The show was over, and we were striking gear.
Usually, this is a time when my co-workers and I are hard at work, but chatting as we do. Laughing loudly over jokes, inside and otherwise, rehashing recent train wrecks, shouting insults across deck at each other. We’re a loud, boisterous group, and we like to have fun while we work.
But today, there was a tense quiet on deck. Our flyman was absolutely furious, not at any of us, but at himself. See, the show was supposed to end when the main curtain (or main rag, as it’s called) flying in. And the stage manager gave him the G-O, but the rag never dropped. For several seconds, the stage manager screamed into her headset, “Rag, GO! Rag, GO! Rag, GO! Rag, where are you?!” Only when I jumped on the radio and shouted, “Rail, where the hell are you?!” did the rag come in. But by then the band had walked off stage and the house lights were up, and it was blatantly obvious that it was too late. After the show, we found out that Flyman had been standing ready, waiting for the command, but his com box (means of communication) had died, so he wasn’t able to hear the G-O.
Even though the mistake was by no means even a tiny bit his fault, he was still absolutely livid at himself. And the thing is, we got it. We all take immense amounts of pride in our work, and even if the mistake isn’t ours, we beat ourselves up over it because regardless of fault, it makes us look like we screwed up. And that feels like shit. It’s a very helpless and infuriating feeling, and one that we all despise.
I tried to cheer the guy up. I told him that no one blamed him for the screw up, that we all knew that it wasn’t his fault. “Yeah, I know,” his mouth said, but the hard lines of his face said that my words weren’t doing shit to make him feel better.
So I tried a different tactic. “You know, that wasn’t even a good fuck up,” I said, with the sort of playful sneer that we all use when we’re giving each other shit. “I’ve fucked up shows waaaaay worse.” And I told him about my spectacular mistakes. The time I accidentally programmed house lights into a light cue during a show. The time I tracked through a (back)drop so that the big finale that was supposed to take place in front of a stunning star drop revealed a castle drop instead. Then I turned to one of the other techs on deck. “Yo, Tech, what’s your biggest fuck up during a show?”
Tech, (who is in his 60’s and has been in this industry longer than I’ve been alive,) got a wicked sparkle in his eye. “Oh, I’ve got some doozies,” he said. Then he told us about the time that he almost got sent home from his first tour for wiring a generator wrong, causing it to burst into flames. He told us about the time that a legend of the industry spilled milk on a venue’s brand new light board, forcing him to spend the next three days cleaning the circuitry with q-tips. And he told us about the time that he unknowingly got his headset cable tangled in the bottom pipe (a part of) of a main rag, causing his headset to get ripped off as the rag flew out and return crashing to the deck, almost hitting a dancer in the process.
For the remainder of the out, the rest of the crew and I traded stories of wild fuck ups, both our own and those belonging to others. And I noticed that by the end of the out, Flyman was his usual relaxed, joking and laughing self. I noticed that I was feeling a little more affectionate towards the entire crew, even the ones that I don’t enjoy as much on a personal level. There was a very comfortable feeling of comradery among us that night.
When working on a show, we spend a lot of time shooting the shit, talking shop. And there’s a bit of a…competitive streak among us. Face it, this is an industry where there’s not many jobs, and those jobs that do exist require the holder to work insanely hard; you don’t get to be where any of us are without being competitive. So a lot of our shit-shooting involves a kind of unspoken one-upmanship– who’s buying the coolest new gear, who worked in a more impossible situation, who did what cool effect. It’s always friendly, but even among friends, there’s the desire to outdo each other.
And yet, sharing our failures brought us closer as co-workers than any tale of triumph or bragging about gear every has. And I think it’s because, in part, because it let us see each other in a way that we don’t often get to. In this new gig economy, where a career is no longer a given and you’re only as good as your last gig, it’s easy to subconsciously view each other as competition. Jobs are scarce and professional connections are vital, so it can sometimes be hard to acknowledge weaknesses or blunders in front of people who may one day be able to hire you or be your competition for a job. In sharing our failures, it allowed us to share with each other the fact that everyone makes mistakes. And in a world where showing uncertainty or fear is sometimes frowned upon, it can be reassuring to recognize the fact that despite our outward bravado and seemingly impenetrable cool that we wear like armor, we’re each as vulnerable to the chaos of the moment and the fallacy of the human brain.
It let us be fucking human.