Friday, December 24, 2010

The Hidden Dangers of Musical Theater

With Monday's news about a fourth show-stopping injury at Spider-Man, and all the attendant press and snark (my favorite comment, from JeffMacIsHere on Twitter: "I think it's time the producers of the Spiderman musical just go ahead and let Christine Daae play Spiderman."), my own feelings about the show have been swinging more wildly than a high school Peter Pan, and I keep thinking about one story in particular from early in my now-defunct stage management career. It filled my head enough that I decided to break my rule about blogging about theater. Hey, at least it's got me writing!

One of my first jobs was as a production assistant (a low-level member of the stage management team) on a technically complex Broadway show. At one point, after a scene change, the lights came up on an actor alone onstage. After a moment, another actor emerged from underneath the first one's elaborate costume. (I could explain why this was, but we'd be here for days.) The actors entered in a blackout, the second one crawling under the costume of the first, at the same time as a huge, heavy, automated wall flew in behind them. At our second preview, they were just a few inches too far upstage, and the wall landed on top of the costume and kept moving, wedging the crawling actor's head between it and the floor, before being stopped and reversed.

I didn't see any of this happen. PAs aren't on union contracts, and so aren't allowed to run shows on Broadway. They're mostly rehearsal assistants, but stay on through previews to help with those rehearsals, finish paperwork, etc. What I remember most about that day is how exhausted I was. It was our last day before a day off after two weeks of 12-hour tech rehearsals. We'd had our first preview the night before, then come in for two hours of morning rehearsal before this matinee. Everyone was kind of a wreck. I didn't have anything to do during the show that day, so I was half-asleep in the office, wearing a headset in case anyone needed me, and suddenly I heard the voice of the head carpenter in my ear screaming "Take it out, take it out, take it out!" and I ran to the stage.

I don't remember what happened next, but I do remember being out on the sidewalk, still wearing my headset and holding the cordless phone from the office, waiting to meet the paramedics and lead them in through the stage door. The headset was out of range, but it helped signal to the thousand or so audience members on the street that I worked there and please get out of my way. It also signaled this to a reporter who happened to be there to interview one of the actors after the show. I don't remember saying anything I shouldn't have, but I do remember being slightly terrified and looking around for our press agent.

The ambulance came and went, and I got in a cab to follow it. The stage managers stayed at the theater with the director to rehearse the understudy, and company management had to deal with all the patrons who didn't get to see the show, which meant lowly I was the only member of the management staff at the ER for a while. The rest of the cast was released and most of them showed up. It's not like in the movies where everyone is still wearing their costume and make-up, but it was definitely a strange waiting room to be in. And even though I'd had nothing to do with the accident personally, I remember how awful the whole thing felt for all of us. If any of us threw any blame around, it was only about how tired everyone was. No one got mad at the set, or the crew, or even at the director who'd worked us so hard (okay, maybe a little).

The accident had been the result of several little mistakes, most of which were only apparent in hindsight. The actors were in the wrong place. The furniture that was set at the same time as their entrance was in the wrong place too. The stage manager was watching on an infrared (night vision) monitor, but those have poor depth of field, so she couldn't tell anything was wrong until it was happening.

In the end, the actor was fine – lucky the wall stopped when it did, and with a mild concussion, but fine – and we took our scheduled day off and came back to work on Tuesday. The first order of business at that rehearsal was changing the transition where the accident had happened. The changes were small. The entrance was moved downstage a bit. The spike marks for the sofa were changed, and the actors now followed the crew on with it, and used it as a guide. A second infrared camera had been installed with an overhead/side view so the stage manager could see better. SMs and crew watched from either side of the stage.

I can't think of a single show I worked on later where there wasn't at least one odd cue that was in place because something had gone wrong once. From watching moving scenery that has no reason to fail but once did so we always make sure, to checking an actor's fly before he goes onstage, because there was this one time.... You prepare for as much as you can, but sometimes the mistake has to happen so you know it's even possible, and then you know how to prevent it.

Theaters are dangerous places. It's easy to forget that, since acting isn't brain surgery or firefighting, and if it's being done right it should look effortless to the audience. But big musicals are full of moving scenery and trap doors and lots of people in tight spaces in the dark. I've worked on small shows that were arguably more dangerous, since lack of space and technology meant lots of unique storage solutions, heavy lifting, and cramped quarters. There can be swords or guns or pyro or even just the fact that the act of pretending to be someone else sometimes takes you out of yourself enough to do something clumsy. Or you just happen to do something clumsy because we all do sometimes, only 1,000 people are watching.

And then there are dancers! People who willingly do crazy things with their bodies eight times a week. (See also, acrobats, athletes and circus people). Movements that might not be dangerous on their own can take a huge toll when combined with others and repeated over and over again. Choreography could be adjusted but usually isn't. But those injuries don't make the press, and no one goes on Twitter calling for the shutdown of the show. It's just the job, and there's a culture of sucking it up. What I did for love, and all that.

So I've been trying hard not to judge the Spider-Man situation too much. I have no idea what it's like in that theater, and I know from experience not to trust all the press reports and certainly not those audience eyewitness accounts of Monday's accident. They've been under such scrutiny from the day the show was announced, which adds to the swirl of emotions within the theater community, I think. There's a wish that Broadway would get this amount (though not this kind) of attention all the time. There's a lament that within the community we're so quick to jump bitchily on splashy failures or movie star stunt casting, but we're not equally vocal about supporting lesser-known shows that we love. That's a really good point. But it's wrapped up in the gripe that theater producers (commercial ones, especially) don't take enough risks, and what could be riskier than Spider-Man? I know they mean artistic risks like The Scottsboro Boys and Next to Normal, but why not also create a big spectacle the likes of which no one has ever seen before? One that will employ hundreds of people, and bring thousands of tourists to a Broadway show? The odds are so against them ever making their money back, even if no one had been injured and the show is a hit, I have to believe that there was once some real belief in the project, and in the joy of creating something wildly imaginative and special. That it appears not to have turned out to be that is unfortunate, but it's not like Julie Taymor is some hack without any artistic cred. This show is an artistic risk. You can't argue that it's not something new.

The economics of Broadway are simple, in that they are generally bad. Unlike a film, which pretty much costs what it costs once, and can be shown many times a day on many many screens and then move on to DVD, a live show can only go up eight times a week, in one place with only so many seats, and continues to incur costs every week. So the odds of making back your initial investment are generally against you. That's not to say that it's all for love and no one ever gets rich doing it, but in a world of gambles this one seems a little bit insane. So even without U2 or Julie Taymor or the accidents, this thing was always going to be a major story. It's the Titanic of musicals (which, oddly, wasn't Titanic: The Musical) and look how that turned out in the end.

The sad truth is that no matter how worked up we theater people may get about a show we love, the national press only cares about this story because of the apparent hubris behind the show and the potential for disaster. All the good vibes in the world won't make them report on a little show that most of the country won't even get an opportunity to see. I kind of wonder if most of the people who hear about Spider-Man care, even now. Living in the bubble of New York and the theater world, we can't get enough. Do most people skip over these stories like I do with sports news?

I, for one, was really looking forward to Spider-Man. I've been a Julie Taymor fan since long before The Lion King (this makes absolutely no sense out of context but it's the only clip I can find), and as much as I love serious musicals, I also love a good spectacle, and a good time. I also think a diverse season is good for the business, and I love to see giant touristy shows like this alongside smaller, "deeper" fare. Something for everyone. If it brings people to the city, or gives kids their first live theater experience, or employs my friends, I don't have to like it. Not that I've never made a snarky comment or six about a crappy show, but in the end I'm glad they're there. (For a great look at a particularly odd season, check out Show Business: The Road to Broadway.)

So I want to be supportive and not judgey since I don't know the whole story and I know if I worked there I wouldn't want to hear it. But I also know people in the show and I don't want them to get hurt. And when I read things like this (again, with a grain of salt), I have to wonder what they were thinking. Really? There was no verbal verification of being hooked in? I learned that at summer camp when I was 12.

To their credit, the folks at Spider-Man don't seem to have made the same mistake twice. But on most shows those mistakes don't involve falling 30 feet or more. I keep thinking about the exhaustion factor. The show has been in tech and previews for weeks now. Everyone is working incredibly long days at a physically demanding job. The technology might be safe, and the procedures might make perfect sense, but that environment can't be helpful. Again, I have no way of knowing this. I haven't seen their schedule. But remembering my own experience, which is nothing compared to this (well, the concussed actor might disagree), it's the thing I keep coming back to.

So I wish them well, in every sense. The show employs a lot of people, so I want it to run for a very long time. I want it to be a happy and safe workplace. I've paid for a ticket, so I want it to be entertaining. Lots of other people have paid for tickets, and I suspect for many it will be their first Broadway show, so I'd like it to stop being a punch line (as funny as those Conan sketches are, they're not exactly making the case for musical theater as a viable art form). Most of all, of course, I don't want anyone else to get hurt. I feel bad for the company having to go through this. I feel a little bad even writing about it, and contributing to the glut out there, but I guess I wanted more than 140 characters for a change.

And if the show runs, and tons of people come here to see the spectacle, I hope they see a smaller show the next night. The tickets even cost less! It will be totally worth your while.

I leave you with this, which is unfair, but so ridiculous that it shouldn't count:

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