LATHAM — There is nothing but misery in sitting through a truly unfortunate local theater production.
But as uncomfortable as these productions are, I usually endure them. After all, I feel it is only fair to grit my teeth and soldier through, as I have not only been in a production (or several) that were a true mess, but I have directed a few as well. Penance? Perhaps.
The worst part of evenings like the one at Curtain Call’s current production of Philip King’s tired farce, “See How They Run,” is not just what has happened onstage. An extra punch comes from the pain and discomfort of having to go backstage to offer words of praise and encouragement to your colleagues who, despite having worked long and hard to create something magical, have produced a dud.
What do you say to your talented friends and colleagues after watching them in a truly painful theatrical presentation? You have to say something; silence is not an option. Actors live off feedback and praise.
For those who must take that daunting walk backstage to tap dance your way through awkward platitudes, here’s some advice: avoid the stock and pat comments like “great show” or “nice to see you up there again.”
Be more creative, amp it up a bit. Have some fun. But by all means, avoid the truth! You must not say anything negative when you go backstage.
Everyone worked very hard to get this show up and running, and even though it’s a dog, the last thing they need to hear right now is the unfiltered truth.
Give them this moment. Do not burst their bubble.
Most likely your friends are not an idiots. They probably know they are in a bomb. No one needs to be reminded of that, especially when they are in the middle of it and there is no escape. It’s your job to help maintain the illusion that the show is a smash.
To assist in maintaining this delusion without sacrificing your own personal integrity, most of us who practice theater as a craft have come up with creative phrases to get us through these difficult moments.
Over the years I have collected them. Some I have used myself. Others have been used on me. I am breaking no code of conduct by revealing these. A few years back on the Tony Awards, Steve Martin spilled the beans to the public on this tradition so, the news is already out. A word of advice, if you use any of these, do NOT over act. Keep the tone and delivery sincere.
These work best if you are not clutching remnants of the playbill that you mangled during the show while trying to control your rage, or inappropriate laughter.
Some of the best I have heard (and used) over the years include:
- “Oh you all looked like you were having SUCH fun up there!” It has a Southern flavor to it but it works with any accent and in all regions.
- “Wow! That was UNBELIEVABLE! I mean it!” has been used on me more times than I am willing to admit.
- I have found that “Well, you’ve done it again!” is very effective when delivered in full voice upon entering a dressing room.
- “You have a lot to be proud of,” always lands sincere when offered in a low volume and accompanied with a simple laying of your hand on the loved one’s forearm.
- “I loved your costume!” while quite popular and amusing is rather transparent, so use it with caution.
- If you are looking to create an aura of complete evasiveness and denial, clapping your hands together and saying “So where are we eating?” has never failed anytime I have seen it used.
- When you know that your actor friend has found the whole rehearsal process torturous and is completely aware that the show is less than perfect, the phrase “It’s a difficult play, isn’t it?” keeps the focus on your friend in a supportive and tender way.
- “How did you learn all those lines?” — again evasive, a classic, but a bit obvious.
- The most unique? I overheard this in a dressing room as an audience member was asked how they found the show, “I really liked the way my playbill was perfectly folded and stapled. Wow! I mean, how often does that happen, huh?”
- But my all-time favorite — not my own personal go-to which I will not reveal — is, “Man, you were ON that stage, weren’t you?!” That one always leaves me smiling.
I offer the above phrases as useful tools if you go backstage after Curtain Call’s “See How They Run.”
Trust me, you will need them. Years from now (or maybe next month), I suspect some will deny they were part of this production. Or maybe they will proudly admit they were and wear it as a badge of honor and survival. And of course, they’ll be a few wags who never saw this show but will proudly bark that they did.
Me? I’m going to pretend that this production never happened. There were a lot of very talented people involved in this show and sadly, it just didn’t work, on almost every level. To assist with the forgetting, I am not saving the playbill to this production … despite the fact that I found it perfectly folded and stapled.