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I really appreciate Playscripts and their work toward creating better theater and theater experiences for all. Jay Muldoon Theater Teacher, Fairfield, OH
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Opening Night

I’ve worn a lot of theatrical hats over the years: actor, director, playwright, assistant to the assistant stage manager (I just wanted to go to the cast party), and one disastrous turn as prop designer.  (Side note: I saw that car crash coming from miles away.  Why didn’t anyone stop me from trying to build a phone instead of buying a phone?)  But one thing stays the same: opening night is always a nerve-wracking, stomach-churning joy.

I say joy because I’ve been pretty lucky over the years.  I’ve been involved in nearly a hundred opening nights now, and I don’t think I’ve ever had one be a complete disaster.  Sure, there have been times when I’ve forgotten my lines as an actor, or we skipped five pages of the script on accident (which completely eliminated one person’s part – not fun!), or the bicycle we were supposed to ride zoomed off the stage and landed in the first row, but after every opening night, I still felt that mixture of relief and joy.  I guess there’s a surge of dopamine in your brain that causes you to forget all the mistakes you’ve made, but overall, the worst case scenario never occurred.

As tough as it is to be an actor or the director, I think the playwright has it the worst.  I recently attended the professional opening of my newest play, Current Economic Conditions, at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and it was pretty great, (if I do say so myself), but it was also just like every other opening night: a smorgasbord of neuroses.

I say “professional” as if it makes a difference.  It really doesn’t.  I felt the same way I felt when I was opening a show at the middle school, or in college.  It goes like this:

First, I try to sit next to people who don’t know I’m the playwright.  I don’t sit with friends.  I try not to acknowledge people who wave at me and say, “if the show sucks, I’m blaming you!” (They actually say this.  They are trying to be funny, but they say this!  I usually want to respond with, “If the audience sucks, I blame you!” but I hold my tongue.)  Now, if you’ve read this blog before, you realize that I’m an egotistical schmuck, but before the opening, I want to be anonymous.  This allows me to hear honest opinions from people sitting next to me, and to escape unnoticed in the event of disaster.  Really, though, it’s an act of bravery.  Your friends and family will always tell you they like it (unless they’re my Dad – thanks Dad!), but random strangers will let you know if the play is actually any good.

Current Economic Conditions

Maria Souza-Eglen and John Goodson in Current Economic Conditions.

I spend about ten minutes staring at the program.  I don’t know why.  I adjust my coat.  I sit up unusually straight.  My stomach creates an extraordinary amount of gurgling noises.  Sometimes my head starts tingling – (I’m not sure if this like spiderman’s danger sense, or if I used the wrong shampoo, or it’s the feeling of my hair falling out – maybe all three.)  At this point, I usually distract myself by counting audience members. I try to see if they’re already having a good time.  I pray there’s a “big laugher” out there somewhere – (the “big laugher” is the second-best person you can have in the audience next to the rare and beautiful “weird laugher” who makes everyone else laugh because their laugh is strange).

The worst thing about being the playwright on opening night is that you have no control over anything that is about to happen.  It’s like being strapped onto a rocket and told that it’s going to launch somewhere, but not being told where the actual destination is.  At least as an actor, you can try to cover for someone if they forget their lines, or a director can give a pep talk at intermission, or the props guy can (well, okay, there’s nothing the props guy can do), but you have some tiny measure of influence over whether the night is a triumph or a disaster.  As playwright, you just watch.  And believe me, when an actor forgets his lines, and there’s a one minute pause on stage where nothing at all happens, the playwright suffers more than the actor.  Mostly you think: Why didn’t I write a more memorable line!? What is wrong with me? Why am I so terrible!?

Anyway, the show begins and the actors can relax a bit while they perform.  The playwright continues to suffer. It gets worse, because now, if I laugh at a particular joke and no one else does, I look like a total moron who laughs uproariously at their own jokes.  On the other hand, if I don’t laugh, then I’m part of the reason the show is dying a slow death.

You would think the best part of the night is the applause at the end, but even then, there are things to be neurotic about.  Is the audience clapping loudly enough? Are there enough people putting their hands over the heads and clapping?  How many people are standing up?  Why aren’t they standing up?  Why is the reviewer leaving so quickly?  Why can’t I stop worrying?

It’s like being Woody Allen for a night.

But then there’s joy.  And relief.  It’s over.

Until the second night.

–Don Zolidis

Visit Don’s website: http://www.donzolidis.com/

 

One response to “Opening Night”

  1. Andy Southern says:

    I loved this. I am a high school playwright and just went through my first experience of watching my work, and went through these same steps. Just last weekend was the first performance of my first original musical (i wrote the book) and I can honestly say it was way worse than being an actor. This blog was so true, I loved it.

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