This week I will open my 128th full-scale production as a producer/director. The group of artists working on this post-modern adaptation of Euripides’ “Trojan Women,” will become the 128th group of artists to hear me say – at every rehearsal and performance to come over the next three weeks – one of my most famous Sabelisms: “Do The Show That You Know!”
Having produced and/or directed 128 productions, I still hesitate to say I’ve seen it all. I’ve learned that’s the best way to ask for a situation you have yet to encounter. Nobody likes to face a situation they have not yet encountered. Familiarity is an essential part of success in our trade. Look how many directors and actors have chosen to work together time and again due to their familiarity with each other’s work. The history of famous director and actor teams goes back hundreds of years. Familiarity is the reason why theatre companies form and exist. It is an essential focus in the making of every major motion picture – especially today, when audience “familiarity” with certain brands leads to entire series of films featuring the same actors playing the same characters in sequel after sequel. It is the key to the success of any long-running sitcom, dramatic series, and even game shows, with audiences developing their familiarity with the hosts of the shows.
Humans crave consistency. With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, film producers crave consistency too. Consistent talent, consistent performance, consistent work ethic, productivity, attitude, and most of all – consistent box office draw! The best and most sought after artists in every field of this trade – editors, sound engineers, lighting designers, special effects teams, make-up artists, costumers, actors, directors, you name it – are the people who are known for their consistency. They are the people who do the show that they know, consistently. They are a known commodity, and in this industry, where a known commodity can be worth gold, it is no wonder that a known commodity is always going to be considered for the job before taking a risk on an unknown.
Taking all of this into account, you would be surprised how many times I have watched an artist decide to stray away from familiarity and throw consistency to the wind while on stage in a performance. “Do The Show That You Know” is a pretty clear direction. It is straight forward. It contains only single syllable words. It even rhymes so conveniently. Yet there are actors – I’ve seen countless numbers through 128 shows – who just can’t seem to understand those six simple words. As I mentioned above, I hesitate to ever say I have seen it all, but I have seen a wide variety of actors do outlandish things in changing a performance after a show has opened.
Green Room Gary has been giving advice to his fellow actors throughout the production process, continues to do so in performance, and then also decides – since he obviously knows best – to make changes to his own performance as well. “When the director isn’t here, I’ll do it my own way,” says Gary.
Dorothy Drama and Sam the Ham have different motivations. When her best friend, Edna, and her Grandma Matilda are in the audience, Dorothy just can’t help but turn on that extra juice, and melodrama the bones right out of the text of the play! With sudden bursts of random emotion and much sawing of the air, Dorothy sets out to prove to her friends and relatives that she is indeed a serious actress. Sam has the same intent whenever his mother comes to the see the show, or even worse yet, when he has a potential love interest in the room. Then consistent performance be damned, because Sam is trying to impress a lady and win himself a date.
Isaac Ideas isn’t a bad fellow, but his “magnificent brainstorms” are a day late and a dollar short. Poor Isaac is just trying to be helpful when he arrives to the theater with new blocking in mind for an important scene. He isn’t trying to sabotage his fellow actors by presenting them with something they haven’t encountered before on stage, he’s just trying to make the show “better.” His pal, Brandon Brando, is just trying to keep things “real” when he decides to change a line or two to make them sound more “natural” and “true” to the character.
Last Night Norman is such a prankster. He just can’t help chatting with everyone back stage about anything and everything completely unrelated to the show at hand. He’s full of funny jokes and silly anecdotes, and thrives on being the class clown of the cast. On the last night of performances, Norman just can’t resist playing that little prank on his fellow actors, that he is oh so sure will help them forever remember closing night. He is always right. We never forget him…
These types of actors can be a terrible detriment to a performance. Changes of any kind to a performance should be made only with the knowledge of the stage manager, and only after thorough discussion with every actor involved in the scene. Anything less is disrespectful to all involved, and completely self-absorbed behavior. Whatever your great new idea is – if it wasn’t good enough for rehearsal, it isn’t good enough now.
On occasion there are unforeseen circumstances that call for required changes involving safety, or semantics, or sight lines, etc. There are occurrences on the stage, mid-performance, which sometime call for quick thinking, adjustment, and adaptation right on the spot. Props hate people, and they can often be the cause of these unforeseen moments. It’s live theater. Things happen. All the more reason you don’t want to be the person causing things to happen that are outside the realm of what was rehearsed and prepared for performances. If a prop sabotages a performance, we blame the theater spirits. If you sabotage a performance by making changes, we blame you.
Do The Show That You Know. Stick to the plan. Be consistent. It is what your fellow artists have become familiar with. It’s what they expect from you, and it’s a quality that will get you more work in the future.
Actors often ask me why I don’t make it a point to watch every performance of my productions. Part of that aspect of me is based in having other responsibilities to fulfill, and the nature of our trade which finds the director’s job complete after opening night. It is the stage manager’s show after that, and their job to maintain a consistent production. You think directors get upset when an actor changes things on stage? Hah! I fear any stage manager worth their salt on this issue, and you should too.
Secretly a key reason I often can’t bear to watch performances of my productions is because of actors like Green Room Gary, Dorothy Drama, Sam the Ham, Isaac Ideas, Brando Brando, Last Night Norman, and any variety of others who decide that they just can’t possibly show up to the theater on time, follow their preparation routine, warm up, get on stage, and do the show that they know. I don’t give director’s notes to actors once a show has opened. I shouldn’t have to. The show should be the same way I left it on opening night, if you will just Do The Show That You Know!
As the founding artistic director of the Redlands Shakespeare Festival, Steven managed the creation and foundation of the organization from the ground up, and served as both artistic director and executive director of the thriving organization for nine successful seasons.