By Barbara Feldon
When I think of Manhattan I think of Times Square. Its neon colors like garish jewelry throb insistently, as if to say, “Look at me, look at me!” How drab the city would be without it! Every time I go there I become a tourist enthralled by towering screens, faces six stories tall, and messages flashing through the jangle of colors. My eyes grab at the images, trying to absorb the whole dizzying show.
Fanning out from the hub of lights is the theater district with blazing marquees and facades plastered with posters of oversized actors. There are new theaters, renovated theaters, big musical theaters, little black box theaters and, my favorites, old historic theaters, like elegant dowagers seasoned with memories of great performances.
The theater district has a dual meaning for me –- as performer and as audience –- two cherished roles. In audience mode I love the ritual of having my ticket slid to me under the grillwork at the box office window and then crossing the marble lobby to the ticket taker who nods, “Good evening,” and directs me left or right, where ushers in black dresses hand me a shiny yellow and black playbill before I settle into the velvet of my seat and pray that a large head won’t settle in front of me. I love gazing at the carved gilt balconies with velour curtains and the hand painted murals.
The seats around me gradually fill with strangers burdened with anxieties and responsibilities, all sharing my wish to take a vacation from reality to a fantasy world as vivid as real life.
Soon the lights fade along with the last chime of an extinguishing cell phone. There’s a hush. The curtain rises. And then, amazingly, we strangers, as if in unconscious agreement, merge into that united animal called Audience. We adopt a uniform mood and veer as one being this way and that, often surprising the actors. Lines that never got a titter bring down the house or lines that always got a roar float into our chasm of silence. The performers are aware of our every sigh, and each cough counts. If our mood is playful the actors soar, if we’re restrained, they dip. We’re in this together, so co-dependent that at the curtain call when we praise them with applause they often applaud us back. The first thing discussed as they leave the stage is us. “Wow, they didn’t miss a thing!” “Why didn’t that line get a laugh?” We have audience power.
If I have friends in the cast I must go backstage to congratulate them, otherwise they might think I didn’t like their performances. That trek backstage is the only part of being audience that I dread. I have trouble recognizing actors once they shed their make-up, and I’m so worried I’ll neglect giving someone a compliment that I tend to lavish praise on everyone who passes by. “You were great!” I’ve enthused at a puzzled stagehand. It’s embarrassing.
Visiting backstage is like traveling into the unconscious of the theater. Behind the scenery a dim staircase leads to warrens of dressing rooms where makeup tables are laden with talismans: Semi-dead flowers, photos, or the odd stuffed toy, clues to the performers’ daytime lives.
After congratulating more people than were in the play, I take my leave. On my way out I glance into the empty theater. It looks peaceful now, as though gestating in the dark awaiting another audience to bring it to life.
Those are my pleasures as audience. As an actor, I think the backstage delights are as alluring as those onstage. An hour before the show when I leave the noise of the street and enter the metal stage door, I’m drawn into the warmth of a parallel world free of the pesky details of real life. There are hearty embraces (actors are a hugging species) and eager sharing of news of our outside lives as if reporting from a war zone.
In this envelope of affection, the wardrobe staff dresses us and fusses over us as if we’re adored children. Hair and makeup artists slide caressing sponges across our faces, exaggerate our eyes, play with our hair and then marvel at us as fond moms might. It’s an ideal family including dysfunctional members around whom we unite in coping — a family all the more precious for being temporary.
Then there’s the adrenalin factor, the actor’s drug. When the stage manager calls “Places, please,” our brains order our glands to squirt a shot of adrenalin into our blood streams. Hyped with energy we swarm to the wings in solidarity, a band of comrades ready to face the unknown audience, which is lying in wait like a sleeping beast. We watch the house lights dim. There’s silence. The stage lights dawn. There’s a breathless moment, a brink moment, and then the stage manager signals and we dive off the cliff and walk onstage. Like a wave we’re hit by the dark presence of the audience. Who are they, what will they do? Then comes the first reaction, a sigh, an outburst of laughter, and though we can’t see them we feel their warmth. The audience has become our pal, nurturing us, receiving and giving back with an intimacy that stops time. The curtain falls, and in the afterglow of adrenalin, we rub off our makeup and recap special moments of the show as pumped as athletes after a victory.
Friends arrive backstage and lavish compliments on us, which, of course, we believe because we want to. And then it’s time to leave our fantasy home, happy it will still be there the next day and the next — until it’s not.
On my way out I glance into the empty house. It’s dark now and silent. Tomorrow, in that little time we carve out of eternity, we performers and audience will meet again in our pretend world and share a communion akin to love.