A Wipeout in the Wings

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I’ve been working with high school theater for about twenty years now. I’ve seen it all happen–scripts that don’t work, students who freeze, lines dropped or mis-delivered, sound failing, lights freaking out and students who use the backstage trash bins to throw up their nerves. But this last fall, I had a new experience, where I contributed to an on-stage fail and let me tell you, when I do it, I do it BIG!

We were working with the two freshmen drama productions. Each had a nice little Christmas piece that we had well-rehearsed and which should have gone off without a hitch. Note, I said SHOULD have….

We experienced the usual dropped lines and missed sound cues, but it was actually going pretty well. I was backstage, ready to prompt and attempting to keep everything going forward. We were coming down to the end–the father had taken over the disastrous Christmas gathering and was handing out all the surprises right on cue.

Then, my stage debut happened. I moved backwards and to the left in the dark to be near the curtains to close them for the ending of the performance. I neglected to remember that right next to my chair was a small, squat stool that was to figure in the second Christmas sketch that night. I put it there myself, but my memory is not what it used to be and I paid for that.

Backing up, I caught my foot in the stool. This should have been no problem, but in the dark, I couldn’t see how to step around the stool and so, I tangled the other foot up in it as well. It was like one of those slow-motion shows. I could feel it happening, but for the life of me (and the darkness of the wings) I could not stop it. As I went over backwards, my feet came up and connected with the metal chair I had been sitting on, and the resounding clang gave the people onstage and in the audience their first clue that something unusual was happening backstage.

Now, my primary rule for being backstage is NO TALKING, so you’ll understand that the words I uttered as I went down on my butt and then whacked my head on the (thankfully) wooden floor were not only a violation of my backstage rules, but were in direct opposition to school language policy. Second issue.

That left it to the audience and novice stage performers to determine what was going on. I was told by audience members later that they heard the noise and at first wondered if that was a part of the performance. Their first clue that this was not supposed to happen was when the performers, with no experience in “the show must go on,” one-by-one broke off their performance and moved to the wings to check on the disturbance.

If you watch the recording of the performance, you cannot, fortunately, hear my collapse very well, but you do get to observe the students, whose attention went from the completion of their little play, to a flow of attention and walking to the wings.

Now, I have never had this happen before. I was somewhat stymied myself and a little dazed from bouncing my head off the floor, but when I looked up from the flat of my back to see all of the horrified actors staring down at me, I said the only thing I could think of, “Get back out there and finish the play!”

They did so, although how they managed is still a mystery to me. But those first timers on the stage managed to shake off the biggest distraction I have ever presented, complete with sound effects, and conclude their play. Afterwards, I apologized profusely, but nothing could really compensate for having your debut on the stage sabotaged by the director herself.

It remains to be seen if I can get this group of young people to overcome the trauma of my wipeout in the wings and return to do more productions with me, but I do know one thing: I myself have participated in a great many, long-standing plays over the years, but I will never forget the 2021 production of “Christmas Secrets!”

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