Opening night of any show is a big deal, and a big event. Behind the gowns and glittering lights, the social opportunities (and photo opportunities!), there are many nerves, much heightened anticipation and often a ritual or superstition, as everyone and everything gets ready for the curtain to rise.
To get the bigger picture, we spoke to actors Diana Lin and Marg Downey, Set & Costume Designer Alicia Clements, and MTC staff including Production Manager Abe Watson, Stage Manager Jess Maguire and Events Manager Mandy Jones.
The journey to opening night
The journey to opening night is often long and hectic, and begins at different times for different people. For Production Manager Abe Watson, the journey is ‘full on’ and also begins early. ‘As Production Manager, the show almost becomes your baby, because you’re there for every discussion, idea, problem, solution, etc. You’re there during initial design phases, and through rehearsals; you’re integral to getting the show up in the theatre during bump in and running technical rehearsals, and you’re the “go to” person for everything, and every problem, no matter how big, small or bizarre.’
Events Manager Mandy Jones also begins early – up to a year in advance sometimes – when she reads the script to ‘glean ideas for food and drinks to reference in the event menu, as well as geographic locations and the period’. Then, around two months out from the night, she meets with Opening Night Major Partner Abercrombie & Kent to talk about their goals and ideas, ‘and then I get underway creating events that meet the objectives of both A&K and MTC.’
‘On opening night I was still holding my breath, hoping that nothing would go wrong! Which nothing did... because that’s the way these things always seem to magically work out!’ – Alicia Clements
Set & Costume Designer Alicia Clements is currently working on As You Like It in preparation for its scheduled September season. For her, opening nights are ‘the culmination of a couple of pretty stressful weeks’, and her first show with MTC, 2019’s The Lady in the Van, was no exception. ‘The technical rehearsals and previews had thrown up a few challenges as we’d battled to get the mechanical elements all working correctly and in tandem. Things weren’t functioning perfectly every evening and on opening night I was still holding my breath, hoping that nothing would go wrong! Which nothing did... because that’s the way these things always seem to magically work out!’
Indeed, there is a theatrical superstition that bad dress rehearsals ensure a good opening night. It’s just one of many, which bring us to…
Superstitions, rituals and traditions
Break a leg! This popular theatrical exclamation, intended to convey luck on opening night, was possibly born out of old superstitions around fairies, ghosts or similar beings who haunt theatres and take mischievous delight in foiling the best laid thespian plans by manifesting their opposite. If you say good luck, the theory goes, the spirits will punish you with bad luck. Why ‘break a leg’ is another matter, for which there are various etymological theories that we don't have space to explore here, but such theatrical traditions are widespread and often actors and creatives have their own personal tradition or ritual.
‘... before you come to the theatre, you have to let the [spirits or gods] know that you appreciate them, and offer them thanks and prayers to look after you, and that your play is going to be successful and safe.’ – Diana Lin
Actor Diana Lin prays, and during Torch the Place her cast mates began to join in. ‘Every night before we went into make-up, we’d pray, on our knees, for 15 minutes or 10 minutes.’ Lin isn’t religious but praying is ‘about giving respect to everyone in the space,’ she says. She picked up the tradition while studying at Shanghai Theatre Company, where a friend and fellow student told her that she believes in all different kinds of gods, or bodhisattva, in the world and especially in the theatre. ‘So before you come to the theatre, you have to let them know that you appreciate them, and offer them thanks and prayers to look after you, and that your play is going to be successful and safe. And you pray for everyone on the stage to be safe, and to have great shows. And I believe in that too.’
Marg Downey, seen most recently on the MTC stage with Emerald City, doesn’t pray but she does speak to her father before she goes onstage for the first time. ‘I had a very supportive father,’ she says, ‘He is now no longer with us but I always say a few words to him before I go on and I find, every time, that it just calms me down.’
Behind the scenes, Stage Manager Jess Maguire doesn’t have a ritual so much as something she finally has the time to do: washing her hair! ‘After spending two weeks basically living at the theatre and running around from 9am to midnight during the tech period and previews, you don’t really have much extra time for yourself. Plus, there is a party afterwards to go to!’
On the night
Likewise, Mandy Jones doesn’t have what she'd call a ritual, but when she finally gets into the theatre – ‘I’m always racing to my seat just before the houselights dim as I’m coming from a pre-show event’ – she always takes a moment ‘to look around the auditorium at all the people that have contributed to getting the production to this point – creatives, suppliers, sponsors, donors, board members, and the entire staff of MTC. Theatre is the most collaborative art form, and the joy of opening nights is seeing all the individuals who have contributed to the play collectively willing the cast and crew to do their best and feel the support from the audience.’
‘Their excitement and enthusiasm reminded me that what we do is actually pretty cool. We should relish it, celebrate our work and the people we work with.’ – Jess Maguire
It’s similar for Abe Watson. He always tries to leave the theatre for dinner, ‘and then come back through the foyer as an audience member’. For a production manager, ‘there should be nothing left to do by opening night’ with their responsibilities largely handed over to the Stage Manager at that point. ‘So there is always this bizarre moment on opening night where you say goodbye to the cast/crew, wish them well then go sit in the auditorium as an audience member. Most shows, this is a great thing, and the first time you truly get to just ‘enjoy’ the work… other times you may feel a little trapped, and helpless! But I tend to watch the people in the audience as much as I watch the performance itself – watching someone experience something powerful, funny, technically extraordinary or moving for the first time is pretty incredible. I love seeing the audience’s reaction, and listening to their comments in the foyer during interval, and after the show.’
As Stage Manager, Jess Maguire’s opening nights usually begin around midday, with final paperwork, checks and preparations, ahead of a short on-stage rehearsal mid-afternoon. ‘There is always this lovely buzz of energy on opening nights as we get closer to opening the house,’ she says. ‘Cast are warming up; crew are checking, then triple checking everything is perfect; opening night presents and cards are being handed out, and there is a general flow of the rest of our company popping in to wish everyone chookas [a widespread theatrical term for ‘good luck’, similar to ‘break a leg’] before heading out to the auditorium. It is a flurry of activity, nerves and excitement and everyone is looking forward to celebrating post-show after a long few weeks of work.’
Diana Lin tries to avoid giving into nerves. ‘What would being nervous achieve? It would only make me feel worse,’ she jokes. ‘On Torch the Place, everyone was asking “are you nervous?” But I wasn’t. I’d planned and prepared so much. I didn’t go out partying in the days leading up to opening night; I just spent the time preparing, focused. Maybe it’s something that comes with age? I was surprised myself,’ she adds, before joking that it’s good to be old.
Marg Downey also knows the value of preparation, which she learned during her first production with MTC: 1995’s A Flea in Her Ear. Recalling that opening night, Downey says her primary emotion was ‘absolute terror. I was so scared, because it was my first lead role, and it was also my first role with a major theatre company. But I knew those lines inside out. I’d been rehearsing privately, without letting anyone know!’
To help her with her nerves, fellow cast member Genevieve Picot offered Downey some advice. ‘She said “just make sure that your entrance is dynamic!” Dynamic entrances and dynamic exits. That was a great piece of advice.’
Opening night favourites and favourite opening nights
Despite – or maybe because of – all her preparations, Lin says she forgot one of her favourite opening night traditions for Torch the Place: the opening night cards. ‘I was so focused on preparing for opening night itself, so I forgot the tradition and it was really embarrassing! Everyone’s cards were so beautiful. My favourite was from Dean [Bryant, the play’s director]; he had gone to the trouble to get me a card translated into Chinese.’
Lin loves this tradition because it makes her feel ‘so welcomed and appreciated. I keep all the cards, from every project: each show, each film. They’re all important to me. I’ve got a file, and they’re great memories.’
Alicia Clements loves opening nights for musicals: ‘they are also always exceptionally fun because everyone’s on a high from all the singing and dancing!’ Unsurprisingly, she picks the Kiss of the Spider Woman opening night as an MTC highlight, but says it’s as much to do with the fact that she didn’t have to dash to the airport as soon as the curtains came down – unlike the opening night of Lady in the Van, when she accidentally ended up in a restricted security zone while trying to get through customs due to being so ‘tired and delirious’.
Marg Downey recalls director Bruce Beresford taking the whole cast out for a pre-show dinner on the opening night of Moonlight and Magnolias. ‘That was so exciting and lovely,’ she says. But she says it was probably the Twelfth Night opening that was her favourite, possibly because she wasn’t in that show. ‘That night was a ripper. We had an absolute ball, staying until stumps. It was such a huge cast. And such brilliant casting. And Frank Woodley was just such a knock out; so funny. So that was a great opening night.’
Mandy Jones also highlights Twelfth Night. ‘Abercrombie & Kent generously offered to host the entire opening night audience at a pre-show event,’ she says. ‘The concept for the event was faraway destinations and we showcased some of A&K’s destinations through a Virtual Reality experience, a giant grazing table, florals and musicians. I loved seeing the reactions as guests arrived and joined in the celebrations.’
The opening night Jess Maguire recalls most fondly is perhaps Vivid White, which was a ‘wonderfully complex and busy show, with a lot of props, moving scenery, costume changes and of course a trap with a giant inflatable cephalopod puppet being pushed through a couch.’ All of these moving parts in a tech-heavy show meant that by the end of rehearsals, the whole team was exhausted ‘but there was a great sense of achievement at how much we accomplished by the time we got through opening night. We also had a fabulous group of VCA students who were part of the show. Their excitement and enthusiasm reminded me that what we do is actually pretty cool. We should relish it, celebrate our work and the people we work with.’
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Published on 24 June 2020