“Okay, who isn’t afraid of heights?”
For many people, that’s a rhetorical question. It’s like asking, “Who isn’t afraid of being caught in the center of a whirlpool while piloting a wooden boat to the furthest reaches of the Bering Sea?” or “Who isn’t afraid of jumping into a 40-foot-deep pit filled with rattlesnakes and tarantulas?” The question is bound to get a limited response. Also, the fact that this is being asked means that there will be another question to follow.
“Who wants to climb up to the grid?”
In the words of Sheldon Cooper: bazinga.
You have to understand that “the grid” refers to a latticework floor of metal at the very top of any theater. Take an imaginary elevator up to the ceiling, go down one floor, and you’re standing on the grid, from which vantage point you can peer down on the people milling around the stage. If you chance to look, you are at once struck by a curious wonder of how warm it is up there…and how cold your feet are. If you fell through the cracks, would you even have a chance to yell?
Going up to the grid means exercising caution. But somehow, when the stage manager strode into the green room where all of us backstage crew members were resting, I volunteered for the climb. Actually, my hand shot up in the air at the same time as my crew head’s. We were both game for the mission. It was only half an hour until the show, a colorful and enthusiastic production of Rent, and we knew that something was wrong.
“What is it?” I asked as we hurried down the hallway to the stage door, rolling up the sleeves of my black shirt. As a part of Rent’s deck crew, I had several simple duties to make the show’s magic happen: charge the glowing tape on the set. Help mop the floor. Help tighten the hex bolts on tables that doubled as a dancing stage. But nothing quite this exciting had happened so far.
“Well,” sighed the stage manager, “it’s the roof. You know how they’re replacing it? Well, the old roof had air pockets that would collect water every time it rained, so now that it’s exposed…”
She looked at me and my crew head, Savannah.
“The roof is leaking.”
Thirty minutes. We had that long to find the leak and stop it, before Tom Collins found himself dancing around Niagara Falls instead of New York City, and Mimi Marquez needed an umbrella instead of a light for her candle. And it probably wouldn’t come across as very professional to have buckets placed around stage to collect water during “La Vie Boheme.”
“Can you carry this?” The stage manager handed me a plastic trashcan nearly half as tall as I was.
“Sure.” I wrestled to balance its slippery sides against my chest. “Where are we taking this?”
“That’s the thing,” said Savannah. “We need to take it all the way up to the grid.”
We started our pilgrimage up the long and winding metal staircase, which really was long and circular and made me dizzy with every step we took. To complicate the journey even more, we couldn’t turn on any lights since the audience was already seated. Flashlights would have to suffice.
Higher and higher we climbed, until finally we reached the ten-step ladder that led up to grid level. It was strangely hard to breathe in the hot, dusty air that had settled up in this quiet space. I handed the trashcan up to the stage manager, then shimmied up the ladder myself, feeling somewhat like the hobbit Pippin lighting the beacons in Return of the King: small, unbalanced, and out of place.
“Oh my gosh.”
“Do you need light?”
“How are you going to find it?”
All three of us squinted at the layout of the grid. Cable after metal cable stretched across our path, about five inches off the ground. They were the cables that controlled the line sets for all of the drops and battens that “fly” in and out in a theater. Somewhere, hidden in the thick of the wires, was the leaky wet spot. It was easy enough to find a small lake down on the stage floor…It was significantly harder to find dripping water in pitch darkness with tripwires everywhere.
“Hold this.” My stage manager handed Savannah the flashlight.
“Wait, what are you doing?” she asked.
The stage manager got down on her stomach, lying flat across the metal latticework, and started to roll underneath the cables, inch by inch. We held our breath. She couldn’t get caught on the cables; she couldn’t get stuck in the gaps in the floor. There was something vaguely Mission Impossible about it all.
After a good ten minutes of us waiting, the stage manager finally rolled out back at our feet and stood up wearily, brushing snowglobe-sized mothballs from her pants.
“I couldn’t find it. The spot’s out there somewhere. I put the trashcan where I thought it was, but the grid felt dry, even with the puddle onstage…this rain!”
We slowly climbed down the staircase with shaking legs. At least the puddle onstage didn’t look bigger, and we could always mop that up. But on my trek to the green room for the top of the show, I was walking behind the walls of the set and felt a drop of something cool and wet hit my forehead. Gosh dang it, another leak!
Rent closed a week later, and the tech team gathered to evaluate the damage that the rain had caused. The good news: Collins hadn’t had to dance around the Great Lakes during any shows and the water affected none of the expensive stage lights or cables. The bad news: there was rust everywhere, and damage to a significant number of the drapes. Little did we know how many problems we would discover in the coming weeks.
At first it only seemed like a few of the battens, or metal pipes, had rusted over. Then we discovered that all of the weights used to counterbalance line sets had turned from a soft brownish hue to a crusty red that streaked our palms and stained our jeans. It was like an Easter egg hunt: the surprises never stopped coming.
The real kicker, though, were the drapes. Take a moment and consider a proscenium theater. What’s the first thing you see when you walk in? The grand curtain. When the grand curtain goes up, what do you see on the sides? The black drapes. With the rain, chemicals had leached out of the fabric and created swirled patterns in the velvet.
Which was why, two months after Rent, I found myself up on a ladder again, helping to release all the drapes from their hanging positions so we could catalog the damage and send them off for cleaning.
“Where are we sending these?” I asked, pacing around the drape stretched out on the floor. At 40 by 8 feet, it was a hefty piece of velvet.
“New Jersey, probably, so they can be cleaned,” offered someone.
“Eww. It looks like a gigantic slug crawled across this. Or salt stains.”
“Yeah, who dropped the drape…into the ocean?” laughed a lighting designer.
It took three days, but we managed to haul all of the drapes out onto the stage, take copious amounts of dark photographs, and fold the same soft goods up into neat bundles. While one team was spreading out one drape, the next team would be wrapping up the previous in opaque plastic sheets, duct-taping every corner and labeling it in black Sharpie.
By the third day I think we were all a little tired. “Christmas bells are ringing!” in Rent and they certainly rang in our ears as we giggled away and decorated the plastic wrap with doodles of Santa Claus, dreidels, snowflakes, and holiday messages. The finished packages sagged around the stage like a giant’s Christmas gifts.
In fact, I can just imagine the faces of the team in New Jersey as they receive our shipment. Packages? For us, really? Thirty-two of them! Someone’s going to get 32 of these white packages, and see our holiday greetings scrawled on the outside. A warm Christmas glow will fill his heart as he lugs them onto the floor. Maybe he even savors hot chocolate and adds to the touching moment.
Then, he fetches a little Swiss Army knife to open the first of the packages. The anticipation builds. Such neat wrapping, and such sweet drawings—it must be a special gift from Santa. The person closes his eyes, slices the plastic open and…our water-stained, chemical-streaked drapes tumble out at his feet. Well, at least the drawings were fun to read.
And when it’s all over, our theater at home will have a snug new roof that won’t let in any water, and we can enjoy waiting for our own shipment of mysterious parcels: this time, 32 gigantic (but clean) drapes. We’ll open them up with the gleeful squeals of children. Merry Christmas!