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(Sorta) Safe Landings, or Hell Week in the Theatre


Rain hammers at the windows as outside, a lance of lightning splits the sky. The rickety Cessna’s every seam rattles in the ensuing thunderclap. It’s been through its share of storms, but every storm is different, and this one is a humdinger.

Flashes of lightning sporadically light up the faces of the passengers. There is screaming terror, dumbstruck panic, horrified weeping. Some are praying, rocking as they mumble in their own tiny space. Some look ready to vomit at any moment. One, at least, has already done so.

There’s a BANG and a shudder rocks the plane. It’s impossible to say exactly what, but something has come off. In the spasmodic flashes of lightning, smoke is now visible out the windows. The wind tosses the craft around like a toddler with its favorite toy.

The scene in the cockpit is grim. A pilot mops sweat from his forehead, wrestling the stick for control of the plane — it bucks and thrashes in his hand like an angry python. Dimly he hears the screams of the passengers, but he’s much more concerned with the wind and the lightning and the looming mountain. Not enough altitude. The wheels clip the tops of trees, branches scraping the bottom of the plane like the grasping fingers of restless corpses. Another lurch as the wheel on one side is wrenched away.

But over the top of the hill — there, the landing strip. A faraway, flickering oasis. The engine coughs and stalls. They won’t be making it that far.

The doomed craft careens through the sky, passing low — too low — over farmhouses and fields toward the airfield. It wobbles drunkenly, smoke streaming from one engine like it’s a coal power plant before anybody ever heard of the EPA. It dives, banks hard to one side, dives again, and banks back, like a baby bird learning to fly on broken wings. It clips the top of an abandoned barn, blasting away part of the rotted roof in a shower of splinters.

Then, somehow, when by all rights the thing should be ditching in a cornfield, it levels off. The engines whine and sputter back to life, belching out gobs of black smoke, but giving it a burst of altitude. It just clears the power lines and rumbles toward the  a clumsy touchdown like an eighth grader stepping onto the dance floor for the first time in his life.

Pandemonium as it touches down. The one wheel smokes while the un-wheeled leg gouges a terrific gash in the thin asphalt, gravel and tar scattering. The plane wobbles, fishtails, and finally flips over. One wing decides it’s had enough and sails off into the night. The tail crumples as the plane rolls over and over, flinging luggage and clothing across the tarmac.

Groaning like a tranquilized bear going under, the airplane topples to its side and lies mercifully still. One wing pointed toward the sky, the wheel a useless strip of deflated rubber spinning on its axle.

Then, sounds of life within. Traumatized groans and wails and exclamations of amazement as the passengers kick the door away and tumble out into the darkness. The pilot follows after them, cut and bruised and wild-eyed, but unhurt. They stumble across the runway clutching tightly to one another like starved refugees crossing the border.

And then the plane explodes. A glaring, angry fireball turning night into day.

###

This, then, is hell week in the theatre.

cessnafail

Image lifted from aviation-safety.net. Clearly from a “how-to” page on landings.

Every little thing is a crisis, every argument or misfire a question, seemingly, of life or death. An actor gets laryngitis. Another twists an ankle. Costumes don’t fit or can’t take the strain. The patches you put on the set to shore up the damage it was taking now have patches themselves. Literally every item of clothing you own is covered in flecks, if not splotches, if not gouts, of paint. The whole production, which you’ve spent months rehearsing, seems in danger of coming apart at any moment. You question every life decision which brought you to this point. Yet somehow the show survives. Somehow it crosses the finish line and everybody’s in one piece.

And, stranger still, some part of you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Why Live Theatre is like Plinko


 

Working on a live show isn’t like working on a novel or a school project, outside of the fact that you break your back and your brain working to make it happen. The novel? The project? When they’re done, they’re done. You ship it out the door or turn it in, and it is what it is — nothing has the potential to change it, really.

A live show? Sure, we’re done working on it, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished. It’s never finished. It’s a living, breathing organism, powered by living, breathing humans susceptible to the nerves and emotions and follies and foibles that all humans — to say nothing of high school teenagers — are vulnerable to.

Every show will be different: new highs, new lows, new notes in the solos, new dead spots marking the missed cues, new pauses for laughter you weren’t expecting, new silence when you were expecting laughter.

When I was a kid, and I’d visit my grandmother’s house, we’d always watch the Price is Right together. Old school: the Bob Barker days. It was her daily ritual and my novelty: I think she loved vicariously watching a schmo from Lubbocksville, Nowhere go up on stage, win a game of skill and/or chance, and win a car or a vacation or a toaster. I just loved watching the colorful games, especially the one where the mountain climber hiked up the side of the mountain (and if the contestants overbid, he’d fall right off the side… man, it still brings a smile to my face!).

I still watch every now and then, though these days my greatest pleasure is watching the cynical, smarmy a-holes who, when they think everybody else has overbid, will smugly bid $1. (Even better, when that card gets played too early, the doubly cynical, triply smarmy SOB that bids $2.)

But my favorite game back then, without a doubt and bar none, was Plinko.

Image result for plinko board

I don’t know why. Of all the games on the show there was no game like it. All the other games either required some consumer savvy (which item costs more?), some physical ability (they had a minigolf game that I adored, because once upon a time I thought golf was cool, a misconception I am happy my life and my distaste for the pastimes of the especially affluent has cured me of), or some combination of the two, but not Plinko.

Here’s a game that gives you a handful of chips and says “good luck,” like a roulette wheel with a bad attitude. The goal is to get your chip to land in the $10,000 spot down there, or maybe the $1000 slot — and notice that the only way to win nothing is to almost win the big prize. So: the contestant climbs up the stairs to stand behind the board, agonizes deeply about where to place their chip, as if strategy would help them in the least, and then — lets it go.

Plink, plink, plink. The chip bounces down the board like that guy in Titanic who falls off the capsizing ship and clangs off a rail before spinning, spine shattered, into the deep. Sometimes it swerves this way and that, dancing a mad jig across the board before settling at the bottom; sometimes it beelines, as if guided by a nervy surgeon’s hands, to its destination. Sometimes the chip seems to hit every single peg on the board as it clatters home, sometimes it seems to get home without a single disruption.

Then the game is over, and the player goes home with either her winnings or her idiotic regret that she should’ve placed that last chip one slot to the left.

But it’s not the board’s fault, and it’s not the player’s fault, if the chip doesn’t land where you expect — it’s simply chance. (And air currents, and the microscopic imperfections in the surfaces of the chip and the peg, and the rotational forces you imparted when you dropped it, and the residual oil on your fingers, and the quantum particles that jumped in or out of existence on the plains of Africa while your chip was dancing madly toward the bottom.) The moment the chip leaves your hand, in other words, all you can do is watch and hope.

And a live show is like that. You do all the preparing you can, you hem and you haw over the minutiae — should that actor stand here or there as he delivers that line, should that set piece maybe be angled a bit more steeply, should I abandon the whole thing and go raise goats in New Zealand? — and then you make like Elsa and let it go.

And it’ll plink plink plink its way to the bottom, with wholly unexpected twists and turns some nights, and seemingly divine guidance on others, until it inevitably reaches the end of the line.

All you can do is hope to avoid the goose egg.

In other (possibly related) news, it’s show week — AKA hell week — for our musical. See you on the other side.


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