We had our first tech run-through yesterday afternoon and our final dress rehearsal last night. No train wrecks. No need for serious cutting. The show’s under two hours running time so we’re in great shape even as the play feels like an epic sweep through 12 years of history. We have oodles of adjustments to make, as is par for the course after a first tech run-through, but the relief here is that we are very much ready to receive an audience tonight. Our first preview will tell us so much about what kind of story we’re telling and what the audience is receiving. What does a Theater J audience make of Kurt Gerstein’s journey? We’re ready to learn and ready to experience the play anew.
This morning we wake to Tom Keneally’s picture in the paper and a front page feature in The Washington Post Style section that begins with a wonderful joke from Tom: “I’ve entered the synagogue of the theater and I’m preparing for my bar mitzvah.” We can just hear Tom’s huge laugh punctuating his own punch line. The piece, its placement, and the two photos will almost certainly heighten awareness of the play and might even sell a couple seats. We didn’t receive this kind of advance coverage in The Post for our world premieres of works by Richard Greenberg, Ariel Dorfman, Joyce Carol Oates or Robert Brustein even though they were all deserving. We know how crowded the field is and how rare it is for The Post to assign a writer to do this kind of profile. But we also know that a profile like this–especially one so reliant on plot synopsis–won’t really put butts in the seats. Everyone will still be waiting on the review. Why? keep reading
Because the feature isn’t a puff-piece full of adulation for this Australian National Treasure (which he’s been designated, by the way; a veritable living legend; sort of like a literary Crocodile Dundee). No, the piece is largely descriptive of the play’s plot, telling us about what happens in the traumatic life of Kurt Gerstein. The reaction of the reader will, mostly likely, I imagine, be one of “let’s-wait-and-see.” As in, “the play sounds interesting but heavy and, hey, we know it doesn’t work out with the Pope so let’s just see what the reviews say before we go.” That’s too bad in a way but also understandable given the market we’re in and, frankly, the way the audience has digested our track record.
We’re enormously proud of our work on new plays and the resulting productions have all been incredibly stageworthy; I, for one, feel that we’re all the richer for having launched these works, even if there wasn’t a perfect script or production in the lot; perfection being rather hard to come by first time out of the box. But the worthiness of the endeavor; the excitement generated in the act of creation, and the excellence in so many aspects of each production have proven to be enormously fulfilling, both for us and for many in our audience.
But the perception is out there still that the plays haven’t been hits. Or haven’t worked. They’ve either been close-but-no-cigar, or not-quite-yet-ready-for-prime-time verdicts from the crowd. So it’s in this climate of low-level skepticism that our media blitz will prove to be useful, but only up a point; exciting, but not overly so. No, our eye is on the prize, and the prize is not a great Peter Marks review. The prize is getting this play and production right in the time we have before us, which is all of another 90 hours. There may be a new last line; a cut-down bombardment scene; changes in the atmospherics surrounding Auschwitz; different music leading into the church scenes; a different costume piece for Kurt at the start of the show when we find him in prison. Details, adjustments, both in the design and in the performances as well. Our director will work to have the cast share the material all the more with the audience. There’ll be adjustments in volume, intensity. Some scenes that are divided by a light-fade may move more seamlessly one into the other creating a more continuous line of action. We’re looking forward to all these changes.
And we’ll ignore the publicity. We wanted it. And now we recognize how little it means. What matters is the work. Getting the show right rhythmically, aesthetically and, of course, dramatically. We’re on our way. And welcoming a first audience tonight.