It’s wrong to call a production like The Seafarer a “fleeting joy” except in the most literal sense, but this week that’s the sense I’m experiencing. Sunday was our last performance.
What makes the performing arts so special, of course, is the very thing that makes their joys ephemeral. They are real at the moment of performance, and they are about the moment of performance. In that moment, the script and the actors’ embodiment of the characters and the place and time created by the set and costumes and the mood created by the lighting coalesce with each other and with the particular energies of the people sitting in the seats, the audience, to make truth, reality, passion…to make theater. (I have played in orchestras and sung in choirs, and have been part of the audience of dance performances, and I know the same can be said of those experiences too, all the performing arts—but here I’m speaking specifically of theater. The others will have to speak for themselves.)
That’s why every performance is different, to a greater or lesser extent, from every other performance. The energies are different; different moments emerge more brightly or resonate more deeply as a consequence. Every performance is itself; after every performance, we say “Wow, that was exciting,” or “Act 2 just flew tonight,” or “I’ve never seen that look in your eyes before,” or “let’s keep that new gesture.” There were people who came to see our production of The Seafarer three or four times, and remarked on the different textures of the various performances.
The production as a whole is ephemeral, too, alas. Whether it’s a term production in a community or repertory theater, or a show that will run for as many performances as there are ticket sales, it will eventually come to an end. The intense world of the play, the passionate collaboration of the actors, will dissolve. The set will come down. The props and costumes will be cleaned, sorted, and stored. There is a kind of post partum depression that hits me at the end of a show. All this focused energy, all this purposeful activity, all this love, become a page that is turned. I step out of the theater and feel as though I’m stepping off an unexpected curb: Oh! Where am I?
Some actors will roll into another production almost immediately (our Mr. Lockhart, Will Jeffries, has already begun to prepare for his upcoming role in Death of a Salesman although it is several months distant); others will move back into their ordinary lives and try to catch up on various domestic or work projects that were put on hold for the duration of the show (I’ll grade some back papers and prepare to administer final exams, and think about trying to clean the house, for example). The family and friends we portrayed, the house they lived in, all vanish.
We held our closing party on the set, in the home of Richard and Sharky Harkin, where the poker games and the family arguments and the moments of despair and redemption had taken place. It felt like home. And then we packed our makeup kits and party leftovers and gifts…and drove off in the directions of our actual homes. There will never be this experience again. But there will be other experiences.
At the end of every production I’ve ever been part of, I think, well, this is one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. At the end of this one, though, I can say that I am certain this has been one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had—possibly the most wonderful. I’m so grateful to everyone involved, and to Conor McPherson, that this could happen. Could have happened.
I don’t care how many theories are put forward about the “person who REALLY wrote Shakespeare’s plays”: they’re all a bunch of hooey. Only someone for whom the theater was the most intense part of his life could have written those plays. Only someone who knew the joy and pain of the ephemeral, living theater could have written this:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind.…