Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jolting

So a few people have commented to me that they miss the stories. Ok then.

As such, here's a story that most people will probably enjoy.
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Back when I was in college, I took a summer to work as a master electrician/prop master/stage manager for a fledgling theatre company in St. Louis. (Sadly, the company would fold after the season I worked for it...go figure.) The second show, True West did very well, but it had a fast turnaround into our next show, Raised in Captivity. When I say fast turnaround, I mean we had to strip all the lights and sets down and then rebuild and hang in a 48 hour period. And when I say we...I mean me. I had to go and pull everything down and then put everything back up. The only help I would receive was from my then Lighting professor (who hated me so...probably because I was not a small, hot, Asian girl) who offered to give me thirty minutes of his time (at time and a half) to put up flats and curtains.

Ok, strike (when you take everything down for those who don't know the lingo) is always quick. You're tearing down the wall, so you can pretty much speed through taking out screws and bringing down lights as long as you have a good ladder, a working wrench, and a good set of leg and arm muscles. One of the first lessons in lighting I learned was that in a black box theatre, you can grab on to a ladder with your legs, grab the lighting pipes with your arms, and pull yourself with ladder to the next destination. It's like being a monkey. And later you learn how to hang upside down and do work with your feet when necessary...I'm not kidding.

So, the actors and I strike the set (including a working sink) and the lights (though most of the actors, as actors usually are, were afraid to get up on the ladder because getting hurt means no paycheck). In comes the light plot.

When you have time, a sound mind, and help, light plots are extremely cool. It's the lighting designer's road map to creating a painting with light. It's how one man or one woman (usually one) takes the color palette and creates a visual representation of feeling, of a point of view, etc. One could be in awe of how just some drawings, colors, and Geometry create moods.

However, when you have no time, fatigue, and no help, a light plot becomes your mortal enemy. Especially when the designer doesn't label anything.
And that's where I was.

As an added incentive, one of the heads of the company bought a countdown clock and set it from the moment strike started. 44 hours. With a click, the numbers began dancing away toward the null. I didn't have a lot of time. So my time breakdown became the following:

Show ended at 10 PM.
People schmoozed and talked for 20 minutes.

Strike took about 25 minutes.

5 minutes was organizing and discussing.

That makes it 11 PM Sunday night. They want the space up and ready to go by 7 PM Tuesday.

44 hours.

No problem. The list was:

Hang the lights
Run the cable
Plug them all in
Get the set up (It was a small set consisting of furniture, a wall with a door, and some knick-knacks.)
Focus the lights (the worst part of the hang)
And set up the props

I decided that I would begin by placing the lights where they would eventually be hanging. This way I could gauge how much cable would be needed as well as which circuits I could use (this would all have to be written down on the light plot as well as the master list.

Now I know someone in theatre is reading this and saying, "Dude, I.T. ... why didn't you just bring the lights over, move the ladder, and hang as you went? That's simpler."

That person is probably right (and should go to Hell), but I had to make sure we had enough lights (which is a constant worry when working in someone else's space).

No, I moved the lights and recreated the plot. Then, with my trusty Crescent (fresh) Wrench, I started hanging the lights.

The original plan was to hang and plug in the lights and get gels in before dawn. Then I would go home, take a cat nap, come back, and finish by dinner. This would leave a whole day to load set and focus. Thus, when 7 PM Tuesday rolled around, and the clock struck zero, I could do a victory dance and bask in the love of actors. This last statement should show you that I was an idiot as actors will never let you bask. Nor will dancers for that matter. While working on a dance show, my crew and I decided to entertain the performers by doing one of the dances ourselves...in steel-toed boots and wearing all black. Instead of laughing, we were given a lengthy post-dance speech about what we did wrong. Damn Ballet dancers....

Anyway, I'm rolling along. Music is blaring to help the caffeine in my system keep me awake. I'm about to hang the first light on the last baton. This meant I only had seven lights to go...and my cell phone rings. This is when cell phones were for...well...phone calls. One kind of ringer. No internet. Just phone calls...at two in the morning...with seventy-five lights hanging above you...but whatever.

The phone jingle-jangle-jingles, and it's the lighting designer.

"I.T.! Where are you?!"

"I'm hanging the last of the lights, Jerry," I say with pride. "What's up?"

"What's the number on the plot?" he asks. For those unfamiliar, some lighting designers will plot, then tweak, and each tweak is a new number.

"Four," I respond. Jerry liked to tweak (and I am using lighting and...other vernacular here).

"Shit! You're supposed to have six. There were changes."

"We'll I have four, Jerry. And I'm almost done. What kind of changes am I looking at?" I ask in dread. He was not a subtle tweaker (and again I mean both ways), but one who would completely redo sections.

"The section over the office has changed. Everything has to be turned ninety degrees to accommodate the [lighiting] booth. Toooootally didn't think about it when I planned it. Can you come over here, like, now?"

"Jerry...when did you change this?"

"Dude, I changed it last Friday."

"Jerry," I say with annoyance growing, "We had a production meeting on Saturday. Why wasn't the new plot there?"

"Don't know. My fault. Come get the new one. I'll have it on the porch." And with that, the phone call ends.

Fatigue has started to sink in a little, and anger doesn't help that. I locked everything up and walked out to my car to begin the twenty minute drive to Jerry's home. He lived a neighborhood that the local university I was attending said, "Avoid if at all possible." On the security maps they gave to kids, this neighborhood was completely shaded in for having the most crime. And here I was driving into it at 2:30 in the morning.

Like Excalibur in the rock, Jerry's new plot is sticking out of a lawn chair glowing bright white by the light of the lamppost near by. The plot was as bad as I feared. I would have to shift every light over one pipe and move fifteen lights two pipes back. Back in the car, back to the theatre, and in I went.

I found that Guns and Roses was great music at 3:15 AM to motivate hanging lights faster. What doesn't work? Dave Matthews...that's for sleeping.

The clock continues spinning as the last light is locked into place. I do a little happy dance knowing that the hardest part is about to start: running the cable and plugging it in.

The best part about Monday morning at the university is that the coffee shop (conveniently next door to the scene shop) opens at 5 am. As the sun begins to peak on the horizon, I run the last of the cable and begin plugging in everything. Again, I'm alone on this, so what could be done by now is not finished...and the cavalry might come. And because the floor is clear, the set can now be loaded in. I call the artistic director at 5:30 am as I am walking to coffee shop to eat something and then go home to sleep.

"Nic," I begin. "Everything is up. The set can be loaded and locked down.... Oh, and good morning."

After some bursts of half awake dialect I don't recognize, Nic responds, "Ooook. We'll have the set in by two. I want everything focused by five."

"We still have more than twenty-four hours," I respond. "Why are we rushing?"

"Robert [the director] wants to up the timetable. He needs more time on stage. Show's...not going well."

I sighed. While I really liked Robert, his antics were a problem for the tech people.

"Ok," I tell Nic, "I've got some errands to run, then I'll go home, sleep, come back at four, and try to finish everything tonight. One thing: I have everything up. Tell Jerry no more changes."

"No problem," Nic replies, "Now fuck off! I need to sleep." And with that, he hangs up on me.

The plan sounds easy enough. I have to quickly get my errands done (this included doing stupid things like, you know, getting groceries so I can eat, depositing a check so I can buy said groceries and pay my rent, and turning in class work (I was taking a summer course to get done with college faster).

The problem with working near where you live and where you go to school is that you are going to run into people you know. When you're really tired and trying to rush, Murphy's Law takes over. You WILL run into people, and they will suck up your time. First stop was the ban k, where I ran into two of my professors, who tell me everything about the upcoming year (it will be my senior) and what they expect the plays to be as well as what work will need to be done. Because I want to have a prime position, I play the part. I should have said, "Oh my God. Leave me alone!" I didn't. Next, I'm in the grocery store buying a few items (biggest item: cat food), and I run into a friend of mine, who is also there with his fiancee...and his siblings.... So of course I have to talk to all of them, and this takes over an hour.

And, after a quick stop on campus to turn a paper, I'm finally in my little mushroom house (Yes, Virginia, they called it the Smurf House) ready to sleep. I still have time. I feed the cats, drop the pants, and hit the bed that is lulling me to it with it's siren song and false promises of rest.

The eyelids close.

The body begins to relax.

The sound of the world and ringing in my ears fades...

And the phone rings.

Five minutes. That's how long I slept. Five minutes. It was at this moment in my life that I learned to hate the ringing of the phone. The dull, insensitive tone it makes. However, it might have been an emergency, so I picked it up.

It was not an emergency, it was Rick.

Here's what you need to know about Rick. Even though he hated me, I really respected him. He was and is an amazing designer. It's no wonder he was asked to work the Olympics more than once. However, his personality was a major turn off for most people. He was the runt of his family, and the other men had been military. He wasn't, due to an eye issue, and then picked theatre, which was very unpopular in his Southern-rooted home.
That being said, he had a thing for young, Asian women, and treated any man who got his girl's eye with severe contempt. His girlfriend thought I was funny and cute, so naturally I was given shit jobs like light maintenance (sitting in a dark room making sure every piece of equipment is working), cable coiling (unwrapping and then recoiling every cable), and dealing with rental equipment (which could be ok, if the owners of the equipment weren't complete dicks...oh well). The only compliment I ever got from him was after the first show (two one-acts) I designed the lighting for. He walked up to me and said, "Not bad. Better than my first show, but you had better equipment and better training than I ever did."

I was dumbfounded. On the one hand, he said I did a good job. On the other, he said it was because of him and because I had the equipment. Give the cookie, but make it bitter.

Rick was also very protective of his space. It had to be done his way on his time. Any variation and he would shut it all down. He was a tech diva, and this is who was on my phone.

"Where the fuck are you?" The drawl spits across the phone.

My first thought was, "I'm at home, obviously, as you called me here." I could not say this, however, as he might respond badly. So I said:

"I'm at home. I worked all night, and I wanted to get some quick downtime."

"Well get the fuck back up here. Your 30 minutes of my time are about to kick in, and I need some answers as to what's going on around here."

"Could you call the TD (Tech Director)? I haven't slept yet. I really need some time away."

"Shut the fuck up, get in your car, and get your ass back up here! Or I walk."

My body screams at me to tell him to fuck off. But my mind knows better. Rick has this...eye for focusing. It took him seconds to see a light and know what had to be done with it. It took me a few minutes for each one. Yes, he was an ass, but I had to bear with him in order to be ready by the new timetable.

No time for a shower, just throw on some new clothes and deodorant, grab a Coke for lunch, and run.

When I arrived at the theatre, there were problems, and I understood why Rick was pissed. After I had left, someone (and I assume it was the set designer who was also the carpenter) had started cutting some new boards for a flat and had sliced off part of an acting cube...then had left the cube there with the sawdust on the floor next to the saw.

"What the FUCK is this shit?!" he yells at me

"I don't know," I respond. "When I left, it was just me. He must have come while I was running my errands and turning in work."

"Look at the cube. Shiiiiiit. This is coming out of someone's budget." And with that, he looks squarely at me. His mind obviously saying, "And I mean you, fucker."

This presented the second problem. Not only was there damaged property, but the set wasn't up. I couldn't focus without a set to focus upon. Worse yet, if Rick left, I would focus alone and have to use the Focus Dummy.

Ok, the Focus Dummy is a sewing mannequin on wheels. We attach to it pieces of the fabric that the actors are going to wear. This means having to know the blocking, set the dummy in position, put on the fabric, then focus. It's time consuming. It sucks.

With no set and no set designer around, I had to buy Rick a tall latte to keep him from bolting. I dialed up the tech director.

"Doug?"

"Yes," I hear Doug reply. He sounds out of breath.

"What's going on in the theatre? I'm here with Rick. There's no set, there's a saw next to a cube that's been cut, and I need to focus before Rick leaves.

I hear more breathing coming faster and faster. My first thought is a very dirty one. Doug is having sex and is making me listen. When he finishes, he'll talk. This, thankfully turns out to be wrong.

"Are you near Rick?" Doug asks.

"No."

"Good. We lost the set."

There is a moment when you hear something that makes no sense. Your brain almost stops like a derailed train. Logic disappears. Like when someone says something so incredibly off topic or stupid that you can't fathom how that person's brain could put those words together. That's what happened when I heard they had lost the set. All I could say was:

"What?"

"We lost the set. We put it in the scene shop [which was directly below the theatre] last night. Came in this morning, and it was gone. Someone took the flats. We were rebuilding them."

I'm stunned. How do you lose flats? I couldn't understand it. Then I hear Rick say:

"And did you guys take your fucking flats off the paint rack? I had to move them because they were blocking the prop cage."

"Doug," I immediately say, "did you remember to move the flats off the paint rack."

"Oh fuck! They're on the paint rack? You're a life saver!" And the huffing begins before I hang up.

I turn to Rick, who has just finished the latte, and say, "Can we focus in like twenty minutes? I need to get a drink and use the bathroom. Weird, right?"

Rick just stares at me with these icy blue eyes. After a few minutes, he sighs then says:

"Fuck. Give me the cash for another latte, and I'll give you ten minutes."

I do the math in my head. Not enough time. So I do something incredibly unethical. First, I call Doug and tell him to keep loading no matter what. Then I go and see a fellow student who owes me a favor. I buy a newspaper, give the student (not giving his name just in case) some cash, and tell him to start a trashcan fire on the first floor near the sprinkler. To his credit, he did it. This set off the fire alarm, which meant the building had to be evacuated for some time. I found Rick outside.

"You can't count this time, man. This is like an act of God."

He stares back at me and says, "Shiiiiit. Fine...but you only get twenty minutes. And I want you to call Mark tomorrow and see if he's selling any eight inch fresnels."

This is actually a punishment. Mark liked to talk...alot. He would talk about whatever was on his mind. One conversation ran from a light, to a baseball stadium, to his ex-wife, to football, to movies, and then to his hair. A typical five minute visit anywhere else was a half an hour with Mark.

The set is finally loaded, and the focusing goes quite well. Rick is fine form, so it all gets done. Because his girlfriend shows up to load some sound cues, he stays longer. We finish with enough time for me to go grab a quick bite and then come back for rehearsal. It's a miniture hell week (what many will call Tech Week), so we have to do a run through of building cues. This is time consuming, usually boring, and if the director is a bastard, frustrating.

Instead of being done at 10 PM, we finish around 1 am. Robert could not get out of his own way. We would build a look, get it all set, run it, and he would then say, "NO! That's not what I wanted. Do it again. Weren't you listening to me?" This would happen with almost every cue.

1 AM when you've been up for one day makes you slightly tipsy. 1 AM on a second day makes you very tired and very angry. I just want to sleep. But there's a problem: a few of the lights have burned out. Some are probably due to lamps burning out, but others are mechanical issues (loose wires, broken pins, etc.). The space is being used for a class all day the next day, so I can't leave until I finish fixing the problems. Once again, I'm alone in the space at night, and I haven't slept since 6 am Sunday morning.

When you're really tired, the mind sometimes misfires. You don't fully follow logic. This was about to happen to me. One light wasn't working, but the lamp was fine. This meant it was wire related. I went to the light board and turned the circuit on, then I check the light itself. Wires were fine there, so it had to be the cable. I checked the wires at the plug first. They were fine, so it was where the cable connected to the light's pig tail (or cable). I opened up the cable head and found a loose wire. I started trying to pushing it back in place, but it wouldn't go with the gloves I had on.

Now I don't know if it was the fatigue or a deathwish, but I did something so stupid that the fact that I am alive makes it funny.

I started thinking about how to make the wire fit.

"Well," says my brain, "When you work with sewing thread, you lick the thread to make it stable to go through the needle. The wire here looks like thread, so logic dictates you should like it to make it go through here."

Now, because my body was so tired, it did not scream, "No, you stupid fuck!" Instead it went, "Just FINISH!!!"

So, high up on a ladder at 3 something in the morning and by myself, I licked a live wi re. First of all, it hurts...like you wouldn't believe. I really have nothing to compare it to unless there's a comparison to electrocuting your mouth. The first thing was pain, the next was being blown off the ladder on to the floor.

When I woke up a few minutes later, my back hurt, my mouth hurt, and my pride hurt. I had a bruise the size of a dinner plate on my back (I would see this later) from the fall. My mouth was burned from the electrical adventure, and my pride kept saying, "You LICKED a live wire, you stupid moron!"

So I lay on the floor of the theatre trying to make sure I was actually alive. When I could finally get up, I went and turned the circuit off. Then, even though I was still shaky, I climbed the ladder and finished. Then, with my hands still shaking, I dialed Nic to tell him what had happened. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him.

"You did what?" He responded.

"I haven't slept, Nic. I licked a wire."

A quick sigh. "Are you ok?"

"Yeah," I say. "Just shaking," and watch the bottle of water in my hand jitter around.

"Can you finish?"

"What time is it?" I ask.

"It's 4:10."

"Oh shit, that means I actually passed out for like ten minutes."

"I don't hear that!" Nic yells. "If I hear that, I have to fill a report, so shut up!!!"

In the background, I hear Nic's wife stirring and then quietly saying, "Just hang up."

"I have to go," he says, "Finish up and go home. Sleep! We have alot to do the rest of this week and I need you alive for now. Good night."
The phone call ends.

I managed to pull myself together and finish everything in time to see the sun rise as I walked outside. The first thought in my head was actually not the sunrise, which I would eventually watch, but how jealous I was of the janitor's cigarette. I didn't smoke, but I really wanted a cigarette. Actually, I really wanted a drink, but drinking in the early morning is usually frowned upon. It's eggs and bacon...not eggs and Jack Daniels...but it could be. So the constant smell of burned hair (seems I singed some beard hair) was to be with me until I showered.

As I walked to my car, however, I saw that sunrise. A deep orange and golden amber that spilled across the sky with delight. This led me to walk to my car, hop on the hood, and just watch. No music, no one with me, and no reason to rush. Just myself, the sun, and the universe as a new day is born.

The film City of Angels (an inferior remake of a brilliant film called Wings of Desire...Go watch the two. I'll wait...see I was right.) has a moment where the angels watch the sunrise and act as if they are hearing the most pure sound in the world that reaches to the core of being. Humans, however, cannot hear it or feel it. That rising there, sitting on my car a few hours after almost electrocuting myself, was one of the greatest sunrises I had ever watched. It has only ever been rivaled by a few days in my life.

Lest you think I'm sappy, here's the rub: When you do lighting design, a problem begins to occur. While I enjoyed the moment and watched the sky in awe as the stars winked out and became replaced with the blue hue of life, I started seeing gel colors in my head. The more you design lights, the more you start to see the world in terms of color gels. Imagine looking at the gold light spilling across the sky and thinking, "Hmm..Roscolux 04 [Medium Bastard Amber] with a hint of 08 [Pale Gold]." This was one of the reasons why I would end up leaving theatre: the wonderment and beauty of the world became colors in a swatch book.

So I watched the sunrise and made the decision to take the day off. No work. No helping anyone else out. Just get in the car, drive home, and sleep. So, with Helios above the horizon and being dragged higher and higher by Apollo's Chariot, I went home. I sat down on the couch that had been left by the previous tenant, and looked out the window one more time at the sunlight moving between the trees. Then I passed out...hard. I would wake up several hours on the floor. The cat (my grey and white one) was pulling on my ear. Either he thought he was helping me to get up and go to work...or he was trying to eat my ear for nourishment. I like to believe the former, but it was probably the latter.

The show went very well. It was sold out every night and, after the reviews came out, it was standing room only for a while. In the end, however, the theatre company went out of business when the artistic director moved to Florida.

And there was a cast party, which ended with Jerry trying to sleep with a woman in the loft of my house and showing his ass to everyone before falling out a window. I had to burn those sheets. Wish I was kidding.

So what, dear reader, should you take from this? Well:

1. Don't lick a live wire. Seriously...don't do it.
2. Rest. Even when the hurly burly is flying about and the shit hits the fan, take a moment to breath and rest.
3. You live theatre. It's not a job, it's a lifestyle. If you're thinking about doing it professionally, make sure you know that.
4. Don't lick a live wire. It's just really good advice.
5. All people, no matter how horrible or schmucky they seem, have a heart. Appeal to that.
and finally,
6. Never, ever, let a day go by without seeing, learning, hearing, or doing something new. Take an appreciation for the light of life if nothing else.

Namaste.

3 comments:

Laura said...

As a former student of yours who is possibly considering going into theater professionally, I found this post enlightening, funny and strangely "deja vu-esque," since I'm quite sure that something like this happened to me this past semester at my college. We'll have to chat about it sometime. Thanks for the advice though, much appreciated.

boo said...

This explains so much of the advice you have given me. As a reader I thank you for the story. And as a student going into theater advice noted.

soxanne said...

Yowza!

I thought it was a miracle that I survived adolescence but your live wire really tops any material I have...