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I have returned from the depths of Saigon

Ho.  Ly.  Shit.

Three days ago, our theatre closed our production of Miss Saigon, and I am just now recovering from it.  I’ve had some pretty wild experiences in theatre, but this show was just a 7 layer dip of ridiculous.  I’ve always thought that audiences would be amazed by the flurry of motion and activity that goes on in the dark behind the curtain.  But this time, I think the drama and suspense backstage actually rivaled that which took place in the light.

This was definitely a challenging show for the run crew.  It was practical lighting heavy, the set was complex and constantly moving, actors were shedding costumes as they hit the wings and immediately being stuffed into new ones, and props were enormous in both size and number.  Numbers of crew members needed to run this show were twice what’s usually needed, and every one of us was running around like our hair was on fire.

Oh, and did I mention the helicopter?

Miss Saigon-515

That’s right.  A fucking helicopter.  That had to fly in and out over the stage.  And be rigged with what essentially equals out to rope and some pulleys.  The entire effect-flying it in with landing lights and spinning propeller, landing it on a platform, actors boarding it and sneaking out the false back, and flying back out-involved 11 crew members.  It was my job to run power to the landing lights and propeller motor, which I was also in charge of running during the “flight”.  It was a very tense process, since not only was an 800lb piece of scenery flying over people’s heads, it was a very tight fit to navigate it in and around lights, truss, cable, drops, and the millions of other things that live in the air above a stage.  Every time it slipped past the truss, missing a light by an inch-and-a-half, the oxygen level of the room dropped significantly.

So add to that a full-size pink Cadillac and two dry ice foggers the size of a regulation dumpster and it’s easy to see that we had our hands full.  But what really made this show hell is the fact that all this was going on in the dark, in a tiny space crammed to capacity with scenery, spider-webbed with cable, and teeming with black-clad people trying to work around and on top of each other.  It was in the midst of this chaos that our private hell broke loose.

Running the helicopter was always intense.  Crouched in a corner, working quickly in the dark, trying to see by the light of the flashlight tucked under my chin, while a ten-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire squeezes between me and the blackout curtain and two actors are making a costume change by my elbows.  From the moment we were on stand-by until the helicopter was safely stowed and cables coiled, my heart raced, blood pounded in my ears, and my hands were cold.  After one particularly stressful run, (tracking lines became tangled and wrapped around the cable, the fence unit became wedged between me and where my cable had to plug in, and the helicopter was about 12 seconds late flying in,) the light from the flashlight I held shook.  The war taking place on stage never entered my line of focus; the helicopter sound effect was secondary to the rattling of the chain-link fence passing by me and the cursing of those pushing it, and the screams of the Vietnamese left behind to die were drowned out by the shouting between my co-workers and myself.  Sometimes, it really felt as if we were the ones in a war zone, doing whatever necessary to ensure that our group got in and out safely.  After it was complete, we would scurry into our respective groups to huddle together, discuss how it had gone, and plan for our next move.

And all that for a 45 second spectacle.  One moment out of a three hour show.

Is it any wonder I spent the next three days lying on the couch watching Hell’s Kitchen?

I kind-of know how they feel.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Jason July 30, 2009, 6:55 am

    Very well written Steph. I haven’t seen it. I have seen some life of backstage. But that was written like a novel. I was riveted to my seat feeling the tension with you. Well done. And i hope your next show isn’t quite so stressful. =)


  • Jonathan July 30, 2009, 7:47 am

    Great post! I played trumpet in pit orchestras in high school and college (and helped a little with set construction), of course nothing on the scale you’re describing. Very entertaining – I’d love to read anymore of these stories you can get away with posting…

  • doahleigh July 30, 2009, 8:05 am

    So fascinating! I like reading about your job.

  • Princess of the Universe July 30, 2009, 9:42 am

    When it came to Winnipeg they didn’t use an actual helicopter- it was a virtual one. Much less stressful- but also less dramatic.
    I’ve been backstage at some of those shows and always felt badly at potentially being in the way. Shocking how those actors have to fling off clothes and change in front of a zillion people. I don’t know if I could do it…

  • CharmCityKim August 1, 2009, 7:23 am

    I have always wanted to see Miss Saigon… and if I ever do, I will think of you and this post. Holy crap! I’m pretty sure I’d die doing your job. I just sit in a cubicle all day…
    You don’t know how tempting that sounds some days. Especially the whole 5-day-work-week thing. I could definitely get on board with that.

  • Trixie August 1, 2009, 4:20 pm

    Wow lady! You’re job sounds so fun!.. in the crazy hectic, fast-paced kind of way, which I love!

    Me so jealous!!!!

  • Trixie August 1, 2009, 4:20 pm

    hah! I just noticed that my comment was published at 4:20!

    …. juvenile, I know but HAH!

  • Katy August 2, 2009, 3:15 pm

    Our second show of the season involved putting a 12-foot box truck onto our stage…which actually crashed through the platforms on it’s first run up – 4 hours before tech was supposed to start.
    And by putting it onstage, I mean, part of the opening sequence is the truck crashing through the upstage walls of a previous set.
    It works like a dream, but watching it still makes me nervous.

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