As the saying goes, ‘Never work with children, animals, or props.’ All those of us who have had the privilege of participating in any live theatre end up collecting hosts of stories wherein just about everything which can go wrong does. Sometimes minor, sometimes near catastrophic. People forget lines, tech fails to properly tech, random outcries or input from the audience, any assortment of chaotic factors which can come your way while the curtain is up and the show must go on.
The famous three children, animals, and props hold a special place in our hearts as they tend to engender the most frequent and profound doses of live performance chaos. Many of the tales from Broadway are rather epic but here are two examples of prop related hijinx from my high school days of involvement in school and community theatrical productions.
Pirates of Penzance
Gilbert and Sullivan musicals are well-known and beloved. They have their own unique style and tone, there are professional theatre companies and societies which devote themselves entirely to just that cannon of material alone not unlike their Shakespearian comrades. Pirates is one of the most familiar of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creations and one year my high school decided to take a crack at it.
We actually did quite well casting a show that size, there were well over thirty of us all told. Our Mabel was quite talented and had a lovely voice capable of handling the musical acrobatics. Our Pirate King seemed almost born to the role, as was our Ruth. Our Major General gave it a reasonable try and we just won’t talk about our Frederic, unfortunate things can happen when you give leading roles to seniors just because their seniors.
The chorus and supporting cast, of which I was a part, was quite the sizable crowd and as luck would have it half a dozen of the chorus pirates were also avid members of the shop crew. They were not only able to help make safe, stage-combat worthy swords but they also decided that our pirate ship needed a proper cannon. As any decent pirate ship should.
They went all out building the wooden cradle, wheels, and crafted a very realistic looking cannon barrel hallowed all the way down to the base with a small access hole at the rear complete with a little resting bowl for the cherry bomb which our head shop-pirate would get the honor of lighting and placing for the right moment in the opening number. He practiced with them tirelessly, much to the joy of his neighbors we heard, in order to ensure he had the timing down perfectly. A little bit of white flour placed just out of sight in the muzzle of the cannon and we had ourselves on heck of a punctuation mark for the opening song.
Rehearsals went brilliantly, he truly did have the timing down to the second. Virtually the entire run of performances also went swimmingly. Audiences were wowed and our shop-pirates were practically glowing in the dark with pride. The prop gods decided to wait until the final performance to exercise their sense of humor.
On closing night, as the opening number rolled along, we were all riding high. The show overall had been a great success, neither Frederick’s somewhat alarmingly tone-deaf offerings nor the Major General’s inability to get through his signature song even once had done anything to tarnish the shine from a generally very well done production with an impressively well-built set, energetic and well-rehearsed cast, and a live orchestra made up of both students and local professionals.
The cannon blast was set up for a third of the way into the song, complete with reactions and revelry from the pirates. The moment arrived…no ‘boom’. Surreptitious glances found our cannoneer scrambling to set and light his back-up cherry bomb, the first apparently a dud. Like all theatrical tricks with inherent risk we had a plan b spot in the song for a second go. The back-up moment arrived…no ‘boom’. Second one was apparently a dud as well.
We kept on singing, even managing to give him a hard time as though his failure to fire the cannon was a planned part of the number. He did have a second back-up cherry bomb which he set and waited for the last opportunity in the song before it launched into main narrative material about Frederick deciding to leave the pirate band.
The final moment arrived, he lit the fuse…no ‘boom’. We would later discover the final package of cherry bombs purchased for the show had gotten damp and therefore been rendered useless. Still swept up in the energy of the show and the song he looked at us, the cannon, the audience, shrugged, and then yelled — “Bang!”
Not sure who laughed harder, the audience or the cast.
We gave him a plastic pistol with the little ‘bang’ flag in the barrel at the wrap party that weekend.
I was a cast member in an all kids cast community production of a children’s musical written by a local drama teacher. It was about a young girl swept away to a magical land on a flying carpet where she meets all sorts of fantastical characters, primary among them a talking and singing camel who becomes her best friend. She also meets Murex the Sea Maiden, the female ‘good witch’ matriarch of the land, and Molock the Evil One, a ‘Jafar-like’ evil wizard bent on conquering the world.
It was really rather well written, filled with catchy songs both comical and full of uplifting messages about the importance of friendship and having all the power you will ever need inside yourself. And as a side note, our run of the show did so well we got invited to take it to a provincial level scholastic theatre festival where we were not only the solitary ‘kids’ show but were also granted the honor of closing the festival. An honor we more fully understood after seeing all the other heavy, dark, brooding, morbid, and rather grisly drama presented by all the other participants. The other groups had clearly gone for ‘serious theatre’, Our Town was one of the lighter selections.
The show right before us was called Concrete Daisy. A musical about a girl who runs away from home to escape her father’s ongoing sexual molestations, ends up living on the streets where she befriends an old bag lady and becomes girlfriend to the leader of a gang of street kids, is m.i.a. during a rumble with a rival gang because she was visiting with the bag lady so the boyfriend beats the old woman to death with a pipe, her father who has been making brief appearances looking for her from before we fully understand the molestation circumstances eventually finds her and tries to convince her to come home, so she takes her own life with the gun in her boyfriend’s jacket pocket sobbing a reprise of her earlier joyous song about finally being free into a blackout followed by a massive room shaking pyrotechnic for the gunshot.
Ten minute set swap and on we come singing and dancing light-hearted kids tunes in cartoonish costumes with flying carpets and a talking camel. All the festival attendees were so desperate for anything happy we got standing ovations for virtually every scene, it was quite the thing.
Our prop misadventure happened before our trip to the festival but once again on the closing night of the theatrical run and, as it just so happened, the night we were filming the show for posterity.
The pseudo narrator character of the show was a pink clad genie named Nabookinesh, Naboo for short. She would dance between scenes, occasionally playing a flute, and would use her magic confetti to cast spells. During the pivotal final battle between Murex, Molock, and their respective minions Naboo uses her confetti to freeze everyone in order to stop the fighting.
There had never been any trouble with the confetti during rehearsals or any other performances but somehow on closing night our Naboo managed to catch Murex and Molock at the just the right time, wrestling over his magical staff with him down on one knee roaring with rage as the Sea Maiden gained the upper hand for a moment. After reaching into her pink satin pouch Naboo miraculously managed to fling a large handful of confetti almost directly into Molock’s open mouth.
Like true pros both Murex and Molock froze as they were supposed to but both had difficulty maintaining their tableau. Molock because he was trying not to choke on the mouth full of confetti and Murex because she could see it all just sitting there in his still gaping mouth.
Eventually the little girl asks Naboo to release everyone so they can go their separate ways, peacefully resolving the conflict, starting with the good and evil commanders. Sprinkling a light shower of releasing confetti Naboo does as asked and both Murex and Molock stagger back to life. Molock is meant to snarl out a line full of defiance and threats before storming off.
He attempted his line but with all the confetti in his mouth was barely able to make a sound. Staying in character he glared back and forth between Naboo, Murex, and the little girl. He then angrily spat it all out onto the stage in an explosive burst which sent the confetti floating and swirling everywhere before growling out “You haven’t seen the last of me!” and storming off.
All of us minions who were supposed to still be frozen are clearly visible on the video twitching and shaking as much as the shoulders of Murex the Sea Maiden who decided against even attempting her own line, kept her smirking mouth clamped shut, and passed it over to Naboo instead.
It should be noted that when we performed at the festival the fight freezing confetti toss was less of a hand full, much more wide-spread, and nowhere near either combatant’s face.