Do I get bored watching Harry Potter night after night? Far from it

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Do I get bored watching Harry Potter night after night? Far from it

By Allee Richards

Mounted on the foyer walls of Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre are 14 paintings of the Shoalhaven River. Arthur Boyd painted the same view from his property at varying times. In one painting the sky is a dusky violet with one large white cloud prominent. Another is almost entirely pink, but for an orb of yellow melting into the landscape. A black cockatoo appears twice, flying in opposite directions. The trees on the riverbank are seen in various stages of seasonal undress. Boyd’s paintings are said to reflect that while something might be repeated, it is never exactly the same.

One of the shows I work on as a lighting technician is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, now in its third year of production. Commonly when I mention this job people ask if I get bored working on the same show all the time. In response, I sometimes tell them about a game I play with colleagues. In one scene a book is thrown off a desk onto the stage floor. At the beginning of the scene we place bets on how it will land – face down, on its spine, on its head. We like to reminisce about the time it bounced off the floor and into the shelves of the bookcase positioned upstage. That was an exciting shift.

Allee Richards at the Princess Theatre, where she never tires of watching <i>Harry Potter and the Cursed Child</i>.

Allee Richards at the Princess Theatre, where she never tires of watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.Credit:Joe Armao

Truthfully, though, there’s a lot of different experiences that can be had when you are alert to the nuances of a performance.

I know all the lines, so I will listen to their particular inflection. I try to attune myself to the audience responses: when are they laughing, was it the same time as yesterday? If an understudy is cast, I try to spot the difference on the whole. It’s a common misconception that to see a show with an understudy is to see a second-best performance. Once a show has been running for some time, I would argue that it is a treat to see an understudy. They’re repositioned from their auto-pilot in the chorus, which usually means a reshuffle of other company members. Everyone on stage is responding to something different. With a new energy pinging around, something old feels new.

In the theatre this state of consciousness might be called “being in the moment”. Some people now call it mindfulness. I refer to it as simply being awake.

And, of course, it’s not always easy. Just as it usually takes illness or a near-death experience to appreciate the wonder of my body breathing and pumping blood every moment, sometimes it takes a lighting cue not to happen, or an actor not to arrive on stage when or where they’re meant to, for all of us – cast, crew and audience – to wake up.

Significant life experiences – such as living through a pandemic – have changed how the themes of our story resonate.

In my six years working in theatres I have experienced only one show-stop – where the curtain had to come in for a technical error. From my operating position in the dome room, behind the furthest row of seats in the balcony, I saw the audience turn to one another in excitement when the house-lights came up. A fervent whisper reverberated around the theatre. People love to see mistakes. Possibly it’s partly the thrill of being reminded that what we’re working on is an active and unique thing.

The book game is only one of a few self-scripted moments in our show. There are scheduled waves to cast in moments when we spot one another between our operating positions and the wings; fist-pumps with dementors; and a dance where we touch our knees every time the word “niece” is said in a scene. I don’t see these rituals as a distraction from monotony – they are enacted as often as the lines and cues, after all – but as check-ins with one another. A reminder to stay present. What is a wave, after all, but an acknowledgment between two people that they’re both alive?

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And it is because we are all awake, responding to the world and others around us, that a show is never exactly the same. An actor’s performance can differ depending on their mood that day or that of the audience. In a show as long-running as this one, significant life experiences – such as living through a pandemic – have changed how the themes of our story resonate.

During one of our first post-lockdown rehearsals, when the actor playing Scorpius delivered their line – “I mean, normally, being in lockdown, being in constant detention, it’d break me, but now – what’s the worse they can do? Bring back Moldy Voldy and have him torture me?” – there was a collective cringe. Elsewhere, in scenes that ruminate on loneliness and isolation, there was a slower, sadder delivery of lines. And, of course, the experience of gathering in crowds will never be the same. It’s likely that all audience members now arrive at the theatre with some anxiety.

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I spent most of the months out of work in 2020 working on edits of my debut novel, Small Joys of Real Life. While I was missing my workplace, I drew on my skills of rewatching in order to see my words afresh with every reading. If a character is inserted or taken out of a scene, how does that effect the rest of the work? What happens if you switch around a sentence? I applied the same close reading to a stack of novels I reread – works by Sigrid Nunez, Sally Rooney, Elena Ferrante and Peggy Frew – novels I remembered reading in large gulps, almost without looking up. Already knowing their endings, I wasn’t wondering what would happen, but trying to figure out how. Mostly, I tried to replicate the experience of seeing a show. Remove any distractions and pay attention. What’s happening and how does it make me feel today?

Much like seeing the same show on repeat, lockdown forced this narrowing of focus on all aspects of my life. Without weddings, concerts or holidays to look forward to, I had to learn to appreciate the joy of the changing colours of foliage in my neighbours’ yards, my local restaurant’s weekend dinner special, the sponginess of a fresh loaf of sourdough.

Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to do the final read-through of my manuscript before it went to print. “You must be getting bored of it,” he remarked. All around me, people do not value reabsorbing. A friend tells me he listens to podcasts at 1.5 speed, in order to cram in more content on his commute. I hear a rumour that a prominent literary influencer did a speed-reading course, which is how he manages to plough through more than 100 books a year. So many people tell me they could never reread a book because there are just too many more they’ve got to read.

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When I was little my siblings and I reread the same books and rewatched the same films all the time. Maybe this is simply a reflection on life without access to streaming services, where we were forced to cycle through our limited taped-from-TV VHS collection. Or it might be a reflection on children finding comfort in familiarity.

I know at that time I had never felt the dopamine hit of the cultural capital that comes with being “well read”, which in common parlance means having read a lot, not necessarily closely. A close reading isn’t needed if all you want to do is get to the end, to be able to say at the next book launch or opening night that you have clocked the thing.

Within this perspective artworks aren’t experiences, they are to-do lists in need of conquering. It suggests that there isn’t another meaning you could take from a work the second time you experience it, that there is nothing deeper, more specific to observe, and that Arthur Boyd might have walked outside each day and thought only, there’s the river – now to me that sounds boring.

Small Joys of Real Life is published by Hachette Australia on July 28, $32.99.

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