“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.