Former Star Tribune theater critic takes a turn on the other side of the curtain
On the first day of rehearsal, I felt like I should have had a tag pinned to my shirt. “Graydon Royce, kindergarten, Room 104, Miss Swenson, Bus 6A.”
For 17 years, I had enjoyed at least a nodding acquaintance with most of the people in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres rehearsal hall. They knew me as a theater critic, with all the attendant baggage and respect that title carries. I had attended these events several times, always confident in the passport I carried from a different realm of the theater community.
But on this September day, as actors, designers, directors and supporters greeted one another over bagels and coffee, I wasn’t a critic. Having retired from the Star Tribune two years ago, I couldn’t hide behind the high office, and when we went around the room for introductions, I was: “Graydon Royce, ensemble.”
Chanhassen is often described as a large family — performers spend months together during production and it is natural to develop strong relationships. So as I watched friends and colleagues hugging and welcoming each other to “Holiday Inn,” I felt like mom’s new boyfriend spending his first Christmas with the family.
What do these people think of me being here, taking a job that a working actor might have filled? They knew me as a critic who had sat in judgment for many years. Now, I was one of them.
Or was I? Was I an actor who could add value to this production or simply a gimmick sent out on a celebrity cameo trick?
I mused one day, as two actors nearby recounted their recent experience in a Chan show, that I couldn’t share that conversation. I could only listen because I hadn’t been around. It was as if one of these actors were to work as an intern at the Star Tribune. They would be known on the city desk as “that actor working back in features this summer.”
Accepting the challenge
The summer after my retirement, I had dinner with Michael Brindisi, the artistic director and president of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. He said he was doing “Newsies” next and I joked that if he wanted an actor with real newspaper experience, I was ready.
We had a laugh and it passed, but that fall I ran into Michael at a theater opening. “We’ve got to have lunch,” he said. “I have something to talk to you about.”
That something was his wish to use me in “Holiday Inn,” Chanhassen’s 50th-anniversary production, which would open in October 2018.
“Think about it,” he said. “I know you can do it, I’ve seen you act, but I am going to need you for eight shows a week, all five months. I don’t want you leaving part of the way through.”
His seriousness made this more than a lark and I paused to consider the level of commitment. But in the end — come on, when was I ever going to have this opportunity?
Swirl of panic, joy of theater
A theater troupe becomes a village quite quickly. Some personalities scream for attention, while others quietly go about their work with the efficiency of an accountant. Dancers work like dogs, on and off stage, constantly heading for an empty room in which to practice what they’ve just walked through.
Chanhassen rehearses three weeks and then performs previews for a week before opening to the press. Choral sessions were thrilling — essentially sitting with a great choir and marching through the score. Scene work — at least for those of us in the ensemble — was dispatched without a lot of nonsense. “Enter here, to this point, say your line, exit there.”
After 15 or so days in the rehearsal hall, the whole enterprise was moved to Chanhassen’s main stage and the oddest thing happened. It was like we were starting over.
Tech cues, set and scenery changes, spacing for choreography, costume changes — everything, it seemed — was brand new. I was amazed while those around me just smiled and nodded. “Yeah, it’s crazy, isn’t it?”
“Holiday Inn” never had a full run-through on the stage until opening preview night. Really? That can happen on a major stage? How can we face an audience?
But I would experience another moment of discovery during dress rehearsals. I direct youth in a musical at our church each winter, and as kids get on their costumes and makeup for that first show, they are nervous and eager to meet an audience.
I felt that exact same spirit backstage at Chanhassen and it was absolutely charming. Professionals who have spent years in New York productions, national tours, regional theaters, were as giddy as schoolkids to get on stage.
A whole new society
Eight shows, six days a week, sounds like a lot and it is.
Friday, known in the general culture as the best day of the week, is now hump day. Our day off (Monday) is little more than a speed bump on the way to Tuesday.
It can be claustrophobic until you get your second wind. Winter shows are the toughest because as the darkness closes the day and folks settle in for dinner, you are getting in your car and driving to work. God forbid a snow squall.
I thought back to my days as the Star Tribune’s page-one editor, putting the paper together each night to meet our midnight deadlines. You develop a bond that daysiders (and I worked days, too, for a long time) can never understand. The experience is heightened and we live by different rules and customs.
It is the same in theater. At Chanhassen, those customs include 30 people running around in their underwear backstage, furiously changing costumes, shifting scenery, waiting for their cues, whispering and laughing and counting on one another. The stakes are high when more than 600 people have plunked down real money and are sitting out there, waiting to be entertained.
The dressing room is filled with crosswords, cellphones, chatter about how that last scene went and delicious, juicy gossip. Actors share references to what happened two shows ago, or which actor could clear a room with the pungent ghosts of a preshow meal. For an old journalist, it’s like being at a fantastic buffet and told that you can only look. To share anything would shatter confidences that are part of the tribe.
If you’re sick, there is no office cubicle to hide in, no co-worker who can pick you up, no working from home. Tony Vierling, one of the lead actors in “Holiday Inn,” has a pharmacy at his dressing room station to alleviate throat and upper-respiratory infections.
“You’re the one people see on the posters, you’re the one they expect to see on the stage and they don’t care if you’re sick,” he said one night. “They want to see a good performance.”
The critic’s eye
More than a handful of people have asked in the past few months whether I would judge plays differently as a critic now that I have been on the other side. It’s a fair and obvious question and the answer is no.
As a critic, you are an audience member and can make your judgment only on what you see — an honest representation of your experience. It doesn’t matter that two days before you see the show, a big production number has been retooled. It doesn’t matter how much effort went into baking the cake. It only matters whether the cake tastes good.
What has changed is the appreciation for the work — not in an intellectual sense. It’s an appreciation felt in the bones and the heart.
Critics can occasionally forget that these are real people on stage — vulnerable humans doing their best. Sometimes what they do is not very good and we are duty-bound to tell the truth. But we are also duty-bound to respect the humanity of these people. That is a lesson I have learned from walking in the actor’s shoes.
A different kind of dream
A friend mused recently that this must be like a dream come true for me.
Yes, in this very specific respect: In dreams we do things and become things that we cannot in real life. And that is the beauty of my Chan experience, that after a long career built on a specific identity, I have become something else. It is an adventure, and as Amelia Earhart said: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”
Becoming someone else is, of course, the essence of acting and it is such a great lesson: to take a risk and crawl out of the identity that has supported and trapped you; to enter another world, to learn their ways, practice their rituals, appreciate their beauty and hard work. And to learn empathy by stepping down from your high office and immersing yourself in a different tribe.
We could use more empathy, couldn’t we?
Graydon Royce was a theater critic for the Star Tribune for nearly two decades.