Whenever you produce a play, you can be sure there’ll be a confluence of conspiracies awaiting you prior to opening that will insure the maximum amount of stress and anxiety and terror and self-hatred.
It’s crucial to remember in the midst of breaking ice, that this is precisely what’s supposed to be happening. Pre-show near-disaster is the formal protocol for all live artistic endeavors, not just theater.
So feel validated and confident when, 24 hours from opening to a full house of friends and loved ones, your video feed is blurry and unreadable, you can’t direct the site-specific sound effects to the dedicated speakers backstage, your ticketing service is rejecting the discount code you’ve offered so people don’t get bilked by service fees, there’s a hole in the crotch of your costume you can’t fix, the paint on the set is still wet and now on your hands, your agent and manager are suddenly, inexplicably out of touch, and the critics have officially informed you that they couldn’t be bothered to review your work because they have to review more expensive shows that suck.
All set. Let’s roll.
It’s times like this for which alcohol was made. The tradition of alcoholism and theater dates back to the ancient Greeks. The Actor was Thespis, and for a while there, he was the only actor, so casting was a cinch. He just showed up at the audition, and got the part. Then they invented the Chorus, and a few more people started getting work, and because they were all Thespis wannabes, they started calling them Thespians.
Eventually, the union formed, and stopped everyone from working by pricing them out of producer’s budget via pension and health payments.
The point is, there is a lengthy historicity to artists getting shitfaced before a show. And getting in trouble for it. It wasn’t the alcohol on their breath that gave them away, but the grape skins under their toenails. See, this was ancient Greece. 400 B.C. You couldn’t just duck into a wine bar and throw back a few cabernets to take the edge off.
No, if you wanted to get drunk, you had to crush your own grapes in your dressing room, barefoot, and make your own wine. It was time consuming, and giggle-inducing, but well worth it. And it’s where the old theater tradition of checking an actor’s toenails before he hits the stage comes from.
Back then, you would often here a producer say, “Hey Thespis, I’ll break your toe nails if I catch you crushing grapes before tonight’s show, you goat-loving bastard.” Today, the homily has evolved to “break a leg”, as wine making has evolved to include feet, as well as legs, in grape crushing. It still means the same thing.
The naked truth is, anyone doing anything that requires them standing on a stage, under bright lights, in front of expecting patrons and critical eyes, is verifiably outta their tree to begin with. There is so much pressure to get it perfect. And there is the unceasing possibility that it could all go terribly, terribly wrong.
So in these high pressure moments, when every single element you’re responsible for seems tangled in Gordian cluster– when it’s 3:30 am and you’re eyes are burning from exhaustion, and one of the multiple voices howling inside your head is saying, “Why didn’t you finish law school?” Remember that this uncertain insanity is the very reason why the victories are so glorious.
You love the nausea and nervousness. You love the doubt and anxiety nightmares. You love the risk of the road less traveled, and the potential of making a public ass of yourself.
Cause in the slim chance that you pull it all off without a hitch, and the chances are slimmer than you think, you breathe each breath a little more deeply, a little more appreciatively, a little more alive than you were just moments before: those moments when you were sure there was no way in hell it was going to happen at all.
So keep on chugging, brothers and sisters, and whenever possible, break a toenail…