To Make Theater Live Ain’t Easy

Karl Reinhardt: My Hero

Theatre is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”
Tom Stoppard

On March the 12th, 2020, Joe Queenan I were set to audition actors for our second co-written play, Grudges.

March 12th, 2020.

That’s the day the pandemic hit the fan with the NBA canceling its season, ERs overflowing, and travel of pretty much any kind cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. Theater also just stopped. Around the country, whether in Broadway palaces or school gyms, Regional playhouses or East Village cabarets, it just stopped. Dead.

But we couldn’t bear to give up. So, hatching our tagline #maketheaterlive,  we produced Grudges on Zoom followed by Within The Context Of No Context by George W S Trow, and my solo effort, the Swedish screwball comedy, Keeping Right.

And then this year, we got to actually make theater really live again through the gracious coproduction of our third play, Genealogy, with Broom Street Theater in Madison WI. Because that’s what’s important about theater: it’s live. You have to remember the lines right then. The lights have to go up at the right time and the sound effects have to go off at the right time. And the audience is right there. Breathing, coughing, laughing, groaning: right there.

Other arts amaze me, but theater is the one where you are least likely to know what’s going to happen. Oh, yes, there is a script, a text that the playwrights created and of which upon that foundation the director has formed a production. But every night the connection between the actors and the audience and even among the actors themselves can differ.

The Irish critic Fintan O’Toole put it very well recently:

“Live performers …make their own decisions, here and now, in this moment. In a filmed performance, the performer loses that power. It belongs to others – the director, the editor. But this also applies to us as members of the audience. At a live event, we choose where we look and how we listen. In a virtual event, other people are – sometimes heavy-handedly, sometimes subtly – making those choices for us. This is what we miss about live performance: the autonomy and integrity of the performer, our freedom to shape our own responses, the sense of our shared presence in space and time.”

That’s one of the reasons why being able to see and feel and hear our wonderful actors perform Genealogy this month awed and thrilled us. But certain events reminded us of the fragility not only of theater, but of life. One of our team, one of our amazing actors, took ill. (He’s doing much better now and we trust on the road to a full recovery) And our astonishing director, Dana Pellebon, approached Karl Reinhardt (who had been doing spectacular work as our stage manager from day one) to ask him if he was willing to step into a role of a character who is on stage from beginning to end of our 95 minute play.

And he did. Karl committed to make theater live. God bless him.

He played the role last weekend and he’s playing it again this weekend including at our live stream performance on November 19th. (Tix are here; choose “11/19 Live Access” from the dropdown menu.) Stepping into a role that another actor has created without having had the benefit of the weeks of rehearsal, the space to learn lines, the experiences to forge connections with the other characters is beyond daunting. Try terrifying on for size. Yet Karl did it and he did it very well. That’s why on Saturday night when I get to see the live stream, I’ll be toasting not just the entire cast and the director and the crew but especially Karl Reinhardt who embodies the commitment to make theater live despite that “series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”

The podcast upon which our characters appear in Genealogy
Quanda Johnson and Atticus Cain
Jackson Rosenberry as podcast host, Glenn Weber

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