A night at the theatre – until we meet again

Missing the minutiae of a night at the theatre.

Art by Lilly Aggio.

There is a certain je ne sais quoi to a night at the theatre.

A certain excitement that comes with walking up the golden staircase of the State Theatre ticket-in-hand, through the funky lobby of the Griffin, down to the Cellar Theatre at the bottom of the Holme building or standing under the sails of the Opera House.

It has been a mere 238 days since I last sat in a shoulder to shoulder audience – standing room only – watching the six wives of Henry VIII perform a kick-ass pop-history remixed musical. The soundtrack of which has got me through many working from home Wednesdays.

With time apart, the heart grows fonder. And I’ve found myself thinking of those gorgeous big buildings that are usually buzzing over with people and props and art and emotions, forced for a time to sit empty. Just waiting.

Strangely, I think I miss the little odd inconveniences and rituals of going to a physical theatre most of all.

Like how the intermission announcement encourages almost a Pavlovian response to beat the crowds to the bathroom like my life depends on it, when really, folks, it has only been an hour and a half… I’ve let Netflix roll over to the next episode longer than that I’m sure. Yet, in a choreographed dance we beeline for the ladies room line stretching around the corner and past the bar, have a long chat about the first act, and somehow all get back to our seats just before lights up. That deserves a Tony!

Or the joy of snatching up last minute tickets in the very back row. Not only does it make you feel like secret royalty presiding over the rows before you, but often you’ll catch a sneak peek of the in-the-shadows drama the ushers are having to deal with throughout the night; the little flashes of torch light weaving down the aisles searching out the accidental seat thief who “mixed up” their row G with row C.

Or the outer-body experience of being lost in a standing ovation. It only takes one person to spring to their feet, and a second person to join in. Then the dominos keep falling and there’s no hope but to be pulled to your feet, hands stinging so you know you are clapping really hard but, over the crowd’s unified noise, you can’t really hear them..

And when else does the skill of drinking overpriced house red wine in the dark come in handy?

But perhaps the most powerful part of a live performance is when someone fucks up.

The potential of mistakes is always there floating unspoken in the air of a live performance. Making the stakes so much higher and the potential for magic playing out so much greater. Spotting an unscripted chuckle-stifling-smile that is quickly covered over with lighting-speed improvisation is a bit like catching a glimpse of a shooting star. Fleeting, unique magic, reminding you of where you are: sitting in a sea of people in a big auditorium watching the product of countless numbers of working hours playing out in front of you – in the moment.

During a preview of Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Lord of the Flies last year, just at the height of the play’s dramatic build up – only about 15 minutes before curtains down – a voice from the tech box yelled out “stop stop! Hold up one second, one of the lighting rods is caught on the scaffolding – please just bear with us while we reset!” House lights came up, they thanked us for our patience and for being their preview audience before opening night, and then the red light beams and dark music began again, though both were perhaps not as eerie as they were the first time.  

I miss the mistakes.

This inimitable aspect of live theatre has been sorely and especially missing from the streamed recorded productions, which have been hitting our screens over the last few months: Hamilton on Disney Plus, Frankenstein and Phantom of the Opera on YouTube, etc.

All this begs the question: If live theatre as we know it is, in a way, sculpting a masterpiece in time and space – that sits on the cusp of potentiality, what happens when we can pause, rewind and replay that same scene again…

While I’m incredibly eager to sit in a theatre again, it’s the theatre staff, the ushers, the playwrights, the performers, the stage managers, the production crew and the innumerable amount of others who work and create art together in these spaces that I’m predominantly sympathetic towards. I talk to friends who are itching to get back to work once those intricately carved doors open once again. And others who, with mask and sanitiser in hand, are recently back working in this new normal.

That’s right, this midnight musing has an exciting Act 3.

Many of our beloved Australian theatres are finally coming back to life, red rope lining the way, off the digital and straight down the aisle on your left. Following safety regulations at limited 50% capacity, or following the 4-metre square rule – seats are being filled once again. The stages are being set. Magic in the air. And the curtain is rising on a new kind of night at the theatre.

Catch you at the box office.

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