With two previews and five performances of Billy and Me under our belts, everyone at Palm Beach Dramaworks is finally starting to unwind. The previews and opening-night performance all went smoothly and securely, and the audience response was wholly gratifying. I sit in the middle of a lot of audiences, and I know what it feels and sounds like to be surrounded by people who are paying the closest possible attention to a show. That’s the way it’s been with Billy and Me: everybody in the theater watches the play in silent stillness, and the explosion of applause at the end of each act is immediate and genuine.
As for me, I responded to the opening-night performance in much the same way that I did to my very first opening night eight crowded years ago, when the Santa Fe Opera premiered The Letter:
I watched it like a hawk. I was holding my wife’s hand from beginning to end, but she told me later that I never took my eyes off the stage. “It felt like you weren’t there at all,” she said. My ears registered the sound of laughter in unexpected and gratifying places, a sure sign that the audience was on top of the plot. Yet I couldn’t spare a glance for anyone around me, not even Hilary. All I wanted to see was the performance itself. I didn’t feel nervous–it was as though I were watching a show that someone else had written. Once or twice Paul reached back from the aisle seat in front of me and tapped me on the leg as if to say It works! Otherwise I was completely caught up in the action on stage.
To cast a cold eye on your own handiwork—to turn loose the controls of the ship and be a mere passenger—is a strange sensation, one that I suspect will always be disorienting to me, though it’s also gratifying. For the first time since I arrived to West Palm Beach five weeks ago, I was able to relax and enjoy myself and do nothing but pay attention. I know I’m far too close to the play itself to judge its merits, but I also know that the first production was and is as good as it could possibly be. Nick Richberg, Tom Wahl, and Cliff Gordon are giving electrifying performances, Bill Hayes’ staging is richly detailed, and the design of the show is exemplary in every way. I might add that we’re definitely hearing “the sound of laughter in unexpected and gratifying places,” and I treasure every chortle.
Needless to say, no credit is due to me for any of these things, least of all the laughs, very few of which were premeditated by the playwright. Every theatrical production is a collaboration, and I have no doubt whatsoever that my collaborators on Billy and Me are getting the most out of what I put on the page—and then some.
And what next? Well, we close on December 31, and the calendar is blank thereafter. To be sure, several companies have already asked to read the script, and a number of artistic directors are coming down to see for themselves how it plays on stage. Still, there’s no possible way for any of us to know what, if anything, will come of that attention, and it doesn’t matter in the least: for the cast and crew of Billy and Me, there is only now.
I have a week’s worth of publicity appearances to do before I return to Connecticut, cold weather, and Mrs. T, but I’m already shifting mental and emotional gears as I prepare to put the premiere of my second play behind me and get on with my everyday life and its onrushing complications. The theater teaches many hard but priceless lessons, the most important of which is to live for the work alone and take no thought for the morrow. I wrote Billy and Me to be performed by Palm Beach Dramaworks, and if no one else should take it up—as has been the case to date with The Letter—then I will still have the blissful, ineffaceable memory of the work itself, and the wonderful new friends that I made in the course of doing it.
Rightly or wrongly, though, I can’t help but let myself hope that the story of Billy and Me, as proved to be the case with Satchmo at the Waldorf, has only just begun.
UPDATE: The Palm Beach Daily News ran a front-page feature story about Mrs. T and me:
New medications have extended her life, but now she needs a double lung transplant and heart surgery.
Her condition worsened just as Teachout was preparing to go to West Palm Beach to rehearse Billy and Me. Usually, she accompanies him, but she’s too sick now to travel.
She insisted he go because he and William Hayes, Dramaworks’ producing artistic director, who’s directing the show, have been working on the play for nearly two years.
Plus “I wanted him to have time away from me and not think about me 24-7,” she said from their home in Connecticut….
Read the whole thing here.