My first memory of a stage play was pre-production… I was 5 years old. The women’s fellowship of our church was taking the story of Queen Esther to the stage. My mother, who used to do stage plays with Sam Loco as a teenager, played Queen Vashti and also doubled as the costume designer. I watched her buy fabric and sat enraptured as she cut, sewed and explained to this skinny (as I then was) little bag of curiousity the plans for each costume. I still remember the robe she made – a bluish purple gown, with red and yellow satin cutouts at the cape. It was regal!
The first time I watched a theatre performance was the day I saw my mother on stage… I recall the moment Queen Vashti sauntered on the stage, a mean, proud queen whose beauty was intoxicating to her own self and my Mommy was nothing like that. I have no words to describe the awe and still have shivers when I remember. Looking back, I realize that’s where I caught the virus.
I also got some love from that costume because my mother made me a beautiful dress from it after the show.
My first time on stage… I really can’t remember. What does that say about my ability to smell the roses? But the more memorable of first stage performances was as a teenager in our church program – I think I was 14. My character was a witch who had been oppressing a Christian. The moment I stepped out in a witch’s makeup and costume, making my way through the alley and onto the stage, everyone gasped. This notorious little tyrant child (every congregation has one) ran to her mother, buried her face in her laps and stayed there throughout the play. My mother and others were in a corner praying in tongues. The fear that permeated the building fuelled my feeling of power and I was even more ferocious. That sort of thing can shak’ a young one and arouse an inspired performance.
That interaction with the audience is one thing that makes theatre so special and every actor from any theatre background can relate to this. Having spent weeks or months rehearsing the play and getting the director’s feedback, you’re ready; physically pumped and emotionally primed. You are backstage doing your pre-performance routine and body flexes, waiting for your cue to get on stage. Everything you have done for the last few weeks/months has led up to this moment and you are ready, because this. Is. SPARTA!!
You get on stage; the stage lights are on you and the rest of the room is full of whites in pairs, peering at you. The audience is waiting on an expression, a movement something they can hold on to…
Passionately delivering your performance, staying in the moment, they are hanging on every word you say and for that season, however short, you are powerful. You use that power judiciously and you bless them because, even though they are here for you, you are on that stage because they paid (or not) for a ticket to see you. You are in the moment for each other… That emotional connection between performer and audience exists because of their shared experience.
However it’s something of a double-edged sword. If an actor is distracted by audience excitement, they may play to the gallery or gauge their performance based on how the audience reacts. Rather than seek validation from the reaction of our audience, we stay consistent. Two different crowds see the exact same show and you might think one group was in a Catholic church and the other in a town hall meeting. We give our all, regardless of the feedback.
Still, there’s something really nice about live feedback and seeing people respond to a message you connect to.
For on-camera performances though, it’s a totally different story. This time, your audience is the director and the crew, and you all experience the moment together. The thrill for me is that moment in a pivotal scene… the director has given instructions and we actors are having an exchange. I have experienced a scenario where members of the crew reacted from shared pain or withheld laughter while on set. It’s simply amazing.
Forget all that talk about thespians being the only ones who perform before a live audience. On-screen or live stage, every actor has a live spectator, and the joy from acting might be fulfilling, but accolades from the viewing audience are definitely the icing on the cake.
Images: Thespian Muse Productions, May 16th Photography, Giphy
Written by Omoye Uzamere (Performer, Creative Nut, Foodie!)