As the premiere of our play beckoned, my three-month stint at the Zurich Theatre Academy as a photographer for Lapin Lapin (Rabbit Rabbit, by Coline Serreau) came to a slow yet unavoidable end. Only one more week to go. Walking into the rehearsal rooms now felt like entering a mall’s perfume section as the excitement, expectations, hopes, and fears of all involved hung in the air as thick and exotic as living, flowing waves of richly scented fragrances.
The charged atmosphere was contagious. Watching, photographing, and absorbing, I felt my heartbeat accelerate with each passing day. The audience would never know how much of the artists’ heart and soul had filtered into the unassuming comedy they were going to see in one of the smallest theatres in Zurich. Even now, only days away from opening night, work continued as hard as ever. Everyone tried to tease just one more hue out of their assigned character, to help bring this fictional person even more alive for the audience.
All through dress rehearsal the actors were focused and driven. Luckily, much did go wrong, giving cast and crew a chance to iron out any remaining inconsistencies before the premiere the following day. During one of my favourite, involuntarily comical moments, one of the props, a kitchen table, collapsed early on during the first act when the main character sat on it. The delicate, lightweight woman, who portrayed a little boy in the play, had repeated the same movement many times during rehearsals. However, the table seemed to have reached a breaking point. First, we only heard a sharp crack in the silence between two lines. Then, the table began leaning to one side and rather gracefully laid itself to rest in a neat pile. The movement was eerily reminiscent of a large animal being shot, joints and knees buckling, life giving way to gravity and eternity in slow motion.
A myriad of minor incidents later, the dress rehearsal ended with standing ovations.
Then an armada of parents and best friends stormed the stage to squeeze the life out of the young actors and actresses, to let them know how proud they all were of them.
I spent the next (and last) day before opening night photographing obsessively. The actors were getting ready. Last “Toi toi tois” (good luck presents) were exchanged. The atmosphere was now so charged, I felt an entire village could have been supplied with electricity from the currents of excitement flowing through us all.
Finally, the doors to the auditorium were opened. All two-hundred tickets had been sold. Again, most of the audience were friends and family. However, there also was a contingent of regular theatre aficionados. I was amongst them and cherished the opportunity to cheer for these people who had let me observe and document their professional lives through the lens of my Nikon FM2 without ever holding back. I had been to all rehearsals over the three month period of creation so I wasn’t surprised when I found myself silently reciting every line of the play, challenging myself to get the timing and emotion just right, head-to-head with the actors on stage.
The opening night finished with thunderous applause. The old wooden floor in the auditorium shook in tune to clapping hands and stamping feet. Like everyone else, I stood, trampled, and whooped, making as much noise as I could. The cast assembled at the edge of the stage. They held on to each other, arms intertwined behind their backs, and bowed to the audience. Then they exited. The applause grew to hurricane proportions. Moments later, the cast re-appeared, grinning, bowing, and even waving to the audience. They exited again. As the audience redoubled their efforts, the noise reached tsunami levels. My hands and arms began to burn from the strain of constant clapping, but I was as determined as everyone else to not let this inspiring bunch leave too soon.
The artists took all eleven curtain calls together. Each time, they held on to each other. Their eyes sparkled with a fire that only comes from the satisfaction of having created something that touches people’s hearts deeply while carrying them off to another life, another dimension.
To the left of the stage, I could see someone waiting with a bunch of roses. In Swiss and German theatre it is tradition to give each person vitally involved in the production of the play a red rose after the final curtain call. I could see the director and his assistants making their way towards the stage to join the actors. Unfathomably, the director waved to me as he passed by, “You too, Liam. Come, join us on stage.” One of his assistants swept me along. A minute later, I found myself in the limelight, facing the still euphoric crowd.
This was so utterly unexpected. A red rose was given to each of us. I nearly dropped mine as I was beside myself with joy and nervousness. I also immediately impaled my thumb on a sharp thorn. It barely registered. I couldn’t stop grinning. Strong arms supported me from left and right. Forgetting my adolescent awkwardness for a moment, I bowed and waved with vigour.
As I looked around me at the glowing faces of everyone in the house, I began to understand theatre more profoundly. A huge part of the exhilaration we all felt during this opening night came from the transience of the moment.
Each show, each performance, no matter its size, is an instant to be treasured because it is singular. Like life itself, the magic of theatre is in the now. It is immediate and thus beautiful. No matter how well produced and planned, theatre is vivid, part of the process forever open to interpretation, chance, and improvisation. No evening on stage is precisely the same. And no matter how much heart and effort goes into a production, eventually the tour will come to its end, the play will have run its course, props will be stored in dusty warehouses, paperwork will be archived, and wardrobe items will be re-assigned to the next play.
What remains are memories, emotions, personal and professional growth, and the sense of having been a part – if just for a moment – of something unique and intrinsically human. All of us, cast, crew, and audience share this unique experience. We are given a glimpse of the best we can be. Together.