Why We Make ‘Em Laugh

I watched Miracle on South Division Street six times last week. That’s every preview performance plus Saturday’s opening night. A lot of my colleagues were surprised to see me in the lobby after the show, night after night. The production had been in great shape even before the first performance – things were going so smoothly, in fact, that director Pamela Hunt canceled the Sunday night dress rehearsal because the cast didn’t seem to need it. By the time we got into previews, it was pretty clear we wouldn’t be making any significant changes. My job as a dramaturg was done. So what was I doing there?

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Laura Gragtmans and Toni DiBuono in Miracle on South Division Street (Photo by Ken Huth)

My excuse for watching the show over and over was that maybe I would notice something useful. An actor might need a little guidance on their Western NY accent, or maybe it would suddenly become obvious that a moment in the play was confusing the audience and I could help sort that out. But really, I wasn’t there for the good of the show. I was there for me. After weeks in a mostly empty rehearsal room, watching the show along with hundreds of other people and hearing their reactions was just so fun. And in the end, it taught me a lot about the play I’d been working with off and on for months – and it reminded me why I chose this crazy profession.

Rehearsing a comedy isn’t easy. In Miracle, a lot of the moments that are funny for the audience are upsetting for the characters living them – siblings pushing each other’s buttons, fully grown adults being scolded like little kids by their mother. The cast and director have to find the balance between performing these scenes in a natural way and keeping the comedic pace going. For example, there’s a point in the play where Jimmy Nowak (played by Colin Ryan) gets some bad news. His reaction is heartfelt, but it’s also a laugh line. For the humor to work, he has to process the bad news pretty quickly and then let the rest of the family keep talking. In rehearsal, the silence after the news was delivered made that feel unrealistic and even a little unfair. Why couldn’t poor Jimmy have some time to take in this announcement? Well, because it wouldn’t be funny any more. But in that almost empty room, it didn’t feel funny anyway, it felt sad and kind of mean. The cast and director had to trust that onstage, in front of an audience, the laughter would make it work – and it does.

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Toni DiBuono, Katharine McLeod and Colin Ryan in Miracle on South Division Street (Photo by Ken Huth)

The real danger isn’t that we might miss a laugh here or there, it’s that that kind of awkwardness in the rehearsal room can make us place less artistic value on comedy. Playing those difficult moments for laughs can feel shallow and seem less challenging than performing drama – when, in fact, it may be more challenging.

Of course in the end, the play came together, and we got to hear the laughs in all the right places. It was last Thursday night, during preview number 3, that I suddenly thought, “oh, this is why people write comedies!” Few things are as rewarding as sitting in the middle of hundreds of people laughing. Part of the reason that’s true is that when an audience is laughing, you know they’re also listening. You can hear how engaged they are in the story. And because they’re listening, they still hear the more serious things the play has to say – things about what it means to be part of a family, what it’s like to hang onto tradition in a world that seems to be moving on and how to remember who you are even if everything else is changing.

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