Well, hello there! My name is Louis Butelli, and I play Roderigo in Folger Theatre’s production of Othello, running now until December 4. Won’t you come and see us?

Tonight, we are going to undertake performance #40 of our show. To commemorate this event, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about what it’s like to do the same show many, many (did I say many?) times. If you’ve seen Harold Ramis’ 1993 film Groundhog Day, then we’re already sort of on the same page.

It is certainly true that “passions and lies run rampant in this tragedy of love and life destroyed by deceit and jealousy.” It is also true that “Shakespeare’s drama reveals the power of manipulation as Iago undermines Othello in a deadly game of betrayal.” However, for the actors and crew, it is also a job, and we go to work playing that deadly game of betrayal eight times in six days every week.

Reporting to the theater every day is not at all like reporting to a cubicle—the dressing rooms off the hallway down in the Folger basement actually have the feel of going to work on a submarine which, admittedly, I have never done. Regardless, as with any repetitive task, one must find a way of keeping the whole thing feeling fresh, both for one’s own sanity, and for you, the audience, who have never seen the show before.

Much like a pretty snowflake, every actor is different and has different ways of working through their week. When I’m working on a show, where ever it is, “Ritual” is pretty much standard operating procedure. I use the word “Ritual” here because it has connotations of “the ancient,” “the magical,” and “the artsy.” I could also have used the word “routine,” or the words “obsessive compulsive disorder,” but I think I’ll stick with “Ritual.”

More specifically, when I say “Ritual,” what I mean is, all of the elements of the evening, from arrival at the theater, to getting dressed, to movements throughout both on-stage and off-, are done, by me, in the same exact way every single night. There is a kind of superstition in it, I suppose. In the same way that I wouldn’t dream of saying the word “Macbeth” or, worse, quoting any lines from that play in the theater, I wouldn’t dream of going for a cigarette at any time other than the 15 minute call, putting on my cape and gloves at any time other than the 5 minute call, or not touching that one part of the banister every time I pass it. Too risky.

For me, the seeds of the nightly ritual are planted during tech week, the time when we spend many hours in the theater adding in all of the technical elements (click here to read prior post on Tech). It is during this time that the Ritualistic actor starts to learn the rhythms of the evening—where to stand, where not to stand, how much down time there is, who else is around and what they’re doing, when you meet up with other actors or crew, if there are costume changes and how quickly do they need to happen, etcetera. By the time previews are over, my Rituals are pretty much set, and they remain the same until closing.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago and Louis Butelli as Roderigo. Photo ©2011 Carol Pratt.

It might seem ironic that fixating on sameness is, in some way, a coping mechanism for the repetitiveness of the long run. For me, I suppose, the sameness is a sort of antidote for the fact that, in performance, there is no safety net, and every audience is different. What may have been a big laugh the night before can very easily be a cavernous silence tonight. Likewise, what one believes to be a moment of great earnestness and sincerity can elicit an unexpected laugh from a giddy audience. I guess what I’m suggesting is that the off-stage Ritual serves, for me, as an anchor to the unpredictability of what can happen on stage.

Still, even though every audience is different, the words and actions themselves live in a spectrum of similarity from night to night. It is entirely possible, if you don’t have your wits about you, or are having an off night—these are most common when one gets to shows #7 and 8 for the week—that one can drift into “auto pilot” mode. This is when things get interesting.

I was once in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, which ran Off-Broadway for six months. Six months is a very long time to do the same play. There was one night, very late in the run, where one of the actors was deep in “auto pilot.” It was towards the end of the play, and his character, after remaining silent for most of the scene, had to forcefully interject with a loud “NO!” and then lay out the plan for the remainder of the plot, thus allowing us to finish the play. The scene was rolling along, and the actor sort of spaced out, then realized where he was, then panicked, then shouted the word “NO!” – about a page and a half too soon.

Now, all of the actors were tired, and all of us wanted to finish the play, but suddenly there is this impediment. Do we ignore this illogical outburst? Do we pretend his character has Tourette’s Syndrome? Do we disagree and shout, “YES?” Moreover, thinking ahead, what happens when we get to the moment when he’s actually supposed to interject? Does he do it again?

In actual fact, what happens is this: actors’ shoulders start shaking, actors begin covering their mouths with their hands and turning upstage, and the poor actors with the lines fight to say those lines through laughter, and without the help of their fellow actors.

One gets through such things—we did make it through to the end of the play, and he did interject a second time—but that is one of the dangers of the long run. And frankly, that one mishap brought a life and verve to that scene that lasted for the rest of the run.

Of course, over at Othello, we are highly disciplined and professional. Nothing like that ever happens at the Folger. Ever.

Right, Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago)?