The week or so before opening night is always full of stress and pressure, as the set comes together, last-minute wardrobe malfunctions are dealt with, and the cast deals with not only being off-book, but not being able to call for lines during rehearsals. We’re all used to this, but what happens in the week preceding opening night for Blithe Spirit—scheduled for Nov. 16—is unprecedented.
We arrive at the HUB for a rehearsal on the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 10 to find that the set is going up in the gym. Things aren’t going as smoothly as set designer Jim Duncan had hoped—getting the lighting in place is taking longer than expected, and until it’s up, work on the set can’t start—but a crew of workers are bustling about, and by the end of the afternoon the bones of the set are in place; too late for us to rehearse on it, but the cast will be able to start getting to know it during the rehearsal scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 11.
The rehearsal on the 10th goes ahead without Skylar Dubois, who’s playing the part of Edith, the maid. Sky had been at the rehearsal on Nov. 9 but wasn’t there on the 10th, and we learned they were ill. However, later that evening Sky sends me a text and says that they weren’t just experiencing a 24-hour bug. They’re in hospital in Kamloops, and it’s uncertain when they’ll be able to come back; indeed, Sky says they might not even be able to be in the play at all.
We’ve never had the luxury of understudies in any of our Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society productions; we just cross our fingers and hope no one gets seriously ill. However, there is a solution. Edith has the fewest lines of anyone in the cast, and I know them all, as well as the blocking for the character. Sky and I had joked, earlier in the production, about the shoes they were wearing as part of their costume: a pair of size 10 shoes from the WRAPS costume room that I’ve worn in three previous productions. Sky suggests a Plan B: I go on as Edith, if need be. “At least we know the shoes will fit,” they text.
I run this past co-director Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan and stage manager Jessica Clement. We all agree: I’ll stand in as Edith for as long as is needed.
On the morning of Nov. 11, I receive a text from another cast member: Jim Mertel, who plays Charles, the main character. Jim has already had to miss several rehearsals, as his partner Mark has had to undergo emergency eye surgery during the run-up to the play. Now there are complications, and Jim’s text says that Mark has to go to Vancouver on Nov. 13 for a consultation about what to do next, and possibly more surgery. The long and the short of it is that until Nov. 13, Jim doesn’t know what his situation is, and doesn’t even know if he’ll be able to remain in the play.
I contact Mavourneen and Jessica to apprise them of what’s happening, and at 4 p.m. arrive at the HUB. I walk in to see the set, where Jim Duncan is busy with a million different things. I let him know the situation, and he looks at me steadily. “Should I start taking apart the set?” he asks, and I say “No.” Whatever happens, we’re doing this.
The cast members arrive, and Mavourneen and Jessica and I let them know what’s going on with Skylar and Jim. As the realization sinks in that the show might be cancelled altogether, there is an understandable feeling of depression and anger. Collectively, cast and crew have put in well over 1,000 hours of volunteer time over three months on the production, and no one wants to see all that lost. There is much sympathy for Jim, but everyone is united: the show must go on.
When Jim Mertel walks in, he looks at us all and says “This is the hardest entrance I’ve ever made.” We all talk, and listen. Jim makes it plain that he is devastated by this turn of events, and the crushing disappointment, and we all understand that Mark comes first. On the other hand, we’re determined that we’re going to go ahead somehow. Perhaps someone could read the part of Charles during performances, script in hand? Not ideal, but better than nothing.
Jan Schmitz, the only other male member of the cast, gamely volunteers to spend five days learning Charles’s lines, meaning we would have to find someone for the smaller part of Dr. Bradman; possibly do-able. We finally decide to wait until Nov. 13 and see what Mark’s prognosis is. Jim says that if it’s good, he’ll be back for the final dress rehearsal on Nov. 15 and carry on as Charles.
The rehearsal for Nov. 11 is cancelled. On Nov. 12 we hold a tech rehearsal, with me playing Edith and Jessica playing Charles. On Nov. 13 I get a message from Jim: the prognosis is good, and Jim will be there for the final dress rehearsal on Nov. 15, and will carry on. There’s also good news from Sky, who texts me to say they’ll be home in time for the Nov. 14 rehearsal and can carry on. Thank goodness: I can turn the size 10 shoes back to them.
What’s supposed to be the final dress rehearsal on Nov. 15 is—not good. The rest of the cast have had time to get used to the finished set, but Jim hasn’t, and the events of the last three weeks means he’s missed several rehearsals and is shaky on his lines (close to 600 of them, for those keeping score). We’re not ready to open on Nov. 16, and decide to turn that performance into another dress rehearsal. We contact as many people as possible who have bought tickets and explain that they can either get tickets for another performance or get a refund. If they still want to be there on the 16th because they can’t make any other show, they’re welcome to attend.
Finishing touches are made to the set on Friday, and the result is spectacular; Mavourneen comments that she’d like to move into it. Thirteen people are there on Friday night, and while the actors give it their all, it’s still rough. After the stress of the last few weeks, Jim is still having difficulty with his lines, and other actors are having to jump in to help out. However, the audience is appreciative, and their laughter helps remind us what a sparkling comedy Blithe Spirit is.
More than 80 people are there on Saturday for opening night, and the performance goes better. Jim is still somewhat shaken, however, and at one point during a costume change looks despondent. “Everyone is laughing and clapping and having a good night out,” I reassure him. “We’re all doing our best, and we do this because it’s fun and people enjoy it. So let’s enjoy it.”
Sunday’s matinee is even better: the audience is clearly having a great time, and there are spontaneous rounds of applause in the middle of scenes. The mood in the green room is much more positive than it was only three days earlier, and afterwards there are appreciative comments and compliments on social media from people who were at the show.
Four days off now (although a rehearsal has been scheduled for Nov. 22) before the last three performances. We all take a deep breath. It’s been a rockier ride than usual, but we’ve come together as a team and done what we wanted to: put on another great show, have fun while doing it, and bring live theatre to our community. Mission accomplished.
Blithe Spirit is at the Ashcroft HUB for three more performances: Nov. 23 and 24 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 25 at 1 p.m. Tickets are $15 each and are available at the HUB office or online at www.eventbrite.ca.