Our show closed yesterday. It was a wonderful run. All four shows were excellent, and we had good houses for all of them. All the physical objects were where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to do—thank you Bobbie and Corinna for making sure of that—and the ever-loving snake bracelet/brooch went on when it was supposed to go on and came off when it was supposed to come off. I am particularly proud of that because, as constant readers of this blog will know, between me and that prop things got a little personal. I planted it on the bench under the pillow before the show every night and I checked to make sure it was in the drawer of the end table before the end of each intermission. That beautiful but fickle bracelet/brooch did not fuck up anything for any of my actors this weekend. VICTORY!
As I said, all the shows were great; but I will cherish particularly the memory of the Friday night show. It was one of those nights where everything just gelled. The house was packed, and the audience were in festive mood. The actors, having just gotten through their first performance in front of an audience, were over their initial nerves. The Green Carnations got a round of applause after every appearance. All of the wonderful things I’ve seen all the actors do so well in different bits and pieces of various rehearsals happened on the same night. I came back through the kitchen after the first half and said, “You are all on fire tonight,” and it was true. The whole experience was just incandescent. In one of her journals, Lady Gregory talked about what it was like watching Juno and the Paycock on the Abbey stage for the first time, and she said something about how it was for moments like this that we live. She’s right. That’s why I do this: because there’s no other feeling like that. The cast got better every night, and all the audiences were engaged and involved. I remember how, on Saturday night, during Robert’s Act I conversation with Gertrude, ironic laughter started to emerge during his dialogue about how compromise is part of politics and truth is a very complex thing. There were so many moments like that, where I would be watching from the balcony and I could tell from the audience reaction that they were getting it, that they were understanding and appreciating all the things the actors had built into their performances over all those weeks of work. But there was something indefinable about Friday night that made it stand out from all the other shows. I don’t know what it was. Magic, I guess.
I started out each show by thanking the audience for coming, and I meant it. One of the things that makes me happiest about this production is that the actors got the audiences they deserved. The show always closed the same way. The last section of “Lie To Me,” the Green Carnations’ song, goes like this:
Thanks for coming to the theater,
Thanks for staying to the end.
Thanks for wanting to be lied to,
Thanks for helping us pretend.
Every actor needs a mirror,
And you all are actors too.
Clap your hands and show how much you
Love the way we lied to you.
Bill sang the first verse with the Carnations on backup, and the crowd always loved it. Corinna was particularly tickled by how the “thanks for staying to the end” line always got a laugh. At two and a half hours it was kind of a long show, but it didn’t feel long. Everyone kept it moving, and there was always something interesting going on. The Green Carnations were a big part of the pacing; and they were also really important in charting the show’s emotional trajectory. I always loved “London” and “Resolution” with Shelley’s choreography; they were both so funny and so ironic. It wasn’t until the last week, when I saw them all singing away with Bill in the midst of them looking so thoughtful and melancholy at the beginning of Act III, that I fully appreciated the emotional impact of “Say It’s Over.” The curtain call number is something that, out of a fear of jinxing the show with an overabundance of hubris, I put off rehearsing till the last minute; but it quickly became one of my favorite things. Anyway, the point is, I am always grateful to the people who come to the theater and stay for the end. I loved watching that curtain call. They all worked so hard and did so well, and it made me so happy to see them getting some love from the audience. Thank you all for coming to the theater. For real.
I Will Survive
There are two reasons why I picked “I Will Survive” as the song that led into the pre-show announcement. One, it is an anthem whose appeal to the American queer community is eclipsed perhaps only by Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” And two, it pretty much encapsulated my own journey with this show over the last few weeks of rehearsal.
Because my show came toward the end of the season, I had a long time to plan it, and I did my best to organize everything ahead of time and to build in plenty of time for all the things we had to do. In the first month of rehearsal, all of that paid off, and everyone was having a great time. The cast were all very talented, and they were also all punctual and reliable, which really made a difference. Punctuality is not as glamorous as talent, but it is a very important component of any successful show. The fact that people, in general, showed up on time and got right to work made it possible for us to do a show this long this well with an 8-week rehearsal schedule. Every time I said to Corinna, “Jesus, we really don’t have enough rehearsals, do we,” she would say, “You have a really good cast.” And she was right. As it turns out, I think 8 weeks was exactly the right amount of time. I could tell during our last rehearsal at Augustana that most of the cast was ready to get the hell out of Classroom I—not that it wasn’t lovely, thank you Augustana Lutheran Church—and into the Experimental Station.
I say “most” because, as most readers of this blog will know by now, we had to replace the actor who was originally cast as Lord Goring two weeks before opening night. Bill started rehearsing as Goring with the cast—he had previously been one of the Green Carnations, a role which was ably filled by Jake, who was already playing Phipps—on Monday, May 30. So for Bill, every one of those rehearsals at Augustana was an adventure.
I’ve had to replace actors before; so has Corinna. Bill’s last two acting roles with the HPCP, in fact, were roles originally given to other actors, who departed the scene after being cast. In all three of the shows I co-directed with Paul, there were one or two people who got cut for attendance reasons. But in my experience this is something that usually happens with smaller parts, early on in the process. Lord Goring is one of the leads; and more than that, because Goring is Wilde’s surrogate in many ways, he’s built into every aspect of the play. He’s the life of the party in Act I, he’s Robert’s conscience in Act II, he saves the day in Act III, and in Act IV—while concluding his idiosyncratic but very funny romance with Mabel—Goring gives a very long, very important, very difficult speech which sets up the play’s real resolution. He is really pretty important, and he has a lot of dialogue, much of which is difficult to memorize and difficult to say.
I will not lie: making that switch was the scariest thing I have ever done as a director. I’m sure it was scary to the cast as well. But I knew some things going into it that gave me courage. One was that Goring was a great role for Bill. Bill was in every show Paul and I directed and I knew what he could do. I also knew how committed Corinna was to the show, and that she would be helping him get ready to do it. The other thing I knew was that the cast, as a whole, was strong enough to adapt to the change. By the time we had to leap into action, they knew their stuff well enough to take the change in stride. Michele had worked with Bill before in Antigone and Picasso at the Lapin Agile; but David, Meg, and Brooklyn really didn’t know him from Adam, and it warmed my heart to see how they embraced Bill as part of the cast and how enthusiastically they responded to his very different approach to the role. One of my favorite memories of this production will always be Tuesday, May 31, when Bill rehearsed Act I with the full cast for the first time. I made the announcement about the change, and explained that for this week Bill would be allowed to have his script with him even though everyone else was off book. Bill turned up and was like, I don’t need no stinking script. And he came out and just crushed it. While I was watching David and Michele do their big scene at the end of Act I could see all the Act I ladies in the corner of my eye high-fiving Bill after he exited, and I thought, Corinna was right, this is all going to be just fine.
There were other moments during that second month that were very difficult for me; I think everyone knows or can guess what they were. But I found the last two weeks of rehearsal really joyful. It was amazing to me how fast Bill was developing the character and how well all the other actors were working with him. I also cherish the memory of the first time Jake did the solo in “Resolution” as a Green Carnation. He was cast as Phipps at first, and then when Bill had to step into Goring’s role I asked Jake if he would take over as the tenor in the Green Carnations without ever having heard him sing. And he got up there and belted it out and that was its own little miracle. Our tech rehearsal proved to me that we’d be able to get the scene changes done in time and look good doing it. With everything that had happened, I was still there on Wednesday watching the dress rehearsal and thinking, if it weren’t for that goddamn bracelet brooch, we could have opened today and it would have been fine. And then I fixed the bracelet and we were READY.
I told Bill and Corinna at the cast party that when I remember this show, I won’t remember how bad the problems felt. I’ll remember how everyone came together to take care of the show and lift it up and help it realize the potential that I think we all realized, pretty early on in the process, that it had. And I’ll remember how good all the performances were. I’ll remember watching Leslie B. and Felicia make Basildon and Marchmont’s boredom hilarious to the audience; I’ll remember them pulling Bill back and forth and smacking him with their fans. I’ll remember the way Kim’s voice always swept straight up into the higher register during that fateful introduction between Mrs. Cheveley and Sir Robert, and how low it would drop as she confided to Gertrude that men don’t like girls with large noses; I’ll remember the tea party, with Kim rattling off those long monologues with perfect accuracy and perfect timing and perfect pitch while Brooklyn and Michele looked daggers at each other. I’ll remember Jake up there in the Act Up T-shirt telling Bill in a perfectly deadpan way about how the florist has had a death in her family and that might account for the lack of triviality in the buttonhole. I’ll remember the little frosty nod Meg always gave Brooklyn upon being introduced to her; I’ll remember her hilariously yet touchingly beatific expression as she rapturously clutched Bill’s head during the proposal scene. I’ll remember watching Paul pick up Bill’s body language and gradually turn Goring into a chip off his own block; I’ll remember the wistful sadness he always put into those zingers the audience loved so much, as if it pained him not to be able to be kinder to his good-for-nothing son. I’ll remember Michele’s anger and sorrow as she repeated the words Gertrude so hated when she heard them five minutes earlier from Lord Goring; I’ll remember standing up there in the balcony on Friday night, watching Bill deliver the speech in which Goring says those words, and just barely stopping myself from yelling out “YES! YES! OH MY GOD YES!” when he finished it perfectly. I’ll remember Brooklyn’s tone of command as Mrs. Cheveley tells Sir Robert about the game of life as we all have to play it, and her unexpected winsomeness as she offers to give Goring the fateful letter if he’ll promise to marry her; I’ll remember the way Bill practically collapsed with the shock of discovering her there in his library, and the way he told Mrs. Cheveley why he wouldn’t call her by her first name. I’ll remember how many times I watched David work on that opening scene in Act II in the early weeks, and how willingly he went back to square one with it after Bill came on board; I’ll remember watching a diabolically vexing speech about botany and the church turn into a really wonderful moment for Robert and Arthur that completely transformed the mood of that scene. There are so many wonderful moments that I always waited for every night: the moment when Brooklyn thanked Sir Robert for utterly capitulating to her in Act I, the heartbreaking closing scene between David and Michele in Act II, the slapstick-on-the-edge-of-the-abyss comedy David and Bill played out in Act III, the way David came on with that piece of pink notepaper in his hand in Act IV and just brought down the whole house, the way Meg told Bill how much she looked forward to being a REAL wife to him, the way the Act IV buttonhole got its own laugh. I’ll remember all the wonderful things that everyone learned how to do, and now will never get to do again.
Say It’s Over
Shows are born and live and die and that’s the way it is; they are mortal, like us, but like us they pack a lot of living into their short existence. On the day after the show is over, I always feel the loss; but I also feel so grateful for the time that I had with it. I feel so lucky to have had so many wonderful people to work with, on the production side as well as the acting side, and to have been able to build something that made people happy. Thank you all for all the gifts you gave An Ideal Husband. It’s going to be a while before I direct again; I can’t do this every season, it’s too hard on my family. But I hope that I will see you all soon, at meetings or at auditions for other people’s shows. You are all so talented, and you all have so much to give. Thanks for helping us pretend.