It was a closing night for the record books, that’s for sure. The show? Us & Everything We Own, a new play by Sean Minogue that finished its world premiere run last Saturday April 13th, at the PAL Theatre.
At about an one hour before curtain, the house tech and I were starting our pre-show checklists, and the one actor who was back from dinner break had just begun to warm up on stage. There was a sudden “powering down” sort of noise and all the lights went out. After a few seconds of total darkness, the emergency generators kicked in, and some of the work lights over the stage flickered to life. We opened the heavy curtains that line one wall of the theatre and looked out over Coal Harbour. It was still daylight, and we could see people in neighbouring buildings doing the same as us, looking out their windows or coming out onto their balconies to assess the extent of the outage.
A call to BC Hydro confirmed what we already suspected: the power was out, not only at PAL and surrounding buildings, but across a significant swath of downtown. Estimated restoration time: 9 pm.
This is the point in the story where it becomes relevant that the PAL Theatre is on the eighth floor of the building that houses it.The elevators were still working, but we were told not to use them; they too were running on generator power, and if the generator were to fail for some reason, anyone in the elevator would be stuck indefinitely. In a flurry of texts, the FOH manager (now stuck downstairs in the lobby), the house tech (already on his second trip up and down all eight flights of stairs) and I decided to ask any patrons who showed up to wait at street level until 8 pm, at which point we would have to call it: cancel the show or wait longer to see if the power would come back on, hoping against hope that BC Hydro had overestimated the time it would take to restore it.
Sean, the playwright, back at home in Toronto, saw a bemused post by director Sabrina Evertt about the outage, and tweeted “I just said every single swear word I know.”
The remaining cast members arrived, climbed the stairs, and the “what the hell do we do now?” discussion continued. All of us hated the idea of cancelling, of closing the show without actually doing a closing performance. One cast member’s family was waiting downstairs; her parents were visiting all the way from Ontario. This was their only opportunity to see the show. But we also knew we couldn’t ask our audience to wait much past 8 pm, without any guarantee that the power would actually come back on.
“There is a third option,” I said. “We could do the show like this – ” I gestured to the work lights, running at 50% – “without any bells and whistles. For as many folks as are willing and able to climb the stairs to get to us.”
It was up to the actors, first. They were the ones who would have to put themselves out there without stage lighting, sound effects, incidental music or video cues. Adam Lolacher, Julie MacIsaac, Genevieve Fleming and Jay Clift are all gutsy, committed performers, and they said yes, we want to do it. So then it was over to our audience, down in the lobby…and about 20-25 of them said yes, we’ll come up. Some risked the elevator; most trekked up the eight flights of stairs.
Backstage, the cast scrambled to talk through the show, figuring out how to handle things like phones that would no longer ring, an intercom that would no longer buzz, and the timing of entrances, exits and scene changes that had previously been indicated by lighting cues. “We’ll just wing it,” they said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Do we have program sound?” wondered Adam. “Yeah,” said Julie. “It’s called listening.” Zing!
I did the pre-show speech for the first and only time, explaining the “no bells and whistles” plan and thanking the audience for making the effort (a lot more of one than usual!) to be with us. And then I sat down at the end of the second row and put my book under my chair – because what was I going to use it for? In a show where the actors were already their own backstage running crew, without working lights, sound or video, I was entirely superfluous. Having started things off, there was quite literally nothing more for me to do but watch. After a few seconds of silence, Julie and Adam made their first entrance, and the show was off and running.
Sitting there in my unprecedented idleness, I found it compelling, and not at all comfortable, to have the fourth wall – and the distance that stage lights, music and other effects normally create between actors and audience – essentially erased. We were all together under the harsh neon lights; they could see us and we could see them, all of us feeling exposed even as we did our best to ignore the situation. We-the-audience were self-conscious and tentative in our responses; nobody laughed too loudly. As the natural light outside faded, the work lights cast shadows in strange ways; it was sometimes hard to see the actors’ faces, especially their eyes. They said afterwards that they also had trouble seeing each other. You wouldn’t have known that, though, from their performances.
Us & Everything We Own is about 90 minutes long with no intermission, and that night it moved at a really good clip. I could tell the actors were charged up; that’s not uncommon for closing night, but – no surprise – this was a different kind of energy. Everything seemed to have a sort of tightrope edge to it. It felt similar in some ways to an opening night, that sense of not being quite certain how things are going to go or what’s going to happen…but unlike most opening nights, that adrenaline rush of nerves was fizzing through a cast who were rock solid in their grasp of the material; who had already long since found their groove. That febrile energy had nowhere to go but into their performances, and it seemed to make the lines ring in a way that was, I’m not gonna lie, a little strange but also kind of extraordinary.
“You know what’s awesome?” tweeted director Sabrina Evertt after it was over. “When your amazing cast decides to balls-to-the-wall do their closing show in generator-powered emerg LX.”
And it was, it really was. Those four fantastic actors committed to the weirdness, and gave honest, gripping performances that had all the emotional impact of the previous nine shows, with a bit of an added kick. Sure, the lighting was unflattering and worked against the audience’s suspension of disbelief; sure, it was awkward not to have any sound effects, or video, or the cool blueprint projection that was supposed to fill the stage during scene changes; and sure, it was a real shame not to have the incidental music cues that Sabrina and Sean had spent so much time choosing for each transition (I think I missed those most of all! Such great tunes). But the bottom line was that the show without tech… was still a good show. The story was still there.
It’s a salutary reminder for any stage manager, I think. I can’t speak for others, but I know that one of the reasons I find stage managing fulfilling and stimulating is that I get a charge from being needed, from being (ostensibly!) integral to the process. Getting to call the show – the art of timing cues, the magic of helping the actors to tell the story through lighting, sound and video – is my favourite part of the job, no contest. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that…am I, fellow stage managers? But in the end, what we do is secondary. What really matters is the people on stage, doing what they do, and the people in the audience, bearing witness.