Jim's Richard III Blog

What had started as a blog of Richard III rehearsal process at Cal Shakes has now evolved or devolved into a small novella. The author is petrified to change the name for fear it'll disappear, and wouldn't know what to call it anyway. Many stories are included and questions are even answered sometimes!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Earthquake Stories

Hilda you rascal!

Earthquakes? My goodness girl what will you ask next?

No, please never feel shallow--that'll just make me feel I've been being pompous! Hmm. Have I been in any quakes onstage? You know I probably have, but none that I consciously remember; your body goes into this weird hyperdrive when you're onstage, a kind of emergency situation reaction. You get hyper-acute, your body "forgets" things, runny noses will dry up in the wings, aches and bruises will not be remembered till you're backstage again, or an injury that's just happened in your last scene will just be noticed and you'll have no idea when you did it.

I was doing Henry IV at Ashland and the actor playing the Scottish warlord, The Douglas, came backstage into the quick change room after his broadsword fight, sat down next to me and said, "Damn! Am I sweating a lot?" I looked over at him and the entire left side of his face from hairline to collar bone was a mask of blood -- he'd been hit by a broadsword stroke thrown at the wrong side of the head. He went back on, finished his other fights, and then went to the emergency room. Eight stitches later and he was back raising a glass of single malt.

I seem to remember hearing about a report years ago on stress and the actor and it being determined that an actors body goes through roughly the same amount of stress as a jet test pilot. And I think that was every night. But I often get my facts wrong. There was another about the level of testosterone in actors as opposed to football players, though that's probably just a male actor fantasy -- but how many football players would go back into the game after getting hit in the head with a sword, I ask you?

There's always something to overcome, some are just bigger obstacles than others--I did a show in Balboa Park for the Old Globe Theatre in their outdoor space and one night some guy decided to scale one of the buildings in the park and for the next 45 minutes the actors had to contend with the swat helicopters and bullhorns. Screaming their lines at each other. Finally one of the actors made some reference to the event that brought the house down. Sometimes you can pretend it's not there and you'll pretend right along with us and sometimes you just have to acknowledge it.

I did a production of Major Barbara at Berkeley Rep. and on one of the matinées, 20 minutes from the end of the show, the lights went out. Poof. A full house, packed to the rafters and no lights--what did we do? We kept talking. In the dark................Still no lights. Hmmmm. Finally one of the Ushers threw open all the entrance doors that led to the lobby, opened all the curtains, and a dim glow fell on us; next we noticed that little clusters of people were forming in those entrances, and suddenly the beams of about 10 flashlights, were added to the mix and spotlit all the performers, still talking away. The audience loved it.

I once went to a production of A Doll's House at Shakespeare Santa Cruz and in one of the two woman scenes the same thing happened--boom, no lights. The audience was extra-tense as it contained the entire cast of Macbeth which was playing outside. It was our only chance to see the show, and mid-scene, the lights vanished. It went totally quiet onstage, and in house. Here's what followed: Blackout:.............. pause .................. "Nora?" .............. pause............... "Yes?"............... pause................ "Did you forget to pay the electric bill again?"....... there was a small snicker in the dark and the audience exploded. They blamed the blackout on us, the cast of that mythically unlucky play.

My only real earthquake story was on the same day everyone else's earthquake story -- in 1989. We were doing our very last run thru for Reckless at BRT and would go into tech rehearsals the next day. I was just getting ready to enter the scene--was leaning against a doorway ready to hurl myself into the room and I felt swaying. Now, I tell you this next not to elicit sympathy, but to provide context for my reaction, OK? -- I have epilepsy, have had it since I was 13 and can have grand mal seizures unless I take my medication religiously. One of my biggest fears is having a seizure onstage--I've had them pre-show in the dressing room, and years ago one during rehearsal, but never during a performance.

So my first thought when I felt shaking was, "Oh, damn I'm going down. What am I going to hit my head on?" until the actress behind me said "Oh my, we're having an earthquake!" I was so relieved that it was only an earthquake that my knees quite left me, until I realized just how big a quake it was and managed to release my hold on the door frame and help get everyone out.

It was such a powerful shaker that it broke the shaft of the onstage turntable that made up most of the stage floor, and the tech was delayed for two days.


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