When all else fails, use candles

One Autumn when heading to the season close of the  Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon,  I arrived a day early in the midst of a strong electric storm. I decided to attend a near by, “local” theatre to see a musical version of  Tale of Two Cities in a very small, initmate theatre.

Near the end of the first Act, the power went out (for hours) and the actors had to think quickly on their feet. They decided to continue the performance by candle light. The cast or director could easily have decided to cancel the performance and give the audience a refund. Instead, the company decided to just “go with it,” and the results were astonishing.

Since the production was set in the 18th Century, the theatre company happened to have an abundance of working candelabra, so “alternate” lighting was available. With real crashing thunder and lightning for sound effects, the audience had a very memorable night of theatre. Not only did the “realistic” lighting give more edge to the acting, but the actors had to improvise blocking to stay “in frame” (or in candle’s glow) and also not set one another on fire. The actors were on edge (they could no longer see the audience, beyond the candle’s glow) and each member of the cast took on a raw vocal quality that went perfectly with a story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Ironically, the “black out” portion of this play led to a “musical” with no music. The cast had been using recorded music as background to their singing. Now, with no source of power, other than wax candles and vocal chords, each actor had to sing “unplugged”.  Again, there was a raw, haunting quality that gave the lyrics far more impact than in a normal production. The first song sung sans music, was delivered by “Madame deFarge“, harshly lit by one candle directly in front of her face. The lyrics cut like a knife, when delivered without music:

Now is the time to act not alone,
Now is the time to take what we own,
Now is the time to cut to the bone! 

The audience was transfixed. Partly because no one knew what would happen next. Would the lights go back on?We were literally on the edge of our seats. Each lyric and line seemed pregnant with meaning. I got so caught up in this unique production that I forgot how the story ended, although I had read Dickens’ novel at least twice and had seen the 1930s movie 3 or 4 times.

At the end of the production, half the audience stayed to chat with the actors and try to convince them to do all future productions by candle power only. (I have no idea whether Ashland fire laws allowed this.)

This unique night of theatre taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. When a seeming catastrophe happens (e.g. you arrive at a trade show and there is no software, or someone sent you the wrong computer), just “go with it.” Don’t cancel your performance. Give your customers and audience whatever you have to offer, even if you feel like you are performing “naked,” without your familiar props and support systems. Sometimes you actually build a stronger connection with your audience or customers because you have to “make up” your narrative as you go along and your familiar script is no longer available.

Not long after my theatrical inspiration,  I had 5 minutes notice to step in and deliver a substitute presentation to a major potential customer during flu season. My sick co-worker had the PowerPoint presentation at home with him! So, I had to engage my audience for 2 hours with nothing but a white board and 3 colors of dry/erase markers. I connected with the prospects as well as Madame deFarge had with her candles, and we actually closed the sale!

In the midst of a catastrophic economy, when you think you’ve lost the essential tools you need to “go on with the show,” don’t hide in the shadows. Take whatever “candles” you can get your hands on,  go out on stage and share whatever you’ve got.  When you have to perform “unplugged”, with no lights, no sound system, and none of the other tools you thought were essential, you are forced to fall back on just raw talent and work with what you have.

You might be surprised by the results, and your “audience” (or potential employers) may be pleasantly suprised also. During a recession, thunder and lightning can be terrifying, but they also make really great sound effects when you have nothing else to work with.


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