Tonight was our first performance. Everyone arrived with wonderful, positive energy. Several of them remarked that they were surprised not to feel very nervous, while others were buzzing with nerves. We all worked together to set up props, costumes, our set pieces, and the sound equipment.
As we gathered to bring down our ring, we all spoke aloud the energy that we were putting into it. Teamwork. Fun. Positivity. Confidence. Strength. And on.
Our audience stuck with us through the entire performance. In the past, audience members have sometimes left early, but not this year. Although the play didn’t always go exactly as we planned, our audience’s reactions were proof that they recognized the hard work being done; the challenge undertaken; the power of the ensemble to buoy each other through any mistake. We received a loud standing ovation at the play’s end.
The hiccups in performance were sometimes obvious, and sometimes not. The ensemble banded together to make it through, even when lines were skipped, or the audience laughed at a serious moment, or an entrance was missed, or a prop was off stage when it should have been on.
We have had challenges in the last few months with casting and attendance of those playing the lead characters, and so parts of our play are definitely under-rehearsed. That didn’t stop us from plowing through them, faking it when we had to, and feeding people lines and blocking from the wings.
Even with these challenges, or perhaps because of them, the performance is an important part of our process. If the performance had been perfect, there would have been fewer opportunities to “save” one another, which affirms the trust we’ve put into every member of the ensemble.
For the past few years, we’ve always performed in back to back meetings, with no opportunity to debrief in detail between performances. This year, though, due to scheduling conflicts in the auditorium, we are not able to perform on Fridays. The group decided to meet between performances, and tonight was one of those nights.
As people arrived, they shared the positive reactions we had gotten from our audience. One woman remarked how amazing it was that our audience stayed through to the end. Another shared that people to whom she spoke said that even when they didn’t understand it, they enjoyed it – and, she said, “It was the little mistakes that made it for them.” Someone had said to her, “At first I didn’t understand, but then I started to get it.”
Our Othello shared that although she had been so nervous the week before, prior to and during the performance she didn’t feel nervous at all. “I was totally mellow,” she said.
In private conversation before most people were there, a longtime ensemble memberhad shared with me and another longtime member that she felt the performance was “horrible,” and she felt that after nine months it should have been better. I asked her if maybe using a less inflammatory word would serve her better. I said that I didn’t feel it had been horrible – that it had been “messy,” and that that had its own value in terms of the many opportunities it provided for us to problem solve together. She agreed that perhaps another word would be better.
A third longtime ensemble member had overheard this conversation, and during our group discussion suggested that using words like “horrible” can be hurtful to people and perhaps disrespectful. The woman who had used that word jumped in, stating that she was entitled to her opinion and should be able to be honest about it. “You can be honest and use different words,” the first woman said, but unfortunately things escalated very quickly and the two began snapping and yelling at each other. At a certain point I was able to make my voice heard, suggesting that this was not constructive and needed to stop.
The group then addressed the messiness of the performance. The bottom line, most people felt, is that we did our best, and our audience enjoyed it. “If you do your best and put the work in,” said one woman, “You’ll get better results each time.” Kyle reminded the group that the performance is the tip of a very big iceberg – that the nine-month process has been extremely meaningful, and that’s where our focus should be.
Another woman said, “It’s no secret that if we were in a Broadway show, we’d all be fired.” We all laughed. “But we’re not,” she continued, “And I consider it a successful disaster. There’s not much we get to enjoy, but we did that and can be proud of it.” She then shared with us that a particularly ornery woman who “enjoys nothing” told her that she had enjoyed the show. “We did that,” she said again. “It was our disaster.”
Another woman said jokingly, “All I know is I brought a sword to the sword fight this time.” Everyone laughed.
“You know,” said one woman who was new to the group this year, “Last year when I saw the show, I forgot I was in prison for awhile. You could have screwed up all day, and I would have felt like I wasn’t here. Don’t be hard on us or on each other.”
Our Desdemona reminded us all that, with all of the mistakes, there had been moments of undeniable power. “The slap brought people almost to tears,” she said, stating that a woman to whom she spoke said she “felt like she really had been there, as a woman.”
We distributed and took an end-of-year survey, following which the woman who had a problem with the use of the word “horrible” stood up and informed me that she wouldn’t be coming back. I asked her if I could speak with her in the hall. She agreed. I encouraged her to share everything that was on her mind. She and the woman with whom she’d had the spat have a history, and although they are both dedicated to the group, they rarely speak – and when they do, it tends to be contentious. I reminded her that none of us are perfect and all of us are growing; that I understood why she had a problem with that word, but that I had already spoken to the woman who said it about adjusting, and that that’s a learned skill.
They are both truly valuable to the ensemble, and I reminded her of that. I said that there are likely to be people whom one doesn’t like in any working environment, and while these two don’t have to be friends or even like each other, we need to find a way for them to be civil. She agreed, said she would be back Tuesday, and left for the evening.
I came back in to the group playing improv games, which was a great way to dispel the tension that the argument had brought on. The woman who felt the performance was “horrible” approached me at the end of the meeting. “Do you think I handled myself well?” she asked. “Come on,” I said, smiling, “You know you didn’t.” She asked me why I hadn’t stepped in earlier, and I told her that since the two of them were yelling and interrupting each other, they couldn’t hear Kyle and me at first. I had essentially the same conversation with her that I had had with the other woman. I also spoke more with her about semantics – that one doesn’t have to “sugarcoat” criticism, but can find ways to express honest opinions that aren’t hurtful.
“I’m going to think on this. I’m still learning,” she said. And she really is – she’s come a long way in four years, which I told her. But we all still having some growing to do.