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They’d been rehearsing for weeks. They’d brought people in to see the play, top to bottom. But Friday, pressure mounted for the team involved in creating “How I Got That Story” at Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. It was time to swing open the doors to the 10th Avenue Theatre and subject their hard work to the scrutiny of theater critics and a sold-out Opening Night audience.

Director Seema Sueko waded through nausea all day after not sleeping well. Actor Brian Bielawski pampered himself, trying to inhabit a clear “headspace” as he prepared for the show. Actor Greg Watanabe tried not to obsess over mistakes he’d made in preview performances.

We’ve been following the company as the play comes together, and so I was curious to learn how such a high-stakes day feels for the actors and director.

Sueko sent us a nail-biter of a play-by-play. I’ve included it here just as she wrote it to me in an email, because I think it conveys how frenzied her day was. “This is what my opening day was like,” Sueko wrote.

3/2/12

5:30 AM – can’t sleep. we had adjusted sound levels the night before but didn’t run through all the sound cues. Feeling paranoid and neurotic…. and nauseous most of the day.

7:30 AM Emailed George Ye about my paranoia, we schedule a meeting at 4 PM in the theater to go through sound cues.

8:30 AM Go to theater to iron costumes

9:30 – 2:35 PM Spent the day in the classrooms at San Diego High School and San Diego Early/Middle College High School running pre-show workshops with the students to prepare them for the matinee of HOW I GOT THAT STORY which they’ll be attending next week. Wrote opening night congratulatory cards in between workshops.

3:30 PM Catch up on emails

still feeling nauseous

4:00 PM Sound cue run-through … all the levels are perfect. nothing to worry about.

still feeling nauseous

4:30 PM Write and send E-Newsletter

still feeling nauseous

5:30 PM Change into opening night outfit, try to fix hair

6:00 PM Help set up front of house

6:05 PM Learn from stage manager that we have a lamp that’s out. She has called the Assistant Lighting Designer to come to the theater (from La Jolla) to change out the lamp

Tired. High strung. Just raised my voice at ushers who were standing around…need to go to office.

secluded in office, deep breaths

6:30 PM Doors to the building open, patrons start arriving… still awaiting arrival of assistant lighting designer to fix lamp.

6:45 PM Greet audiences in lobby.

Assistant Lighting Designer arrives!

6:50 PM Learn that it’s more complicated than changing out the lamp.

Smile in lobby, run to electrics room for periodic updates.

7:02 PM lamp fixed! Kristin Hayes is our hero.

7:05 PM Open doors to the theater, help VIPS find their seats; pre-show video of vets’ stories running in theater

7:36 PM everyone seated, say a little prayer

7:37 PM Show starts

..all is going well… people are laughing… nausea disappears… actors are doing a great job! All tech cues are running perfectly!

8:15 PMish notice that Greg’s pants have a tear in them at the knee

8:31 PM intermission

Run backstage to stitch Greg’s pants; done with one minute to spare in intermission

8:46 PM Act II starts

…continues to go well…audience seems engaged with the show.

9:29 PM end of show!

9:30 PM Post-show party

the rest is a blur.

On Friday afternoon, six hours before the play began, actor Watanabe, who’s responsible for 20 personalities, was feeling the pressure, too.

I’m nervous and excited; perhaps more so than usual (if there is a “usual”). I feel particularly challenged by this show, especially the first act, because of the energy, tempo and number of quick changes required. I can’t seem to make it through a show without a handful of mistakes. And while a few mistakes may not seem so bad, a line flub, jumped cue or quick-change mishap can wreck the timing of a joke, a whole sequence of comic bits dependent on timing or change the emotional tenor of a scene requiring more gravity.

In this early stage of the run, each night is a challenge to be as precise as possible but this opening night is especially nerve wracking because it’s also press opening.

That being said, my goal is to get as loose and relaxed as possible so I can play every moment with abandon, without regard for the next moment, and just trust that the next moment will be there. Brian is a great scene partner; he’s almost never makes errors, listens really well and stays in the moment even if something goes amiss.

I look forward to tonight, come what may.

Actor Brian Bielawski added some details about his opening day routine:

For me, there are always two opening nights: first preview and then official opening. The nerve sets are very different for me. On first preview — our first audience, I just want to get through without messing up — without being thrown off by the addition of the audience. I’m nervous about how they will receive it. And, I’m afraid they’ll see through the parts of the play that I don’t feel I have a complete grasp on yet.

At the same time, I’m super excited to start getting feedback on the work we’ve done.

On official opening, I definitely feel the pressure of the press being there looking at the play and me with a critical eye. So, I spend the day completely pampering myself (hence the birthday comment) to put myself in the best headspace possible so I can just forget about the press and do the best job I’m capable of. I make sure that everything I do on opening night — even everything I eat — is stuff that will make me happy so I sail into press opening on top of the world.

As I arrive at the theatre on press opening, I think, “Alright: here we go. Game on.”

For both opening nights, I try to stay centered in this thought: “It’s not about me. It’s about them. We’re doing this for them. So, give, give, GIVE!”

So what about those critics? A couple have weighed in already on Friday’s performance. Writing for the U-T San Diego, theater critic Jim Hebert praised Bielawski’s and Watanabe’s performances. The play’s speed and number and variety of characters somewhat compromises the chance for depth, Hebert said, but added the play becomes “an exhilarating showcase of performance versatility,” he said. The play is “great at deploying a dark sense of farce to convey the fog of war; somewhat less so at getting an audience invested in what happens to its characters,” he added.

Writing for the San Diego Reader, theater critic Jeff Smith said the production misses the “nightmare” part of the way the play is often described: as a “nightmare comedy.” The “staging prefers the cute to the dramatic (even when a monk immolates himself),” Smith wrote. “As a result, scenes remain unconnected comedy sketches.”

Both Hebert and Smith gave kudos to sound designer George Ye’s layering of Watanabe’s sound effects and Steven Terry’s lighting.

What about you? Did you see the play this weekend or in its preview performances? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts.

Theatergoer Susan Baer wrote me with her take this morning. She saw the play Friday night, too and was “very impressed.”

Brian Bielawski does an excellent job playing the reporter. Greg Watanabe is masterful as “The Historical Event” in which he deftly plays at least twenty characters the reporter meets during his journey. Seema Sueko superbly directs the production. I highly recommend it!

We’ve taken a front-row seat as the actors, director and crew develop this play; you can follow our discovery through our Arts: Embedded series.

How I Got That Story” opened Friday night and runs through March 18..

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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