the benediction. For me it says that we are professionals who know how to have success, all we need is a safe place to work. After the benediction I put on my softcap, and head for my first entrance. I like to be at my place before places is called. Hearing places called in the dressing room triggers a sense of mindless excitement in me that is too much about the show rather than the story. From my starting place I could see the great Bill Irwin, seated in the 5th row on the aisle. I remembered sitting in a seat in a Broadway house decades before, waiting for him to hit the stage. I smiled
A few minutes after 8:00 PM, the speeches buy the Public Theatre leadership began and ended, the opening music started and we were on our way. And we were 3/4 of the way through Act 1 when the rain began.
It came down suddenly and in a torrent. The rain delay went on for 40 minutes. In our dressing room we sat, a little sweaty, unsure if the evening would continue. Oskar poked his head in “Don’t let this delay dampen your spirits” He grinned. We laughed in response. “Well this delay will chase away the folks who really shouldn’t be here.” It was true, the people who really wanted to see and hear our Othello would be those who returned should the show continue. And continue it did. Most of the audience returned as the crew attacked the deck with their squeegees and, we returned to the stage to their wild applause. We brought the show down at just past midnight and our opening night party morphed into drinks and snacks on stage under work lights. Another opening, another show. In a career doing theatre, one gets only so many opening nights. I’ve learned to cherish each one more and more.
Our show is open. The work of mounting it is complete. The work of maintaining it continues.
More to come.