Tuesday, October 25, 2011

tour diary #7 - haddington and the fragility of it all

October 22, 2011

We head out to Haddington, about thirty miles to the east of Edinburgh, at one.  

We’re playing the Haddington Town Hall, an old steepled stone building in the middle of town with a watchtower on top and no need of a sign to designate its function.  If you drove into town down the High Street and didn’t swerve left or right you’d crash right through the front windows.

Unlike the counterfeit-minted Glenrothes, Haddington is an old East Lothian settlement.  Designated as a royal burgh in the 12th century, it sits stubbornly along the ever-flooding River Tyne like a mendicant refusing to leave a busy streetcorner.  English armies burned it to the ground three times in a 200 year span, marching back and forth to Edinburgh; the town rebuilt and endured.  A tourist plaque on the front of the hall gives some of the history:
Traders did business by the goat-topped Mercat Cross; criminals were hanged from the Nungate Bridge.
No mention of what they did with itinerant players peddling false tales of the apocalypse.  We’ll find out tonight, I guess.
The load-in is a challenge, up a fire escape two flights from the street, but Camilla has hired two local young men, Tom and Tommy, to lend their strength to the effort.  We set up, leave Camilla and the Toms to organize the lights and run a quick line-through in a small room off the main hall with chairs, a table, a clothes-rack but no mirrors.  Catherine goes around to a charity shop and picks one up for five pounds and a dressing-room is born.

The set looks perfect in this little high-ceilinged, chandliered town hall, giving more credence to the growing thought among us that it’s not a show to be played in theaters, it works best in bars, cabaret or found spaces.  This is something more than a few critics have mentioned and they’re probably right, observant bastards.  

An overflow crowd streams up the stairs and through the doors and Camilla and I add extra tables and hustle for chairs.  The room is buzzing and the show pops at the top but then less than twenty seconds in loud voices break out from a table in the back.  It’s hard to make out words, something like “What is this?” and then “Shut up!”  The audience and the players all react and then plunge back in.  And then again, people talking in the dark with no attempt to keep their voices down, a longer exchange this time, talking right over Catherine’s Last Words bit.  People start looking around but we’re in Scotland, so no one hushes them.  It continues, a woman’s low loud voice answered by a man’s audible mumble, then the woman chiming in again.  And then again. I want to do something but I’m on the opposite side of the crowded room and I realize that shouting them down in my marked American accent would just deepen the growing confusion and probably throw the performers even further off their game.  Nancy and Catherine and Tim soldier on, but the crowd is listening to two shows and the improvised one trumps our weeks of work.

I lean back, arms crossed against my chest, at the back of the room, helpless in frustration.

This is the flip side to the thrill of live performance.  Unlike any other art, even more so than dance, the actual moment of creation is precisely when the theater artists are least in control of the art’s expression. 

The act of theater only exists in the actual, passing moments shared by a group of gathered humans; printed plays aren’t theater, videotaped performances aren’t theater, closed rehearsals aren’t theater, these are all just artifacts or replicas or practice runs of the original and unique act.  This is why a strong performance can turn into a life-altering event and is part of the reason that going to the theater is a more mindful and responsible act than going out to see a band play or watching a movie at the cineplex.

When it catches fire there’s a spell cast and you feel the involvement and life force of every single person there, all creating and sustaining the magic, the dreamers and the dream locked in a self-perpetuating creative embrace and act of discovery.

But when it goes wrong, or pear-shaped as they say here, (which happens about a hundred times more often than the alchemy hinted at above), it’s like chewing and swallowing a mouthful of coffee grounds while smiling and trying to carry on a civil conversation with a stranger.

It can come from any and every direction; it can happen at any time. Each object, individual and ghost or gremlin in the room or immediately outside it is a potential assassin and you sit there and watch your baby die.

A lamp blows and the actor stands in the dark, delivering the one essential speech.  A child sits in the front row, listening rapt to the sweating, swearing actors, in full view of the rest of the audience who worry about her moral corruption instead of listening to the nuances of the script.  An actor blithely drops a line and his partner leaps ahead three pages and they fight in the quicksand of public panic, trampling the play to death in their attempt to find their footing.

An old woman bursts into a fit of tubercular coughing, a cellphone sings out in the dark, a crucial prop sits forgotten in the wings, the usher admits a whispering gang of latecomers ten minutes after the show has started and they fumble to their seats, stealing the focus and breaking whatever meager spell you’ve started to cast. 

I’ve had fire alarms go off, fist fights in the corridor outside, rats the size of dachshunds dash across the stage, stools collapse and splinter under astonished actors, flats shudder, wobble and float grandly to the floor, all manner of mayhem and misfortune and the show, such as it is, does indeed stumble on.  Even when you wish you could put a shotgun to its temple and end its life like a spent horse in the Old West.  And everyone reading this who’s spent more than three years in the game has all of those stories and better besides.

It’s what makes you vow never to do it again at least three times in the course of a so-called career.

It’s what makes you think hard about film where you can capture the one radiant performance, edit out the pauses and vestigial lines and throw a moody soundtrack under the whole thing and it's done, frozen forever just as you want it.

But then lightning strikes again, everything is illuminated and captured and clear and you stumble out of the theater amazed, converted anew, damned to do it again. 

The voices continue.

The show flops around in front of us like a fish stuck on a spear.

And then, just before the halfway point, during Three Versions of Hell, they rise and cross in front the stage and are gone.  Afterwards we piece together from others in the crowd that it was a very drunk man who hit upon the brilliant idea of bringing his wife and his ex-wife to our show.  Possible mental instability on the part of one of the brides.  Inconclusive but likely.

Our first walk-outs and good riddance.  The crowd settles and genuinely enjoys the second half, loud and long applause at the end.

It’s Camilla’s birthday so after we’ve broken everything down and loaded up the van we give her cards and various bottles of booze on the street.  Tim has an old LP for her, something called Lady Rocks and we sing and toast our one indispensable comrade, climb in and drive back home.

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