Putting It Together (Reflections on Tommy)

Building something is an act of optimism. Houses, businesses, families… I often see dilapidated constructions beside the highway and imagine what happened. Were the hopes of the builder fulfilled? Who lived some part of their lives within the edifice, and what became of them? Stage productions are similar – collaborative acts of hope.

In the heat of summer, August 2013, six of us filled a van and traveled to Woodstock, NY, to see a production of The Who’s Tommy. I’d been contracted as technical director for an upcoming show, and our group included two directors, a producer, a choreographer and a costumer. The Woodstock show was dreadful, reinforcing my opinion that Pete Townshend’s 1969 rock opera shouldn’t be a theatrical production (I’d prefer a concert version). I’d worked as a stagehand on a touring production of the material in the 1990’s and I’d felt the same way then. Still, I’d given my word.

In September I was contacted by one of the directors, who wanted me to take a part instead of working tech. I was torn. Auditions hadn’t filled the cast of the show as hoped, leaving the production in a bind. I’d sworn off acting for a while, after losing a part I’d been promised for a year by another director. Could I go on stage again? Wasn’t I a better technical director than actor? (Yes.)

Something happens when a bunch of actors put on a show: instant community. It’s a socialist group – there is no hierarchical distinction between the ensemble and the lead parts. Some have known each other previously, but it’s remarkably welcoming to all. Turnover was surprisingly high on this production, as many dropped out of the show for one reason or another. Those who remained gathered throughout Indian Summer; October rolled into November. The weather turned cold.

Opening day was Thursday, November 14 at Mohawk Valley Community College. On Wednesday, the college fired our set/lighting designer (bureaucratic story: resignation), his work unfinished. Several members of the cast had something like the flu. On opening night a vital performer couldn’t make it. Two others were tapped to learn his songs an hour before curtain (they aced them). During the premiere, a door which hadn’t been secured to the set fell flat on the stage. But the band rocked, which was the bottom line in my book.

Chris as Uncle Ernie
Chris as Uncle Ernie

I’ve participated in hundreds of productions, and none has been perfect. As a performer, I contribute my effort to someone else’s vision primarily for the benefit of a hoped-for audience. Acting involves subsuming yourself to clarify someone else’s thoughts about humanity, for yet another’s benefit – it’s a generous act, and it can be profoundly uncomfortable. (As a lighting designer I shape the audience’s perception of the piece, and I contribute to the story more or less as I choose. Not as scary, and the pay is better.)

In the end, it was about people. To my own critical eye, there were more than enough interesting bits of song, choreography and dancing, set pieces, costumes etc. to justify the ticket price, unlike the Woodstock production we’d attended. Most of the cast stretched and grew in the process, and built friendships on the way. “May you live in interesting times,” says the Chinese curse. Instead, do interesting things (with others when possible).