The show I’m currently rehearsing opens in a week, and we’re at a most familiar stage in the rehearsal process. Having rehearsed all the individual moments, we’re now putting everything together in sequence to make sure we have a show. It’s the difficult process we all have to go through with a new script, of making sure that our storytelling logic is airtight, that our actions all make sense, that the narrative flows, and that anybody encountering the work for the first time can make sense of everything.
And, like most difficult things, it brings back a traumatic childhood memory.
One June afternoon back in 1984, I lived through one of the formative experiences of my generation – seeing Ghostbusters. As junior high final exams were taking place and school was winding down, the word had spread down through the halls that this was the greatest comedy ever made. (Eighties junior high hyperbole aside, I don’t think that’s too far off the mark.) And so, when I finally had the chance, I went to the local multiplex to see the film, taking my place in a theater full of hundreds of kids my age.
As well as an elderly couple, directly behind me.
In direct contradiction of all known stereotypes, it was us young whippersnappers who were attentive and well behaved during the movie, and the elderly couple who refused to stop talking. And they started talking from the very beginning of the movie, literally from its establishing shot…
“LOOK AT THE LIONS! IS THAT THE PUBLIC LIBRARY? THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY? I THINK THAT’S THE LIBRARY! THOSE ARE THE LIONS!”
It’s all I can remember from that seminal screening, this running commentary from this couple, who needed every single thing about the movie spelled out to them, and were only too glad to volubly do so themselves if no other handholding was forthcoming…
“DO THEY KEEP THE BOOKS IN THE BASEMENT? WHO DOES THAT? WHY ARE THE BOOKS FLOATING BY? WHAT’S TEARING UP THE CARD CATALOG? IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE A GHOST OR SOMETHING?”
I still hear their voices. Sometimes I hear them when I drift off to sleep. More frequently, though, I hear them when we reach our current stage in the rehearsal process.
Because, as we do our very best to untangle plot points and make sure the logic of our storytelling is crystal clear, we have to accept that there’s a segment of any audience that won’t ever be satisfied with what we do. That can’t be satisfied, because they’re frankly too self-absorbed, too insistent that everything be spoon fed to them, to ever engage with somebody else telling them a story. If we ever tried to fully satisfy them, we'd wind up with an impossible, undramatic muddle. It’s galling, and it goes against all of our instincts – art is supposed to combat this sort of self-absorption, after all – but we need to make peace with the fact that they’re not the ones we’re trying to reach.
We’re trying to reach those kids in the audience, the ones making a good faith effort to pay attention because they expect to see something cool, and making sure we give them everything they need to meet those expectations.
And if we do that, hopefully those old folks yelling about the lions won’t sound too loud after all.