I get nervous before every single one of my plays. The degree of nervousness varies; it’s always worse if it’s one I directed and it’s especially bad if the show has had a bumpy production, but whether I’m feeling mild uncertainty or full blown terror, I have never gone into any opening night with a sense of breezy confidence. And even if the show seems to go off without a hitch, even if we get all the laughs and gasps and tears we wanted, that nervousness comes back in full force over the next few days as we wait for the reviews to come in.
The worst was the hours before my very first play, Windmills, opened in 2010. I had gone through the rehearsal process happy and excited by how it was all coming together, but when opening night arrived I was a nervous wreck. This was back in my acting days and I had a lead role in the show as well – I was shaking like a leaf when I walked onstage for my first scene.
What characterised that fear, a fear that has lingered to some degree ever since, is the simple fact that you can never be sure how something is going to be received. When Windmills was performed I was eighteen and utterly untried as a writer. It was the first time my work was going before an audience and as such the first time my belief that I was good enough to do this would be put to the test. And while I have learnt a lot since then, I still don’t know whether any given show will have the effect I want it to. To some degree, a play is a Schrodinger’s Cat – it’s impossible to know until people come out of it just how well it works.
Of course it’s somewhat subjective. If you trawl the depths of IMDB you’ll find savage putdowns of the most beloved and respected films. Rotten Tomatoes, for all its flaws as a system, has shone a light on the fact that there is no such thing as a story for everyone. The percentage of people who dislike something will vary, but even the most impeccably crafted piece of art will have detractors.
I don’t want to go too far down the path of the subjectivity argument; there are, after all, people out there who believe Rogue One is a masterpiece. The truth is that I think there is value to consensus, even if it doesn’t account for the reaction of every individual. If most people like your play, book or movie then you’ve probably done something right. You can’t please everyone, but that doesn’t mean you should write off any and all criticism as being ‘just someone’s opinion’. After all, listening to well-argued negative feedback is how you get better, even if you don’t always agree with it.
The reason I’m writing about this is, somewhat predictably, the opening of Moonlite. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Moonlite has been one of the most stressful shows I’ve ever been involved in; from compromised availability of the cast and band to a venue that simply put, isn’t a theatre, nothing about this show has been easy. And when opening night came around I was partly certain it was going to be a mess. Would people be pissed off by the noise from upstairs? Confused by the flashback-based narrative structure? Offended by the fact that, despite being sold as a musical, it doesn’t really follow any of the rules of musical theatre?
I was ready to be laughed at. I was ready for withering or patronising reviews telling me what an idiot I was for ever thinking I could make something like this work. I was ready for Moonlite to be a massive failure on every level.
But of course, there is one fundamental difference between Moonlite and past plays that haven’t come together, and that difference is that everyone involved has worked their arses off to make this show happen. And everyone is a professional who knows what they were doing. Is Moonlite perfect? Of course not. But it’s sold out its season, had rave reviews and by all accounts been massively entertaining for the audiences we’ve had. We had a vision for this play; for it to be a raw, rough, rollicking journey through the story of a larger than life character, a story told with heart, humour and catchy, toe-tapping songs. And I think we’ve delivered that. The cast give brilliant, dedicated, emotional performances. Dan’s music is phenomenal. The band are brilliant. And I’m really proud of my script. Nobody has let the team down, everyone has done their job and in any play that is all you can ever ask for.
Are there people who don’t like Moonlite? Nobody’s told me as much, but I’m sure there are, just as I’m sure there are people who are indifferent or ambivalent towards it. But by and large the lesson I’ve learnt from this play is one of ‘if you build it, they will come’. If you put in the work, if you are tough on yourself and make sure you’re operating as professionally as possible, then chances are you will have a quality product. Not one everyone will love, but one you can be proud of. If you know what you want to achieve and put everything towards realising that vision, you probably will.
Arrogance will kill any creative project; just half arsing it and hoping for the best. If you produce a script you don’t believe in or phone in a performance or basically assume that somebody should like something just because it’s there then your project is doomed to fail. Call it Rogue One syndrome.
I won’t ever stop being nervous before the openings of new shows. But I will know, going forward, that as long as I can rest assured that I’ve done the best I can, I can stand by the product and know that if people don’t like it, at least I tried. Basically, my big, life changing message is this; do the work, reap the rewards. It won’t always pay off, but it’s a damn sight more likely to if you do your job properly. That’s all.
Writing words about writing words.