It was a production of Jean Genet's Deathwatch. In some views, Genet is considered, along with Brecht, to be one of the great revolutionary influences in 20th Century drama. He was a brilliantly theatrical playwright.
Deathwatch takes place at that horror of horror-prisons, the French "Devil's Island". In this dark, hopeless world, three inmates engage in a macabre dance of mind-bending, emotion-twisting relationships. It is a difficult play to perform and an equally difficult but moving experience for most audiences.
The three actors prepared their performances in an unusual way. They immediately learned their lines and got "off book". They spent the next four weeks of rehearsal giving breath to their characters, allowing them to come to life. As the days went by, they began to spend more and more time in the theatre, on the set, outside of rehearsal. During the last week, they seldom left the building. It was as if they became habitues of the world they were creating. Through the entire rehearsal period, they were unable to deliver a complete run-through. Some times they began in the middle and went to the end. Other times they began at the beginning and went to the middle. And in some rehearsals, they delivered pieces of the play, often out of sequence. It wasn't until opening night that they gave a beginning-to-end, complete run-through performance as Genet had intended. It was nearly perfect and a successful opening.
Another unusual aspect of this production was... music. A young pianist/composer was commissioned to write a piece to accompany the performance, a touchy confrontation with Genet and his intent. The play was staged in three-quarter round with a raised platform in the center. The director placed the pianist (who played live for each performance) at an upstage corner of the blind-side of the thrust. He placed him behind a full baby grand piano in stark contrast to the somber, grey, dilapidated look of the set. It was a risky, unnerving, rather Brechtian touch, and it worked!
The first week of performances, with full houses, went smoothly as this small ensemble continued to dig out, blend, and display nuances from Genet's acting challenges. Then, at the first performance of the second week, an astonishing event occurred. The plot called for one character to murder another near the end of the play. A third of the way into the performance, the actor playing the designated victim, "Maurice", dropped a page of dialogue. After the briefest of pauses, the other two actors adjusted, attempting to reclaim the lost dialogue. But when the cueing rotated, Maurice nightmarishly dropped another page and then another.
It was disastrous because the entire exposition of one character, the designated "murderer" was lost... the underlay from which much of his motivation sprang. Remarkably, instead of attempting to repair, to return and recapture, the actors began to re-form the play. They exchanged lines and pieces of business, they realigned dialogue, altered the flow. And without any changes in the remaining dialogue, the play turned into a new and unpredictable direction... Maurice became the murderer and the "murderer" became the victim. It was not what Genet had intended, but somehow it captured his meaning and impact. The audience approved and gave them a rousing ovation without knowing what had transpired. A French theatre scholar , an admirer of Genet, thought it was a marvelous interpretation. A director who was there that night praised the vision and courage of the changes. The three actors in the cast could not explain what had happened. The next day, in a notes session, they couldn't remember what was taking place at the time the shifts occurred. Some weeks later, in studio, they tried to repeat the occurrence and couldn't do it. It never happened again during the run of the production.
At the end of this strangely wonderful performance, the actors simply walked off stage, unable to take a curtain call. Maurice ended up in a corner of the dressing room sobbing. The actor who played "Greeneyes" found it difficult to speak to anyone and wandered off. The "murderer-victim" sat in a warm shower. They had encountered a unique performing experience and had learned to believe an indelible fact.
It was this – there are no mistakes on stage – none! There are failed intentions, but no mistakes. What happens in a performance "is" the performance, which is the power and the beauty of the "live" in live theatre.
I know they came to believe this... because I was there. I was one of the three actors in that small ensemble. I played the murderer, Le Franc, who became the victim.