Sunday, February 15, 2009

Theater is a Virus from Outer Space

The theater is back in my blood. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not, but it feels about right.

I spent an awful lot of time backstage when I was younger, starting in 9th grade when my buddy Art, realizing that our days on the track team were perhaps numbered, convinced me to try it. It turned out to be one of the best moves I ever made. My track days were indeed numbered, and the coach cut about a third of an already understrength team not long after that in what we all assumed was a fit of pique. Most of my friends in high school were people I knew backstage. And there is nothing like the theater to provide endless stories.

I ended up leading the ground crew for our production of Oklahoma my junior year, for example, and at one point in the show we had to get Laurie's house (complete with front porch) onstage. There was a scene going on in front of one of the traveling curtains ("I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No" I believe, though it seemed to me she was saying it an awful lot in that song), and we had to get the house set up behind it. Once we were done, the actors would file into place for the next scene, the traveler would open, the lights would come up, and the show would, as they say, go on.

There was a small problem, though. We had never actually practiced this maneuver under field conditions, and doing so for the first time with a live audience is always interesting, in the liberal arts sense of that term, sort of the way three-headed frogs are interesting. You never know what unforeseen issues you might discover, such as the fact that once we had wheeled Laurie's house into place - and it was a behemoth, roughly fourteen feet long, six feet wide and ten feet high, though thankfully on wheels - the porch would not go into place without sticking out in front of the traveler about two feet. We didn't think the singers would appreciate us doing that. That singing girl could probably think of any number of things to say should that happen.

There were four of us holding that porch - a fourteen-foot-long wooden platform - and I was downstage center, in charge and trying to figure out a plan before the singing stopped. The solution was immediately clear - we wait for the singing to stop and the traveler to open, we put the porch into place and let the actors get into position, then bring up the lights and move on with the show. It was perfect!

Well, it would have been perfect if we had told the lighting guy.

So the singing stops, the traveler opens, and - right on cue, it must be admitted - the lights come up. And there we are, me, Larry, Steve and Daryush, holding the porch and surrounded by a conspicuous lack of actors. "What do we do?" Larry asked. "Put it down!" I said.

So we put the porch into place. I then called my three partners over to join me at center stage, and we bowed as one. The audience applauded cheerfully, which let the actors get into position behind us. The show went on. And the four of us, with no cue upcoming for about twenty minutes, went outside and laughed until our sides hurt.

That's theater.

One of my many part time jobs these days involves the performing arts series at the campus where Kim and I teach, and Friday was the first show to take place since I was hired. And it was typical of the theatrical experience.

The performers had forgotten to send us any information about the show, such as a script, technical cues or requirements, that sort of thing. So when they showed up at around 10am Friday morning - no, 11am - no, make that around noon - that's when we found all that stuff out. And there I was, half the afternoon, climbing around the catwalk, hanging lighting instruments. At 6pm, when I came back for call, the star handed me the script and we went through the cues she wanted. And at 7:30, we opened.

It went well.

She was a very understanding performer, who was happy to work with what we could provide on the notice we got. She also put on one amazing show. Kim and the girls sat in the front row, and loved it. After the show the piano player took the time to talk to Lauren about playing piano - in particular, how to play in the dark, which had just fascinated Lauren during the show - and to sign Tabitha's program. Actually Tabitha got her program signed by the star as well, and the drummer. She wanted the sax player too but he had already left, so the piano player signed it for him too.

It was a good night.

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