Singing Librarian flashbacks: Disasters

This week, I have given much thought to those times when theatre just goes horribly wrong.  When the set decides to cave in, the follow spot overloads the electrical system, the pyrotechnics explode three scenes too soon, or everyone forgets what they’re supposed to do.  It happens to everyone involved in theatre at any level sooner or later, as I have been reading.  In Great Operatic Disasters, one discovers terrible disasters that have overtaken performances in venues as prestigious as La Scala and Covent Garden, while the ever popular Art of Coarse Acting describes the ways in which amateurs and others essentially bring such disasters down on their own heads.  The schadenfreude-seeker in me is now anxious to get hold of a new compendium of real disasters called Stop the Show!, and of course there are many further examples to be gleaned from the biographies of our great stage stars.

Of course, over the years, I’ve encountered a few of these wonderful moments, though nothing to top the more outrageous events recounted in these books.  I’ve mentioned our stroppy tenor in Tosca in a previous flashback, but I should also pause to inform you that our bass encountered terrible troubles one night when his blood bad burst prematurely, or at least developed a leak.  There he was, menacing Tosca and captivating the audience (he was rather brilliant), when blood started to seep through his shirt, instead of waiting patiently to be released when Tosca slit his villainous throat.  What was a Scarpia to do?  The poor man simply had to carry on, though once it became obvious, he did take the time to pause, examine some on his finger, lick it off and smile in a sinister fashion.  The audience may have wondered what on Earth was going on, but at that moment, he was probably the most disturbing Scarpia they’d ever seen.  That particular opera is the source of many tales of disaster in the theatrical world, so I suppose we escaped fairly lightly.

Most of my disaster experiences have barely been experiences at all, as I’ve been safely hidden away in the dressing room when they occurred.  During a school production of Grease, the drive-in movie scene was made particularly memorable on one night when Greased Lightning decided to fall over.  With their (wooden) pink car no longer helping them in the realms of suspension of disbelief, Danny and Sandy had to continue the scene despite being very obviously sat on art stools.  Danny rallied to the occasion, though – when Sandy walked out on him on that night, he shouted at her for destroying his car as well as for abandoning him.  Another piece of set developed homicidal tendencies during Me and My Girl, as the audience was treated to the sight of the kitchen wall toppling over towards the staff of Hareford Hall.  And this on a hired set!  Luckily, the gallant man playing the chef saw what was happening and managed to grab hold of it before it carried out an unexpected cull of our chorus.

One piece of set evidently didn’t know that it was supposed to misbehave while I was elsewhere.  The garden set for Figaro’s Wedding (Le Nozze Di Figaro in an English translation by Jeremy Sams) included a few statues on plinths, one of which evidently took a dislike to the chorus.  Or rather, the first few people in the chorus, who had to enter all of a twitter, full of excitement, must have jostled the plinth and set the statue rocking.  Coming in at the tail end of the chorus, I spotted this alarming motion and grabbed the thing before it either concussed someone or brought down the backdrop.  I think I may have managed to do this without the audience noticing, but I’m not convinced.

But for me, the most memorable moment of this kind did not involved the set, props, costumes or lights.  No children or animals were involved, no audience members broke the invisible fourth wall, and no musical instruments decided to misbehave.  During the Saturday matinee performance of Me and My Girl, the Duchess swept magnificently off the stage after her big number, the ‘Song of Hareford’.  The rest of the family (four of us) gathered in the wing, ready for our next entrance, to burble angrily as the Duchess berated the lead (a spot of rhubarbing, which is always fun), and as our cue approached we suddenly noticed something missing.  The Duchess.  Nowhere in sight.  I raced off towards the dressing rooms under the stage, dashing into each one and enquiring after the Duchess, while keeping one ear on the tannoy that relayed the on-stage action to everyone else.  Eventually, having checked about three quarters of the corridor, I realised that I had to turn round and race back to stage left, or I’d miss my entrance as well, severely depleting the numbers.  When I got back, there was still no sign of the Duchess.  I whispered my lack of Duchess-finding ability to the others and we exchanged panic-stricken looks in the wing, knowing that we had to go on.  Right on cue, the four of us marched on to the stage, while I feared the worst. 

However, while I had been on my fruitless search, one of the other family members, Lady Battersby, displayed incredible presence of mind.  She had grabbed the relevant two pages of script from the copy on the props table, and marched straight to the lectern which was (rather handily) a part of the set, in the library.  She launched straight into the Duchess’ lines, which thankfully just about made sense coming from her character.  The lead, who had to respond to her berating him and our general mumblings, looked like a rabbit in the headlights for a second as completely the wrong person addressed him, but rallied quickly and continued as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on.  The brief scene lasted all of a minute, before the four of us marched off again in high umbrage, and breathed a sigh of relief in the wings.

We dashed downstairs, to find a rather distraught Duchess.  It appears she had swept off the stage and headed straight for the dressing room to get changed for the final scene and have a chat with one of the other actresses.  Auto-pilot had taken over and obliterated all memory of the scene from her mind.  It was only when the cue for the entrance came over the tannoy that she suddenly realised she should be on stage.  She had squeaked in alarm, and then remembered that her microphone was probably on.  Apparently the sound men were having kittens at that point as well, because they realised quickly that the Duchess was not where she was supposed to be (they had, of course, heard her squeak), but couldn’t work out who was saying the lines.  Thank goodness for a lack of underscoring in that scene, and for Lady Battersby’s ability to project!  We comforted the Duchess as best we could, but she was a little rattled for the rest of the performance, though she rallied magnificently for the evening show later in the day. 

No doubt I’ll add to my small bank of ‘disasters averted’ stories over the years.  The very fact that anything can happen is part of what makes live theatre such a joy.  And being ready to adapt, cover or rescue such events is part of the acting game.  These things happen, and I don’t believe we’d have it any other way.

  1. Someone was telling me the other day how, during an amateur production of ‘Calamity Jane’, the leading lady lost her voice so all of her singing was ‘dubbed’ by someone in the wings while she just mouthed the words on stage! Fortunately her voice was ok to speak the words so it was just the singing that had to be dubbed!

  2. Bass players live in fear of one of their strings breaking mid performance. Or any time when you are actually playing it. There are legendary stories told of the huge tensions your average bass string is under doing things like causing one to flail back wildly and dangerously and take the unfortunate players eye out.

    The worst that’s ever happened in a performance I’ve been in was when the guitarist in a Rodriguez (spelling?) guitar piece forgot what he was doing in the middle of his biggest solo and had to go back and start again. Twice. Excruciatingly embarrassing.

  3. Yikes! And I thought the only danger of the orchestra pit was fallingin and getting impaled on a clarinet!

    Off-stage dubbing is quite a frequent solution to ill cast members, I’m afraid, as many amateur groups have a distinct lack of understudies!

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