Over the years, I’ve always been attracted to live theatre (and no, I didn’t spell that incorrectly. One sees movies in a “theater” but if it’s a live show and you spell it “…er”, we theatre folk will smack you over the head with a powder puff.) I’ve acted in a lot of shows, two dozen at last count, and there are a few more that I’ve written or directed. If you add in the shows that I wasn’t in, but built the set, the total would be much higher. Here’s a hint for anyone who would like to get involved in a theatre company. First, learn Carpentry. If, when applying to join said company, you let on that you know your way around wood and tools, they will snap you up like a throat lozenge at an auctioneers’ convention.
Acting in a production, even a small, local theatre gig, can be pretty stressful. Anyone who thinks that “just standing on a stage and reciting lines” isn’t high stress has never stood on that stage, in front of several hundred people, in complete silence, and wondered what the Hell is that thing you were supposed to be saying. Like folks in other high-stress activities, actors like to go to a local bar after a performance or rehearsal, nurse a beer, and swap stories about theatre. Subjects usually include “Impossible Directors,” “Actors Without a Clue,” and “Producers with Starry Eyes and Tight Fists.”
But one of the most favored categories is “Theatre Disasters.” These are not actual disasters like the theatre burning down or The President getting shot, but more on the order of the bizarre and hilarious. For example, there’s the story of the guy whose memory, in the middle of a scene, suddenly went blank. After a few moments of tedious silence, he turned and walked off stage, got in his car, and went home.
Here are three stories. All are true. I was not there for any of the three, but I know people who were and I got these tales from them.
The first happened in a production of the musical play Peter Pan. Because the show, despite being more than 60 years old, is still very popular, several companies around the country specialize in providing all the necessary technical things that local theatres need to pull it off. As well as sets and costumes, they provide all the ropes, pulleys, and harnesses needed to fly Peter, Wendy, Michael, and John around the stage. And, of course, they hire out professional stagehands that are trained to know what line to pull exactly when.
In the last scene of the play, Wendy and her brothers are in bed in the nursery and Peter flies in through the window. He has come to see Wendy for the last time. They sing a final song and Peter whisks away. Since the musical role of Peter was originated by Mary Martin, it has become a tradition to cast an athletic young woman in the role of Peter Pan. This production was no exception. On this night, at the same time the two leads are singing “Don’t Say Goodbye” to each other, the backstage flying crew has slipped out the back door for a smoke. The stagehand who flies Peter suddenly realizes that the song is ending and in a few moments the actress playing Peter is going to throw herself out of the nursery window. He runs for the ropes. On stage, Peter nimbly hops up onto the windowsill. Backstage, the crewman grabs the rope and kicks off the brake. Peter crows like a rooster, leaps out the window and falls on her face on the stage outside. At the same moment, Wendy shoots up out of bed, flails into the middle of the room, swings around, and slams back into a wall.
In a noble gesture, the audience was charged no extra for the slapstick fun.
The second story was told to me by my friend Donna, who is the Artistic Director of The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and has been for many years. The Company produces three plays every summer, two by Shakespeare and one other, usually a classic, by another playwright. The play in question was Romeo and Juliet, and the scene was the swordfight between Mercutio and Tybalt. Romeo tries to break up the fight but instead hinders his cousin Mercutio. Tybalt’s sword slips under Romeo’s arm and skewers Mercutio. Then Tybalt and the other Capulets run away.
Let’s pause for a quick note about stage combat with swords. Swords made for stage duels all have flat, steel buttons welded to the pointy end and this button cannot puncture clothing or people. To make it seem as if it did, there is a device called a “blood bag.” It is a very flimsy plastic bag filled with chocolate syrup, corn syrup, and red food coloring. This is slipped into a special pocket sewn into the victim’s costume. When the button on the attacker’s sword hits the correct spot, the bag splits open, and very realistic-looking blood pours out and stains the victim’s shirt.
On this particular night, the button on Tybalt’s sword, instead of just breaking the bag, got entangled with the torn plastic. When the actor jerked the sword back, the bloody bag went flying across the stage, hit the proscenium, and slowly slid down, leaving a dripping, crimson track behind. Donna said it looked like Tybalt had ripped out Mercutio’s liver and flung it across the stage. Although the cast plunged ahead with the dialogue, the gasps and screams drowned out Mercutio saying, “…a scratch, ‘tis but a scratch,” before he keeled over and expired.
Finally, let’s turn to Chicago, my old pal Patti, and her story of the “starving pirates.”
There are several major universities in the Chicago area with active Theatre Departments. Every year, theatre graduates from Northwestern, Loyola, DePaul, and the University of Chicago walk out the front gates clutching their little mortarboards and wondering, “What the hell do I do now?” Many of them get together with some of their acting friends, chip in to rent a small storefront or a warehouse, paint the inside walls black, and start putting up shows. The nationally-famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company started just this way. There are, at last count, approximately 200 small theatre companies in Chicago. They include A Red Orchid Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, Remy Bummpo Theatre Company, Redtwist Theatre, The Conspirators, and TUTA Theatre. Very few of the spaces they are performing in have more than 50 seats, and because these spaces were originally built for far different purposes, their layouts can be very peculiar. I have been to a show where, to relieve yourself at Intermission, you had to get into a line that went across the stage, by the door to the former storage closet that now served as the actors’ dressing room, and down the hall to a single bathroom.
My friend Patti had been hired to direct a new show, a drama about pirates. I don’t remember the name of the show, but let’s call it The Last Cruise of the Frigate Matilda or “Tillie” for short. The space was the old gymnasium in Hull House at the Jane Addams complex. The room was tall and roughly square with a balcony on three sides. The advantages were that there was plenty of overhead space to hang lights and that although the seating was limited every seat in the house had a great view of the stage. Steppenwolf put up plays there in the 1980s before their big, new theatre was built. The disadvantages were that the gym was down a long hallway from the front door, and if you came down that hallway and didn’t turn left or right, you’d walk right onto the stage.
Tillie is about a band of pirates whose ship gets caught in a hurricane and though it still floats, it is too badly damaged to sail. There is a fight over the only longboat and the Captain, his lady love, and the First Mate are forced to stay aboard as the crew rows away. There is no food, no hope of rescue, and they prepare to die of starvation.
Some plays go like a dream in rehearsal and are ready to open with time to spare. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve only ever been involved with the other kind – the kind that attracts last-minute problems like bats to a beehive hairdo. And Tillie was one of those. Usually, the rehearsal schedule for the final week is Technical Rehearsal on Tuesday, Dress Rehearsal on Wednesday, and Opening Night (Also known as Critics’ Night) on Thursday. Rehearsals for Tillie had been such a tough slog that the cast and crew had had to show up Thursday morning for Tech, do their Dress that afternoon, then take two hours to rest and eat before opening the show at eight o’clock that night.
At six o’clock, Patti gathered the cast and crew together to give them the bad news. To get the show ready to open, they would have to work for two more hours. There would be no time to rest, no time to eat dinner. As a consolation, Patti promised to order pizzas for everyone to be delivered to the building’s rear door at ten o’clock, just after the final curtain.
Why do people do live theatre? It’s surely not for the money and most of it is not that much fun. But you do what you are asked as well as you can because you never know when some magical Theatre Miracle will slip out from the shadows and grab you by the scruff of the neck. For the cast and crew of Tillie, it came in the middle of the first act. The show that had seemed to be doomed, the show that was held together only by prayer, baling wire, and duct tape was working! The timing was good, the energy was building, and the audience was being swept along. When a play is going well and the company and spectators are in sync, the feeling for everyone is wonderful, subtle, and almost transcendent.
Patti was one of those Directors who are unable to sit down and so roam the theatre, scribbling notes, checking sightlines, and taking the temperature of the audience. She was aware which seats had been reserved for critics and was happy to see that the people in them, while not grinning broadly, were not grimacing or rolling their eyes.
Things were still going well toward the end of the second and final act. The Captain, his Mistress, and the First Mate, in the advanced stages of starvation, were admitting to each other that there was no hope of survival and so began revealing the secrets they had kept inside for years. Patti was up in the far corner of the balcony when she heard something she was not expecting. It was a deep, male voice coming from a long way away.
“Hello? Is anybody here?”
Patti began to run. Patti was a big woman who was surprisingly strong and fast, especially when driven by terror. She was quickly out of the balcony door and flying past half a dozen classrooms to get to the stairs. She sprinted down the stairway, two steps at a time, listening to a pair of heavy boots clunk their way down the main hallway toward the stage. As she got to the bottom she was mentally damning the woman who answered the phone at the pizza place to the lowest ring of Hell for not making it clear that the delivery was to go to the back door of the building, not the front.
On stage, the First Mate seized a rope and dragged himself up to a standing position. As he addressed the other two, he pulled a knife out of his belt and held it up to his own throat.
“I have loved you both too deeply and for too long to watch you starve to death. There is not so much of this body left for you to make a meal on, but I give it to you freely.”
Before the Captain could say his next line, a stranger appeared on stage. He was holding nine flat, white cardboard boxes. Squinting in the lights, he yelled out.
A hand landed on his shoulder and dragged him back off stage.
The critics that were there gleefully filled their reviews with the story of how the starving pirates were rescued by a timely delivery of pizza pies and barely mentioned the play at all. Audiences afterward grew slimmer and slimmer. The play closed within a few weeks and as far as Patti knows, was never produced again.