15. R & J OPENS
It’s open. As I look back on the week leading up to opening The Ballad of R & J, I realize now that statement was not even close to a sure thing. If you’ve been following this newsletter, you know our first production of An Appalachian Christmas Carolwas snowed out by 10 inches in December, though we luckily were able to reschedule it to January. I figured we were out of wintery danger by now but had not considered the possibility of monsoon season. In the couple of days leading into our tech week, Western North Carolina received all the rain it typically gets in an entire month. While Asheville certainly did not get the worst of it and we were fortunate in most respects, rehearsing outdoor theatre proved challenging to say the least. But we rolled with it, rehearsed in my unfinished basement when we had to, and loaded into the space despite torrential downpours. As for tech week, we were redirected to the basement on Tuesday, made it through Act 1 on Wednesday before the sky opened, then all the way to Mantua on Thursday before a good soaking. Picture musicians running with instruments, actors fleeing in costume and a couple of us sticking around to strike the stage under sheets of rain. I’d drive home worried and feeling like a used sponge. Finally, on Friday, the night before opening, the clouds held their tears and we ran the entire show on site for the first time. And that’s all we needed. Saturday, we opened on a beautiful night in front of over forty folk that stayed for the ride and another thirty or so that visited for a spell. Just like that, the show was no longer mine as it had been for over four years. Now, it belongs to this talented, dedicated, and beautiful troupe of actors and musicians and one illustrious stage manager.
The experiment continues. With the production living its own life, I’m left to continue to tinker with the framing and invitation. I sit in the back and watch the audience watch the show—both audiences actually. There’s those that have made a commitment to come and take in the entire journey and then there are those that have come across us on their daily path and stay for a while. One challenge I’m trying to solve is helping those that come across us feel invited enough to come closer. We put a banner on the fencing that says, “FREE” for this very purpose and I don’t post anyone at the gate, so that it doesn’t feel like a ticketed event. Even so, I watched one couple watch the show for 15 minutes on the other side of the fence, which is far enough away to barely hear a thing. The more typical passer-by will be attracted to a wall nearby, which does provide a good seat height-wise, but isn’t the most comfortable and still not nearly ideal for hearing the show. For most shows, we’ve had a full wall and yet empty seats at café and picnic tables situated strategically for optimal viewing. Speaking of those, I had initially placed the tables around the stage, but far enough away to provide those that brought seats to place them closer. I learned quickly that audience mentality saw that as the border and placed their seats outside of the tables. Despite have the ability to move closer at any point, they reported back that they had a hard time hearing.
I’m not sure I’d feel invited to come around either, so I added a bit in my curtain speech to encourage folks to move when they couldn’t hear or the sun was too bright. Nonetheless, I continued to watch most of our audience squint at the stage from the least optimal spots. Compound that with our second audience who never gets the chance to hear the curtain speech and we’re left with a real problem. Fortunately, we have a sizable advantage over most theatres in that we can change the configuration of our stage by simply parking it differently. This Thursday, we will shift the stage 90 degrees, which I hope accomplishes two goals. The musicians will now be playing towards a wall instead dispersing their sounds out into the busy street, which should help with acoustics. Second, it will allow us to tuck the theatre further back into the three walled lot, hopefully eliminating the sitting wall from consideration and therefore increasing the invitation to the tables and closer seating area. There is no doubt that the new configuration will present new challenges I’m not even thinking of, but as with everything on this journey, we’ll deal with them when we come to them. The important thing is to keep trying to make the experience better and the invitation more open.
That’ll do it for now. This weekend we have three shows in the Lot at 68 Haywood and then an extra Sunday matinee in Grovemont Park, Swannanoa. That last one will be personally special. We’re passing all donations along to the Swannanoa Library next to the park, both of which happen to be just a hop, skip and a jump from the house my mom grew up in. And she’ll get to be there for it. I’ll report back at least once more before this is all over.