In the theatre, opening night is a special occasion. Months, sometimes years, of work are finally complete and an audience is welcomed into the space to not only witness but also participate in the performance. As a stage director, my work is officially complete on opening night—and this is true for many of the collaborators involved in a production as well. In fact, for a lot of theatre folk, opening night is about the only time they “dress up” to go to the theatre. It is a night of celebration.
On November 7, I attended a very special opening night. Standing on Ceremony, which opened that night at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City, is a collection of eight short plays by some of the country’s finest playwrights. What’s unusual about this world-premiere event is that Standing on Ceremony simultaneously premiered in more than fifty other theatres at the exact same moment. I wasn’t in New York for opening night—I was right here in Greensboro on the campus of Guilford College.
The Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moises Kaufman, co-produced this event, for which eight writers each contributed a play on the issue of same-sex marriage. As the New York cast was preparing these plays for the official opening night performance, other theatre companies around the country—and even a few international companies—were provided scripts so they too could present Standing on Ceremony in their community on opening night. All of these performances began and ended at the same time, so audiences across the country and world were discovering these new plays at the same time.
In New York, a portion of the production’s proceeds will benefit Freedom to Marry and other organizations dedicated to marriage equality. The other theatres across the country followed suit, taking donations from audiences to benefit local organizations dedicated to marriage equality in their community. Representatives from EqualityNC, for example, attended the Guilford College performance, using the event to recruit volunteers, distribute literature about North Carolina’s upcoming same-sex marriage ban amendment vote, and ask voters to pledge to attend the primary in May 2012, when the amendment will be on the ballot.
When it at its best, theatre can serve as a lens, allowing that particular audience to examine itself not only as individuals but also as a community. Naturally, each audience and each community is unique, which means that every production of every play is received in unique way. This is the reason I tell my BLS classes that a production of a play is a simultaneous expression of two societies: that of the author and that of the audience. While the author’s society is fixed in history, the audience’s society is always changing—from place to place or year to year.
The performance of Standing on Ceremony I attended was a great example of how this phenomenon works. New York is one of six places in the United States that permits gay marriage, while North Carolina is one of forty-four places in the United States that forbids same-sex marriage—and the upcoming constitutional amendment vote could make the existing laws even more restrictive. The audiences in New York and North Carolina, therefore, have different experiences with the issue of same-sex marriage and would certainly have differing emotional and intellectual responses to the performance.
Standing on Ceremony has a distinctly pro-same-sex marriage theme—I’d venture to guess that nearly everyone who attended the play was in agreement with its political agenda. As I sat in the theatre watching the plays and contemplating the issue, I thought about audiences in Iowa and New York, and other states where same-sex marriage is legal, and wondered how they were responding to the plays. Surely there were legally married same-sex couples in attendance! Were they proud? Hopeful? But I also thought of audiences in Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, and all across the South—where amendments banning same-sex marriage have already been approved. What would be their reaction to a play about an issue that was already decided in their state by a constitutional ban? And naturally, my thoughts turned back to North Carolina. On November 7, 2011, the audience seemed hopeful. How might we respond to a production of Standing on Ceremony twelve months from now? Still hopeful?