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Tuesday, 19 April
The Dark Backward

In college, I was on the booth crew for a production of Lysistrata which happened to use these groovy things called, if memory serves, periaktoi. These were tall triangular dealies set upstage that had different scenes painted on them that could be turned to change settings throughout the play; by cannily rotating them, one could display not only different scenic views, but also artfully arrange them so as to provide entrances and exits for the actors. Very Greek, or something. The stagehands--in Greek dress, of course--whose job it was to manipulate these things were called, inventively, "periaktoi turners."

I will never know how people let themselves be convinced to do these sorts of theater jobs. You get zero stage glory, and are in fact very lucky if the actors bother to notice you at all (unless you fuck up, in which case you will be noticed very quickly). You work the same hours as the rest of the people there, except that your job is boring, menial and mindless. Have you ever heard anyone brag about being a stagehand?

For this show, the stage manager hung out backstage; he was a big football-playin' kind of guy named Greg (he was also an actor, but he was fulfilling part of his degree requirements by stage managing). One of the periaktoi turners was a horribly shy little thing whose name is lost to me now. All I remember was that she was painfully self-conscious about being onstage, particularly in a scant little toga-thing, even though all she did was turn these big dumb things around all night.

One night she went out onstage to do her thing and rotated the periaktos into position, which happened to block her from getting back offstage. Usually, after getting it into position, she would crack a small opening for herself, slip backstage, and then adjust it back to its position. However, on one night, Greg was standing backstage, and from his perspective, noticed the in-position periaktos start to move. It was shy thing trying to slip backstage. But Greg thought, "Uh oh. This thing is slipping." So he put one beefy hand on it to prevent any motion.

Shy thing tried to move it again, but she had no hope of budging Greg, who had a hundred pounds on her and was involved in headset chatter anyway. I saw this all from the booth. She pushed. Nothing. She pushed again. Nothing. Actors were filing onstage, ready to start the scene, and eyed her curiously. She noticed the actors. She knew she wasn't supposed to be there, and there was nowhwere to go: all other exits backstage were being used by the actors. I watched in horror as she turned out full to face the audience, and seemed to crumple under the weight of its collective stare.

She burst into tears and then ran off the stage, up through the audience and out the exit doors, sobbing like a fresh widow.

We were out one periaktoi turner.

-----

In another college show, I was in a production of a minor Pirandello piece called The Rules of the Game. This show, which features kind of a broke-leg love triangle and a WHOLE LOT of windy bullshit about the philosopher Henri Bergson, was just about enough to put even the stoutest of audiences to sleep (we were not helped by the director, who insisted on a black-and-white checkerboard floor, to represent the GAME OF CHESS that the characters are playing . . . genius, dude). It certainly put me to sleep, and I was onstage.

One night while enduring some dialogue about fucking Bergson, I started to think about a recent successful date and how to follow it up. I had some grand plan built up too, damn it, because I was really proud of myself for whatever I had come up with, but then I noticed my fellow actor looking at me with a rather piercing, expectant look. It was obviously my line. Unfortunately, I had traveled so far with my woolgathering that I hadn't the faintest damn idea where we were. I could barely remember what scene we were in. How does the master actor recover?

I cleared my throat politely and said, "Come again?" Very period. The other guy fixed me with a glare of purest hatred and replied, "What? You're wondering about Bergson's attitudes on blah blah blah blah . . . ?" Whatever. He was cuing me for my line.

I recovered just fine. But typically--for were we all not just little buttholes when we were college students? Because I sure was--for the rest of the scene, I felt a burning resentment towards the other guy for making it plain that I had blown a line and he didn't like it. So I tortured him for the rest of the play by occasionally fixing him with blank stares before saying my line, feigning more memory lapses. By the end, he looked like a pithed frog trying crawl around the stage. Me? I was just a big fuckhead. Sheesh.

(Different night, same play: At the end of act one, I am on a chaise with a lovely young actress, and as the lights go down, we slowly begin to engage in a sexually charged embrace. The lights are supposed to be out before we get anywhere. But one night the stage manager blew the cue, and so as I lowered myself down to her, the lights remained blazing. This is great! I thought, as she had no real choice but to start passionately kissing me. I have no illusions that she shared any part of my thoughts on the matter. In fact, after the lights finally did go down, she hissed at me backstage, "What the fuck was that?" Even then I could make the ladies swoon.)

-----

In a show I did here in Seattle called--it was hugely successful, by the way--Poona the Fuckdog and Other Stories for Children, one of my roles (backstage, on a mic) was that of a powerful computer that seduces a child named Suzy Suzy into committing murder by just pressing buttons on her PC. I adopted a smooth, radio DJ kind of voice to "be" the computer.

Okay, here's the thing. I'll just come out and say this. I had a really stressful meeting earlier in the day, something that involved theater company business, where feelings were vented, tears were shed, etc. Anyway. I had too much wine to drink.

THIS IS VERY BAD. GOOD ACTORS DO NOT SHOW UP TO SHOWS LIQUORED UP. And yet. It wasn't my finest hour.

In truth, I coped pretty well. I didn't fuck up spectacularly or vomit or anything (but still--very bad!). But when it came time to do the computer voice, I hit a snag. During one of my lines, my tongue tripped on itself and I made a very audible blunder with a line. This would not do: computers don't drunkenly slur their words. So I stopped in mid-sentence. I thought for a half-second. Then I smoothly ad-libbed:

"Sorry. Disk error." And continued on with my line.

The onstage actress said later that she thought she was going to cry. Incidentally, the same actress on another night stepped on my foot as we were crossing onstage. I was in a frog costume. (Look, don't ask. My roles in that show were [seriously] Shrub, Frog and the Computer.) When she stepped on my foot, she inadvertantly tore off my big floppy frog costume foot. I yelled, "Jesus, lady, that really stings!"

-----

Finally (though I have so many more of these, Lord), a show I did called The Naked King, which was a kind of conflation of about nine different fairy tales into one story. Anyway, I was playing the sidekick to the hero, and the two of us spent a good portion of the show in disguise, wearing terribly itchy fake beards and mustaches. After one scene ended, I exited, and relievedly tore off the fucking beard and threw it into my little storage cubbyhole. Time for a little respite from the accursed hair.

Then I heard my entrance line. What the fuck? Yes, I had completely de-brained where we were in the play. I did not have a break at all. I was supposed to be onstage right now. I pivoted on one foot, trying to travel in nine different directions at once as all my neurons screamed to me to fix this, this is bad! I had no time to put the beard on and get the elastic straight over my head or anything: it was my line and I wasn't on stage! The actors out there were really fucked.

So I grabbed the beard and jammed it into my mouth, holding onto it with my teeth. It must have looked like I had gone feral and hunted down a mangy rat. I ran onstage.

"GOOFER BLIGHT NEN GO MY!" I said. I had a nasty old stage beard in my teeth. I wasn't the height of enunciation. My co-actors stared at me as if I had run onstage brandishing my naked penis. One of them immediately stopped looking at me and stared only at the floor in a kind of instantaneous catatonia. The other guy twitched his eyes at me spastically; I could see he was fighting mightily not to grin, and tears threatened the corners of his eyes. He choked out his next line to me, and I dutifully responded: "Diff chin gay moe." The hair was starting to tickle my gums.

I don't know how we got through that scene. I can tell you that we got some serious laughs, though.

It's stuff like this that makes me think that I'll go back someday.

Confess | Skot | 19 Apr, 2005 |

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Comments

Dearie me, I do love good theatre stories.

My proudest on stage moment: Moliere's "The Imaginary Cuckhold". All in rhyming verse. I was playing Martine, wife of the main character, Sganarelle. Our "house" was a large flat, suspended from cables attached to one of the batons in the rigging. Halfway through our final performance, both cables mysteriously let go, bringing the whole thing down. There was deadly silence.

I don't know where it came from, but I blurted out,

"Oh my goodness Sganarelle,
Look at that; our house just fell."

I nearly got a standing ovation in the middle of the show. Rock.

Comment number: 005217   Posted by: galetea on April 19, 2005 03:49 AM from IP: 195.149.26.15

I was in a production once (for the life of me I can't even remember what it was....it was that terrible) where I played a man from an Eastern European country. At one point in the play, the character pretends to be an Irish priest. I had to walk around the stage dressed like a priest saying things like "Kiss my Blarney," and "Bless my shamrocks" in a half-Irish half-Romanian accent.

One of the other acters had gone to the bathroom backstage and missed her entrance. By about 3 minutes. Everybody onstage froze. Instead of just standing there, I started into a comedy routine in which I spouted out and messed up every Irish cliche, and referred to every stereotype.

Believe it or not, that was the best part of the show.

Comment number: 005218   Posted by: KOTWF on April 19, 2005 06:47 AM from IP: 65.78.210.155

one of MY most brilliant moments was....

Comment number: 005219   Posted by: best actor EVER on April 19, 2005 08:00 AM from IP: 167.88.200.30

Thanks for the laugh - now I can't stop. Mangy rat! Oh, I was a stagehand and the spotlight girl in high school. It's fun, that's why we do it.

Comment number: 005220   Posted by: laura on April 19, 2005 09:13 AM from IP: 24.173.61.244

Glad to hear you haven't forsaken us forever...

Comment number: 005221   Posted by: S on April 19, 2005 12:18 PM from IP: 66.235.0.193

The last one made me cry. And I'm at work.

Comment number: 005222   Posted by: dayment on April 19, 2005 01:29 PM from IP: 64.105.86.146

because of your "disk error" story there are now little pieces of vegetarian bologna sandwich splattered liberally over my monitor and wedged in my keyboard.

Comment number: 005223   Posted by: dolface on April 19, 2005 01:35 PM from IP: 207.1.189.2

For what it's worth, I'd passionately kiss your sense of humor, with tongue, teeth, and tonsils, whether the stage lights malfunctioned or not.

Comment number: 005224   Posted by: actressy dame on April 20, 2005 01:33 AM from IP: 24.124.71.36

I shall never go back,
Never go back,
Never go back,
Never go back to the stage, OH.

And your stories are not weakening my resolve.

Comment number: 005234   Posted by: Kate on April 20, 2005 04:53 PM from IP: 161.114.32.112

Help. I can't stop laughing. Curse you, Skot!

Comment number: 005235   Posted by: Harry on April 20, 2005 07:06 PM from IP: 207.69.137.204

Wow. Do some of these ring a bell or what. I laughed until I cried and then send your URL on to all my actor/singer friends. Hooray for acting bloopers! More, please.

Comment number: 005240   Posted by: Shelly on April 21, 2005 06:48 PM from IP: 140.142.172.189

Oooh, more of these, please! They never get old!
We do it because we love the theatre, but have absolutely no talent to speak of. At least, that's why I occasionally got involved with backstage stuff.
And theatre bloopers are almost always hilarious.

Comment number: 005242   Posted by: CG on April 22, 2005 01:27 AM from IP: 70.19.108.155

Crying. Thank you.

Comment number: 005245   Posted by: Jon on April 23, 2005 01:23 PM from IP: 216.231.47.148

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