I was once hired as the stage manager for a professional production of a new, avant-garde German satire, which was to premiere in the USA after a production in Germany. The German director and one of the German actresses were coming with it, but the rest of the cast was American. In the first scene, lights came up on the male lead lying on his back in the middle of the stage, masturbating. It was that sort of play.

The German director and actress (who was also his girlfriend) were fantastic: talented, charming, and all-over lovely. The leading American actor, who was responsible for my presence, was also a good guy. Unfortunately, that left the remaining American actors: the leading actress, the second-lead actress, and a male character actor.

I liked the male character actor up until opening night, when he gave me a token of his affection, tucked into an envelope along with a kind note thanking me for my work. It was a Xeroxed page of racist jokes.

The leading actress was quite famous from having played the wholesome, all-American, and perfect Mom on an old, long-running, wholesome, all-American TV show. Lest she find this and sue me, I will not use her real name, but rather a pseudonym. I’ll call her Mrs. Dalton. She was an evil harridan who took pleasure in making everyone around her miserable. Once she stomped out of a rehearsal, and I had the surreal experience of chasing her through the halls of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, screaming, “Get back in here and finish the rehearsal, or I’ll report you for breaking your contract!”

The second-lead actress—I’ll call her Marlene-- was well-known in Los Angeles as an acting teacher. It wasn’t that she was a bad human being. It was that she could not remember her lines. The day before the opening, she had still not learned her lines. On opening night, she jumped ahead twenty pages. I prayed, “Please please please let someone else notice and get her back on track!” But, as if they were hypnotized, everyone else continued from where she had jumped to. But the part she had skipped contained crucial information without which the entire rest of the play made no sense.

So I decided to call a cue that would be an unmistakable signal to the other actors to go back. But I had to talk the light and sound people through this, because they were now completely lost, and it involved jumping five pages forward from where we were supposed to be. But at least it wasn’t twenty pages forward. And it was the only thing I could think of that would definitely force the actors off their current track. But by the time I’d gotten the techs ready, they actors had all continued on from the wrong place for several minutes and were now twenty-five minutes away from where they should be.

I called the cue. In the middle of Marlene’s sentence, the lights blacked out on everyone but Mrs. Dalton. A spotlight shone into her pop-eyed and horror-struck face, and treacly piano music began to play. With an audible gulp and in what was clearly a programmed response, she began the monologue that went with the cue. When it was over, the rest of the play continued as it was supposed to go. Unfortunately, however, when it got to the five minutes that we’d already been through, we were forced to go through the entire thing again.

The centerpiece of the entire play was a very long family dinner scene. The director decided to have the sole food be a life-size bull’s head, horns included, made entirely of crimson Jello. Mrs. Dalton hacked off great slabs and hurled them, quivering, onto everyone’s plates. It was pretty funny. Especially since the prop woman kept screwing up the recipe. One time she forgot to put in the sugar, which made the actors all make dreadful faces, gulp down their mouthful, and take no more. Another time she put in too much gelatin. They didn’t react to this when they first bit in, but slowly, as their mouthfuls turned first to pebbles, then to sand, and then to dust, without ever dissolving into a substance they could swallow without choking, they each gave up and spat it out.

The stage hand was an arrogant jerk. When we did a scene change during intermission one night, when I thought the audience had all gone to the lobby, he refused to obey my instructions on how to get a large piece of furniture through the door. It slammed into the set, knocking off a large piece of plaster.

“Do it MY WAY, you fucking idiot!” I shrieked. “YOUR WAY just destroyed the set!”

When we emerged onstage with the furniture, we were greeting with a round of laughter and applause from the audience members still in their seats.



The conclusion of this miserable production was when the house manager oversold the performance. Despite my express order forbidding her to set up illegal, fire-hazard extra seats, she snuck in and put in folding chairs at the top of a steep aisle, backed by a six foot drop with no railing, so if anyone sitting in them leaned back, the seats would flip over and they would fall and smash their skulls. To add to the likelihood of this happening, the actors ran up and down those aisles as part of the production.

I spotted this and ordered the arrogant stage hand to take them down, and the house manager to not let anyone in until I gave her the OK. Then I went to look for the director, who could not be found. When I returned she had seated the entire audience, including four people in the danger seats. I told her I would not call the show until those seats were gone. She refused to de-seat anyone, and threatened to have me fired. I got up on the stage, explained the situation, and asked those audience members to relinquish their seats and take comps for another night. They refused!

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s the deal. The show’s not happening until those seats are gone. I’ll give you three choices. One, you take tickets for another night. Two, you sit up in the booth with me, which I strongly advise against since it will be hot and cramped and you’ll hear me talking for the entire play and you’ll barely be able to see the stage and you may not make any noise whatsoever and it will be no fun—“

“Okay, the booth!” They exclaimed this eagerly and without waiting to hear choice three, which was “I go home and there is no play for anyone.”

I was irritated, as I didn’t want them up there and it was probably a fire hazard, but I’m sure they always remembered that night for its novelty. The house manager again threatened to have me fired, but the director backed me up so nothing came of it. It is the right and duty of the stage manager to refuse to call the show if there is an outstanding safety hazard, though I don’t think it’s often exercised.

A few months later a different theatre in Los Angeles did the exact same thing, only the show went on with the illegal extra folding chairs in place and a guy sitting in one leaned back, fell, broke his leg, and sued. When I heard about that, I felt completely vindicated.
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