I am a fan of The National Theater in London. Laurence Olivier was the first artistic director and its main stage is named in his honor. Productions at The National are unrivaled for classic, modern, and avant garde theater. In the summer of 1989 I was watching a production of The Misanthrope by Moliere, a particularly astounding performance. The air-conditioning unit rattled mid-performance, and the actors pressed on, improvising new verses, such as an ode to the air conditioner, so as not to break the reality of the play, but rather to incorporate the distraction. The result was that the play extended out beyond the confines of the stage. I was impressed with one of the actor’s ability to keep the audience focused, even as he struggled to maintain his own.
When the curtain came down, the audience began to applaud. The actor held up his hand to halt it. He said, “We have just learned that Sir Laurence Olivier has died. Please join us in a minute of silence.” We all sat there in the place Olivier had created, appreciating the magic of these actors. It was only later that we discovered they had learned Olivier had died during the intermission. They had to focus and perform, all the while knowing that the person who had made this production, and perhaps even their life paths possible, had just died.
We need to focus as actors as if performing our material is a matter of life or death. I marvel that these artists could do that whether it was in fact a matter of life or death or just a rattling air-conditioner.