It seems like we just embarked on our journey to 1930s Ireland, but Dancing at Lughnasa is already coming to an end, with the closing performance tonight.
The inevitable question: “Will you be sad when the show is over?”
I think it’s one of the most common questions I get from people outside the theatre world. It’s hard for them to imagine, considering the immense amount of time, effort, money, and passion poured into each theatrical production, that the entire thing is physically scrapped from existence within hours of the last performance.
If you ever work with a young child actor in a production, it’s both heartbreaking and adorable to see them emotionally deal with the end of a production: there are lots of tears, hugs, and insights such as “I’m really gonna miss you guys!”. And that’s very telling about human instinct: before we’re professionally and personally trained to let things go that matter to us, we want to cling to them, to keep them as long as we can, to not let them fall away.
But we have to, of course. We have to take apart the set, send the costumes and props back to the shop, clean the dressing rooms, give each other hugs, and head home. And soon, we’ll be back at it again – starting the next production from scratch, with nothing left of our previous show but a poster, program, some new Facebook friends and a nice gallery of photos.
I remember a specific time somebody asked me the question, and it changed my life. Five years ago, I was at a bar after a rehearsal for a show I was absolutely in love with, talking with an actor in the production. He said to me, “Isn’t it sad that in just a few weeks, we’re going to be done with this?”
“It is sad,” I said instinctively. “But that’s why it matters so much.”
And that thought sunk in for a moment: that’s why it matters so much. I had just tapped into something that I had felt for a long time, but not been able to put into words: the sudden end of a meaningful experience is not a downside of theatre, it’s the reason for theatre.
Theatre is an art form which celebrates the immediate present, the now, the need for stories that are urgently told to people in the same room. A theatre performance is a collective moment that is shared intimately between performer and audience, and upon the curtain call, it ceases to exist. Many other artistic mediums are meant to create a result that can be appreciated long after its creation: film, painting, literature. The lasting impact of theatre is less tangible, but it’s very real: usually attached to a memory of a visceral, transformative moment.
When I had this realization, it helped me clarify to myself why I do theatre, and why it means so much to me: because it ends. Because like so many things in the human experience, it can’t be held on to when it’s time to let it go. I choose to spend my life investing the best part of myself into artistic experiences that are destined to flicker out and disappear, because it’s the most clear, meaningful way I can engage with the world.
So, sad? No. Perhaps fulfilled, satisfied, grateful, or sentimental, but never sad.
Happy closing to the cast and crew of Dancing at Lughnasa!