This week we had two performances of Survival, Elizabeth’s solo show. Both had wonderfully responsive audiences, 20-25 people at each. One was for an elder-housing complex, the other a house concert mainly drawn from the poetry community. These were the tenth and eleventh showings of the piece, and it’s starting to find its rhythm.
The greatest challenge in our performance work—now spanning 47 years, about 4,000 performances in 38 states—is to survive the infancy of a new comic piece. Experience counts, but on the other hand, it tells you how far, at the outset, you still have to go to get where you want to go. You’ve made that journey so many times: you’re like a toddler watching the Olympics on TV, terrified how many stumbles you’ll have to make just to walk across the living room, much less to run the high hurdles.
The actor in conventional theatre, having five weeks to rehearse and maybe four weeks’ performance run has one advantage: he doesn’t know, on opening night, how much further he has to go. We’ve had comic sketches that we’ve performed perhaps 500 to 1,000 times for every sort of audience, and there are still lines we tinker with, in their phrasing or their timbre or their business, to get the response we ought to get. The stand-up comic may spend weeks or months to polish his 20-minute routine and still be subject to the enormous variations that come with audience or locale or the flow of booze.
What you learn instinctively about pace and inflection and response may work brilliantly for one show and be totally irrelevant to the next, as character adds a whole new dimension: Woody Allen’s material wouldn’t have worked too well for Don Rickles, nor Robin Williams’ for Jack Benny. With Survival, we’re just starting to succeed in the “range-finding”—the sense of how these lines come out of the specific characters Elizabeth plays, a sense of how the comic line sets up its premises, how it snaps the whip to “release” the laugh, and how that all comes out of the character’s reality.
Meantime, we’ve juggled some structure, revised various lines, clarified transitions, but it’s mainly a matter of making the humor work in the mouth of the character, finding where the fifty minutes needs to “breathe,” and adapting to the rhythms of each audience. The toddler watching the Olympics will get there some day if he keeps his toddle true, but he can only do it a step at a time.