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Flash Dispatch, 2-19: Diary of a Residency, 2
Opening Night

By Rebecca Stenn
Copyright 2001 Rebecca Stenn

(Editor's Note: PerksDanceMusicTheatre is in residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin this month. The Kohler Center has commissioned the Perks to create a new piece, using members of the community. Rebecca Stenn, artistic director of the Perks and the Dance Insider's features editor, has been sending dispatches describing the progress of the work. (To read her first report, click here.) In this episode, she reports on last Thursday's opening night, and the rehearsals leading up to it. Jay Weissman is a musician with the Perks; Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope are dancers with the company.)

SHEBOYGAN, Wisconsin -- Opening night, in any situation, is an exhilarating and panic-inducing proposition. These feelings double when you are working with 30 community members who have never before performed in front of an audience. Some in our community cast were incredibly exhilarated, and others were, to put it mildly, petrified. Ellis, one of our 7-year-olds, asked me as we stood in the wings at "places" where he should look -- up? (I pictured Ellis, arms pasted to his sides, head angled to the Heavens the entire show.) I told him the audience would be too dark for him to see; he should look where he always looked in rehearsal. Greta, our 8-year-old star, pulled at my other sleeve. "Remember when I told you I wasn't going to be nervous?" she said, "I was wrong. I have huge butterflies flying around my stomach right now." Her eyes widened; I swear, I could almost see the colorful things swirling around her abdomen.

As it turns out, no one had any real reason to be at all concerned. We had rehearsed endlessly. Everyone knew what was up; the only ingredient we had missed so far was the actual audience itself.

Here are some thoughts on the rehearsals leading up to opening night, as I recorded them at the time.

First Run-through

Michele is lying inside a huge lycra bag, squashed together with four 12-year-olds. She has expressed (a number of times) a certain amount of reticence in this self-appointed assignment, and lately it has grown to downright dismay. Each time though, she valiantly rises to the occasion and climbs in. "Please stop pinching," she asks her bagmates matter-of-factly.

Peter calls the cast to attention. "Actors, dancers, musicians, people of all ages: Lend me your ears."

Will and Tom, our light designer and percussionist, arrive. They watch the run, Will scribbles lighting notes furiously, and Tom just stares, open-mouthed. "It's really strange," he says later to our expectant faces, "psychedelic even. What have you guys been doing in Sheboygan for the past two weeks?" We hope, for a moment, that strange is good.

Dress Rehearsal

The cast has been prepped by Peter, who has absolutely no mercy. He explains the concept of "sight-lines' and tells everyone that there will be no watching from the wings. This is so painful for me that I have to look the other direction when he tells them, they look so disappointed. (He eventually allows them to sit backs pressed up against the wings.) "If you can see the audience, they can see you," Peter says, and it becomes their mantra.

Before we begin, I gather everyone around. "Is this another pep talk?" asks Holly. She rolls her eyes just a little. "No!" I say, and just ask them to pay attention. Will calls "Places!" The lights go out, and the run begins. Smoothly. Until, of course, my first exit, at which point I pay no regard to my own advice and trip, badly, in the dark, on the fog machine. There is a huge crash and my hand, right foot and elbow sting. But I am not stopping for a little fall. I strap on my harness for the flying section and notice -- ugh! -- blood pouring from my foot. It looks, in the dark, like mud. I've slashed my damn toe. I now become terrified of dripping on Greta's snow-white costume in our upcoming duet. The floor is covered with drops of deep red, and the kids stare in delighted horror at it. The wings are abuzz. A mini- first aid station is hastily put into action. I'm gauzed, polysporined and taped back into business.

After the dress rehearsal, which has gone extremely well, the guy doing the video taping tells me he has some notes for me. Among them: tell the kids they need to extend their arm lines to the ends of their fingers. A classicist. A purest. How delicious.

Opening Night

Steve, the marketing director, picks me up at 6:45 a.m. We drive to Milwaukee with Greta for an interview on Fox News. It is incredibly cold and early.

Later, at the theater, I am amazed by the simple beauty of our set. 70 brass faucets (rejects from the Kohler factory -- Kohler being the company that makes most of your bathroom implements) are hung at various heights from the grid, and Will has lit them in such a way that they seem like golden raindrops. The audience enters the space to a soundscape Jay has prepared of slowed-down dripping water. It is an installation.

Everyone is nervous, and everyone performs beautifully. At the end, the audience rises to a unanimous standing ovation. I am overcome. I look around at our beaming cast and at the clapping audience, and feel the energy swirl around. For a moment, I could burst with happiness.

After the show, at the reception, we talk with Susan (our main middle-aged character and a mother of four) and her husband. She is a trained dancer, a miraculous find. We joke that we'd like to take her with us on the road. "Can we borrow her for a bit?" we ask her husband. He looks at us solemnly. "I want my family back," he says. All four of his kids are in the show. We back off. "Okay," we say.

I run to catch up with Joyce (our 75-year-old grandmother character), who is on the way out. I want to thank her. She is with her son and daughter. Her son, of course, owns the health food restaurant we have eaten lunch at almost everyday (we never knew). He turns to me beaming. "This is my mother!" he says. Proud.

That's how I'll sum it up. We and our cast feel that pride. It is elusive. It is rare. But we feel it now, and it seems to make every minute of work worth it.

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