Things that go horribly, horribly wrong OR The worst show I ever did

I was talking with a friend of mine and he said that my blog read like “Mary’s Greatest Hits,” because I never talk about the things that go wrong. This surprised me since most of my best puppetry stories are of shows that go horribly, horribly wrong. But he’s right. When I talk about television I’ll say “Oh, this shot was really hard, but we got it in the end.”  And in fiction, the stuff that goes wrong usually gets fixed in private.  I realized that it’s because I never think about things in television or fiction as going as horribly wrong in the same way they do on stage. I mean, things in stage will go bad in rehearsal, but you rarely tell stories about it. That’s part of the process and the only things that matter are the things the audience sees. In television, I screw up and we do it again. In fiction, that’s what the delete key is for.  It never really seems to me like things go wrong.

So, I will now tell you the story of the Worst Show I Ever Did.

Jodi is my creative partner in Other Hand Productions. He and I had been invited to take our production of Snow Queen to the Northwest Regional Puppetry Festival. This is a show that I am extremely proud of and really enjoy performing.

This is part of what makes this performance so bad. There are other productions that I’ve been in that were poorly conceived or plagued by other problems from the outset, but this show was one I went into actively liking.

But…  for a variety of reasons it had been in the box for about a year. Sure, Jodi and I had pulled it out six months earlier to do a single show and it had been like getting on a bike. We had rehearsed once and remembered the show like we’d never left it.

For this festival, Jodi was in another show which was debuting. We wanted to run through Snow Queen, but the other show took all his free time. I was also the workshop coordinator for the festival.

Mistake Number 1: We didn’t run through the show.

To accommodate my schedule, they put our performance on the last day when most of my duties would be finished.

Mistake Number 2: Both of us were exhausted and sleep-deprived.

Add to this series of judgment errors, a theft. Our sound system had been stolen the month before the show. Tears of Joy Theater used the same sound system we did and kindly loaned us theirs.

Mistake Number 3: We didn’t fully test the equipment.

And now… the results of those three mistakes.

The day of the show arrived. Rob and I had been dating for about four months at this point and I really wanted him to see this show. So, this means that for the performance we faced an audience of professional puppeteers and my audio engineer boyfriend.

We walked onto stage to the largest squeal of feedback I’ve yet experienced. All I could think of was that I was dating an audio engineer. I tried to shake that off and keep going.

The first sound cue came up and I stepped on the foot switch to turn it on. No sound emerged. I stepped on it again. Still nothing. A third time produced sound.  Odd.

There’s this thing that happens when performing in a show like this. One part of your brain is engaged with acting while another part is engaged in the technical aspects. It feels like having two selves in some ways because I continue performing while internally going WTF?

I decided that what was probably happening was that the TOJ footswitch was a double-click pedal. Back when I toured for them, we’d had some of those and they were a pain. Basically, you had to click twice to turn on the machine.

So the next cue came up and I clicked twice. Nothing. Again with the clicking. Eventually the sound played but on stage there was this awkward pause in which we were trying to act fill the unexpected silence and diagnose the problem at the same time.

So we were continuing along, with all of our sound cues bizarrely late, and I saw Jodi start to bring the Goblin onstage. I thought that he’d been badly thrown by the sound cues because it wasn’t time for the Goblin’s scene. So I waved him off.

He put the puppet away and brought out Kai and we proceeded with the scene. As we were going along, the next thing that was supposed to happen was that Kai and Gerta were supposed to dance, and while dancing Kai would get a piece of glass from the Goblin’s broken mirror in his eye.

The problem was… the mirror hadn’t broken yet. I had been wrong when I waved Jodi and the Goblin off. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, if we hit the footswitch for the characters to dance, the cue that would play — if it ever played — would be the sound of the mirror breaking.

Of course, we’re miked so we can’t talk to each other and we’re wearing hoods so we can’t make meaningful eye contact. So I ad libbed, to try to get us out of this scene and back on track. The scene went something like this.

Kai: You wouldn’t be so cold if you were moving around. Why don’t you try dancing.

Gerta: No… I think I’d like to go inside now.

Kai: Oh come on! You love dancing.

Gerta: Yes, I know. But I really would like to go inside. Now.

Kai: (thinking I’ve forgotten, Jodi kindly feeds me Gerta’s line) But you’ve always said dancing makes you feel light as a feather!

Gerta: Yes. That’s true. But I would like to go inside. Now. With you.

Kai: (reaching for the foot pedal) But I know you’ll be warmer once you dance.

Gerta: I’m going to get some hot chocolate. (exits)

Jodi later reported thinking, “Boy, her leg must have broken or something. I’ll stall here to give her time.”

So I stood there, waiting for him to come off stage while he did an admirable job playing in the snow and trying to be entertaining after one of the most senseless scenes ever.

I finally turned off my mic and crossed behind Jodi. Leaning forward I whispered, “I was wrong.”

This is what the audience saw.

Kai: (playing in the snow) Whee! I love the snow. That Gerta is so sil– … … Hot chocolate does sound good. (exits)

We continued on, did the goblin scene, then Gerta and Kai came out and danced with numblingly late sound cues. Eventually we learned what was happening but by this time the show was staggering as if it had run into a wall and become badly dazed.

Basically, our minidisk player had to be stopped at the end of each cue. Because of that we had three seconds of silence at the end of each cue. The TOJ minidisk player automatically stopped itself at the end of each cue. So what we were doing was turning the sound off during the three seconds of silence after a cue, as usual. Then, when we started it again, it would roll to the end of the three seconds of silence and turn itself off. So we’d double-click, which would turn it off and then on again.

There were also issues with scenery getting stuck. I remember having to actually break a set piece to get it off stage because it got stuck so badly

This was the only time in my life where I didn’t want to take a curtain call.  The audience was polite but I was mortified. Afterwards, a puppeteer who I really respect tried to find words in which to acknowledge that they’d seen the show without having to admit that they hadn’t like it.

We use phrases like, “I’m so glad I got to see you work,” or “I would never have thought to do it that way,” or “What an interesting show.”

I stopped her in the middle and said “That was a terrible show. It’s fine.”

All the tension went out of her and she said, “What happened? I didn’t think it could possibly be like that.”

Now, I’ve had set pieces fall down on stage and the audience thought it was part of the show but this… this show was just broken all the way through.

To this day, when I screw something up I compare it to that show and usually think, “At least no one had to go get hot chocolate.”

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9 Responses

  1. -e-

    this is hysterical Mary. Reminds me of the time I showed up late for a surprise party, only to discover that the birthday boy had yet to be lured away from the (future) party scene by his friend. After making up something lame about why I was dropping by the apartment while his wife was (supposedly) out of town (just a tad awkward), I had a sudden intense craving for… pizza… yes, you MUST leave the apartment right now and come get a slice of pizza with me…

    Could have been hot chocolate.

  2. Mishell Baker

    Ah… the live performing arts. I just can’t get enough of stories of Things That Go Horribly Wrong.

    My own favorite moment: I, Iphigenia, am so excited to see my father after his long absence! However, he has missed his cue and is not entering. I ad-lib (yes, in a Greek tragedy): “Oh look! I think I see him coming!” tripping gaily toward the stage-right wings. Enter my father… stage left.

  3. Lorin

    Reminds me of when I was stage managing The Curious Savage in high school… The patients and family all left the stage, leaving the nurse on, waiting for the doctor to have some meaningful conversation about Mrs. Savage. Unfortunately, he was out having an argument with his girlfriend in the parking lot. When I found him: “Craig. Stage. NOW.”

    And I never knew you and Jodi had a company together! 😀


  4. Joe Iriarte

    I love it!

    When I was in high school, I played Professor Kokintz in The Mouse that Roared. We also were our own stage crew, and had to remove set pieces and stuff in the dark between scenes. After a scene in my laboratory, the guy who is supposed to help me remove the lab table never shows. The lights don’t come on because the stage manager sees me stuck up there with half a table, and finally someone else shows up and helps me move it. As soon as the table is offstage, the lights come on, forcing me on because I’m part of the next scene. Problem is, I’m supposed to be carrying our prop bomb, and I never had a chance to get it in the chaos. So everything’s going along until I’m apprehended by Tully Bascombe, and he finally gets to the point where he asks, “Excuse me sir, are you carrying an explosive?” or something like that. What’s supposed to happen next is I try to keep it away from him, and we end up playing a little game of keepaway, tossing this bomb around the stage. Hijinks ensue. But I’m not carrying a bomb. I had no idea what to do. I just stare at him as he’s asking the question, totally deer in the headlights, because I can’t think of a way to cover this. After a beat, he says, “Well you just hold on to it for now, but I’m gonna need to take it from you later.” o_O We then spent the entire intermission rewriting the rest of the show, trying to figure out where to stick in the sequences we had to skip, and what lines to say to make it make sense. Ugh. Worst show ever!

  5. CathyB

    I am very near-sighted. But when I played a gypsy in the chorus of the musical “Carnival!” in my junior year in high school, I performed without my glasses. Just before the gypsies went on stage to dance and sing, the leading man — a puppetmaster — dramatically ripped off the curtain of his puppet stage, which was conveniently attached with thumb tacks to facilitate dramatic ripping.

    You guessed it. Thumb tacks were all over the floor, only I couldn’t see them. As I began dancing in my ballet slippers, I suddenly felt a searing pain in my foot.

    But the show must go on, yes? So I hobbled my way through the entire scene. Finally offstage, I grabbed my glasses and discovered the tack embedded through the bottom of my slipper.

    Fun times. 🙂

  6. Ash

    I love how everyone comes out with their own war stories. I’ve had a few myself, including at one show, a sound system that DIDN’T WORK AT ALL. In this case, I was able to have someone bring me a second sound system from home. We managed to stall with live music until the sound system arrived. And of course there are times when you look down and realize, “oh god, my costume is falling apart.” Completely horrifying.

  7. Kelvin Kao

    That was pretty hilarious. I did college theater and we worked with tech people that we would at the earliest meet the night before, so lots of terrible things happen. When I went back to see these shows done by the young students, we don’t even try to be polite about it because we all acknowledge that, yes, things can mess up.

    So there was this one time, someone was supposed to bring a prop off the stage during scene change. However, the tech brought the lights up before they should. So, on the stage we had the actor that was supposed to be in the scene, and the stagehand.

    Actor: (stares at the stagehand)
    Stagehand: Um… Housekeeping?
    Actor: Get out of my office.
    Stagehand: Uh… ok… (exits)
    Audience: (laughs at the awkwardness)
    Me backstage: WTF? I didn’t write that…