House to Half, or My Life As A Stage Manager
Domenick Scudera has a regular Festival Blog column about his experiences in the performing arts. He is a longtime theater artist and is the chair of the theater and dance department at Ursinus College.
Stage management is a horrid business. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate how vital stage managers are to the smooth workings of theater production. These people are skilled at, and passionate about, organization. I am not one of these people. But one of my first professional positions in the theater world was as a stage manager. My ego is too big to do a job that is so thankless but I was desperate to pay my rent. It beat the week-old telemarketing job I was working, so why not? I took the gig and stage-managed the same production for about nine months, a harmless, slight comedy at a theater known for mass entertainments–think Nunsense or The Fantasticks–that ran forever and milked every penny from prospective audiences. The show that I stage managed played eight performances a week and, fortunately, demanded very little of me. The people involved were all nice so the stint was not altogether horrible. Boring, though. Night after night, I listened to the same sit-com one-liners played to an audience of tipsy suburbanites. I sat in the booth and occasionally prodded the sleepy light or sound board operator to run a cue. We all yawned our way through it, grateful for the paycheck at the end of the week.
One night was very different than all the others, thank goodness. It was a particularly good crowd, a Friday crowd. Fridays are usually the best for comedy: the members of the audience have been working all week and want to let their hair down to jumpstart the weekend. Amongst the theatergoers in the lobby was a peculiar man arguing with the box office personnel. At first glance, he seemed normal. But a closer inspection revealed mismatched clothes, slicked back hair, and a hint of crazy in his eyes. He was ranting. He insisted that he be allowed in the sold-out performance without a ticket. There was some twisted logic to this, something about how he had paid for another night but only saw half the show, how he knew the producer, how he was entitled for some reason or other. He was a familiar face and had done some menial work at the theater in the past. Stage management, perhaps? The staff buzz was that he was off his meds and that we should ignore his irrational requests. The house manager would have to keep the guy’s erratic behavior under control as the rest of pretended that it was business as usual.
The lobby lights blinked and I made my way up to the booth to start the show. The booth, above the audience, was not really a booth at all. It was a balcony looking over the audience, so I could see and hear what was happening in the house during a performance. Settling into stage manager automatic pilot, I cued the light board operator: “House to half.”
A murmur rose from the back of the house. I looked down to discover that Crazy Guy had slipped past House Manager. He ran into the theater and glued himself to the wall behind the last row in the audience. He continued his vocal tirade about his right to see the show. House Manager, not knowing what else to do, calmed him by telling him he could watch the show if he stood quietly in the back. Problem solved.
“House out and light cue one: go.” Actors entered. The madcap plot involved a young Jewish woman who has a non-Jewish boyfriend. She hires an actor to “act” the part of the ideal Jewish boyfriend to meet her judgmental parents at Seder dinner. Or something like that. I sat through the show umpteenth times and I cannot recall the story very well. Still, audiences ate it up and the production was in the midst of a healthy run. For the first few minutes on this night all was going smoothly as usual and the audience was laughing at the modest little jokes.
Then came another small outburst below me. A few heads in the audience turned toward the back of the house. The sound got louder. Crazy Guy was arguing anew with House Manager. More heads turned away from the stage and toward the train wreck that was occurring behind the last row. The actors, now competing for the audience’s attention, bravely continued, shouting out their lines as the Jewish girl and her hired beau set the table for Seder dinner. Crazy Guy was hitting a fevered pitch, again insisting that he was entitled to a seat. House Manager grabbed him, in a final effort to bodily remove him from the theater. Crazy Guy crumpled to the floor like a sack of potatoes, screaming, “Help! HELP! Call 9-1-1! Call 9-1-1!” By now, the entire audience was watching the drama in the back of the theater and ignoring the comedy on stage. The plucky actors kept acting.
The audience started to get vocal: “I can’t hear the play!” “What’s going on?!” “I want my money back!”
Crazy Guy had found his audience and the poor actors did not know what to do. I did not know what to do. Without a plan in my head, I ran down the stairs from the booth, up the aisle of the theater, and catapulted myself onto the stage. The actors, still mechanically saying their lines and already frazzled, were shocked to find the stage manager in the middle of the action onstage. I heard myself talking, “Attention. Attention please!”
The actors stopped acting. The audience stopped shouting. Even Crazy Guy took a break. Suddenly two hundred and fifty people were staring at me. It was like the actor’s nightmare where you are thrust onstage and you do not know your lines. Except that I was not an actor, I was a stage manager with no experience. And this was not a dream.
Flop sweats. I stammered a sad little apology and then muttered that “the police have been called.”
These were the magic words. No sooner had “police” escaped my lips than did Crazy Guy lunge out of the theater. I watched in amazement as the giant elephant in the room loped out the door and onto the street.
Two hundred and fifty heads whipped back to me again.
“Uhh . . .”
What to do? I looked at the actors in panic. One of them suggested we rewind and start over. The audience stared at us—was this part of the performance? The actors dutifully stepped back through the door to repeat their initial entrances. I shouted too loudly to the light board operator to return to the first cue. I hurriedly ran to my safe haven/booth/balcony.
The play started again. The audience, now completely confused, watched the stage. No one was complaining or leaving now, so my heartbeat settled back into a normal pace. Then I realized a new problem was about to arise. The scene the actors were starting involved setting the table, but they had already set the table prior to the incident. As stage manager, it was my responsibility to set the props prior to the performance. All was fine for Take 1, but I had not reset it for Take 2. What were the actors going to do? A bead of sweat dropped from my forehead and onto my nose. The actors paused and glanced uncomfortably at the already-set table.
“Um, will you help me . . . uh . . . move things around on this table?” one of the actors improvised. She straightened a napkin. “I’m a perfectionist!”
Another slight pause as the audience drank this in. Then they roared with laughter, thrilled to be in on the joke. In an instant, the meager comedy was the funniest play they had ever seen. The actors, who had been sleepwalking through eight shows a week, discovered a freshness to the performance that they had not had since opening night. Each successive joke evoked a huge response. Especially in Act 2, when the father character has a heart attack and the mother yells, “Call 9-1-1!” That brought the house down. The playwright had intended for this to be the sole serious moment in the play, but it was the biggest laugh on this night.