Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mistakes Happen

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." - George Bernard Shaw

"The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way." - Dale Carnegie

"All men make mistakes, but married men find out about them sooner." - Red Skelton


You know, it's strange which things I remember from my younger years.

Take, for instance, my (somewhat limited) theater experience.  Background: West Point had a club called the Theatre Arts Guild (spelled that way on purpose).  Club members got to do a great many things; since the Eisenhower Hall theater was so big and so close to NYC, many Broadway shows and headline bands would use us as a jumping-off or landing point for their tours.  Cadets being cheap (and quite efficient) labor, we'd serve as the load-in/load-out crew (smashing time records every time!), follow spot operators, wardrobe, riggers, techs, etc.

That wasn't all, though.  We also put on our own shows at the rate of two major and several minor productions per year.  Thus, those of us who wished could not only fulfill our techie desires but also act/direct to our hearts' content.

One show we did was Moby Dick, Rehearsed.  It's a cool play, done in the round, in which a Shakespearean troupe gets bored in rehearsal one day and decides to try their hands at a spontaneous version of Moby Dick.  Prop design was pretty easy: a ladder.  I think we also had a bucket, but I can't recall specifically.  The acting was more challenging, though, in the absence of props.  For example, as we pulled on ropes to raise the whatever we were working on raising, we all had to pantomime pulling a rope in sync.  It's harder'n it sounds, trust me.

I got to be the head sea-shanty-er, I guess you'd call him.  You know all those cool sailing songs that they used to sing to make their work go by quicker (and more in sync)?  I learned 'em and started 'em, with everybody else joining in.  Thing is, I don't remember any of them.  Well, okay, I remember one: the one I messed up.

See?  It's funny how our mistakes get into our memories, isn't it?

I did sound once.  Just once, and that was a purposeful thing.  Sound design is hard.  Back in those days theaters would buy reels of sound effect tapes; they'd have tapes of explosions, tapes of weather, tapes of animal noises, and so on.  Sound Guy would then spend hours, pre-production, listening to effect after effect to find the perfect one.  Once he'd found it, he'd carefully swish the reel back and forth till he found the precise spots on the tape where the sound began and ended, and there he'd make diagonal cuts to remove the sound, which he'd then carefully splice into the production tape. 

This particular show was You Can't Take It With You, a play that--well, it's a love story, like most of them are.  Young Man falls in love with Young Woman while quirky family provides interesting story.  Quirky Dad, in this case, loves building fireworks in the basement, and you know what that means to Sound Guy, right?  We built a raised stage, under which we placed a few great big Bose speakers that probably came originally labeled with, "We make fireworks sound awwwweee-ssssssooooommmmme." 

Opening night, there I was, lording over my domain (the sound board and the entire audience I could afflict with it).  My pulse raced, as I recall, as the first fireworks scene came up.  In the moment of silence I flipped the volume control for the channel going to the Bose speakers up to maximum and then let the sound bite rip.  Mwa haa haaaaa!  The power!  The energy!  The--the poor little elderly lady in the front row who weakly rose to her feet and wobbled out, clutching her ears.

Hmm.  Maybe a better label for the speakers would be, "We deafen the elderly."

A little later came the romantic scene in which Young Man and Young Woman dance in the living room/dining room/whatever room the stage happens to be made up as at the time.  I'd found a nice orchestral version of "Sentimental Journey" to be played on the speaker that was cleverly hidden inside a wooden box mocked up like an old radio.  Young Man merely walked over, pretended to rotate the "On" knob, and that cued me to start the effect with the cute little speaker turned on at an appropriately lyrical level.  Beautiful scene, that was.

It was supposed to be beautiful, anyway.

See, it came right after another fireworks scene.  After all the ker-blam! bang! boom! shree! sounds that suggested the dawn of global warfare, I was to move the lever controlling the Bose speakers down to the "Off" position and then slide the one controlling the little poof-poof one to "Beautiful."

You see where this is going, don't you?

Yeah, okay, so I forgot.  The only cue in the entire series of shows that I forgot, and it happened to be that one.

I don't remember most of the play.  Don't remember much of any of our plays, really, except the one-act short play I took a stab at directing in which the actor and actress performed the three scenes in precisely the wrong order (and that's a tale for a different day).  But boy, do I ever remember that moment.  It seemed to stretch out into some weird Doctor Who continuum, with me riveted in place listening to the sweet, sweet orchestral arrangement blaring from the powerful "Deafen Grandma" speakers at what must have been upwards of 180 dB. 

But something very special happened in the next moment.  The actor, Young Man, didn't panic.  Mistakes happen, after all.  Actors and actresses in live productions have to be on their toes constantly, it turns out, because there's always something that goes wrong (like when they switched Young Man's water glass out with a vodka, but that, too, is a tale for a different day).

Like I was saying, he didn't panic.  Instead, he did the only sane thing that could be done.  He took a step or two back to the radio and pretended to turn the knob in a "quieten down" direction.  Luckily Sound Guy was quick enough on the uptake to recognize what he was doing and nimbly lower the lever for "Blast You Out" while simultaneously raising the lever for "cute and lovely."  

And you know what?  The show went on.

We all need to be more like that actor.  Mistakes do happen.  They happen all the time, to all of us.  Sometimes it seems they happen more frequently to us guys who're married, but that's a whole different topic.  We need to be able to take our mistakes and turn them into successes, smiling all the while.

Vodka helps, too.


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