So, after a fairly hectic three week rehearsal period and two years of the script lying, dormant, in my documents folder of my hard drive, ‘A Building with 27 Floors’, opened last night in London. IN LONDON.
When I write it out like that, it all seems pretty amazing and fabulous.
But, of course, me being me, the experience was much more complicated. Let us delve further.
In the lead up to this production, I was surprisingly calm and confident. I suspect, by now, if you’ve been reading this blog, you’re all be aware of my various insecurities, so this was quite the achievement. But the fact is (I have to admit it) I was, actually, amazingly, surprisingly quite happy with the script. And I was even able to say this to others. I had performed one of the monologues from the piece at the Women Playwright’s International Conference last year and it was pretty well received. People laughed, I was complimented after, people asked for the monologue. I thought it went well. Plus, the fact that an independent group of people had read my script and decided that they wanted it in the festival convinced me that it must have been at least halfway decent.
The first week of rehearsal was ok. We showed the piece to a friend of my director’s at the end of the week and she gave us a lot of great and useful feedback. Of course, I was disappointed she didn’t immediately fall on her knees and declare us theatrical geniuses, but I was also relieved she didn’t tear up the script, throw it in our faces and tell us we should both give up now before we furthered destroyed the ancient and noble artform of theatre.
By the end of the third week of rehearsal, however, I was feeling pretty darn good. We had a run through for the tech people and they seemed to very much enjoy it. I finished each rehearsal feeling fairly confident. There were things that still felt a little awkward, transitions in particular were not my favourite things, but when my director said on Monday that we could finish early, do the pub quiz and then have Tuesday off entirely, I was totally delighted. And, also, in no way terrified of this being the worst idea ever.
On Tuesday night, I sent out a final flurry of emails to important theatre-type people inviting them to the show, but not really expecting them to turn up. I know I really have to get my act together with the self-promotion-type stuff, but I’m just no good at it, I’m barely able for the theatre-type stuff, so to have to deal with anything else on top of it is just too much. Sending out emails at the last minute to people who don’t know me from a bar of soap is, of course, not a very promising way to convince people to come to your show.
Anyway, Wednesday came round and I got a little terrified. Terrified and then excited and then terrified and then excited until I went past all the emotion into a kind of zen-like meditative state, which I characterise as being like flying somewhere above the emotion, knowing that if I dip to close to the emotion ocean (ha ha ha) somewhere below me and let myself get dragged into it, I will just dissolve into a ball of anxious feelings and not be able to do anything at all. Yes? Yes.
So, I’m in my zen-like, meditative, no-emotion zone, eating a massive burger (nothing like too much food to assist with the zen-like, meditative, no-emotion state) and then we do a run, and then suddenly its 7:30pm and I have to set up the stage and go out the back and ‘prepare’. Which means freaking out about the fact that I didn’t bring my make-up and all the make-up that was on my face this morning at 6am has now melted off (nothing like focusing on the little things to distract you from getting dragged into the ocean of anxious emotion). At this point, as my director and I are going over the final notes, the producer of the festival comes in and asks us if we had arranged a comp for a particular man. We are not certain. We have not heard of this person. I ask if the producer knows where this person is from. He says he doesn’t, the man didn’t say. We say, ok, just give him the comp and we’ll figure it out later.
He leaves and suddenly a tidal wave of anxiety rears up and drags me under the emotion ocean, because, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, did one of those serious, important theatre people that I emailed at 11pm the night before actually reply and decide to come see my show? I start to panic. If I knew how to hyperventilate, or blackout, that’s what I would be doing right about now. My director attempts to pull me down from the top of the cliff. I curse London where, apparently, important people come to see your show if you ask them to.
I’m sure you’re all confused. I mean, I’m the one who invited them, why would I be freaked out if one of them then decided to turn up? I know it doesn’t make any sense. But the thing is I bullshit my way through life a lot. I put myself forward for things because I know I’m supposed to if I want to ‘get anywhere’, if I want to ‘get my name out’. But, whilst projecting absolute confidence, underneath it all I’m just a great big bundle of nerves, secretly hoping that maybe things won’t work out, because that could actually be really, really scary.
I attempt to calm myself down on the walk to my entrance. It doesn’t work. The minute I go onstage I am terrified, talking a million words a second. By my third line, my mouth is bone dry. My voice is cracking. There are 11 people in the audience and I stare at them all, trying to figure out which one is the potentially important one. Then I stop staring at them, because none of them are laughing. None of them are even really smiling. And, I thought some of the show was funny. In fact, I was certain of it. Maybe I’m going too fast. They’re not getting an opportunity to laugh at the jokes. That’s it. I take a deep breath and slow down. Nope, still not laughing. Ok. The show is not funny. News alert, people! The show is not funny! Do not expect laughter! It’s serious, serious, serious.
The problem with an audience of 11 people in a small venue with not particularly dramatic lighting is that you can see absolutely everything they do and absolutely every single reaction they have. They shift in their seat, you see it. They reach for their jacket, you see it. They roll their eyes, you see it. So, instead of focusing on your next line or your next transition or your next character, you’re suddenly the audience of the audience, over-analysing everything that’s going on. Why did he cough just then? Why did she shuffle her feet? Are they bored? Do they not like this part? Do they think I’m stupid? Really, its amazing that I was able to continue saying words at all, let alone portray characters, remember blocking and just carry on breathing, considering the amount of anxious thinking and analysing I was doing simultaneously.
By the end of the show, it is safe to say I was an emotional wreck. I went into the darkened dressing room, put my head in my hands and decided it was probably time to arrange some sort of career change. Time to finish my Master of Teaching and get a nice job in a high school somewhere and save towards a mortgage like a normal person. The unknown man (potentially important, potentially life-changing) was certain to have hated every word of every sentence that I had uttered onstage and was cursing me for putting him through an hour of torture. I was supposed to come outside and help clear the stage, but I couldn’t bear to. It had been a struggle coming back on for the curtain call. So, I sat in the dark and waited for my director to find me.
When she finally came out to talk to me, she, of course, had a completely different interpretation of what had been going on. I attributed this to the fact that she couldn’t see the audience’s faces (and I could, I could, oh boy could I see them). But, she would have none of it – the show was good. I then started thinking (as I always do) that she was only saying nice things because it had actually been so very very bad and she was trying to make me feel better. But, strangely, she seemed genuinely sincere and confused by my reaction. Still, I was adamant that I knew what I was talking about. I had seen them, I had seen them, I knew they hadn’t enjoyed it. She took me outside (as the next performer actually needed to use the dressing room to get ready for his show and I was reluctant to have a meltdown in front of him as he was getting changed) and compared notes. Of course, because I hadn’t gone out to clear the stage, I hadn’t been privy to the compliments my director had received afterwards. People that I was convinced hated me during the performance had come up to her afterwards and said they really enjoyed it and were so glad they had come (of course, part of me is relieved by this and the other part of me thinks, ‘well, yes, but you didn’t hear what they said, so you’re unable to judge the sarcasm/sincerity level of the comment. People can say things and then they’ll say things, Jenny’). Most importantly, the unknown (possibly important) man who had so thrown me off at the start had made a point of coming up to her and congratulating her on the show.
Eventually, my director managed to talk me off the cliff (again). I was in such a state I couldn’t sit and watch the next show, which I had really wanted to do and I did feel a bit guilty about that. But, I was in desperate need of water and alcohol and more, importantly, anxiously talking out all the words in my head until I was calm again. After a while, I felt strong enough to go home, get some chocolate and watch a mindless movie (I chose ‘Jumanji’ for added nostalgia factor). I checked my email first to see if any important theatre people had replied to my emails, but, of course, they hadn’t. I then checked the important theatre websites to see if any of the staff had the same name as this man. They didn’t. That calmed down considerably (although also disappointed me… I know, I know, its ridiculous and makes no sense). I slept 10 hours and woke up at 11am this morning to a power drill downstairs and the thought that I was meant to meet a friend at the Barbican at 11:30am for a writing session.
So, here I am at the Barbican, still not entirely certain what to feel about last night. My director gave me some good advice, to think over the performance seriously and consider anything that I wanted to change (and she wasn’t going accept an answer of ‘absolutely everything’, which I feel was very close-minded of her) or genuinely thought wasn’t working. So far I haven’t really come up with much. It’s possibly a bit long at the start. Some of the physicality needs tightening up. But, otherwise, I don’t know that there is much else we can do. You’d think this would be a good thought. That I’d then feel, well, clearly I should be proud of this piece! It’s good! I’m happy with it! But, after my freak out last night, I’m still a little fragile and uncertain.
Plus, the existential crisis continues. I’m not one of these people that has some sort of manifesto with the theatre they make (‘I explore third-wave feminist ideas’, ‘We explore environmental issues through theatre,’ ‘I’m attempting to address a post-modern world through the creation of a new theatrical language’ or something, something, something). I’m also not making any money out of it. And, apparently, if last night is anything to go by, I’m not enjoying it all that much. Which begs the question, ‘what exactly are you doing it for?’ And the only answer I have is, ‘I don’t actually know what else I could possibly do with my life.’ Believe you me, if there was some kind of stable job out there that had a wage and regular work hours that made me feel valuable and happy, I would re-adjust my life accordingly. But, either I haven’t yet found that career, or I lack imagination, because at the moment, the best I can come up with is working as a part-time waitress and putting myself through semi-regular, ritualised, self-torture sessions whenever I start feeling too good about myself. Or, in other words, writing something and then performing it.
And, yet, with all this said, I am, hesitantly, looking forward to Saturday’s performance. If only so I can go through the show a little calmer and try to enjoy it this time. I think the panic at the start about the ‘potentially important person’ (we still don’t know who it is, by the way) shaded my reactions to absolutely everything else that happened, so I was unable to accurately read the audience’s reactions. So, we’ll see. Consider this a blog post in progress.
Oh, and, here: