Gunshots. Strobe lights. Stagehands with tie line wrapped around their necks like nooses.
This is preview night for the Living Room's Master of the Universe, cast and crew's last chance to run through the theater company's world-premiere adaptation of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck before it officially opens. Last and only: Until tonight, they've never made it all the way through without stopping. Two hours before curtain, the production team is still working on tech elements and adding new blocking.
"That's just how world premieres go," says Living Room co-founder Rusty Sneary. "Traditionally, you open a show, and hands come off the reins. The stage manager takes over. We don't ever really operate that way."
The mood onstage is more excitement than anxiety. Actors swap jokes and take last-minute notes with good humor, vibrating with the caffeinated anticipation of the soon-to-arrive audience. There are goose bumps, some of them literal; the Living Room's industrial-grade air conditioner is too loud to run during the show, so the thermostat has been turned down to a Hoth-like setting in preparation. The noisy blower mingles with the mechanical crunch of a cordless drill stripping out screwheads.
Kyle Hatley, Master's writer and director, bounces between doling out notes to the actors and rearranging light and sound cues. He's a one-man catalog of nervous tics, twiddling his pen rapidly between his fingers, hugging his arms to his chest and rocking back and forth while he listens to a scene, absorbing the rhythm of his own lines.
An hour before the house opens, he shouts up to the booth, asking to jump ahead to the sequence he has been dreading: a lengthy audio recording designed to mask a series of tricky maneuvers as actors shift set pieces and move in the dark. "Let's just do it," he calls. "Let's just train-wreck it."
"Hoookay," chirps stage manager Mackenzie Goodwin over the God mic. The lights snuff out. Cue sound: an ominous knocking, loud enough to beat against your skull; a woman hushing her son, voice electric with fear.
Hatley clicks his pen a few times. He turns to sound designer Joe Concha. "It's interesting that we have a radio play here," he says, as if offering a dramaturgical consultation for someone else's script. "It's interesting. There's something dangerous about that design."
Concha glances over, then turns back to his laptop.
The recording's canned sobs give way to the smooth voice of performer Linnaia McKenzie crooning a few bars of a Nina Simone song. It's a haunting effect, Hatley at his directorial best.
Then the lights come up, and Rusty Sneary moves to sit on a chair that isn't there.
Everyone laughs, Sneary loudest. Someone forgot to put the chair where it goes.
Hold, please. Rewind. Run it again.
This is what a career in the theater gets you: chaos. Chaos of a kind that, for some, breeds confidence. Also: pressure. Pressure of a kind that, for some theater companies, yields to collaborative effort.
But collaborating under pressure doesn't work everywhere as well as it does at the Living Room. It helps that Sneary and his co-founder, Shawnna Journagan, have worked with Hatley each season since their first, in 2010. They know what they're getting into now.
They didn't back then. The pair's original artistic vision was smaller, more intimate theater, meant to draw a younger crowd — "More indie film, less jazz hands," Journagan jokes.
"We have ended up doing musicals — Hatley!" she shakes a fist in mock outrage. "But those were our rules, originally: no Shakespeare, no musicals, no casts larger than four. And then, right away, he brings us Carousel."