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How Life Pissed in My Lemonade

The short version of this story is that life handed me lemons, I made lemonade, and then someone turned around and pissed in my lemonade.

Here’s the story.

Author’s note: Some of this is going to get kinda nerdy. I’ll do my best to keep the industry talk to a minimum, but forgive me if I fail. If you’re going along and the words no longer sound like English, just skip ahead, I promise it’ll go back. This is also going to get a little long-winded. I’m aware of this, and I apologize. But without the journey leading to the finale, it’s impossible to understand the true devastation and loss that I experienced. If this is all too much for you guys, I understand. Come back next time, I promise I’ll be back to talking about pink hair and my underpants. But I needed to share this, for me. Please indulge me. 

The ballet company that I design lights for every summer asked me to work with them on another piece at the end of November. Of course, I immediately agreed. I’ve worked with this company in both my space and a space down in the Bronx three times now, and though each time has had its own challenges, it’s always been a rewarding experience. So I said yes. This show was going to be a little different for a couple reasons. For one, unlike the last three shows, this piece was going to be a modern, contemporary piece instead of a classical ballet. (Super psyched about that part.) But the other difference is that the first performance, instead of being performed in the Egg, was to be performed in an entirely new space just outside of Yonkers. Okay, so launching a new show in a new space would be a bit more challenging than in my home turf. But here we go.

A month or so out I start talking to the contact for the new venue, trying to get a feel for what the space is like and what equipment will be available to me. I know that it’s going to be limited–my directors have already told me that we’re going to have to rent some lighting gear–but I need to get a feel for the venue so that I can figure out what kind of gear we’ll need and what the venue can support. So I’m asking this guy questions about the space, standard information that is readily available in most venues. And the answers I’m getting are…well, let’s just say that when I get an answer at all, I can tell that the answer is wrong. He’s confusing lighting booms (6′-14′ metal pole on a round steel base) with a boom microphone stand (a regular mic stand with an extendable arm.) Finally, I ask him to take some pictures of the space, of the gear, of the lighting grid, of everything. I know it’s the only way I’m going to get an accurate idea of what’s waiting for me.

And hoooo, buddy, what a picture I got.

Let me put it this way. This is a picture of the space I work in:


And here’s a picture of the space we were going in to:

(Ignore the text, that’s not the  important part.)

The important part is that the pictures he sent me showed me that we were going to be going into an absolute shit-hole. All of the things that one can generally take for granted in a space weren’t there. There was no usable lighting rig, no curtains, no power, no nothing. We pretty much had four walls and a floor, and that’s it. It would be like if you reserved a hotel room and arrived only to discover that there was no bed, no toilet in the bathroom, and none of the lights worked.

In short, we were fucked. Totally and completely fucked.

But you know that old cliche. The show must go on.

So we made a game plan. We put together a minimal light plot with a minimal rental package that was entirely self-sufficient. It was a solid rig, a backlight system of LEDs and two sidelight systems of shins and heads, and easy to install, but soooo minimal. I usually design a show with a rig containing 250-300 individual lighting fixtures; this show, I would be attempting with 18. Even with good gear, this show was going to be an immense challenge, unlike anything I’d ever done before.

So it’s the day before the show, the day we’re scheduled to load in. Kyle and I pick up the rental gear, unload, and we hit the deck with a vengeance.

It ain’t pretty.

The space is everything we were afraid of and worse. There’s almost no wing space to speak of, and no lights backstage for the dancers to move around by. There’s no comm system, which means that there is no way for any crew members to communicate at all during the show. I start turning lights on to focus them and the blonde color of the wood floors and the nasty-ass beige curtains bounce light EVERYWHERE, which means that I can’t put isolated light in one place without it spilling everywhere I don’t want it. The fullness of the curtains created insane shadows. And when I make the traditional shutter cuts on the shins and heads it cuts the usable dance space from a questionable 20′ deep to a laughable 15′ deep.

If all of that sounded like jibberish to you, just know this: we were extra-special-even-more-than-totally fucked. This space wasn’t just a lemon; this space was a moldy-ass lemon covered in fuzz and dropped in a kitty little box.

Make lemonade, bitch.

I’m not gonna lie, I wanted to have a meltdown at this point. The task ahead of me–light this show in a way that highlights the beauty of the dancers, aids in the telling of the story, and amplifies the mood set on stage–seemed just too impossible. But Kyle gave me a kiss, told me that I kick ass, and told me to take it one cue at a time. So I dove in.

Hours later, I had a show in the board. And it was unlike anything I’d ever done before.

The next day, I sat in the booth next to one of my bosses and nervously watched the audience file in. Even though we’d had a (mostly) successful run-through that afternoon and my boss, Leonard, had loved what I’d done, there was still much at stake. There was my other boss, Leonard’s wife, to impress. Not only was the lighting I had created very different than what I’d done for their three previous shows, but it was very different than what most people are doing anywhere. See, this space created so many problems for me that…well, you know that phrase that goes, “If you can’t hide it, put a bow on it”? I put a giant motherfucking bow on it, one so big that it kinda smashed you in the face. It was a big risk, and if everyone hated it I would look like an idiot and an amateur.

But as the house lights went down and the first dancer slowly entered the stage, my doubt lessened. The darkness matched beautifully the tired, weary mood on stage, and the shadows created an eeriness that added tension to the stage. And as the piece moved on, my worried anticipation melted away completely. Everything was looking better than I’d ever hoped. The tricky swap of the sidelight colors was executed by the crew without any of the crash and clumsiness of that afternoon. The saturated colors that I love so much and are used so infrequently in the dance world created a magic and an intensity that gave me goose bumps. And miracles of miracles, every dancer seemed to find their light! The intense side light made the men look like beasts and the women look like goddesses.

As each cue fired, I held my breath that it would look as I hoped, and then I held it again because I was amazed that I had actually created it.

As I pressed ‘GO’ for the final cue of the show, I let my breath out as the exhilaration washed over me. We had done it! Against every manner of impossibility, the choreographer, the company, Kyle, and I had put together something fantastic, something that we could truly be proud of. Three more minutes of dance, then lights out, bows, house up, and this show was going to be in the can! I was finally ready to breath easy.

Joke’s on me.

Out of nowhere, the stage lights and house lights started blinking and flashing wildly. I stared in horror as the monitor on the house light board went black and began the reboot cycle, all the while the lights flashing like we were in a disco. I jiggled power and data connections, desperate for one of them to fix this problem, to no avail. (Apparently when the house guy had casually mentioned that their console’s power supply was having issues, he failed to mention that it was failing and that they hadn’t bothered to do anything about it.) I knew that there was a panel of buttons that run the secondary house light system on the wall outside my booth, and I lunged for that, if only to stabilize the house lignts. What I didn’t know, however, was that the house management, in all their brilliance, had parked two wheelchairs blocking the door of the booth. I discovered this when I opened the door of the booth and slammed said door into the side of a wheelchair, trapping me in the booth and nearly knocking the wheelchair over.

If you’ve been skimming through the boring parts, pay attention again, you’ll like this part. I later found out that as soon as Kyle saw the lights go berzerk, he made a run for the booth to try and help. Running down the hall at full speed, he went to run through the left side of a double door, the right side being pushed out. However, for whatever fucked up reason, the doors on this set of double doors push in opposite directions. So when Kyle went to run through the door, he instead body checked it. Smashed right into it, throwing him backwards and breaking the hinges off. That’s right. He broke the door with his face. That never stops being funny…

Anyway, back in the booth. After three reboots and what felt like an eternity (but was probably only 20 seconds or so,) the board finally went back to its normal state, and I was able to reload the final cue. The dancers, god bless them, had continued on without blinking, and we were able to finish the show.

But it was ruined.

In that singular moment, due to the negligence of the house crew, the entire show was rendered a joke. All the magic that the dancers and I had woven, all the tension that had built on stage, in one moment was dashed away. The audience wouldn’t remember the haunting beauty of Brittany and Morgan’s duet, or the raw power of the male’s hunting dance, or the jarring sickness of the mourning  after death; they would only remember how at the end of the show, the house lights started flashing.

I was devastated.

As I look back through the pictures of the show, I’m still immensely proud of the work that we did. We took nothing–fuck that, we took less than nothing–and we made something incredibly beautiful. Even if the houses’s fucking fucked up broken-ass light board did mess up the show, before that was 68 minutes of beauty that we created and nothing can take that away.

I’m proud of us.

I’m proud of me.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • karen December 3, 2012, 3:03 pm

    I am so proud of you for all that you did to make this show a success in spite of all the obstacles. I am also confident that even with the “light spectacle” at the end, the audience loved the performance, the lighting, and understand that sometimes “shit” happens & they still can appreciate the artistry & beauty you created. Give yourself credit for your creativity, resourcefulness & poise and know that very few persons could have made this “moldy lemon” into a chiffon lemon tart!! (Did Kyle hurt his face?)

    • Monster December 3, 2012, 3:05 pm

      Thanks, Karen!

      Kyle did have a bit of a bump on his head for the next day or two, but as he commented later, “There’s a reason I was so good at hockey!”

  • Kate December 3, 2012, 3:52 pm

    Holy shit.

    That fucking BLOWS!! How did the bosses react to it?
    I’m just a camera op, but our other camera op has his own lighting business and he’s now semi-retired, but I love it when he tells some of his horror stories from his 25(ish?) years on the road. After you come down from the absolute horror, this will be a great story to tell.

    • Monster December 3, 2012, 4:12 pm

      Luckily, one of them was sitting right next to me when things exploded, so he realized that it wasn’t my fault. (At the very least I’m not fired!) I just felt horrible because this piece meant so much to him on a personal level. It’s the story of the journey of Albanian immigrants leaving their homeland, and the complexity of what they’re leaving behind and what they’re running from. He’s from Albania so this piece is very dear to his heart, and to see it get wrecked like that felt awful.

      And as I told the house guy as he apologized for the 53 billionth time, shows like this are total street cred!

  • Christine December 3, 2012, 6:43 pm

    You gave them more than they had any right to expect. You did everything you could human (or superhuman)-ly do. I bet it was awesome.

    BTW, hope Kyle is feeling better. Sorry we were lame Saturday, but I was too fucking cold to leave the house. When is your next free weekend evening?

  • adriana December 5, 2012, 10:06 am

    Holy balls. What a cluster! I’m so glad you were able to salvage the crappy setup you were given, and I’m sure that the audience remembers how amazing the show was, not just the light malfunction!

  • Charm City Kim December 11, 2012, 10:56 am

    I’m glad that throughout the f’ed up chaos, there was still something to laugh about… although I hope Kyle’s face is okay. 🙂

    I’m sorry to read things got so f’ed up (and it was out of your control). I’m sure everything else was awesome!

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