Learning from Experience

by Theatre@First Vice President Jo Guthrie

I have held 15 different roles in over 35 productions both in front and behind the curtain over my 16
years with Theatre@First.  Where I have found myself most useful has been in production roles
backstage but I have also enjoyed two onstage roles. It has given me a great deal of perspective
and a number of great stories.

Anything can happen in theatre.  As a leader in our group I try and make it to most productions. 
I am also pretty good at dealing with emergencies in a pinch. One night I was called out of the
audience to help an actor who had managed to dislocate her shoulder.  I have absolutely no
experience at this so...turned to my audience and actually got to say the lines “Is there a doctor
in the house?” on stage for a real reason.  

Every moment you are standing there is another opportunity to slow the heck down.  This is
one of my favorite notes to actors but is so incredibly true in real life, too.  You are standing in front
of an audience, you want to sound like you know what you are saying so you throw the lines out
there with confidence and fervor trying so hard to make sure that everyone knows you know what
you are doing there!  Only that’s only half the story, the other half is listening to what they say and
hearing it for the first time, again. Taking that extra breath, making that extra effort to be patient
and clear brings you down to real-life speed. And the thing with theatre is that there is always
another chance to try it again and see if you can get it right. Funny how real life often works that
way, too.   

Trust your audience.  Audiences are full of humans who are there to have fun and be part of the
live theatre experience.  During an outdoor production, one year, we blew a circuit breaker and had
to call the city of Somerville to help us turn it back on.  We also had to be done our performance by
11pm per the city ordinance. So The Show Must Go On™ (as they say) and so we looked to our
props master who found all of the lanterns to be used in the performance and lined the front of the
stage with them.  The audience cheered us on and lit up their phones and pointed them at us. The
switch box was at the far end of the park and I’ll never forget the kind gardener who showed up to
unlock it who turned to me and said “Well, I don’t think this is it but…” flipped the switch, and then
there was a SWELL of applause and cheering from the audience a quarter of a mile away.  “You
appear to be underestimating yourself,” I smiled back at him and we both grinned together.

Be open to people surprising you, beautifully.  That same show, while we were rehearsing, was
Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  In Act II, a group of folks wandered by, settled in nearby and started
to heckle us trying to raise a response and be noticed.  How completely perfectly and authentically
Shakesperian! So I went over. They were commenting about how the woman onstage was dressed
as a guy but they could tell she was a woman and how our costumes weren’t hiding anything (and
some colorful extra remarks on her attractiveness to them).  “Oh! Yeah, I hear ya, it’s confusing.”
I responded. “You see, she’s a woman, pretending to be a man, who is pretending to be a woman.
So, here’s what you missed in Act I…” Their response was, “Shakepeare is f-ed up!”. well, I suppose
he is, kind of makes it more fun that way. And I had their attention!  So we chatted a bit, I caught
them up on the plot, then they sat and watched the show unfold for a while quietly following along.
Later they drifted off back to the bench outside the T Station. I asked if they had liked what they’d
seen. “Are you a teacher?” they asked me. “Nope. This is what I do for fun.”  “Can I audition?”
“Yes. Here’s information on our next show.” “For real?” “For real.”  

But that’s not the end of the story.  During the performance, I was wandering around the audience
seated in the park.  Looking through the crowd, I happened to spot one of the folks from that day with
a new guy and started to move towards them to say hello.  The new guy started to heckle and the one
I had met tapped him in the arm and said “Dude, not cool.” My heart grew two sizes too big and I
wanted to hug him but there were too many people between us and it probably wouldn’t have been
the “cool” response.

Ask anywayTalley’s Folly is a two person show that takes place in a boathouse.  In one scene, the
protagonist puts his foot through an old boat. I had no idea how we were going to make that or make
that work.  So I put out a question on a mailing list I was on “Might anyone have an old boat that I
could put a hole in?” and a slightly longer explanation.  I got a lot of wishes of “good luck” and one
“Hey, I have a friend” response. Turns out, there was a guy in Gloucester who had worked with a
film crew for “The Perfect Storm” when they were filming there.  He owned or worked for a boat yard
and ended up with leftover bits from the movie. As it so happens, he had a non-seaworthy row boat
that might be exactly what we needed and he was happy to donate it. I found a boat.  A whole boat.
And I cut a hole in it. And it was exactly perfect!

When someone asks you if you can do it, try.  The beauty of theatre is that the audience sits 10
feet away from most of the action (unless Elizabeth is directing, but that’s a story for a different day)
and that perfect paint job is only going to matter to you.  Sixteen years ago I got a call saying “Hey,
you used to Technical Directing in college, right?” “Yeah, but that was, 15 years ago?” “Oh perfect!
I need a Tech Director. Instead of going on vacation, I want to direct Jason in Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead.  Will you be my Technical Director?” “shhhhhhhhure, I can try that.”  

Best decision I ever made.  Sixteen years of memories and stories.  I would love for you to come be
part of the next ones made.  This is really so much fun.


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