I was onstage the first time I saw a piece of scenery fall over.
It happened during a performance in which I had the honor of playing the slightly sleazy Nathan Detroit—not in “Guys and Dolls” but in “Guys and Dolls Jr”. It’s basically the same show except with higher-pitched melodies, so kids can shoot craps and fall in love with missionaries without having to worry about hitting any low notes.
Lest you look askance, Grey C. Culbreth Middle School’s production had some pretty legit scenography. We’d gotten together after rehearsal to paint our backdrop: a New York City skyline silhouetted by a sunset. Stage left and right sported wooden flats representing a police station and various bars.
And it was one of those flats that toppled over right before the big finale, because these things are destined to happen at the worst imaginable moment.
It felt like it occurred in slow motion. A friend of mine once told me about being in a car crash as a child: Time slowed as he peered out of the back window at a station wagon that seemed to be inching toward him. Time dilated in just the same way at the theater that night. Someone called, “Look out!” and, after what felt like a long moment of confusion, I finally spun around and still had plenty of time to see the flat hit the floor with a sad thud.
We could feel the audience watching in embarrassed anticipation as we all stood there, stunned, the dramatic illusion shattered. What were we to do?
Now, when things go wrong in theater, some great actors can turn accident into art. I once saw a production of “Othello” in which the mislaid handkerchief (you know the one: the most important handkerchief in the history of drama, the one spotted with strawberries that damns Desdemona) went missing. Without pausing, an actress picked up a scrap of yellow caution tape lying on the floor—the set was strewn with garbage, part of the whole concept—and used it as the handkerchief. No one knew until later that a mix-up had occurred.
But It’s a lot harder to act as if fallen scenery hasn’t fallen. After all, everyone in the audience clearly sees and hears the mishap.
Well, my fellow junior players and I stayed about as cool as we could have, all things considered, and our response illustrated, if not immense artistry, then at least maturity and teamwork. Having recovered from our astonishment, we sprang into action, righting the downed scenery without the help of a single adult. “Grownups, stay calm!” we seemed to command the audience. “We’ve got this.”
The situation rectified, we resumed the scene where it had stopped and proceeded to absolutely nail the big finale—that wise, old ditty about what’s really going on when you see a guy reach for stars in the sky. The way it all turned out, I like to think that the incident was less of a meteoric disaster and more of a stellar recovery.
Have you ever seen a major scenery mishap? Tell us about it in the comments!