The standing ovation. The knowledge that we were able to move and enrich the audience with powerful storytelling. The satisfaction of entertaining others. What a triumphant night!
Last night was the staged reading of Civil War Voices at the Omaha Playhouse and it was a magical evening. It was the type of night that reminds me just why I do this thing. It also got my juices flowing again. I suddenly want to start telling a lot more stories. But that’s a road for the future.
Doing Civil War Voices was a very different experience. After 20 years of acting, I am simply used to a longer, more detailed preparation experience. Trying to find and mold a character in just 7 short rehearsals is quite a unique challenge.
Not only was Abraham Lincoln my first role in 2 ½ years, but it was also the smallest role I’ve had in nearly six years. Not that I’m complaining. It’s just that I had forgotten the very different difficulty of a smaller role. With a larger role, if you’re not in the proper groove at first, you can use your dialogue to work yourself to where you need to be. If you have a smaller role, you simply do not have that luxury. You’ve got to hit the ground running and make your shots count. For this show, that was more crucial than ever before because it would just be the one bite at the apple.
I think the late singer, Gene Pitney, described a great live performance the best when he said, “On a given night, when everything works. When the lights are right. When the sound is right. When you’re up for the game and you’re feeling right. Some of them are intangibles. They’re either going to happen or they’re not going to happen. But on the given night when they do happen, it’s just an amazing feeling. You can feel the electricity going back and forth. Fantastic.” And last night was just such a night.
I had a feeling we were onto something special last night when we had to hold at the top of the show because so many people wanted to get in to watch. Our director, Jeff Horger, had said these events normally draw about 100 people and I believe the Howard Drew holds around 250-300 people. Additional chairs had to be brought in to create two more front rows plus seating around the sides of theatre because of the overflow.
The lower stakes of a staged reading allowed me to be in sync with an audience in a way I never had before. I really can’t describe the feeling of feeding off the merriment of the audience during the more humorous segments of the show to the sensation of knowing you’ve got them in the palm of your hand during a particularly powerful moment. But it’s splendid, awesome, and humbling all at the same time.
The work of the cast was just spot-on and I was very pleased with my own take on Honest Abe. More importantly, I nailed one of the most difficult lines that I think I have ever had in all of my years of theatre.
A few paragraphs ago, I had mentioned the difficulty and importance of making your shots count in a smaller role. I believe the most important line I had in the show occurred when Lincoln looks at the body of his dead son, Willie, and simply says, “My poor boy. He was too good for this Earth.” I knew what I wanted to do with the line. But in working at home and at rehearsal, I never thought I got it just right. But last night it came.
If I never understood the importance of listening in acting before last night, I certainly do now. Last night, I heard the words of Elizabeth Keckley (beautifully played and sung by Camille Metoyer Moten) describing the terrible burden of grief and weariness on Lincoln’s shoulders from the pressures of the Civil War and the death of Willie as if I were hearing them for the first time. I began falling into the proper emotional state and, remembering my lessons with Doug Blackburn, began dipping into my own wells of grief to empathize with Lincoln. Real tears began flowing as I barely choked out the crucial line and I could feel the grip of emotion on the audience as well. Such an amazing moment.
When the night was done, we received a standing ovation and I was truly sorry that we couldn’t do the reading a few more times. I didn’t get to know this cast that well due to the compressed nature of preparation, but I liked them and it was a true community theatre cast from seasoned veterans to first timers and all levels in between.
My proudest moment occurred after the show when an elderly gentleman came up to me and asked, “Young man, are you playing Abe when they do this show in Lincoln?” I replied that I was not and, with a disappointed look in his face said, “I really loved what you did with the character.” One could not ask for a finer review than that one statement. If I was able to convince one person, then I did my job.
Last night reminded me of all the glorious thrills that theatre provides. It was a wonderful night and I look forward to doing it again and again and again and again. . .
Until we meet again.