Don’t Take that Show on the Road


In the spring of 1989 I was Production Manager for Ballet Oregon, and we took the sort of tour struggling regional ballet companies take: to small towns with absurdly underequipped performance halls, and me directing some local volunteers as my sole backstage help.  Having only ever set up performances in the 2500-seat Civic Auditorium, where legions of skilled union stagehands did all the work, superbly, in a gargantuan auditorium blessed with modern conveniences like lighting, rigging, and sound, I had no idea what I was getting into as I loaded up my brand-new, shiny red Ford four-door dually pickup truck a board member had provided for me, thinking what a hit I’d be rolling through the hinterlands in that flashy, chrome-encrusted beast.

We were doing a rep show including the ballet above, one of which was performed in silence with a bunch of lighting tricks, another with traditional tutus and tunics, and had about a dozen dancers, depending on injuries.  I had six rolls of flooring, six booms, forty light fixtures, dozens of rolls of gaffers tape, a crappy sound system I hoped I wouldn’t have to use,  a jumble of cassette tapes (!), and all manner of cable, and electrical fittings, sockets, plugs, and light bulbs to patch back together the nonfunctioning equipment I expected (presciently, it turned out…) I’d encounter along the way.  I wrote a humorous itinerary for the other three vehicles, pointing out scenic sites I knew along the way, such as there were between Portland, Newport, Klamath Falls, Redding, and Arcata.  Everyone’s favorite  was the movie theater in “downtown” Drain, Oregon, which was a rusty quonset hut with an unsettlingly giant marquee in front that said “Drain” in vertical neon letters.  At least we weren’t performing there.

After a grueling but fairly successful maiden performance in Newport, we began the trip to Klamath Falls, where we were to be part of the opening gala for a performing arts center in a newly renovated art-deco former movie theater.  As our convoy got closer to Klamath Falls, we suddenly found ourselves on a road that could have been in Afghanistan (minus the ambushes); a snaking, thin, two-lane ledge thinly cut into impossibly steep hills where my big dually no longer seemed like such an asset, and this slow, scary drive turned out to be a grim foreshadowing of things to come.

After the small, relatively spartan hall in Newport, the theatre seemed monumental, its flashy white facade towering over the drab, desertlike town, and when I walked in the front door after finding no one to open the loading dock, I was impressed.  The elegant lobby was carpeted in deep blue and furnished expensively, and the auditorium was grand as well, with the same deep blue in the seats and curtains, a wide balcony and huge proscenium, and those old-fashioned side boxes just off the wings which provide terrible sightlines but lend charm to the space.  It appeared to have a little less than 1000 seats, and I immediately worried how we could ever fill them, but I was told that at least one of our three performances was already sold out.  Excitedly, I headed backstage, where things went downhill pretty quickly.  I looked up into the cavernous flyloft above the stage and it was….  empty.  No lights.  No drops.  No border curtains.  I stood on that huge and disturbingly deserted stage and stared up  at 75 feet or so of empty pipes and rope, and then, apprehensively, looked back down, and there they were:  the boxes.  Everything, and I mean everything, was still in the boxes, as though UPS just left ten minutes ago, (which, I found out later, was only off by a few hours….).  Eight or ten giant boxes contained the curtains, about fifty contained light fixtures, and a couple dozen of so contained light controlling equipment, but no sound system.  It was about 1:00 pm, and we had to rehearse at 5:00 for an 8:00 pm curtain, and I had a theatre that, well, wasn’t exactly well, built yet.

My contact for production, an understandably nervous woman in her late twenties, ran onstage and, apologizing for her unreadiness, said, helplessly, “The tech guy is late, and he was supposed to bring some people to help, but I haven’t seen anyone yet.”  Flabbergasted, I pointed her to the curtain boxes and told her to start opening them first, while I ran to pull down the rope sets so we could start hanging them.  Working from back to front, we quickly had the cyclorama (the flat white drop furthest upstage onto which background colors are projected) tied into place, but as we raised it it still had all the wrinkles from the box, and because nobody had thought to get a pipe for the bottom to make it taut, it looked like something pulled out of the bottom of a laundry hamper.  I thought my volunteer was going to cry, and not just because I was being even less pleasant than usual, but because she thought she needed to find a fifty-foot pipe, which she was pretty sure the lone hardware in town wouldn’t have in stock.  Realizing that she needed the most soothing possible treatment, lest I lose my one flesh-and-blood stagehand, I explained as patiently as I could that they would have ten-foot pieces, and couplings to connect them, so could she please go get them, NOW?”   She did, and I set about opening and hanging lights and tying on the remaining curtains.   At long last, my “tech guy” appeared, and my heart sunk yet again when I discovered that his “experience” was doing rock and roll shows at dive bars in the area, but what he lacked in brains he made up for in brawn, and he and his buddies, with a lot of direction, at least got my truck unloaded, floors down, and booms up, and it started to look like we might at least be ready for the curtain, even if we had to rehearse downstairs and use my sound system operated from one of the box balconies, since there wasn’t enough cable to reach the control booth.

I had to call the cues from backstage so I installed our lovely, and more importantly, reliable ballet mistress, Carol Shults, in the balcony box on a headset to babysit our somewhat deficient “tech” guy, and, making a vestigial sign of the cross, called the curtain, which opened to reveal a single dancer on stage in semidarkeness; so far so good.  ”Where’s the music?” I whispered to Carol, who replied in her lilting Texas accent, “Ah don’t know; he pushed the button,” followed by awkward silence.  After what seemed like an eternity, still nothing, and Carol’s whispering was was becoming increasingly agitated as the dancer stood there waiting, along with the audience, for something to happen, until suddenly the sound guy stood up, holding a lengthy piece of magnetic spaghetti over the balcony for all to see and announced, “The tape got munched.”

At this point I was huddled over on my stool, not knowing whether to order a blackout or a spotlight on our new “star,” muttering to Carol, “This is horrifying,” whereupon she cut me off, saying with excruciating, frozen smile slowness, “Every eye in this theater is on me, and YOU’RE horrified?”  I called the curtain back down, and Carol set out looking for the backup tape, which, handily enough, was still in the rehearsal room in the basement rather than the balcony where she was, so all I had to do was leave my post, run downstairs and get the tape, then wind through some sort of catacomb to reach the balcony, which would have been easy enough had I known the way, but I didn’t.  Screw it. We’d already made such asses of ourselves that I just walked out onstage and threw the tape to the bozo, which he deftly caught and popped into the machine, and I walked back, sat down, and called the curtain.  It was going to be a long tour.

7 Comments

  1. bystander says:

    At this point I was huddled over on my stool, not knowing whether to order a blackout or a spotlight on our new “star,” muttering to Carol, “This is horrifying,” whereupon she cut me off, saying with excruciating, frozen smile slowness, “Every eye in this theater is on me, and YOU’RE horrified?”

    I’m still going to be laughing in a week. What an adventure! Or, at least, hopefully, you’re far away enough from it now to think of it as one without recurring nightmares. You’ve earned your stripes as a master “cobbler.” I always figured you were multi-talented, but I really had no idea. Wow.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Actually, after writing it I called Carol and we laughed about it again…. She asked if I included the famous rebuttal I got from the dancers when I called “Five minutes to curtain.”
      “Ten minutes to sound.”
      Whenever I have a particularly hard day at work, I think back to those tours and realize how good I have it.

  2. dirigo says:

    Don’t matter whether you’re in or out, coming or going, grappling for that dollar bill that fell between the seats while approaching the toll booth, or slipping on a banana peel while buying the Sunday paper: drama is easy; comedy is hard.

    Good job, hagster.

  3. Now I know why you write so well — you’ve got a life. Thank you for this, Hag, and for the renovation sagas, too. They confirm something that I’ve long thought — if people paid more attention to the life they’re living, and gave it its due, the toxic abstractions currently driving our politics wouldn’t have a chance. Not only that, but the rest of us would be encouraged in ways that don’t measure on the Richter scale, but definitely enhance a feeling of shared community.

    Like they say in the testimonials — I laughed, I cried, and when the lights came up, I shouted author, author. I’m certainly not your only fan, but I’m glad you’re in the world with me, and that I had the good fortune to find your songs of innocence and experience virtually right next door. Life is good.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Thanks, WT, for your kind comment…. Coming from you it especially means a lot. I never know whether people like these stories here or not, but I write them anyway to get them down before I get dementia or something. Hell, it’s my blog. I have a theory, and it applies to writing, too. Funny people are often smartest people, because they have a richer, if slightly cracked, way of looking at life; and can see art and humor even in disaster. (Well, after it’s over, anyway, as Carol pointed out to me…)
      If someone makes you laugh, you can almost bet that there are other good things rattling around in that head.

  4. Fully go along with admn. At last a writter has got the cojonies to tell it like it is.