If you’re a producer, you see the audience from several vantages: as they’re lining up at the box office, as they’re being seated, one-on-one when they present problems (lost, late, drunk, wanting to use the can 30 seconds before curtain), and, if you choose, from the seats next to them.
If you’re a playwright, you tend to experience them anonymously as another audience member (or you hide and peek at them through curtains or the tech booth window). Playwrights seldom take bows. Once in awhile, usually when you’ve written something that really sings, the cast may acknowledge you during their curtain call, which feels somewhere between being honored and having your cover blown. Some playwrights react to this by glowing or preening, while others seem to retract into their clothes, becoming ever-so-tiny; I tend to nod, smile, and wave while wearing a thousand-yard stare.
But the producer and playwright share a common thought: who are all you people?
Which is not to say we’re not grateful you’re there. Believe me: we are, whether there’s 300 of you or four. It just seems like some kind of magical trick, conjuring up strangers with this goofy thing you’ve essentially made up, and it’s impossible to separate the experience from what has gone before, all the things the audience will never know about: the weird discomfort of fund raising, the intricate dance of casting, the late nights stuffing press releases in envelopes and remembering to put on the postage, and the inevitable moment during rehearsals where everyone’s exhausted and someone says just the right thing at the right time and everyone collapses into hysterical laughter and you have to call a break. (Sometimes those will stay with you longer than any other memory from a show.)
And, of course, there’s the 2:00 AM panic attacks, waking into hyperventilation–did I remember and what about and did I call and what time did we schedule?–followed by a hand-trembling, solitary cup of herbal tea rattling a teacup and saucer in a darkened room, headphones cranked until your ears ring. (I keep a copy of “Wild Horses” cued up–I think it’s that bit: “no sweeping exits or off-stage lines/could make me feel bitter/and treat you unkind.” I’m sure every producer/playwright has their own 2:00 AM music, and that it runs a gamut from “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” [“…everything’s going my way…”] to “Psycho Killer.” [“…I hate people when they’re not polite…”].)
Eventually, the fatigue will overtake you, a ferocious riptide, and it’s a fatigue that I can only liken to dealing with a life-threatening crisis. Only it’s self-inflicted, and we do it for fun. You finally fall asleep to a shifting, blurring montage of expectant faces, rustling programs, and extinguishing cell phones.
God bless you, but who are all you people?
Then the lights go down, and it doesn’t matter: we’re all in it together.