Life sometimes contrives odd ways of teaching us its more obscure laws. Take, for instance, the Special Law of Subjective Relativity.
Once upon a time I was the House Manager for a Shakespeare Festival. It was a professional company of the regional variety called Equity Waiver. This meant that, while our principals had to be Equity members, our second rank people and apprentices did not. Our apprentices were young and unpaid, acting out of pure love and ambition. Somehow it made for remarkably good theatre, a high level of energy, and a wonderful joie de vivre.
Since we had to put on three plays in a short summer season, as much as possible had to be done during the rest of the year. The directors, scene designer, costume designer, etc. would meet in the off-season, discuss how they planned to mount each play, and do as much of the design work as possible.
That season we were doing Taming of the Shrew (a revival from the previous year that allowed us to get a head start on the rest), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, God help us, Richard III. In the off-season meetings, Roger, one of the directors, explained that he planned to do Richard as a dark, moody piece, all in earth tones and subdued lighting. From the designers’ point of view, this meant that everything had to be big, bold and almost coarse to be seen at all. This was not only not a problem, it was actually easier and meant that our slender budgets didn’t have to be spent on expensive finery.
The Costume Director was a friend of mine named Warren, creative, compulsive, wonderfully witty and flamboyantly gay. Taking the director’s words to heart, Warren wandered the secondhand and surplus stores for items that would look suitably bold and dramatic under moody lighting. One of his cleverest coups was to buy a bunch of small scrap circuit boards. Painted in bronze and gold and with big dime store jewels glued on, they would serve as massive metal buckles and escutcheons on brassards and “leather” jerkins.
Unfortunately, when rehearsals actually started, the director, who, unbeknownst to all of us, was beginning a fairly spectacular, amphetamine-assisted breakdown, kept insisting on revising the lighting design by raising the levels. The sets kept getting brighter and brighter and looking worse and worse. Features designed to be bold and dramatic emerged as simply crude. Colors designed to stand out in dim lighting became simply gaudy.
But the worst impact was on the costumes. From the house, Warren’s fake leather looked like cheap plastic. His brilliant circuit boards looked suspiciously like industrial scrap. And his earth-toned costumes became drab and boring.
Needless to say, all of the designers were going slowly crazy in synch with Roger’s “inspired” lighting changes. All of them were after the director’s blood, but none was so unhappy nor so vocal as Warren.
As the House Manager (i.e. the Front of the House), I was not supposed to have anything to do with those other folk (i.e. Backstage People). But somehow, whenever Warren went ballistic, I was tabbed to take him to lunch, listen to him dissect Roger’s character, ancestry, personal habits, and his inevitably grisly doom and then send him back to work, cathartically restored.
Truth to tell, I didn’t mind. Warren was always pretty funny, but his corrosive eloquence on these occasions was more than worth the fare. My only problem was that the more he worked himself up, the louder and gayer he became. Let’s just say that the local restaurants and their patrons were not always ready for a Stage Queen in full dudgeon.
All of which is just one aspect of a production of Richard III that seemed under a curse. I could tell a lot of stories about it, including the fact that we had our first complete run through the day we opened. By then it had become a multimedia monster, complete with overhead slide show and a strobe-lit battle scene.
I’ll spare you the rest.
Still, once actually launched, and with the creative types concentrating on Midsummer Night’s Dream (mercifully in the hands of another director), things seemed to quiet down. In fact, we were all lulled into a sense of routine until the night when Richard’s curse struck again.
We were a good way into the first act when the power suddenly failed. Not for the town, mind you, or even for the neighborhood, but just for the theatre. Our very own transformer, located just behind the theatre, had blown loudly and completely.
Let me tell you there are few places as dark as a theatre with all the lights out. Even when the battery-operated emergency lights over the exits kicked in, it was still dark. They were designed to help people exit, so they were pointed down into the aisles. The stage was a barely visible deeper chunk of darkness.
Oddly enough, no one left. After a pause, the actors gamely continued, but it wasn’t easy. Moving around that pitch-black stage risked life and limb. And it is hard to emote when you can see neither your fellow actors nor the audience. Then, too, it was pretty strange for the audience to hear Shakespearean tones coming from black emptiness on stage.
Me? You’ve heard about that “deer in the headlights look?” I suspect I was extremely lucky it was dark, so no one could see my expression. The House manager’s job is normally fairly easy once the curtain goes up. Now, all of a sudden, everyone was looking to me for support, ideas, and, above all, a solution.
After a brief pause for total panic, I came up with a couple of things. First, I sent my assistant to go and find the Stage Manager. I asked the two of them to try and discover what the heck had happened to our power. Next, seeing that the play was going on, I broke a few dozen regulations by turning the emergency lights away from the aisles and toward the stage. It was still pretty dim up there, but at least the actors could be seen as well as heard.
Then my assistant reported back that it was our transformer that had failed and that the power company had been called.
We had quite a while before the intermission, but what then? Suppose the power company didn’t have the transformer fixed? Should we keep going with the play? Suppose it was a meltdown and couldn’t be fixed with whatever tools they had with them. Suppose, God help me, people started asking for their money back. We were sold out through the rest of the season so exchanging their tickets for later ones was out of the question.
Finally I decided that I simply had to tell the audience something. At the end of a scene I got up on the stage. I explained about the transformer and the power company. I suggested that we go ahead and run up to the intermission. If we didn’t have power by the end of the intermission, we might have to cancel the performance and give them some sort of rain checks.
I got applause, which was nice, but from then on I was left to do nothing but wait and worry. I knew I had done the right thing. If it came to that, I knew we had to be willing to give people something in exchange for their cancelled tickets. But we were sold out! What could we do? Schedule an extra performance? I could just imagine trying to find some date that the actors were available and all those people in the audience could agree on. And most of them were season ticket holders! Talk about a nightmare!
Oh, God, please let the power come back on before I have to run for Mexico.
When I am worried, I pace. I paced back and forth in the lobby. Then I went out in front and paced outside. I went back inside and went up to the balcony. Then I paced a while up there. Then back down the stairs. And so on.
I remember that from the combination of exercise and sheer panic, at one point I found myself standing in the balcony, bathed in sweat, watching the actors and mentally begging them to speak more slowly.
It was at that precise moment that who should come running up to me but good old Warren. God knows what he was after, but the last thing I needed right then was for someone to unload another problem on my damp head.
I needn’t have worried. Warren had no new problem. In fact, he had no problem at all.
No. Instead, Warren was positively gleeful. “Oh, Bill,” he said, grabbing my arm. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
My mind reeled. At that moment, I thought, what could possibly be wonderful? “Warren,” I asked, “what the hell are you talking about?”
“The costumes,” he positively crowed. “Don’t you see?” He pointed happily down at the dim stage. “That’s how they are supposed to look.”