Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Why We Do ItSioux City, Iowa. Temperature outside: 11 degrees.
I am out on the road with Opera A La Carte. For the 24th year, I am in a overly heated hotel room looking outside at a blanket of snow-covered flatness. We did a show yesterday in Wayne, Nebraska where the temperature at load-out was 3 degrees ("feels like -14" say weather.com). Yesterday the high was 11 and today it looks like we'll get to 20, so we're in for some balmy weather.
Today we drive to Lincoln, Nebraska. Part of this is fun, if you consider the simple pleasures of free raisin bran and whole milk in the morning a fun thing. (I do.) Sometimes putting in a show is fun, albeit hard work (the day goes from 9 a.m until midnight, so it's a long day.) And sometimes, like yesterday, it's not that fun.
Yesterday was one the two days in the last 24 years that I had serious and profound doubts that we would be able to have a show. There are always problems to be solved, but I have never really been in a position to really doubt whether we could do the thing at all. Good, bad or indifferent, the curtain always rises and some kind of lighting comes up and singing occurs and music happens and we do a show. We've had fires, accidents, heart attacks (in the audience), injuries (onstage), more "wardrobe malfunctions" than anyone can count, lost props, dropped lighting cues, dropped lighting instruments (that was fun), ripped curtains, failed scenery, 35 minute intermissions because of impossible set changes -- you name it, we've done it. Every show is different. Every show has its own brand of catastrophe. And every show goes the same way: it starts, it continues, and it ends with applause.
Yesterday was a new one for me. At five minutes before the house opened I had no lighting cues whatsoever. After a day of focusing, troubleshooting dimmers, hanging and patching and cutting non-essentials and (then) cutting essentials, we had finally gotten to a place of looking at cues. And realized, the very hard way, that my lighting guy didn't know how to run the board. Like... AT ALL. Couldn't save a cue, couldn't separate the house lights from the stage lights, couldn't combine more than several lighting channels (they had to be contiguous) more than one chunk at a time.
So my options were to bring up an official cue (with a bunch of different lights) WITH the houselights up all at once, or turn everything off and then build the cue in real time while the singers were singing. Which is what we ended up doing. While the house was filling up, we managed to figure out how to a) turn off the house lights (that was a big step), b) turn on the conductor's light, c) turn on one chunk of stage lighting at a time. Because we could do those three things, at will, on cue, in various orders, we had a show. A show that looked absolutely and incontrovertably BAD... bad bad bad... but a show. And, of course, the audience had no clue and gave us a standing ovation.
Why do we do this? This is a question that my boss (the director/producer and star) and I ask each other all the time. Over the years we've had a variety of answers: "Because we love the money" (yeah right!!!) or "because we're stupid" (my personal favorite for about five years). But the best one we've come up with, that has stuck for a long time is "because we don't know how to stop." This is actually the most true: we don't know how to stop. I don't know how to stop being in this company, with people I've known for half my life, working for a man who is as infuriating and endearing as my father. It happens so sporadically that I have a hard time training replacements and, like childbirth, once the pain is over with there's a curious amnesia that sets in. I don't know how to stop. The company is as much a part of me as I am of it. So here I am again, humping through the world in a Ryder truck, swaddled in scarves and gloves, driving through the night and living on Sun Chips and M&Ms.
Why do we do this? Another answer occurred to me this morning. After the cluster fuck of a show yesterday, a core group of us sat in my partners' room drinking some kind of midwest beer and talking a mile a minute until about 3:30 this morning. We were loud and laughed until we could barely feel our face muscles any more. We discussed the show of course but it rapidly went back to old tours, antics on the road, things we've all collectively seen, done or heard about. People we've worked with over the years. Stories about hijinks, near misses, whacked out personalities, and always the stories about hookups on the road, who's done what with whom.
The stories are great. Laying down sheets of PVC film in a hotel hallway and creating an olive oil slip 'n' slide in Texas. Skinny dipping stories abound -- in the Gulf of Mexico, in various pools (with and without pool covers), in any puddle large enough to justify ripping off clothing and jumping in. (The skinny dipping is a particular art form that two of our members have perfected... they now make it a mission to jump into at least one body of water per tour). Stories that revolve around people, mainly. And the quirky fabulous things that people do when stuck with each other in unusual circumstances for a prolonged period of time.
And I realized that there was a new answer to the "why do we do this?" question. It's because of the stories. The stories give this thing life and justification and release. The stories help us decompress and hold our sides with laughter. The stories are our legend and the glue that will bond us together for many years, long after the company has disbanded.
During yesterday's train wreck, I just sat there and tried to breathe and get through it. And as I did I realized two things: The show does go on, and an answer ALWAYS comes. The answer may not be "Ah ha, now I know how to run the light board." It could be "ah ha, if we can turn the house lights up and the stage lights up it'll look like shit but at least they'll be able to see the stage." It could be "if we make a ton of changes and sacrifices this is a way we'll survive." But the answer always comes.
Why do we do this show called life? It's not just because we don't know how to stop. It really is about the stories. It's about who is doing what with whom and what disasters we've skirted and how we've made it through another near miss. And at the end of the day, we huddle with the closest members of our tribe and remember and define ourselves with love, with laughter, and with the fondest of memories about the very worst situations.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 7:54 AM 2 comments