This is old news for many in the local theater community, but there was a bit of a holiday miracle last weekend. Last Friday, Mallory Keene, an actor playing a supporting role in MARY POPPINS at Virginia Rep, was called on to step into the title role. Headliner Stacey Cabaj had fallen ill and Ms. Keene was suddenly expected to be “practically perfect.”
I was lucky enough to attend the performance and, though I hadn’t seen Ms. Cabaj’s portrayal to compare, I was incredibly impressed with Keene’s work. She was prim, proper and demanding but with a strong undercurrent of warmth. I noticed a couple little hiccups, e.g., a hat stand almost toppling over, but nothing that betrayed the production moving along exactly as planned.
What really made that showing of the musical special, though, was the emotions that erupted during the curtain call. There were those both in the audience and on the stage who realized what an intense situation Keene faced as an actress and, when she got to the end unscathed, the genuine affection and joy at what she accomplished spilled forth. There were hoots, hollers, and tears. It was touching and beautiful.
As we head into the finale of the holiday season, a season grounded in faith for many folks, I thought it was worth pointing out how much faith is involved in a move like that. Sure, theater pros work hard and train like crazy to be prepared to step up when necessary. But a modicum of faith still plays into it: faith that people expecting Stacey wouldn’t be too upset about the switch, faith that Ms. Keene could carry such an iconic role, faith that the rest of the cast would adjust to the changes a different actor would make in carrying out the role, etc.
Theater in general is an act of faith: we put on shows, tell our stories, with the hope that others will be interested and maybe even pay a little bit to see them produced in a professional way. Debra Clinton mentioned in our last podcast that it’s never really clear how a show is going until it’s put in front of an audience. At that point, directors have to have faith that what they’ve done we have the desired effect.
I’m not sure how many people were aware of the extra energy happening during MARY POPPINS last weekend. But having that little bit of behind-the-scenes knowledge made the performance a little extra interesting and engaging for me. That’s the kind of insider info we’re trying to provide through our community engagement efforts here at Firehouse. In seminars, classes, parties, and open-houses, we want people to understand a little more about what goes into making live theater happen.
We won’t always have anything as dramatic to convey as a last-minute star substitution. But people who attend our offerings might know that a director tried one thing then made a different choice, will know what an actor sounds like who speaks with an accent in a show, or will see how the blank slate of a stage is transformed into the setting of a whole different world. (Note: You can sign up now for the WINGS seminar we’re offering through VCU’s Commonwealth Society and see what I’m talking about firsthand.)
We have faith that these kinds of new ways to expand the theater experience will engage new people and expand potential audiences. Tune in next year to see if that bears out in reality.
In the meantime, happy holidays to all of you from the Firehouse Forum! May the New Year bring excitement, opportunity and wealth to you in whatever way you define those. We’ll have exciting opportunities to enrich your soul here so we hope you’ll come by and check them out.