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 .
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 :
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.
 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.
 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.
Categories: Personal, Humour