Not Shaky At All

There’s a production of Fiddler on the Roof on at St. Mark’s United Church in Whitby — my church. My daughter is in the show, which means I’ve seen a whole lot of Fiddler rehearsals over the past few months! I could probably sing most of the songs by heart… if I could sing, that is. It’s best for all concerned that I remain offstage.

I love this story. There’s so much in it — funny parts, sad parts. Parts where you want to kick the main character in the behind (I’m looking at you, Tevye, you stubborn fool). Parts that stay with you.

And I love this cast. Well, both of them. There are two, performing on alternate nights. They’ve each done one show now, and each have one more to go.

The interesting thing, I found, was how differently the two shows performed so far have been received.

The show ends with everyone leaving the village of Anatevka, which has been their home for generations. In our production, Tevye is last off the stage. He pushes his milk-cart, laden with the family’s belongings (how do you pack up a life?), slowly up the centre aisle. You can see the weight of history tugging at him as the lights dim. Bill Treadgold, our marvellous show-runner and pianist, plays three deep, dark chords on the piano and lets them echo around the church sanctuary and fade away. The sanctuary is barely lit; streetlights filter in through the stained glass windows. And that’s it. That’s the end of the show (except for the happily upbeat bows and final chorus of L’Chaim).

On Wednesday night, the audience sat in the dark in silence. The pause stretched out until one of our cast members started the applause, to let the audience know it was okay to clap. And to move, and to breathe. The lights came back on, and the applause lasted a long while, ending in a standing ovation.

On Thursday, applause was almost instantaneous, and the crowd barely waited for the whole chorus to run back onto the stage before jumping up into a standing ovation that lasted until after the last bow was taken. I stood on tiptoe and held my camera up high over my head to film the curtain calls from the back of the church.

Maybe the Thursday night group was just rowdier. Maybe it was because people came back to see the show again, to see the other cast, and knew from experience when to clap. Most obviously, maybe it was the slight differences in the way the different casts performed–lines delivered with different emphasis, different gestures; different personalities shining through. The play landed beautifully both nights, but it didn’t land the same.

I think it’s more than just the difference between the casts. I think that when I go back to see the play tonight, with Cast A performing again, I’ll see a show that I haven’t seen before. A show that’s ever-so-slightly different from the Wednesday and Thursday night ones. And ever-so-slightly different from the Saturday matinee that will follow.

The thing is, I saw them rehearsing. I saw them rehearsing many, many times. And they were fabulous in dress rehearsal. They nailed it. If they’d done the show just exactly the way they did it last weekend, it would have been great. But they didn’t do that. They made it even better. They dug deeper, made their characters more real, felt their lines more strongly. They brought it to life.

I don’t think they saved this energy for the performance on purpose. Nobody holds back during dress rehearsal; it’s just that something different and wonderful happens when you add the audience into the mix. Because the audience brings their own energy, and the actors sense that, and maybe even shape it, and build something new.

I don’t know how it works. But it seems as if something new was created at each show that was just that night, made out of just those circumstances and that combination of people. Those things can never be repeated, so the show will never be exactly the same again. It will be wonderful in new ways, but never exactly the same.

On Twitter yesterday, I came across a link to this picture, taken outside a bookstore in Australia. Humour me — this has been a big week for Doctor Who fans. The idea is that a book, like a Tardis, is bigger on the inside.

That’s something I think about a lot, in writing. A story is never the same twice; it depends so much on the person reading it. Sometimes I’m afraid to go back and read old favourites, in case they’re not the same. How can they be?  I’m not the same person I was then.

The experience of story is created in the space between the words on the page and the mind of the person reading them. A book needs a reader. Maybe a play is like that, too; it needs an audience. I thought I’d seen the play in rehearsals, but I was wrong, because the real performance was something new, something entirely different.

St. Mark’s Players — thank you for all your hard work! I can’t wait to see what you do tonight and Saturday!


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