Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Break in the Action

I need a break.

For the last week I have obsessed over Governor Teabagger’s War On American Values and it is bringing me down. Surfing the net is getting worrisome. I’m getting snappish at my children. I commented on a friend’s blog and managed to convey precisely the opposite of what I meant to convey. The book I was reading for relaxation made me stressed and there is no quiz at the end of it. Even my chai spice tea tastes bad.

It’s a good thing I’m not grading papers, is all I’m saying.


It is time for a story, one that has nothing to do with anything.

When I was in college I did a lot of technical theater work. I did lighting mostly – hanging, cabling, focusing, that sort of thing. My specialty was follow-spot, which was not only fun but allowed me to see the show as well.

The problem was that as a general rule, anything that runs on electricity is considered part of the lighting crew’s province. Including fog machines.

It was a dance show. There were about ten or fifteen individual dances, one after another, with an intermission roughly halfway through. There were some interesting challenges in this show, most of which were directly connected to the fact that dancers are only graceful onstage and no matter how many times you tell them that the lighting instruments on the offstage booms are heavy, sharp and hot they still bash into them with disconcerting regularity. But at least one was entirely my fault.

I was told early on in production week that it would be my task to take a fog machine and sweep the stage with it just before the beginning of Act II, so that the first dance number of that Act could start in an appropriately atmospheric manner. Okay, fine. But I had never actually operated a fog machine before – never even seen one in front of me – and thus I had no real idea how this task was to be accomplished.

“No problem, Dave,” said Josh, the Lighting Designer. “It’s just a box with a hose. You hold onto the box and swish the hose back and forth and the fog goes where you point it. Do that while you walk slowly across the stage and then slowly back, and you’ll be fine.”

It certainly sounded foolproof.

The fog machine didn’t show up until the night of the first dress rehearsal. Traditionally that night was reserved for cast members of other shows going up at the same time, so we had an audience – and not just any audience, but an audience of people who actually knew theater and could appreciate the difference between what was going on in front of them and what was likely supposed to have been going on in front of them. Most audiences do not make that distinction, which is a life-saver in theater.

We got the fog machine plugged in and filled with the oil it needs to create the fog, and we let it warm up all through the first Act. Intermission came and went, and just before the lights faded for me to begin my fog-making journey I had a thought: Nobody had ever told me what level to set the fog output for.

So I looked at it.

The theater was a decent size. It could hold about 500 people, as I recall. That’s a lot of airspace. Fog machines, for those of you who have not had the privilege of running one, are not very big – about the size of a small toaster oven. Comparing the two, I figured, “Well, how much fog could this thing put out?” and cranked the knob up to 10.

For reference sake, on opening night the knob was set at 3.

So the machine starts cranking out fog and I start slowly working my way across the stage, emitting fog in all directions as instructed. I got all the way across and had just started the return trip when I heard Josh’s weary voice call out to me.

“Too much, Dave. Too much.”

The lights came up.

At least I think they came up.

Have you ever seen photos of Pittsburgh at the height of the steel mills? Where the air is so brackish that you can’t even see across the streets?

Yeah, like that.

There was a general movement toward the exits.

It took about twenty minutes for the fog to lift in that theater, but the show went on and eventually, as I said, we did settle on a more appropriate level of fog.

The real kicker of this whole thing, though, came about a year later, when I was walking down to another show I was working on. I was running the lighting board for that one, and I was with the Stage Manager for that show – a woman I had just met on that show – and she was telling me this great story about how some idiot had smoked out a dance company last year.

“Hi,” I said.


Janiece said...

David, don't feel bad on my account - I'm stretched a bit thin myownself this week, and am probably oversensitive.

It's all good.

Jennifer said...

You know, it sounds a bit like dancing outside in San Francisco on a midsummer evening.