It would be fair to say that I listen to a potentially unhealthy amount of Bruce Springsteen. To the point where he probably constitutes roughly 60% of what I listen to in any given week. No matter how many times I hear them, I always find myself circling back to certain albums at certain times and never get bored (unless it’s High Hopes I’m listening to but to be fair I was bored of that the first time I heard it).
The last two weeks have been a whole other level, mostly because the last two weeks have coincided with the run of the Bruce Springsteen play I’ve been threatening to write for a few years now, along with his latest Australian tour. Add the rehearsal process and for a couple of months I have been living and breathing Bruce.
It has been a strange, thrilling, frustrating, special and deeply rewarding time. Coming into this project I had no idea how it would go down. Would the cast invest if they weren’t already Springsteen fans? Would the hardcore fans in the audience hate our less-than-glowing portrayal of the man and would the non-fans find it boring and inaccessible? Would the play drag due to the fact that it wasn’t a comedy or a twist-packed thriller?
Any of the above outcomes were foreseeable, but none of them came to pass. The cast took the material above and beyond, tirelessly researching and discovering their characters. In the process we ended up with one of the most close knit teams I’ve ever worked with. The final night was emotional for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was the huge amount of love this crew felt for each other and excitement at the prospect of taking this show to the next level.
As for the response, well it’s always hard to quantify just what the general reaction to a play is. But the reviews Springsteen got were great and multiple thrilled Facebook posts from Springsteen fans in addition to their demands to have photos taken with our lead actor at the end of the shows implied that we stumbled on something people seemed to really like. Obviously it’s a bit of a cheat when the subject matter is something certain people are already really passionate about, but the amount of fans who loved the play seemed only rivalled by the amount of people saying some variation of ‘I’m not a Springsteen fan but that was fantastic’. If I had to guess I would say that the commitment of the cast had a lot to do with this, making the stakes feel real and the characters more than just caricatures of actual people plenty of the audience would not be familiar with.
All through the rehearsal process uncertainty lingered, but there was definitely a sense that there was a bit of magic going on with this one. So many of our rehearsals were built around long, revealing discussions with each other about the very real emotions and experiences underpinning what we were exploring in any given scene. Over the months leading up to the shows there were more than a few raw, teary hours spent with each other as we got to the heart of what was going on here, with Bruce’s music providing a backdrop.
Being so focussed on this play added a whole new level to seeing the man himself last Thursday; the third Bruce concert I’ve ever been to. There was a really strange new sense of familiarity as he walked out on stage, a weird kinship all the way through that glorious three hour set. Absurdly, it was almost as though I knew him now, like I had a more personal connection than ever before. It was a feeling that seemed ridiculous until Bruce turned to his band and asked ‘are you with me?’ – perfectly mirroring the ending of our play. And that was a very, very special moment. A profound feeling of ‘man, we really got this right.’
Independent theatre can often feel like a thankless task – although, as I’ve said before, even calling it that feels inherently arrogant, like you’re expecting thanks for asking people to pay for stuff you’ve come up with in your spare time. But even so, that doesn’t eradicate the fact that it is a lot of work that usually results in a handful of people coming to see the show, a little bit of money in everyone’s pockets, and maybe a good review or two if you’re lucky. This show felt different. Every night was a full house, or else a few seats short or, in the case of our second week, well over capacity. The response across the board was glowing. The passion and love we were met with at the end of every show was enough to overcome any stress about the endless shit that the venue made us deal with. And while we have every intention of taking this play further, whether to a better Melbourne theatre or on a tour of some sort, if this first run was the end of it I would still feel totally satisfied with how it all went.
More than anything Springsteen felt like it represented another turning point for us as a company; proof that we can do something subtler and more character driven than most of our past work has been. I do wish we had put on more shows and tried to secure a better venue from the start, but ultimately I think we gave the audience their money’s worth. And more than that, I think that we pulled off something that everyone involved should be very, very proud of. Earlier in this blog I suggested that the play’s success was a bit of a cheat considering it was about a real person. That’s only half true. Being about Bruce Springsteen meant that we got people through the door, but had the play not been good, had everyone not been operating at a level that meant our portrayal of an icon was actually credible, it would have flopped hard and fast. If anything, the challenge was bigger than any we’ve done before. And, working together with the best team I could have asked for, we rose to that challenge and then some.
Writing words about writing words.