The Actor’s Perspective – Summer Nights – By Jonathon Pernisek

 This past summer has been one of consistent work, which has always been a goal to accomplish when I’m not in school. Of course, with this employment comes a bevy of interesting new insights into just how the world of theatre operates, especially when it comes to audience behavior. I’d like to sketch this summer out for you and, by doing so, reflect on these experiences. You don’t have to indulge me, but then what else would you do today? Nothing productive, certainly. Am I right? Indeed.

The first production I was a part of was High School Musical. Some bells may be ringing for you if you happen to be up on the pop culture machine that is the Disney Corporation, but for those not in the know, I’ll try to boil the title down. First, take the plot of Grease, which involves a prim and proper girl and hard-nosed bad boy falling in love during a year of high school, and copy it. Now paste it into the context of our modern times, where kids have cell phones and sing karaoke. The only change? Make the girl a nerd and the boy a basketball player.

Together our two heroes, Gabriella and Troy, must decide whether they can reach for their dreams and attend auditions for their school’s spring musical. Their decisions are complicated by their respective cliques, who selfishly wish for them to stick to familiar ground, as well as the villainish duo of Ryan and Sharpay Evans. It is they who have been the stars of every production since their elementary years, and so the threat of new blood spurs them to devious actions.

My goodness, can you not feel the tension? It’s a truly lightweight plot, to be sure, but kids eat this stuff up like nobody’s business. The original movie’s mammoth success on The Disney Channel inspired no less than two different DVD releases, a concert tour that fills entire stadiums, and an upcoming ice show. Yes, you read that right, this is being turned into an ever-lovin’ ice show. So you can imagine why, when Disney made the rights available for a stage production, hundreds of theatres grabbed them up in an instant. In our production I played Ryan, whose ridiculously colorful sense of style and catty nature made him a lot of fun to portray.

Working on High School Musical was a unique experience, in that our audiences were made up mostly of young children. They were extremely enthusiastic and vocal with their enjoyment of the show, which is a great boost when it comes time to put all you have into what is essentially a very dumb show. The script is atrocious, written by a bunch of middle-aged gay men who have absolutely no idea how teens talk. Luckily I did not have to deliver such lines as, “Yo, doggie, my hoops boy!” and instead got to wear a bunch of zany hats. And despite our cynical perspective, the kids really did love it, and they even asked for autographs, which was just plain cool.

The other show I was in recently closed, and though it may sound bitter, I won’t miss those audiences one bit. It was She Loves Me, a musical from the ‘60s that served as the second half of my university’s summer dinner season. For additional context, just imagine 120 senior citizens stuffing their mouths with catered ham and cheesecake every night. Now imagine them shuffling slowly into a theatre where they claim it’s too cold and they can’t see or hear anything. Oh, and oxygen tanks. Lots and lots of oxygen tanks. A lot of the men are perverts, too, using their age to excuse their oftentimes downright pervy behavior. “That’s alright,” said one gentleman after he had been asked to move to a different table for dinner, “I’ll just have to spank you.” Yep, they are a delightful crowd, this Greatest Generation.

As for the show itself, it truly is a charming, intimate story that was based on an old Jimmy Stewart film, The Shop Around the Corner. In this romantic comedy of a tale, two employees of a fancy perfume shop are constantly at odds with one another, never fully able to overcome petty arguments and insults. Little do they know that during their many months of writing passionate letters to respective pen pals they have actually been falling in love with each other. This same premise would obviously be recycled for the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail, which itself is so boring and disposable I hated to mention it here in the first place.

Now don’t get me wrong, for all intensive purposes our audiences really enjoyed the show, and we received a very positive write-up in a local paper. Unfortunately, our last week saw a string of totally rebellious crowds, few of which had the energy or inspiration to laugh or even clap. Nothing is stranger than completing an entire musical number only to have it be met with resounding silence. Oh, and in case you were curious, I played a fifteen-year-old delivery boy. Yep, legally I can drink, but in the theatre, I’m still not allowed behind the wheel of a vehicle. It’s a good thing.

So there ya go, the summer of 2007. It was immense fun despite the hang-ups, and I can only hope for similar experiences in the future. To heck with the chatty old blue hairs and their penchant for shouting things to one another during a scene, I say. When you’re performing and receiving a paycheck for it, then it’s worth it at the end of the day.