Thursday, February 19, 2009

Being Dr. John (Right Place, Wrong Time)

A former student of mine told me today that she has a job. Halfway through her first year in college and the department head has taken a shine to her. Luck of the draw...or being in the right place at the right time. For me, however, my career in theatre started by being in the right place at the wrong time.

Dream fingers....

I started out college as a Psychology major. The plan was to become a psychologist and help people. I'll just say that my family helped me make that decision. However, my first class I was placed in was a seminar class for freshmen that was an English/Theatre hybrid. I was the only "Techie" in the class. This was evident by the actor nature of the other students.

Actors are a different bunch. There's a great line from Mel Brooks' The Producers where Max is talking about actors with Leo. The accountant says, "Actors are not animals! They're human beings!" to which Max replies, "They are? You ever eaten with one?"
It's a great line...and it's true. Actors are a very different breed. They hold themselves differently, they talk differently, and they move differently. In all my years with actors, this has always been true. Seriously, just have a meal with a's an experience.

So here I am sitting in a room with a bunch of actor-wannabes (many with inflated egos) when the head of the tech department walks in.
"Sorry to interrupt," she says, "Does anyone here have any experience stage managing."
Now, had I been smart, I would have said nothing. However, my brain was not it is now.
Being that I was in the right place (but it must have been the wrong time) I raised my hand, and said, "I did stage management in high school."
This was not a lie. While I was in high school, I had run some shows, but not in the manner that they wanted. They wanted a guy who had run auditions, planned production meetings, and run tight shows. I had done mostly some of that, but not all, and my school did not have a strong theatre program. It was one guy who pretty much had lost his mind in the 70's.

Still, I raised my hand and said it was me. And I was whisked away faster than the President after someone yells," GUN!" She took me to the basement of building, which, look a good tech setup was dark, warm, and smelled like burning flesh and dust. The room I went to would be the tech head's office. It was a small cubicle at the back of the costume shop. You couldn't see the wall, because it was covered in drawings, and besides a too old computer, there was an old coffee pot that was green with mold. To this day, I shudder to think of how she could drink coffee out of it. I never saw her make any, and I never saw her drink any.

"So," she says, "We're doing The Importance of Being Earnest. We have a brand new director and no stage manager. Auditions are tomorrow. Can you make a meeting this afternoon."
The shock of the fact that I had my first college job was sinking in. I had only been in classes for ten minutes when I was working on my first show. To make matters worse, my brain would stop spinning for a minute for me to hear the tech director say:
"...And they may not listen to you. I mean...after all...we've NEVER had a freshman stage manager do the first show. That being said, you can't get overwhelmed or you'll be killed. Either by Shanna or Rick."
Shanna was the director. She had graduated from Wash U, but returned to direct as a favor. She was actually very calm about the situation. She had four weeks to get the show ready. Rick, however, would hate me from the moment I stepped into the first production meeting. He sat down, looked around the room, and zeroed in on me. "Are you a freshman? Is this guy a fucking freshman," he would ask, then he would laugh. "We're fucked," he finished. This was his supreme confidence in my ability after knowing me for twenty seconds.

He and I would have a contemptuous relationship for the next four years.

The show went well. We were fortunate to have a good cast, and an able crew. Because I could actually run the show, the department decided to consider letting freshmen take more important positions earlier. In fact, of the the eight shows put on that year, six had freshman stage managers.
And because I had taken a position so early, I was able to turn that into thirty-two productions (not including films) before I left college.

All because I was in the right place at the wrong time.

So the moral here is simple:
If opportunity is knocking, open the door. Even if you feel tremendous fear, open that door.
And do whatever you can to look good. If they need a person to work lighting, and you have put a light up on the pipe and plugged it them. Learn. Never stop learning.

Of course what do I know? I'm the guy who licked a live wire. I could be wrong.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Need a Favor

Occasionally, in theatre, you will have to do a favor for someone. It could be because of an emergency, it could be because you owe someone, or it could be because you want something. In my time in theatre, I have managed to experience all three.
During my junior year at Washington University in St. Louis (Go Bears!), the students were given an amazing experience: they re-wrote Alice in Wonderland and created a new version of the play as a multimedia musical. It was amazing. I really wanted to work that show as the stage manager, but because of backstage politics, I was put on the dance show instead. It was my punishment for a previous problem on a show that I did not...handle well. Not the point.

Alice was running at the same time as Wash U's major concert for the student: WILD. This was an imperfect acronym. WILD meant Walk In, Lay Down, as in walk in, lay down, and listen to some great music (Outkast, They Might Be Giants, etc.). However, WIFD was more appropriate (Walk In, Fall Down). Actually, it should have been Walk In, Find a Person, Screw In the Bushes, Get Wasted, Puke, Rock, and Wake Up Somewhere, but WIFPSIBGWPRWUS is not a good acronym. Thus...WILD.
I will admit that I used to drink...a great deal. WILD was the perfect place because you could get drinks off other people with a smile. The key is to find the drunkest people first, and act like you were given permission from someone else. Have a few handy names.
"Oh yeah...Clarissa said it was cool."
"You know, Clarissssssa. Sssweeet. Go ahad (Misspelling unpurpose for pronunciation)."

I had been at WILD for a few hours when I decided to go home. It was raining, and I was without a place to hide from the cold shower. As I walked through the theatre building, the stage manager for Alice came running up to me.

"Oh my God..Oh my God...." He was panted.
"Yes, my son?" I replied, thus beginning the pattern where people would tell me I'm a blasphemer.
"Dude. I really need your help," he said wild with panic.
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"My fly operator is wasted! The guy can't even stand. There's NO way he can run the system. I need you."
I look at the stage manager (his name is Dan), and he's trembling. This is his first really big show, and he doesn't want to blow it. I would end up saving his ass twice more as I would have to break into his car (don't ask), and then help him save face when he basically had sex with a gal in front of everyone on the stove at my house.
Three times...I would become this man's patron saint. Ha.

Now remember, I'm inebriated too. This is my retort.
"Doesn't matter," he says. "Even drunk, you're can run it, and you know it! Please!"
And at this, he gets on his knees.
"I'm on my knees," he tells me in case I have been struck blind. "PLEASE!! HELP ME!!! This is an emergency!"
Maybe it was his begging, maybe it was the fact that he was on his knees, or maybe it was that a lot of the cast was watching, but I agreed.

The fly system in the main theatre at Wash U. is not complicated. It's a very small walkway with a ton of ropes. The first thing I did was bring the drunk crew member up to the second floor. The door to the fly system is always locked, so you have to go into the theatre, climb up a rickety ladder, and then step on the walkway and go to the end to open the door. This is what I did, then I put DJ (I have no idea to this day what his name is, so I call him Drunk John or DJ) in a chair near the ropes I knew I wouldn't be touching. He wanted to go home, but I told him no. I also got him a bucket to puke in.

The show was uneventful, and I did my job as best as I could. No mistakes, but one slightly slow pull on a pipe. They had lost the gloves, so I was pulling with my bare hands on coarse rope. Hurt like Hell. Probably helped that I was buzzed.

And it worked out for the best. I ended up making a bunch of good impressions to the department and got better shows for it. Thus, helping in an emergency can be a good for your reputation.
Owing Someone:
As rare as the total eclipse of the sun, I will owe someone a favor. This was the case during my Sophomore year of college. I owed one of my classmates favor because she helped me when my heart was broken. She was the only one, and I told her I would do anything for her to pay her back. "My solemn vow I give you." Yes, I was a nerd. Shut up.
So, the end of the year comes up, and she decides to direct a show. All in the Timing. It's not a bad show, and she's doing it with kids at the local Jewish Center. So, I'm sitting in my apartment trying to figure out what I did to get myself dumped (I took it really hard) when the phone rings.

"I really need your help," the familiar voice says over the phone.

"I'm busy," I lie in reply. I want to mope.

"You owe me," she says. "I kept you alive. You said anything."

It dawns on me that I did say that. "What do you need," I ask and start looking for pants.

I'm directing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and I need the set painted. We don't have anyone to work on it as the parents are all busy now. Get your paint clothes on, and get down here!"
She gives me the address, and I take off.

It's ok to owe a favor, but make sure to have limits to it. Once I arrived, I started out painting. For four hours, I painted flats to look like an Eyptian landscape. Luckily it had been stenciled, so it was almost paint by numbers.
As I finished the flats, the next request was made.
"Soooooo. Now that you finished that...I REALLY need some props made. And you do owe me."
Here's a tip for those of you who are cashing in a favor on someone. If you want that person to do more, don't lord the favor over them. It doesn't make that person work harder or just pisses most of us off.

The next six hours (SIX HOURS!!!!) would occur in a loop.
1. "You owe me," she would say.
2. She would ask me to work on something.
3. I'd finish it.
4. She'd thank me...
5. Then ask me to do the next task...
6. And I would balk.

Then the cycle would repeat.

In an ironic twist, she would up owing me her life as I kept her from falling off a balcony with a broken railing. Instead of plunging twenty-two stories to her death, she got to instead land safely on top of me while I fell through a glass table. That's caring...I guess.

Now, when it's not an emergency, and it's not a payback, you do something for the final reason:
Sometimes, you do a favor because you want something. It can be as simple as a ride home. It can be as devious as wanting to hurt someone. It can be as cheesy as trying to get to know someone.

During my Junior year (the same year as Alice) I worked on a production of Company. I was the sound engineer which meant I had to program the microphones as well as all the sound effects. Easy task. The show was in our black box, which meant that instead of personal mics, there were mics surrounding the eventual stage, and I just had to balance the feeds. I really didn't want to work on this production, but the stage manager asked me to work on it as a favor.
I thought long and hard about this. She was (and still is probably) a girl, but I didn't want to work on a show where all I was doing was stupid sound effects and microphones. That was until I met the gal who would be running the sound board.
Yes, Virginia, I succumbed to a base desire. I did the favor for the stage manager solely so I could meet and work with the sound board operator. I had been single for a year and decided that was long enough.
It would totally backfire on me, by the way. The board op was beautiful, intelligent, and nice to she could meet my friend Aaron, who she had seen me talking to.
They would date. I would be single until the beginning of my Senior year.
Still, I would at least get to make a gal laugh, which was enough...I guess.

So in the end, favors become a form of currency in theatre. Just make sure that the balance is always in your favor. Because if it isn't, you will get tired of the phone ringing. I have seen it happen.

And learn to wield the strongest word very carefully.
That word?