As much theatre as I've been doing lately, I've been able to enjoy the sheer thrill of opening night several times. I'm an "opening night," actor/director/whatever. I love the excitement the first time you get to present your work to a public. Other actors would refer to themselves as "rehearsal" actors. They like to say they love the grinding, occasionally creative, process of rehearsals. (To me, they are work, work, work. Necessary, but so is that first layer when building the pyramids. I do believe actors who say they love "rehearsals" are doing it for the press, but who am I to judge. It's just a small misstep to actors who say they love auditioning.) There's even an actress I admire and respect who told me she loved Tech rehearsals, especially those 10-out-of-12's that seem more like 10-out-of-eternity.
But however one characterizes oneself, it's hard to deny the fun of an opening night. And though I treasure them when involved in a show, I've seldom to never felt that same buzz, that same anticipation, as an audience member.
Except at the movies. Several times in my life I've experienced the magic of hearing about and eagerly anticipating a new work of art, and then seeing it unveiled for the first time. And each time, it's not been about theatre, but a film.
Twice, it's been very coincidental, very circumstantial.
In 1967, I was a freshman at Sacred Heart College in Wichita, KS. That Fall, the film version (the first) of Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD was being released. The story (and the famous New Yorker magazine printing, and bestselling book) was about the horrific, senseless murder of a family of four in Holcomb, KS, (a few hours west of Wichita), and the subsequent chase and execution of the killers. It was filmed on location (accurate even to the point of locating and using the actual furniture in the house where the murders happened.)
Though it would premiere in New York, LA, etc, its initial viewing was in Wichita. As a young Lit/Film/Art aficionado, I made sure I was there at the first showing. And what an evening it was. Hollywood actors and brass, a few national critics, local extras from the filming, and relatives and friends of the victims from rural Holcomb. The air was, as they say, electric. And the film only ramped it up. A Black-and-White masterpiece from Richard Brooks – raw, ugly, real. A great film (9 Oscar nominations), and this was the only time, the only place, to see it.
But, this odd occurrence happened again. In 1971, I was a first year graduate student at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas. The Fall, the film version of Larry McMurtrey's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW was being released. The story took place in the early 50's in Archer City (renamed in the film) about a half-hour south of Wichita Falls, and it was a bleak depiction of a small, dying frontier town, and the closing of the movie theatre that underlined these troubled times., and the impact it had on the lives and loves of its blue collar citizens.
It was filmed on location and though it would premiere (to great acclaim and 8 Academy Award nominations) on the Coasts, the first viewing was in Wichita Falls. And Hollywood actors and brass, a few national critics, local extras etc were all there. Again, electricity was in the air, and, again, a film delivered. For a brief, shining(?) moment, north Texas was on the map, and for a brief moment, Wichita Falls was the only place to be.
Two other films, without the benefit of being the locale of the films, also gave me great "Opening Nights" at the movies. These came from the days before social media, before you felt like you saw a movie before you saw it. In 1969, MIDNIGHT COWBOY had premiered to incredible acclaim (and an "X" rating), both of which resonated throughout the film fans throughout the country and the world. It was released in St. Louis, opening at the old Brentwood Theatre (no longer in existence) on a Wednesday night (when new movies were released in those days.) I was there at the first, 7pm screening. The theatre was full (very unusual on a Wednesday) and the crowd was alive – all anyone had seen about the film were a handful of reviews – but they were strong enough to build this crowd, and generate an almost desperate desire to see this thing.
And, of course, all were rewarded with a breakthrough work of art, a fresh view of a city and a world upside down, grounded by the brilliant performances of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. A truly breathless Opening Night.
The second film that hit me this way was PULP FICTION. In 1994 it rocked the Cannes Film Festival, and began its march through film history. Again, no social media, no lengthy clips or interviews available. Just reviews, a bit of news and buzz. I couldn't see it on its first night in St. Louis (in rehearsal for BURN THIS at the time), but was able to see a 10:30 pm showing on Sunday night of its first weekend in town, after rehearsal. But, again, this theatre was packed (on a Sunday night, 10:30!) and the crowd was beside itself with anticipation.
And of course, the film didn't disappoint. To this day, it burns with originality, daring and wit.
In each of these four incidents, films delivered the Opening Night experience I treasure as a theatre artist, but at these times to me, the audience member. And whatever art form you deal in, this is the experience you long for – an artist who needs, who demands, to tell an audience a story, and an audience who needs, who demands to hear it. No filter. No barrier. The experience right there in the middle, in between the artist and the viewer – alive, electric, astonishing.