The “Murder on the Nile” rehearsal had been going well. Plenty of threats, plenty of clues, the body being found just when it should. And then, as a character cracked a minor witticism, I heard a cackle from the audience.
Despite having to keep character, I almost smiled. There was no denying when Missy was in the house.
There are silent theater audiences in the world. Missy is not often one of them. When it comes to a performance, my wife’s physically and mentally disabled aunt often wears her emotions on her sleeve … and on her lips. A funny bit of business on stage may get a whoop of laughter. An injury to a character will suddenly get an “Ow!” from her sympathetic lips.
It’s not constant, like a “Mystery Science 3000” commentary track, but it’s not held back when she’s there, either. And because my wife Heather hasn’t been feeling well, Missy’s been there a lot, coming with me to practice after practice as the plot falls into place.
So, once in a while, we find ourselves with feedback from the darkness. I can’t really complain. In this, Missy truly is family.
I have never been what actors sometimes call a “smiler” – the sort of person who sits in the audience of a show, smiles and nods, and then ambles off to my car thinking how pleasant it all was. I laugh. Loudly. Strongly. Often infectiously. My actor friends have been accused of planting me in the audience just to get things moving, like a lighter held to a piece of kindling.
One memorable moment came when I took Heather to a long-ago performance of “The Mikado” at the Longmont Theatre Company. The show is GIlbert & Sullivan at its finest: beautiful music, a crackbrained plot and funny as heck. I laughed without hesitation or restraint several times, and I had plenty of company.
And then, at one point, a gentleman in front of me turned around. He whispered “Do you mind? Some of us are trying to enjoy the show!”
I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t. But at that moment, I was seriously tempted to respond with “I’m succeeding.”
Thinking back on that, and on Missy’s moments of shock or joy, the importance of that keeps coming back to me. How often do we show our appreciation? How often do we make it obvious?
An actor beneath the lights can’t hear smiles. That’s obvious. Most people we meet aren’t any more telepathic than that, yet we often ask them to be. Not necessarily with small compliments – as a people, Americans are pretty good at dropping those into a conversation – but with the real joys and worries that drop below the level of small talk and into true understanding.
I know, we’re reluctant to drop that mask of “I’m doing fine” with just any stranger. (Stranger? Missy’s never learned that word yet.) But many times we keep it up even around friends, reserving the true depth of what we feel. What if we didn’t?
I don’t mean striding the stage like a ham Shakespearean actor in mid-soliloquy. Heaven knows my own personality is on the quiet side many times. But loud or quiet, there’s a power to be had when we open ourselves up and lay our feelings bare. It’s why gatherings such as weddings or funerals can be so memorable and have such power; we’ve been given permission to open the gates, tear down the walls and show how we feel.
I don’t pretend it’s always comfortable. Or easy. But it can draw people together like nothing else. If you’ve ever had a friend you could say anything around, you know what I mean. Things come so much easier when the inner guard can relax at last.
It takes practice, of course. Maybe start with a safe, controlled environment. One designed to elicit broad emotions, where you can open up and react in a crowd of strangers, comfortable in your anonymity.
If only I knew somewhere like that ….
Oh. Wait a minute.
See you at the show. And maybe I’ll hear you, too.