Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Down play

The post on play slaughter a couple of days back made me think of theatrical fiascos (in every sense of that term) that I personally have been part of. So here goes.

This dates back to my undergrad days. The dramatics society of my college (all 6 of us), in a bout of entirely misguided thespian optimism, had decided to participate in a one act play competition. The script chosen (and I swear I had NOTHING to do with this) was this thing called Sorry, Wrong Number which is, in fact, a radio play, but our 'director' only figured that out sometime around the second rehearsal, and besides we figured we might get points for innovativeness if we staged something originally written for radio [1].

This is how the play was supposed to end: after the Killer had abruptly cut the Old Lady off on the phone, the lights were to start to dim, creating an atmosphere of menace and foreboding. Once the room was almost completely dark, the Killer was to leave the phonebooth (where he had been since the beginning of the play; said phone booth being this massive contraption of cardboard and thermocol that we have cobbled together ourselves and were very proud of) walk down the steps on stage left, cross silently over through the audience to stage right, come up the steps there, his feet making an ominous clumping sound causing the Old Lady to start in panic and cry "Who's there? Is there anyone there?". The Killer was then to make his way across the stage to the Old Lady (who meanwhile remained oblivious of his presence) and crouch down behind a chair, waiting. Then, when he heard the distant sound of a train approaching, he was to leap up from behind his chair, knife raised, and stab the Old Lady to death, her screams being conveniently drowned out by the passing train. When the sound of the train faded, the Killer was to hear the telephone ringing, pick it up, and say "Sorry, Wrong Number" thus providing the 'a-ha' moment of the play and bringing it to its half frightening, half poignant end.

Got that? Right.

Here's what actually happened [2]:

1. The lights didn't dim, they simply blanked out. One minute we were on a perfectly well-lit stage, the next we were in absolute darkness. Cries of "It's a power-breakdown!" "I wonder where they keep the candles?" were heard, before the audience (and we) realised this was meant to happen.

2. The Killer left the phone booth. Unfortunately, in doing so, he upset the delicate balance of the phone booth's cardboard facade, which proceeded to come crashing down behind him. To the audience watching, it must have looked like an earthquake had hit the stage.

3. The stairs leading up to the stage turned out to be thickly carpeted and made of stone (unlike the wooden ones we were used to from rehearsal). So that despite the Killer's most valiant attempts to stomp on them, he made no sound coming up. This did not faze the somewhat hearing impaired Old Lady though, who proceeded to start in impeccable panic and call out "Who's there? Is there someone there?" in response to a sound that even the acutest ears couldn't hear.

4. As the Killer crept stealthily up on the Old Lady, his feet accidentally snagged a loose wire running across the stage, which led to a lamp that we had jury rigged to make up for the lack of adequate number of spots. This lamp went flying, nearly doing the Killer's job for him by decapitating the Old Lady (who ducked with surprising alacrity for someone of her advanced years), and smashing into the back of the stage with a resounding crash. Worse, the Killer himself stumbled and almost fell on stage, managing to steady himself only by clutching the chair that he was supposed to be hiding behind. The Old Lady, of course, remained unaware of the menace approaching her so clumsily, continuing to look aimlessly around in disquiet.

5. Back on his feet again, the Killer proceeded to crouch behind the chair and wait. And wait. And wait. But the sound of the train he was waiting for didn't come. Finally, feeling the audience grow restive, the Killer acted with a violence of purpose only a desperate criminal would be capable of, leaping up from behind his chair and proceeding to stab the Old Lady, whose screams, clearly audible in the entire auditorium, left him entirely unmoved.

6. Gory deed done, the Killer then turned towards the phone, and without waiting for it to ring (on the theory that if the train did not come, the ringing phone must be even further behind) proceeded to pick it up and press it to his ear. At this strategic moment, however, the long awaited train did finally come crashing through, so that the crucial words of the denouement were drowned out by its roar. There then followed an awkward two minute silence while the Killer stared meaningfully at the audience and the audience stared back with equal seriousness (there were no curtains in this auditorium) before someone finally figured out that the play was over, and some desultory applause allowed the players to escape, having made their hasty bows.

Afterwards, the one person who came up to us to congratulate us on our performance turned out to be a Beckett fan. She went on and on about how we'd taken a melodramatic over-the-top penny fiction script, and by reducing it to physical farce managed to successfully bring out the essentially absurd nature of the human enterprise. We could only nod along in dumb agreement.

Notes

[1] This is less naive than it sounds. I remember going for a play reading contest at Hindu college, where all the other participants had come prepared with monologues / dialogues that they'd spent hours perfecting (Shylock's 'if you prick us do we not bleed' speech was included, as I remember it, and a scene from Pygmalion, complete with accents). My approach to this contest (which I was completely unprepared for, and was only attending because my Macro-Eco class was deathly dull) was to go up on stage, deliver a thirty second encomium on the importance of spontaneity in theatre, and then proceed to solicit any script, at random, from anyone at all in the audience, that I would undertake to read (I think the one I finally ended up with was Beckett's Mouth). Naturally, I won.

[2] Without attempting to defend the idiocy of our performance, it has to be said that because it was a contest, we never had the opportunity to rehearse on the stage we were performing on, so that the sound and light systems were wholly unfamiliar, and a number of things had to be adapted at the last minute.


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18 comments:

Neela said...

falstaff: surely you mean "faze"??

n!

Cheshire Cat said...

Frigging hilarious, you're back to top form. But the part about the Beckett fan isn't true, is it? It's too good to be true...

And Neela, you forestalled me; I've seen the same substitution before, it's one of my pet peeves. In this case, though, it might be a pun.

Falstaff said...

neela: Ya, ya, whatever. This is why you should not rely on spell check. Have changed it now.

cat: Thanks. It's not entirely true, though there were a couple of people who came up to me later and wanted to know, in all earnestness, what we were trying to convey and whether it was supposed to be some kind of satire.

dazedandconfused said...

Hilarious, reminds me of the time we did a spoof on Rajnikant (Tamil film star) where a small fountain was supposed to erupt at the stylish motion of the actors hand. Unfortunately, the fountain operator (who was croucing next to it) decided to fall asleep during the play, unyielding to even the most fervent and frantic motions of our lead.

Anonymous said...

I know that certain questions are best left unasked, but still, what about your part in the fiasco? Now, that would be very interesting.

-RS

Anonymous said...

yes what about your part..we all would like to know :-)
and as someone commented in the previous post..iam waiting for your take on marx.

dhoomketu said...

Simply hilarious. One question, did I miss something or did the events numbered 2-6 happen in darkness?

Falstaff said...

d&c: thanks.

RS: I was around, though not directly involved. I was the 'other voice' in the phone conversation the Old Lady overhears at the start of the play - so by this point I was just a horrified onlooker.

anon: See above. On Marx - I'll get to it, I promise, but don't hold your breath. THAT post is probably months away right now.

dhoomk2: Well, it wasn't pitch dark of course - there was just enough light so you could see people moving but things were visible only in outline.

The Soliloquist said...

Wow, now that was funny!!!...
Though it sounds hilarious now, it should have been hell when you knew you goofed it up so royally...
i once was pushed to compere alone for a show which was rainwashed and was moved to a smaller venue... with an ambience like a classroom...
lack of a backstage made things worse.. audience getting into the last-bench mentality... anything and everything being said was given a sound thrashing...
was a hellish 2 hours which finally came to an end.. though i put up a brave face, pretending to shrug it off...had nightmares of the whole episode everynight for almost a week..... Planned to write a blog on it.. but couldnt bring myself to do it... needed to put it down somewhere.. ur post gave me the oppurtunity...

The Man Who Wasnt There said...

months awaY???? how could you do this to us!! :|:|
I was right after all...you do have the predileciton of as is popularly known 'leftist intellectual'! Though any talk of Marxism as of now might seem like arm chair intellectual masturbation I cant get out of the plausibility of the idea...

months???why dont you break it down??

alpha said...

see, i personally feel its better to have fiascos so you can recall and laugh! thanks for the laugh!

Supremus said...

ROFL!

This was totally hilarious - I could picture all of this happening on the stage LOL!!

Great writeup

Suyog

Falstaff said...

soliloquist: ya, compering is the worst. At least with other stuff you can blame it on the script, etc. With compering it's personal. I got suckered into compering one of those Mr and Ms. College Festival contests. It was a truly humbling experience. Who could have known that the average DU undergrad would NOT get puns off speeches from Tempest?

girish: I suppose you could call me that. I like to think of myself as a socialist who believes in the efficiency of free markets, but whatever. Meanwhile, patience, patience. Someone once told me it builds character - he even offered to explain, but I didn't wait around long enough.

alpha: I agree. Specially since let's face it, this was never going to be the biggest stage event since Cats. By screwing it up royally, we managed to convert an ordinary lit event into a memory that will last forever.

supremus: thanks

DoZ said...

Falstaff: Hilarious! And dangerous. Had to read the post in tiny installments lest I laugh out loud at work and draw all sorts of unwanted attention.

drifting leaf said...

hey... its a good thing i come into work super early...was falling off my chair... i can still hear the laugh echo within!!
oh fal...imagine if the other 5 of your team were to read this...? did you stay in touch? any further misadventures on stage together?
why the hell were you just the voice?
oh great way to start the morning...!

The Soliloquist said...

as for gettin caught laughin at work.. i did happen to me.. inspite of covering my mouth, sporadic giggles escaped .. and amdist all the struggle to control my laughter, tears started comin out of my eyes.. some gave me wierd looks, and the rest sighs of sympathy.. was glad the boss wasnt around...
But great read, was worth the struggle and the embarassment.. ;-)

and falsaff, do u mind turning the word verification off?? i m tempted to comment more than once on a post and it gets on my frayed nerves...

Shruthi said...

This one actually and literally made me laugh out loud!! Hilarious!

Falstaff said...

doz: my apologies. See, I keep forgetting that most people actually work. In an office. I just don't relate to that.

leaf: ya, I know - i asked the director the same question, argued that a role more commensurate with my talents might be called for. She pointed out that they were still looking for someone to handle props backstage. at which point I swiftly chose discretion over valour.

soliloquist: Okay, have turned it off for now, but may turn it back on if I start getting too many of those computer generated messages again.

shruthi: thanks