Opening Night Jitters

This week, our Artistic Director shares some of her personal reflections on the theatrical phenomenon of opening night.

To me, “opening night” is one of the most exciting combinations of words in the theatrical vocabulary. It’s the moment when all your hard work (hopefully) pays off, and you get to share it with an audience. The adrenaline rush of that first performance is something that will usually replay itself over and over through an entire career, the addictive high that brings us back show after show.

Some actors are surprisingly Zen-like about it. At least they are outwardly, it’s just another day in the office – which isn’t to say they’re lackadaisical about it, just that they don’t really seem to have any anxiety about their lines, character, or blocking. Others can be really tense about those things and it’s frequently quite visible. Some, though, are just wired up and excited for getting out there and doing the thing they’ve been working towards; a happy sort of tension. None of these is right or wrong, they are just different temperaments and personalities.

When I did act, a number of years ago, I think my reaction was the happy tension sort. It was exciting but not scary. I never quite understood stage fright personally, although it’s certainly pretty normal. At least, I didn’t understand it until I left the stage and started working behind it as a director. Since then, “opening night”, to be brutally honest, absolutely terrifies me.

Opening night (or, more technically, dress rehearsal) is where my job as a director ends. At that point, I entrust the show entirely to the company and show staff. Opening night for a director is sending your kid off to school for the first time. You’ve done your best to get it ready. You hope you’ve given it the proper attention and discipline, that you’ve built up the confidence enough to carry it along, and that you’ve created an environment where the team’s skills and talents can really blossom. But in that moment, you can’t do anything to help anymore. It’s out there on its own, and you have to trust that it will all be okay. I think this is the great irony of directing. People often think you do it because you like to control things, but in reality I find a lot of it is about letting go of control and having faith in others.

I’ve been quite fortunate with the casts for HIDden’s productions so far. Not once have I felt that there was someone who was really, really not ready to go on, but in the position where I had to let them do so anyway. In a sense my nerves are actually for the cast, not about them: I want them to be able to come off the stage feeling like they’ve just nailed it to the wall, and my nerves are the manifestation of cheering them along from a far.

The other, probably even more unnerving aspect is the audience itself. Who will come? What will they be like? Will they enjoy the show? There are few things more demoralising to a cast than having to play to a “dead” audience, especially if you’re doing something high in energy and comic. Having the audience laugh, cry, tense-up, react and give you something back across the footlights is why we work in live performance; and when they are just there, seemingly unresponsive, it can be hard to cope. Audiences are something over which one has absolutely no control whatsoever. Every group of people, each night, is its own entity. So every opening, I hope for a lively, engaged, responsive audience, for that night at least, even if you may not that every night of a run, because it gets everyone off to a positive start. A good opening doesn’t guarantee a brilliant run, but it can help propel everyone along.

Opening night is the beginning, but it’s also an end. Once that curtain goes up, the play is no longer evolving, becoming, developing – it has arrived, and each successive audience should see, essentially, the same thing. It is both a commencement and a completion, risk and reward, all rolled into one. Is it any wonder, then, that it holds such a special place in the hearts of those who love the theatre?

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