On Wednesday, October 31st the company of ONCE headed back to work. It was our 1st matinee after Hurricane Sandy tore through New York city and the surrounding areas. I reflected on the experience.
I put my black eye shadow on like I always do. Fishnets go on just like any other two show day with the double pink socks cause it’s cold now. Violin warm-ups are undisturbed, as are the ongoing impromptu song writing sessions of This Here Banjo Saved My Life with Lucas Papaelais. It seems to be business as usual in the Jacobs Theatre by most accounts.
Except, it isn’t.
At half hour we are missing 4 out of 12 cast members because they were either stranded in Italy, stranded in Queens, in apocalyptic traffic, or some other version of such. It’s understudy going on for understudy to the rescue. It’s all hands on deck, which, if your Erikka Walsh, means, barely getting out of Germany & driving a rental car from Philly earlier today.
Yes, Hurricane Sandy. You are to blame.
Not only are you to blame for my inch-worming cab ride to work and marathon pumpkin bread eating the past three days, you are to blame for taking the lives of my fellow New Yorkers and leaving live wires laying on the ground, waiting like landmines to strike. You are to blame for flooding my friends, Wayne and Erin’s apartment to the ceiling and ruining everything they own. You’re to blame for blowing up the Con-Ed stations and leaving lower Manhattan in the dark, and leveling the far Rockaways.
But in purest William Taylor Coleridge fashion, perhaps we can all suspend our disbelief for three hours and see what happens? Maybe I won’t be so incensed by the time my physical therapy slot rolls around.
Good decision, because it’s “places.” Let’s see what Doctor Theatre prescribes.
We immediately sense a shift in the theatrical air as we all emerge for the pre-show. Merriment is in low proportions and the low pressure system that’s just wreaked havoc on us all is almost palpable, a personified entity in the space. But music masks the question marks that are hanging around people’s necks as they mill around onstage quietly; they are a group that has come to escape more than laugh or engage.
They are a small audience, half its normal size. It makes sense, I suppose.
Our subways are flooded. Our airports are shut down. Millions of people can’t take hot showers or make their way down their pitch black stair wells in safety.
As DP Kelley beings singing Raglan Road and we move into official showtime I sense that today is special. Even though business isn’t bustling, the scattered crowd looks paltry at best and we’re down a man or two, this matinee is going to be about what theatre is at its core: human, a reflection of who we are and what we’re struggling through. At this matinee, I am called to be a professional empathizer in the skin of a hard-edged Czech chick.
As expected the laughs are near non-existent, there are sleepers on the front row, there’s a woman crying at inappropriate places and people’s cell phone screens are lighting up at such a rate that you would have thought we are performing on the Lower East Side without power and they’re trying to provide a light source. It’s not the show you dream of having.
Even still, I’m struck with the possibilities that might be the present realities of the people sitting just feet away. It’s possible the woman on house right is crying because her parents lived in Jersey City and lost their home and the place I thought was inappropriate for tears was the exact place that she needed release and to cry. It’s possible.
It’s possible that the sleepers on the front row have been up all night at the airport trying to get a flight back to Sweden, but finally gave up when they were told it could be a week, maybe longer and came back to the city, desperate for an escape, story and music. It’s possible.
And it’s possible the exorbitant number of people checking their phones were attempting to get information on whether or not their office was going to be open tomorrow, or whether their Chelsea apartment had power yet, or if anyone had heard if their brother was safe on Staten Island. Not that I don’t think they could have waited on this one, but you know… it’s possible.
As Act II continues, warmth is growing between cast and audience, a low-grade humming of appreciation as if we all know what is happening. We all know that we are participating in an act of gentle defiance: “We will open our doors. We will sing. We will perform. We willconnect.”
In one of the final scenes, seven of the characters are looking out to the water as the sea gulls circle. Svec utters Enda Walsh’s words, “Dublin is really lovely, isn’t it lads?”
Andrej responds, “A million times heartbroken and still Dublin keeps on going.”
New York City and our surrounding areas have a million or more broken hearts right now, for a million different reasons. But New York City will keep on going and it will be in part because the theatre keeps on going and keeps daring to be raw and available when it’s terrifying, keeps empathizing when it hurts.
To be honest, I hope we don’t have many more matinees like we did today, and if I see another cell phone light up tonight, I may not-so-kindly remind them that flashlights are needed elsewhere and here’s-the-door. However, I do hope to very slowly let go of this potent reminder of why I’m an artist and how serious the business of communion of souls truly is. With truth and tears we will take this day at a time, my family of artists.