tennessee williams says, “wtf, darling!” photo by jane brown, 1977
If I could leave behind one bequest to the Halifax theatre scene before my eventual return to Toronto, it would be to cultivate the tradition of the theatre community coming out in wild, zealous, droves for every single Opening Night of theatre in the city.
Why is Opening Night significant? In my opinion there are a multitude of reasons. First of all it sends a subliminal message to the artists performing the work, all those who have been involved with it and the theatre company in general. As an artist attending Opening Night shows solidarity. It says, “I am so excited about this, I could not wait!” There is an energy in the Opening Night audience that can never be replicated and playing to a packed energized crowd filled with friends, supporters, warmth, love and friendly faces can make all the difference between a show happening and a show flying.
For independent, emerging theatre companies it is a huge boost to see the community rallying behind them, not once the reviews have been posted or when they feel harassed and harangued by Facebook reminders or guilt, but right from the beginning because the community wants to stand behind one of their own, proudly and of their own volition. A lot of the theatre is built on admiration. We all grow up idolizing other people in the industry and I speak from experience when I say that nothing legitimizes a new venture quicker than a few kind and encouraging words from someone you look up to. Isn’t that the kind of theatre community we are at heart or at least the theatre community we wish to be?
Most importantly, the success of a particular production relies on building momentum and you cannot generate momentum if everyone waits until the last two nights to come. A packed opening night does not go unnoted. Often theatre critics mention the size of the house in their reviews, and the public often equate sellout Opening Nights as a sign of a worthwhile play, one that they might be willing to invest in. Also, obviously, the larger the crowd on Opening Night the more opportunity there is for word of mouth to spread and to spread farther into the realm of the general public, and over a longer period of time. The runs for independent theatre shows are short as it is, but positive endorsements via Facebook and Twitter have the opportunity to generate a real viral buzz for a production and this buzz has the most substantial impact when it begins right after its Opening Night.
Closing weekend is not for theatre artists. I think this should be a theatre rule. Closing weekend is for the general public. For, if we have all done our jobs, by closing weekend of a really terrific show, the word of mouth, the great reviews, the buzz on social media and all the press that like to hop on already sailing bandwagons, should have reached the public. It doesn’t do an independent theatre company any good to play five houses of twenty and then one house where they had to turn 12 people away. If people hear a show is selling like hotcakes early in the run they not only will want to come, but they will book their tickets right away. We all know the benefits to starting these things off strong, so why do we wait until the last minute to go?
During a festival like Supernova ,momentum is even more massively important. The idea of a theatre festival is to hook an audience with one fantastic play which will then in turn encourage them to check out another, and then another, until, hopefully, by the end they have seen all the shows, become so excited about the theatre in this city and about the artists who live and work here that they continue to seek out our work for the rest of the season and come back to Supernova next year. At least, that is the dream. A festival like Supernova also brings in artists from across the country which gives us the opportunity to meet like-minded people from different theatre communities, to see their work, exchange ideas and perspectives and to build connections between theatre companies and theatre makers. When this happens the festival turns into a party, discussions tumble out of the theatre and into the surrounding pubs and go on late into the evening. Friendships are made. People leave Halifax feeling artistically fulfilled, excited about playing to solid houses and invigorated by the discussions they have had with all the awesome new friends that they have made. People leave excited not only to come back to Halifax again, but also eager to bring Halifax-based theatre artists to their city and their theatre community.
Opening Night is where the party begins and where these types of friendships are most likely to be forged. After all, there is usually free food there. So why don’t more artists show up? I have gotten the distinct impression that Halifax artists don’t like schmoozing. I have heard it said that it is because people find it “disingenuous.” I don’t understand this at all, especially within the independent theatre scene. How can schmoozing be disingenuous if you all basically know each other already? I will even go out on a limb here and say: YOU ARE ALL ALREADY FRIENDS. I attended the party after the Merritt Awards this year. It was the first time, in the 12 months that I have lived here, that I felt like the entire theatre community was in the same room at the same time. It looked like everyone was having a blast. I had a blast. It was mountains of fun because the Halifax theatre community is made up of some of the most fantastic, passionate, smart, sexy, lovely and talented people this city has to offer. Every Opening Night party should be the same as the Merritt Awards after party. It’s not about going and trying to chat up some sleazy casting agent from Los Angeles who needs to find a half naked Abercrombie model to sell Coke Zero. It’s about introducing yourself to the nice theatre artists who are visiting from elsewhere, helping to make emerging artists, those still in University, those who are in High School, those who have come into theatre from other backgrounds and disciplines, feel genuinely welcome in our community. And, most importantly, it is a time for us to spend with one another as friends in celebration of the achievements of a particular group who has just had the great tenacity, courage and fortune to open a brand new show.
Mostly empty audiences, especially for an amazing show, make me a little cranky, especially when the theatre community is so obviously and glaringly absent. How can we expect to get the general public in to see our shows when we can’t even seem to get those who claim to love the theatre in to see the shows? How can you, as an artist, expect people to come support you if you haven’t gone out on a limb to support someone else? I have heard all the excuses, and I know they are all valid, but I am still asking you to try and to try harder. I believe you owe it to yourselves.
The way I see it, Charlie Rhindress is doing exactly what I hear artists in this community wishing Artistic Directors/Producers here would do more of all the time. He is giving Halifax a theatre festival whose mandate is: “Our stories onstage.” He is putting Halifax center stage. He is producing Halifax-written work filled with Halifax-based artists. He’s also bringing in both emerging artists and world-class artists from across the country to share their work with us. If anyone deserves the theatre community to be rallying noisily behind him, showing excitement and gratitude and hope for the future, partying long into the night and showing OUR visitors what this community is made of, it is Charlie and it is Supernova.
If you don’t show up, you are the one who is missing out of fantastic theatre and wonderful people, but it’s unfair to the rest of the community too. We have a shot here to really build up theatre traditions in Halifax, to open ourselves up from being so insular and cliquish and to really make the theatre scene into an exciting party that everyone wants to attend like the pulsing music scene, our Pride Week or even the way the 2011 Fringe Festival was ever-so-briefly. In the long run, it will lead to more theatre, better theatre, bigger audiences and more money. We have to invest in ourselves first.
Make haste and get thy arses to the theatre!