Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Story Time with Uncle Leab: Foot in Mouth Disease

When I was in college (many moons ago), I created problems for the Performing Arts Department.
I have this disease. Everyonce in a while, my foot just flies up into mouth. This is compounded by a form of neurological disease I have where I am incapable of thinking before I speak AND cannot hold my tongue. It's horrible. Happens alot.
Now, when I started in college, I was a Psychology major with dreams of having my own practice. Ten minutes into my first class, that all changed. I was the only student with any technical theatre in my background. In high school, I had been an actor, but also a stage manager, lighting guy, running crew, and more. So, when the teacher asked, "Anyone have any stage managing experience?", mine was the only hand in the air.
After being assigned to the show, I immediately learned two things:
1. I would be the first and only freshman in the history of the University's Performing Arts Department to stage manage the first show of the year.
2. I would not be in Psychology for long. I switched to Theatre and stayed there for my degree. (The actual degree is: Design/Technical Theatre with emphasis in Lighting. I would minor in Psychology and German Language and Literature. How? 21 credits per semester freshman year along with working shows and having a girlfriend...who would later break my heart.)
The show was The Importance of Being Earnest, and with a new director, a freshman stage manager, and an opening night only four weeks away, we had our work cut out for us. The show went well, but Seana (the director) and I would never speak again once the show was done. We drove each other nuts.
The highlight of my first year in the department came during a play written by the playwright-in-residence. The play was about a teenage girl in Ireland getting pregnant. Everyone who worked on the show, except for the playwright, had absolutely no clue what the hell the play was about. I remember one design meeting where the playwright (we'll call her Patti) asked for the set to be all fabric "to feel like a womb." When the show was finally over, Patti explained what the play was supposed to be about:
"There tried to outlaw divorce in 1980s in Ireland. That's really what this play is about."
You see, no one in the play marries. The young girl gives birth and keeps the baby sans husband. How does that speak to divorce? Anyone....Anyone....?
During this show, the director and I almost came to blows. At this point, I had a crew with which I was constantly working. There was Stephanie, my Assistant Stage Manager. She was a former model, a fellow freshman, and would come to me for advice on men (which at times was kinda awkward). The cosutme designer was the same gal I had worked with on Earnest. The rest of the running crew was made up of people I was in a class with. These people were close to me, and I was protective of them.
Well, one rehearsal, things were going very badly. The actors didn't know their lines or blocking (where they had to move to for non theatre people), the playwright was adjusting lines as the rehearsal went on (we wrote everything in pencil, because she would put in and then take out a line), and my crew was having a hard time with the fabric set.
So, we're running the "sex" scene between Kate (the protagonist) and the man who gets her pregnant, and my crew gets confused on where to put a block. The director, already upset with
how much pressure he's under (the department is touting this show as a "world-premiere play written by a Julliard graduate), explodes. He starts tearing into the crew as if every little mistake was their fault.
"What the hell is wrong with you? Why can't you get your marks right?"
Remember, dear reader, this is a teacher. Sure, he's a director, but he's supposed to be a teacher first. He then sharpens his tongue for the strongest verbal lashing on Stephanie.
"In all my years as a director, I have never seen someone so pathetically underqualified for their job. Why the HELL DO YOU EVEN BOTHER! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!"
At his point, Stephanie slowly breaks down into tears. She manages to get out into the hallway before the real sobbing begins.
Again, I'm fiercely protective of my crew. They are like my family. I protect them, and they do good work for me.
It's at this point, that I first realized I had that disease. Without thinking, the affliction took over. "What are you thinking? That's my ASM! I need her to run the backstage."
With all the fury of a thousand suns, the director turned his vision on me.
"What did you say?"
Again, my brain was saying, "SHUT UP YOU IDIOT," but the affliction took over:
"Look, you need to go out and get her. Apologize so she calms down. I'm sorry if things aren't going very well, but you can't take it out on us."
This was not the right thing to say. He got in face so close that his nose was occasionally touching mine, and he was spitting mad.
"Who the hell do you think you are, you little pissant? You can't even call a cue correctly. The reason why we're stuck on this scene is you can't get Evan (the light board operator) the correct timing. I've got to worry about everything. You only have the crew to worry about. I have been doing this for 20 years. 20 YEARS! You've been here for what, three months?"
Again, I should have shut up, but the damn affliction kicked in at the wrong time.
"Don't take your frustrations out on us. I'm sorry if you don't get this play. None of us do! But don't make a girl cry and tell her 'not to bother' doing theatre when she's doing the best she can. That's bullshit."
Have you ever seen someone get so mad his or her face goes slightly dead trying to comprehend how not to kill you? Then the eyes on his or her face kind of bulge out as if the rage inside is attempting to pour out through the eye sockets? The director had this look.
He called for a five minute break, grabbed my arm, and dragged me to his office.
I would be screamed at for the next seven minutes. I remember it being seven, because I stopped listening and watched his clock. Later, I would console Stephanie.
The show was a nightmare. We managed to get the cues down, but because of all of the fabric that was put up, the booth (which meant myself, the light board operator, and the sound engineer) could not see the show. No one understood the playwright's meaning. On opening night, she held an post-show discussion to talk about what the audience had seen. No one (and I mean NO ONE) got that it was about divorce. She then told the audience (and I quote), "You just don't get it, because you're not Irish...or not very bright."
At the post mortem (when the show ends, the actors, crew, designers, and director meet to discuss what worked and what didn't), I managed to let the disease take over and put my foot in my mouth. The designers and crew had promised to back me up with my topic. I was going to discuss the relationship between the director and everyone who wasn't an actor. I stand up, say my piece about feeling like a second class citizen...and no one backs me up.
It went downhill from there.
The big show (meaning it was on the professional mainstage) the following year was Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I wanted that show. However, it was directed by the same guy who I had just stepped up against in the post mortem.
The department, fearing the two of us would have another war and destroy the show, gave the stage manager position to a new girl who had never done it before and moved me to work with dancers. The girl would end up angering every single member of the cast, crew, and even the director (who would later tell me, "he made a mistake" and would use me for the final production of my senior year). I went on to work with dancers which was a very interesting experience (and something I will talk about another time. Dancers...always makes me smile and cringe at the same time).
The problem was the director had been in the program longer and was better liked than me. I now had a reputation of being difficult to work with (this would go away, but not until my senior year). Several directors/teachers passed on working with me. I was lucky there were student productions, and that a few teachers didn't listen to the hype about me.
So what's the moral, girls and boys?
Well, you could say it's learn to pick your battles, but you all know that.
You could say it's you can't trust anyone, but that's obvious to almost everyone.
No, the moral here is: think before you speak. That's right. Make sure you think through what it is you're going to say very carefully before you say it. You may end up blackballing yourself out of jobs or potential friends.

1 comment:

faith said...

I have that same disease. It is a bad one and you are 1000% correct dear Leab, when you say "think before you speak. That's right. Make sure you think through what it is you're going to say very carefully before you say it. You may end up blackballing yourself out of jobs or potential friends." I have not done this too many times! Another great post! Thank you!