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The Artist’s Journey: John Ahlin - La Jolla Playhouse Blog

The Artist’s Journey: John Ahlin

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Each week, The Artist’s Journey will provide an insider look at the creation of a production, from first rehearsal to opening night, through the eyes of one of the show’s key players.

John Ahlin is playing “Angus MacLeod” in the world premiere-comedy A Dram of Drummhicit. Some of his credits include Waiting for Godot, Journey’s End (2007 Tony Award Best Revival), The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Voices in the Dark (directed by Christopher Ashley), One Mo’ Time, Whoopee! and Macbeth.

Part Five: Opening Night and the Run

A Dram of Drummhicit Director Christopher Ashley with cast members Kathryn Meisle and John Ahlin

Moss Hart, that great theatre blogger (from back when blogs appeared on printed pages edited and bound into hardcover formats), said there are only two enemies in theatre: time and exhaustion. The final push before the opening night of A Dram of Drummhicit is frenetic with rewrites, cuts and torrents of technical and organizational details. Preview audiences delightedly come to experience the still in-progress play as the artistic work continues apace. Designers rush to fashion the clash-of-cultures costumes, evoke the beauty of place, carve with light the illuminating shadows and create tempests in the sound plot. And much like a cavalryman saves the last bullet for himself, or a blocked writer on deadline saves the last five minutes to think up an excuse, an actor saves the last moments after ‘places’ is called before the opening night curtain, for a deep breath, for he then has to step forward as the representative of everyone who works for La Jolla Playhouse to say: “Here is what we wanted to show you … ”

Victor Hugo used to weep copiously after finishing his manuscripts, sad he could no longer spend time alone with his characters. Orson Welles’ tragic flaw was he couldn’t bear to turn his creations out into the world to be judged. Artists need deadlines or they’d work on their pieces forever. The moment of letting go is often a jumble of jitters, and on the opening night of a world premiere play we’re particularly vulnerable awaiting the true barometer: Audience Reaction. My first impression reading the play months ago was “I love this.” Every day since then many, many people have striven to make it everything it can be, but now it is no longer ours exclusively. A play works if it entertains…causes someone to laugh, wonder, feel or think, during the time allotted (and hopefully afterward). And that was our fervent hope as, on May 22, we stepped forth and proudly presented A Dram of Drummhicit: our work, our play, our passion. Now it belongs to the ages.
And in a word, the audience reaction was fantastic. It was one of those special nights, with laughter, tears and cheers. I’ve been careful in this blog not to give away any of the details so you can experience the play completely fresh, but to paraphrase a famous review of My Fair Lady, “Put this computer down and go buy tickets to A Dram of Drummhicit.”

The thing I’ve enjoyed most about the opportunity to blog for La Jolla Playhouse is the thinking … the trying to put into words the ideas and mechanics of acting. I think it helps, as an actor, to have a guiding set of principles. I’m not proselytizing (I think proselytize means “suggesting you follow my opinions” – either that or “I’m giving you a wooden leg”), but without a lodestar, you would simply adjust your goals to whatever point you get tired. Pragmatism teaches us to fill sandbags fast; philosophy teaches us not to build on the floodplain. It sure helps in acting, which is a mad dash from one unknown to another, to take a moment and think big about what you are doing.
We are now in the run of A Dram of Drummhicit. An actor must know that once the show opens work doesn’t stop, it actually starts. To perform the run a bunch of additional skills are needed, beyond just raw energy (I risk coming across like Jackie Gleason on caffeine when I try too hard). You must focus your determination.

One of my axioms of acting is “be alive on stage.” Repeating a show nightly is more than displaying preparation; you must live in it. The here and the now is all there is on stage. Simple skills will carry the day; look into each other’s eyes … really listen … perform as if for the first time … be lackluster intolerant. The big secret in theatre is that shows get better and better. A good cast will continue to discover and refine and perfect, and shows grow fitter, funnier and more entertaining with every performance. This is certainly happening with A Dram of Drummhicit and it’s a blast to perform every night. Devotion … caring about the thing itself … is my favorite tool as an actor.