Why We Do It and What We Miss // by Nick Westrate
Actor Nick Westrate feels all the emotions in THE BOYS IN THE BAND…and the audience’s literal exhale.
I played Donald in Transport Group’s 2010 revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Don’t remember which one Donald is? That’s because he spends the bulk of the play sitting, listening, actively not contributing to the melee. He is the witness. Playing him proved challenging in the production our director, Jack Cummings III, had conceived.
We presented the play in a loft penthouse apartment in Chelsea. The audience was seated in the room with us. The lighting was that of the sun, and practical lamps around the space. It was thrilling every night. Never before had I felt more connection between audience and ensemble. As Donald, I silently sat, observed, laughed, and took in the pain and love of these men. I often became audience to the action myself. We witnessed the event together.
During one long moment, I was holding my drink and leaning against a wall between two windows. As staged, I had to stay there for three or four minutes. One night early in the run, I realized I could feel the breath of an audience member on my forearm. That night, it happened to be The New York Times Chief Drama Critic, Ben Brantley, and the natural terror of any 26-year-old gay male ingenue coursed through my veins at an incredible rate. But that intimacy was there every night, with every human in that room.
An event in a room: that is how I learned to define theater. And theater we made. Performers and audience sharing the same breath, holding the same silence, erupting, and crying out together—passing molecules between each other. This is why we do it, and this is what we miss. But that exchange we cherish is now our great fear. As we reach for other ways to commune and create, let us not stop missing this exchange: being so close you can feel the actor’s voice, and hear that one patron’s gasp of recognition.
It can’t happen right now. But I hope we all miss it desperately so that we make our best work ever when it can.
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