2008 was a relatively dry year on the acting front for me. Between commercial auditions that just didn’t pan out to an almost 10 month absence from the stage combined with an ever-increasing frustration and heartache over the “normal” job I do have – that of waiting tables – it began to seem as though what passes for an acting career for me had begun to exit stage left.
On top of all of the above, I made the bold – and potentially stupid – move of doubling the performance run of my ‘little Christmas show’ The Birth from last year’s two nights and 4 performances to this year’s four nights and 8 performances. In addition to the venue I rent considerably upping the rent on me there was also this little thing you might have heard of called Economic Apocalypse as industry and commerce began failing and falling all around us, leading the thought of actually selling tickets much less actually breaking even (as it was our very own finances on the line if the show didn’t succeed) a growing and crushing anxiety.
I spent countless hours building and tweaking and refining and revising a website for the show (TheBirth.net if you didn’t know by now) in order to begin generating interest and, with a little luck, some ticket sales. I risked friendships in reshaping my company of performers, I staged a minimalist show with a tough to describe premise and the entire inspiration for the show is an author no one has heard of. Oh yeah, and I had to prepare myself for 8 performances as well as ensure the half dozen other performers were ready for an audience and trust that people would give a damn about the whole thing when all was said and done. As if all that weren’t enough, I did my best guerrilla advertising, attempting to spread the word as far and wide as I could – even getting an article featured in the Gaston Gazette and Shelby Star. In other words, there was a lot riding on this thing succeeding.
Suffice it to say, the last hour before our first performance I was as close to a nervous breakdown as my just-shy-of-thirty-years have ever been. Would people come? Would we be ready? Would they like it? Despite the confidence I had in not just the material we were presenting but also in the company I had assembled one can never quite shake the feeling that it will all go wrong even still. Sure we were delivering a somewhat offbeat nontraditional theatrical examination of the Christmas story, but would people ‘get it’?
Our opening night was well received, but our whole first weekend was more or less half full crowds. And despite a warm audience reception consisting mostly of friends and family as well as a positive review in Charlotte online arts magazine Arts Ala Mode, I still had concern as to whether or not it would all translate into good crowds for our second weekend.
There’s an old adage in church circles: It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’. Friday night, December 19, two days before our second run of shows was to begin, we had sold right at 200 of our 400 total seats available, a modest showing that ensured our being in the black financially but still one always wishes for more, right? Just once couldn’t we perform for a sold out crowd? If you’re not a performer you may not quite apprehend the masochistic nature of needing the undivided attention of large groups of people. But in my defense, in this case at least, I wasn’t so concerned with the selfish nature of performer codependence as just once I wanted this extraordinary assemblage of talent to be able to show off all the hard work and energy and passion they’d poured into producing the best piece of art they could.
Well if Friday was a 200 ticket day, by Monday – our last day of performance – we had sold in the neighborhood of 315 tickets which, in addition to comp tickets provided to performers and other official folk, our total seating for our entire run approached closer to 350 or 360 of 400 tickets. The positive word of mouth, the traction earned in the community by a troupe who believed in what they were doing and a show that challenged as well as inspired audiences to reflect on the Christmas story in an altogether different way than perhaps they ever had all conspired to create a second weekend run of shows that save for a few empty seats here and there were all but sold out.
Then came the final performance.
8 o’clock, December 22, 2008. Our 6:30 show had an almost packed house and the short time between shows caused the crowd from show 1 to begin intermingling with the crowd from show 2 as they began arriving, creating what appeared to be a mass of people, a mass indeterminate in number but significantly larger than any other crowd on any other night.
The cast retired to the green room for the final few minutes before the theatrical institution of “places” was called. Then came the stage manager, dear friend and college chum Carrie Cranford, saying we were holding for the crowd to all filter in. Minutes passed. Then came Carrie again to the green room saying we needed to add chairs to the space; there were too many people for too few seats, an awesome problem to have. We quickly scrounged up another half dozen chairs, turning our 54-seat theater into a packed 60-seat one.
And thus the magic began. The bittersweet air of a final performance combined with the enchantment of the Christmas story joined with the energy and attention of an overflow crowd lead to one heck of a theatrical event. The music crackled, the characters ruminated, the baby was born. We all opened our eyes. We all listened.
What a night.