I went to a theatrical opening at San Francisco Playhouse this past weekend. It was my first visit to a theatre since COVID began.
It was different. Opening night is usually packed full with subscribers, enthusiastic first-nighters, critics, family members, and theatre staff, with no empty seats in sight. The lobby is crowded with a celebrating crowd. There is plenty of food and drink.
Not this time. We entered the theatre, masked, through a safe room where we were questioned about possible COVID symptoms and vaccination status, our temperatures were taken, and stickers were provided to wear on our clothing to show we were safe.
In the uncrowded lobby of the San Francisco Playhouse, the bar was closed. People spoke softly. The joy was real, but also somewhat forced. It was as much a play as anything we would see on the stage. It was strange. But we had come, and we were game, and willing to be part of this strange experience. We were masked and nervous, disoriented and on edge, but we showed up.
The theatre’s artistic director strode through the lobby with a single tray holding slivers of garlic bread, offered up with cups of water set out for free on the bar. Bread and water. The perfect symbol of the bare minimum being offered of theatrical subsistence. I accepted.
I could smell the pungent garlic through my mask. It was appealing. Around me, I noticed various people touching elbows as they greeted friends they hadn’t seen in a year. Their movements seemed slow, as if we were all underwater. The muffled voices were like the gurgling of diving apparatus. It was otherworldly. With so few people, I noticed stains on the carpet and how rickety the tables were, standing empty of the usual cocktails. Without the festive mood of most openings, the room seemed strangely dark. The Playhouse’s managing director, Susi Damilano, wandered about with her family dog, a regular attendee to every opening, but looking a bit forlorn tonight and in need of petting (I mean the dog, of course). I reached for the garlic bread. I lowered my mask and took a bite. It was delicious.
Inside the theatre I was seated in the mezzanine. There were only six of us in our entire row, because there were four seats between each “pod” of ticket holders. I could look down on the house below, most of the seats empty.
Then the houselights dimmed and Susi Damilano strode in triumph to center stage, dressed to the nines, and cried out, “We’re back!” She made a joke about wearing masks after eating garlic bread and what our breath must smell like and we all laughed too much.
By the time she had greeted the subscribers and the critics and the other guests, calling for everybody to stand and give ourselves an ovation, we felt what Susie felt. We were back in the church of our theatre and the deliciously stinky garlic bread was our communion, Susie was our priest, and the lone actor of this solo show would deliver a homily of affirmation.
It felt like . . . no, it WAS . . . a sort of miracle.
Click here to read my five star review of the production, “Hold These Truths,” on TheatreStorm.