Bats in the Belfry (or fly house as the case may be)

At least once or twice a season we have unexpected visitors that crash the stage. Who are they might you ask? BATS!

As a theater in an older building with shop doors that are open at least part of the day for construction the cool, dark fly house of the stage must seem like the perfect bat home. Often due to the increased noise and longer period of activity onstage the bats (or bats) make their presence know on the first day of tech.

In one memorable moment a winged visitor dive bombed the stage greatly surprising Dr. Frankenstein while he was singing about the brain. And one patron thought we did a marvelous job with the special effects on opening night of Baskerville because the bat flew over the audience just as the haze and fog were building for the reveal of the hound.

Each year we make sure that we know the location of the bat net. This large wire mesh net, that looks like a fish net, doesn’t really help to catch the critters but it sure makes a lot of folks feel better. Some people say that the bats must be in tribute to Bela Lugosi who performed his legendary role in Dracula on the Playhouse stage in the 1950s.

Trust Your Stage Manager

I was passing off a show during the tech process in which the incoming SM was working on establishing relationships with the 3 person cast. Halfway through the first day of tech, the lead actor approached me with a flushed face, chills, shakes, and a high fever. We sent him home and canceled the rest of the day after assessing that his temperature wasn’t high to be a danger and he refused to go get himself checked out – which would have been at the ER as it was in the evening. Next day, it was clear he wasn’t well still and he didn’t refuse the idea of seeing a doctor who determined that it was a stomach virus. Bed rest was ordered for 2 days which meant cancelling the first preview. This actor woke up the next day insistent that he was well enough to proceed forward and finish teching along with doing the first preview. After a couple hours of rehearsal, the incoming SM saw how unwell he still was even though he insisted he was fine. She sat him down and said “I need to trust that I can safely send you out on the stage without you falling over. Can you honestly tell me that you will make it?” The Actor took a moment, realized the seriousness of the situation and the care this new SM had for him and answered that he needed more rest. Preview was cancelled and after another day of rest, the Actor was well again to perform at the next scheduled preview.

Stage Managers have your back and want you to be safe and well!

Reporters in the house!

When you are in the middle of an unplanned event, the stakes certainly can feel incredibly high. I am definitely glad we didn’t know that a Chicago Tribune reporter was in the house on the night that the lights went out on THE NIGHT ALIVE. The article is here:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/chi-power-outage-steppenwolf-night-alive-20141106-story.html

Apparently, the city of Chicago had scheduled a black out on a performance night, however this was an unexpected surprise to us in the booth when the power went fully out mid-show – light system out, sound system out, all went completely dark with a 20’ drop into the pit downstage and actors onstage. Emergency lights popped on without much delay.

Throwing off the now useless headset, I ran to the open air sound cockpit and in the calmest voice possible (no god mic – no power) used my “tech voice” to announce technical difficulties and to have everyone stay seated while we investigated the situation. An amendment was made for anyone needing to use the restroom. “Please feel free to get up if you need to use the restroom – house management staff has flashlights if you need assistance.”

Basement office and dressing rooms were plunged into complete darkness while crew and SM staff circled up the cast. We had walkies to communicate with FOH that the SM team jumped on to figure out the next steps.

The rest is in the article, but with the audience demanding and cast game for it the crew and stage management grabbed torch flashlights and using them like improvised spots with cellphone flash lights to supplement were able to light the cast enough to continue the play. The play finished on the deck level to the side of the stage – an area without a 20 foot drop – with simulated staging like a semi-staged reading. Biggest applause of the run – audiences sure do love a “live theatre” event.

The next day’s article was a surprise to all. Really glad we didn’t know there was a reporter in the midst but a reminder that you never know who is out there!

CHECK LISTS!!!

CHECK LISTS: I am a big fan of the “actual” check list. What I mean by this is checking something off and looking at it each and every time. I came to this realization when once, in a large regional theatre, the SM started the show without a couch in place and we had to bring it in. So, especially in a long-running show, and I have done a few of these, it is very possible to believe you have everything in order but like the impression left over by a stamp, your brain tricks you.

So, I was training a stage manager on a production of “Strange Snow”. On the set there was a break-away window that needed to be replaced every night. The actor had to punch through the glass in a pivotal scene in the first act. As a safety check, the curtains were left hanging down when the hard plexy was in place and for the top of the show, they were tied up, revealing the sugar glass window.

It was nearing the time for the actor to do his punch and I was observing the replacement SM from their little perch in the back of the 99 seat house. I looked up to see, the curtains hanging straight down. Well, I shot down that ladder and around to the backstage. I pulled the nails out of the plexy on the window (knowing that my “method” actor would punch it no matter what) and sweating with a leko aimed directly my back, carefully put the plexy on the ground. I picked up the sugar glass and had just gotten the third nail in to it when I heard the cue. I ducked and the sugar glass shot over my head.

Needless to say, the replacement SM believed me about my check list after that.

Worth It

Recently we had one of THOSE nights: a major drop used for the majority of act two couldn’t come in and I and my crew made many adjustments on the fly, including during that 22 second set change while the audience was watching a video. The new sound board op jumped my cues twice in the same night, too. However, after the show the ASM and I met some famous choreographers and were introduced as the stage managers. The first words out of their mouths were “Flawless!” followed by telling us how all the scenery went in and out perfectly. They then relived several production moments for us. Yeah, that was kinda fun! Though perhaps my favorite part was my friend’s little boy on headset during a post-show tour – the crew talked to him and his eyes were big with “Who said that?” as they guided him to look around the stage for the person waving to him. ❤️End of night = worth it all!

Best Compliment

I joined the stage management team for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in the fall of 1991. The show that year was the one they’d been doing for a number of years with no changes. The crew was the same, the sets and lights were the same; I was the newbie. I studied hard to learn to call the show (to this day, the most difficult show I’ve ever called). Finally, the day came to solo my first time. I was nervous but had the support of everyone I was working with. The first compliment came when I cued the snow for a scene and the fly floor dumped snow on my head as I was calling – they knew it would not rattle me and they were right. But the best compliment came at the end of the show when the show electrician, Marty Fuller, came back after and said: “You called a great show! You called all the cues just where we DO them!” I have carried that as a badge of honor ever since.

Off the beaten path

Usually when a backstage track has been established, you keep to it to be consistent. Every so often some arises where you must go off track. Then there are those rare moments when you go off track and you don’t know why until something does happen to explain it. For me, I was ASMing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I was curious about a part of the show from a particular backstage perspective – the theatre this was in was shaped like a classic Greek theatre – stage thrusts out, downstage entrances are voms that go deep to the backstage area. The walls of these voms had wide ledges and our Oberon was staged to sit on one while Puck told him what he did to Titania which resulted in Oberon laughing so hard that he would fall off the ledge into the vom. Puck is worried but then Oberon would bound out to congratulate him. Early in the preview process, I had a bit of free time and rather than just passing by this vom to go directly to my next stopping point, I stood by to watch Oberon drop into it. He dropped only rather than bouncing back up, he began crawling towards me – realizing he must have landed wrong and broke something, I instantly radioed up to my SM to tell her the actor was injured and to stop the show which she did. We tended to the actor till the ambulance arrived and needless to say the performance did not continue that evening.

The dummy didn’t drop!

My favorite shows tend to be farces or ones with fast costume and scene changes like “The 39 Steps” or “Compleat Work of Shakespeare Abridged”. And when you work on a show where you are constantly moving around backstage, any troubleshooting that arises needs to happen on the go.  So when we started Act 2 of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and we didn’t hear the “plop” of the dummy body drop to the stage from the grid when it was supposed to – a crucial prop piece that would show up again in a scene following the one we were about to change into – the troubleshooting commenced as we readied ourselves to go onstage to set the next scene. The plan I came up with was to send the wardrobe person to get a spare costume suit from the dressing room after she did the scene change and then we would grab some pillows from the green room and stuff them into the suit thereby creating a makeshift dummy. After quickly imparting that plan to wardrobe and the PA, we popped out for the shift and as I rolled off a set piece – hands full with Dr. Watson’s medical instruments – the actor playing Holmes grabs me and whispers in my ear “The dummy didn’t drop!” – to which I quickly whispered back, “we know, we have a plan” and we moved on. Wonderful thing about the show is that there is room for ad libbing so when we tossed the makeshift dummy out onto the stage, the actors had to take a moment to laugh and comment with the audience.

Can you please switch channels?

In the middle of calling an aerial act during a show I got a radio call to ask if I could switch to channel 4.  Channel 4 is the spare open channel needed for emergency situations.

After switching to channel 4. I am informed that our generator is on fire.  I ask if it is the generator running our show currently or the back up.  It’s of course the one running our show. I ask if we are switching over to our back up and I am told that it is the control panel that is on fire and they cannot manually switch the generator over to the back up or switch the generator off.

I look back at my darkish set with the full company performing, several flying through the air.

Got on come told all stage managers to be on deck in the wings with flashlights. All crew to standby for a black out and that we would stop the show and all would exit stage.  Just as I reached for the cue light signal to stop the show and also inform the band. The radio call came through, “ALL CLEAR- The transformer switch over on its own, we are now extinguishing the fire, you are set running power on the back up generator.”  Then the show continued as normal.

Beating the stereotype in Texas

As a person from the south I am used to being one of a few Jews in my neighborhood or in school, but it was never a big deal.

While on tour with a dance company in Texas, a member of the stage crew came up to me after he noticed my Star of David necklace and he exclaimed “ You’re Jewish?!” I replied yes. He gave me a puzzled look. I asked if he was okay. And he told me that he had never met a Jew before. I told him to look across stage at our company manager. He did. I congratulated him as he just doubled the Jewish population that he knew!!!

Later that night, the light board at this theatre crashed and we lost all our cues. During intermission the lighting supervisor, company manager and I are all in the booth.  I start calling out channels numbers and the lighting supervisor is programming sub masters and we are making a plan to call the 2nd act via sub masters and I notice a different crew member (the former board op for the evening) looking very perplexed.

I ask if he’s okay and he responds that we were all women and in charge and he was just really impressed.

I took a deep breath and thanked him and informed him that world is a changing!