Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Screaming Psychotic Nightmare Show From Hell

I worked on the SPNSFH during my year between undergraduate and graduate schools.

I had a lot of weird jobs that year.  I drove a van that picked up and dropped off students all over West Philadelphia – a job that more than anything else taught me that there were many Ivy League students who could give you an in-depth analysis of the German economy off the top of their head but couldn’t be trusted not to play in traffic.  I was a paralegal working on a mass-tort disaster litigation case that got settled on a Thursday, leaving me unemployed on Friday.  I got paid to be a calligrapher.  And I signed on with a touring theater company that was putting on several shows in Philadelphia that spring.

Eventually that company settled there, bought a building and became a local fixture.  They’re still around, though under a different name.  Over Christmas we went to see a play in Center City and I was surprised to see their old name painted on the wall as a former incarnation of the company that was there now.  They even proudly listed the SPNSFH as an accomplishment of their past.

If only they knew.

They had me working on two different shows that year, actually.  One went up somewhere on the campus of the University of the Arts, from which my uncle had graduated back when it was still the Philadelphia College of Art.  I don’t remember much of it except that I dropped a cast-iron weight on my foot at one point and got sent home for the day.  I was fine.   Sometimes I wonder if that was one of the reasons they sent me over to the SPNSFH.

The SPNSFH had a lot of weirdities, but there weren’t any cast iron weights that I noticed.

That show went up in the studios of the local public television station, which becomes important later on.  It was two loosely connected theatrical dance pieces dedicated to the desaparecidos of Argentina – the victims of the violent regime that ruled there in the 1980s – so it was a real toe-tapper of an evening once we got it up and running.  Perfect for a first date, really.  Nothing like leather-clad dancers twirling about while a strapping young man in a black mask sings in a minor key about sexually abusing prisoners to make your romantic evening complete, gentlemen!  Order your tickets now!

The problem with the SPNSFH wasn’t the subject matter, though, grim as that was.  Consider Les Miserables, after all.  You can cover pretty much anything if you do it well.  No, the reason the SPNSFH was the SPNSFH was the fact that the tech side was run by people who clearly were in over their heads.  I’d worked on student-run college productions that were better organized.  Hell, I’d worked on high school productions that were, too.

There are probably riots going on somewhere in the world right now that were planned better than this show was.

The problems started with the lighting.  Well, that’s not quite true.  The problems started with the lighting designer, who was an idiot.

For those of you who have never lit a show, here is some simple advice:  If you have two dance pieces that need to be lit, the proper way to do that is to come up with a single lighting design that incorporates a number of areas that can be used to cover most of both pieces, and then add a few specials for each individual piece to give it some specific flavor.  That way you get maximum flexibility with minimum equipment.

What you don’t do is create two entirely separate lighting plots and then hang them both simultaneously.

There were so many lighting instruments in use for that show that we probably browned out a significant percentage of the east coast.  Most of them were overhead, hung from a figure-8-shaped aluminum grid above the stage.  Remember when I said this went up in a television studio?  Theatrical lighting instruments are much, much heavier than television lights, and the grid was simply not designed to handle that weight.  Shortly before opening night we noticed that the grid had actually cracked.  I had ended up on the ground crew by then, moving set pieces during intermission, and the crew chief actually took all of us aside and told us to take a good look at the grid.  “Find out where the holes in the figure-8 are,” he told us.  “Make sure you know where on the stage those holes are above.  If you hear any unusual noises above you while you’re out there, dive for the holes.  Do not stop to look up.  Drop what you’re doing and dive immediately for the holes.”

Well, that was reassuring.

We also set up a steel pipe across the back of the house to hang more lighting instruments from.  It was a thee-inch-diameter pipe, about twenty feet long between the supports, and by the time we were done with it the thing bowed in the middle by about fifteen inches.  To this day I’m still not sure why it didn’t just snap.

The other problem with having two separate lighting plots was that the patch panel in the back only had room for one.  It was a big squarish thing, maybe three feet to a side and four feet high, and every one of those big, heavy, black cables had to be patched into the right circuit so the lighting instruments would be controlled by the correct dimmer.  When fully patched, it looked like a termite hill of black neoprene.  And since there were two separate plots and roughly seven million cables – half of them patched in and the other half on the floor, waiting – the entire thing had to be completely repatched during intermission.  There were three guys whose sole job was to unplug all of the cables from the first act and then get the second act cables plugged in (correctly, with any luck – not an easy feat in the semi-darkness backstage) so that the show could go on.

This was one reason why the intermission for that show was forty-five minutes long.  The other reason was the set.

There were two of those as well, one for each piece.  The second one was at least partially structural – one of the pieces had to be strong enough for someone to walk on – but the first one was completely backdrop.  It could have been made of Styrofoam for all the work it had to do. 

Why it was constructed to building code specifications, mainly out of 3/4” plywood and 1/2” Masonite, was therefore somewhat unclear.

There were six pieces to that first set, each of which was about eight feet wide and twelve feet tall.  Our job was to moose those things offstage, one at a time, and then get the second group of pieces – roughly the same in terms of size and number – into place and secured.

Each piece took six men and a dolly to move.

And we were not fresh or full of vim and vigor by that point either.  The powers that were for this production had decided about three or four weeks prior to opening night that they had too many people working on it, so they cut about half the staff.  Then they figured out that they had made a mistake but were too proud or stupid to care, and the end result was that the rest of us worked for twenty-some-odd straight days, 8am to midnight, to get this turkey flying.  Given that we were professionals making time-and-a-half for overtime, this cannot have saved them any money – I know I got paid roughly twice what my original contract had stipulated for the total when I signed on.  It was a nice little pile to have when I went off to graduate school that fall.

We were so exhausted by that schedule that at one point about a week before curtain the female dancers came out modeling their prospective costumes – the highlights of which were fishnet tops almost entirely constructed of empty space – and we were too tired even to gawk.  In a room full of single men in their 20s, most of whom were straight, that’s pretty much the definition of tired.

They ended up putting something underneath those for the actual performance, unfortunately.  Win some, lose some.

We did try to keep ourselves entertained in other ways.  At one point they asked us to make a crash box, which is a box full of junk that makes horrible clanging and banging noises when you shake it.  You keep it backstage, and when an actor comes barreling off into the wings you can make it sound like they just had a spectacular and possibly fatal accident just beyond the vision of the audience.  This was a particularly well-made crash box, in that it made all sorts of awful sounds at the slightest jarring.  It was painted black, to minimize the chance that the audience would see it, but shortly before we shipped it to the next venue for this production one of the crew members decided to paint “Warning: Spare Lamps and Roundels!  Fragile!  Handle With Care!” in big white letters across each side.  We had fun imagining that panic-stricken half-second some poor soul unloading the truck would have before it became obvious what it really was.  You take your entertainment where you can find it.

The night before the first public performance the Tech Director decided we all needed to celebrate the fact that this show might, conceivably, actually open.  He took us to a local bar and bought each of us four glasses of Jack Daniels.

Not shot glasses.  Water glasses.  Half full water glasses.  And after that production month, we drank them all and ordered more.

This was one of only two or three occasions in my life where I have been certifiably hammered, and I was in good company that way.  I am not entirely sure how most of us made it home that night, nor am I sure how we were able to get back to the theater the next day, but there you go.  Mostly I remember walking through Center City to the subway station with one of the other techs and having some homeless guy throw pebbles at us.  I’m sure he had a reason for doing so, if only in his own mind.

During the run it became apparent that the theater gods hated this show as much as we did. 

It was the second show I ever worked on where we actually had to stop the performance and ask if there was a doctor in the house, for example.  You didn’t think people actually did that, but I’m here to tell you that it happens.  Both times there was, indeed, a doctor.  The first time, on one of the college productions I worked on as an undergrad, the show went on – the person needing attention was a supervisor, not directly involved with the actual performance, and was fine in any event.  But this time was more serious.  The lead dancer dislocated her shoulder onstage about halfway through the first act, and we sent everyone home and gave them their money back.  It took a couple of days to get the understudy up to speed but eventually we finished out the run.

And then we shipped the whole mess off to Spoleto, where I have no idea how it did.  I do know that it made it to Broadway the following year and folded after maybe half a dozen performances.  This gave me some hope for the American people.

The fun part of theater is the deep well of stories you end up with.

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