Theater Around The Bay: Why I Love When Things Go Wrong

Today’s guest blog is appropriately titled since Barbara Jwanouskos is too slammed this week to get her blog in. Luckily, Meg Trowbridge, a local actress, writer, improver and director, is ready to fill in the gap with a testimony to just why it’s sometimes good that bad things happen.

My husband and I were at the SFJazz Center last month to see Bill Frisell and the Big Sur Quintet. The music was wonderful, the vibe was mellow, and the audience was digging it. With the amps and speakers, you were fully immersed in the music and transported to a path on a ridge in Big Sur, looking out over an expanse of rolling hills covered with shrubs, pines, and charred Redwoods. The lighting followed the mood of each song, delicately shifting from warm orange when the violin and viola were in a playful duet, to a soft blue when it was quiet and thoughtful. A fast-paced piece started and each member of the band looked to be having the time of their life – the violist was alternating between rapidly plucking strings to accenting staccato notes with his bow, the drummer had traded in his brushes for sticks and was moving a mile a minute, and the cellist was energetically playing his instrument like an over-sized guitar, swaying his head and wearing an enormous grin – with Bill Frisell in the center, looping riffs with his electric guitar. And then the power went out.

Here is why I love when things go wrong in live performance: it is that rare moment when you can truly connect with the person on stage, and share with them one experience. I go to movies to escape or to appreciate great performances (or to bitch about how it was all wrong), but I go to live performances for connection – to feel something.

I studied music in college with Rebecca Seaman (a wonderful vocal coach and conductor in the Bay Area), and one semester she was flush with vocal students. This meant we all had the pleasure of singing two songs at the student show case at the end of the semester. My friend, no stranger to the stage, was discovering her voice, surprised to learn that despite her husky speaking timbre, she was a Soprano – who knew?! She was also discovering stage fright for the first time: she had never sung alone to an audience before, and when her time came, she squashed those fears down and started her song. About one verse in, there was a catch in her throat, just enough to allow all the fears and anxiety to rise up and paralyze her. She stopped singing. The piano repeated the same few bars, waiting for her to come back in. The audience held their breath. The world stopped on its axis. Then, she quietly said, “I can’t do this.” Without a beat, Rebecca loudly proclaimed “Yes you can” and the entire audience chimed in with shouts of affirmation and support. She took a breath, and continued her song, and the audience was riveted. She received the most enthusiastic applause for the whole showcase, and every single person in that house shared the same pride and excitement for her.

I was also privileged to be in the audience of Giant Bones by Stuart Bousel (based on stories by Peter S. Beagle) on the night of the infamous ‘Cockroach Performance.” Allow me to take you back there: the scene opens on a dark, moonlit evening, the stage is bare, the lights are dim, everyone is hushed. Slowly, Mikka Bonel enters the stage, walking backwards and looking off stage and all around to ensure she’s alone. Simultaneously, Paul Rodrigues enters, mirroring her. As they slowly walk on stage, unaware of each other’s presence, the audience becomes very aware of another presence – there is a sizable cockroach crawling on Mikka’s shawl, making its way down from her shoulder towards her hand. We all see it – she doesn’t. The next moments are like a perfectly choreographed ballet: the cockroach is slowly making its descent to Mikka’s hand; Mike begins to lift her hands, sensing something is behind her; Paul and Mikka inch closer; they begin to turn, about to discover each other; the cockroach comes into Mikka’s sight; her face, only for a moment, reveals her horror; she flicks the roach off of her hand at the same moment she faces Paul and they both let out an electric gasp of surprise, as did the audience. Every hair on my body stood upright, adrenaline rushing through me, as I watched the scene continue without missing a beat, and with renewed energy.

So what does Bill Frisell, accomplished Jazz guitarist and consummate professional, do when there is no power to amp his electric guitar? He picks up his acoustic, they all unplug, and the show goes on in the emergency lighting of the SFJAZZ Center. The first plugged-in hour of the show was wonderful, but I realized that it was easy. The music surrounded us, so I could sneak a look at my phone, I could whisper something to my husband, I could get lost in my thoughts about the day, and still hear and experience the music. But when the set went acoustic, we all had to lean in, be quiet, and focus – and it was magic. We could hear them speak to each other about the next song, we could hear the happy moans from the audience when there was a particularly satisfying harmony or solo, and we all, together, were hanging from every note.

It is a performer’s nightmare when something goes wrong, and you have to improvise, or hope no one notices, or bear through it until it sorts itself out, but aren’t those the memories we keep and the stories we tell afterwards? And when we’re put under that pressure, and we rise to the occasion, isn’t that when we learn something about ourselves?

As I sat in the dark stall of the powerless restroom after the show, humming a motif from the violin in the last song, I could hear other women doing the same, and we created our own quintet in the dim light of the SFJAZZ Center bathroom, which happened to have pretty great acoustics.