Ch. 9. Break a Leg

After rehearsing the play in one way or another almost every night for four weeks, Miss Caudill arranged for us to have a dress rehearsal at the local community college theatre. The stage was a small proscenium arch with a seating capacity of about 200, which felt huge to us. There was a lighting booth with, I think, maybe six rheostats and half a dozen switches. The stage had exits off of stage left and right (although stage right was a dead end– exit right, you’re required to enter right or have to make a run for it under cover of darkness.)

We proceeded forthwith to dress rehearsal, which turned out to be practicing in front of a hand-picked audience. There were a few parents, a few students from speech class who were not in the play, a couple of Miss Caudill’s theatre friends (you wouldn’t think there would be any in Hazard, Kentucky, but there were some, even back then) and a couple of teachers, including Joanne Williams, who would eventually be my chemistry teacher.

I remember Miss Caudill explaining to us what “downstage” actually meant.

“In Shakespeare’s day, the audience sat on a level floor,” she explained. “So the people in the back could see the entire set, the stage was built tilted. The part farthest from the stage was higher, or upstage. The part towards the audience was downstage.

She gestured at the gentle slope in the theatre’s audience seating area.

“Now the stage is flat and the audience is tilted, but we still use the same terminology.”

“So the terminology is based on you being the center of the coordinate system,” I said. “Stage left is your left, stage right is your right, as you face the audience. Up and down is relative to your own position. Someone in the center of the stage can be upstage of you if you’re near the audience.”

Benny stared at me as Miss Caudill nodded. “That’s it exactly,” she said.

I looked at Benny. What?

He shook his head, and resumed work without commenting.

In theatre lore, there are a few superstitions that are traditional. You don’t say the name “Macbeth” in the theatre unless you speak it during the play; you say “break a leg” when you mean “I hope you do well,” and the quality of dress rehearsals are the opposite of the opening night. If the dress rehearsal goes well; opening night will be a disaster. If the dress rehearsal is a disaster....well, let’s just say that we anticipated a terrific opening night.

“You’re not allowed to call “line!” in dress rehearsal when you forget your lines!” hissed Miss Caudill at Tranio. “You get yourself into a mess, you get yourself out.”

It’s not easy to paraphrase or improvise Elizabethan iambic pentameter. In my only other theatre experience, I hadn’t been allowed to improvise anything.

My very first theatrical experience occurred in the second grade in an elementary school in Ohio. During the school’s winter Christmas pageant (which wouldn’t be allowed in our culturally neutered times today) everyone in the class was assigned a role as Jesus, a shepherd, a wise man, the proprietor of the inn, and so on...except for me. I got the honored position of “prompter,” which meant I sat backstage, unseen, and when someone forgot a line, I was supposed to follow along and read it to them. Even that menial task was taken from me, however, because the teacher stood behind me and hissed “Prompterrr!” fiercely if I didn’t supply the word instantly; and eventually she snatched the script from my hand and did it herself. That sort of gave me a negative perception of the whole theatrical “scene” until years later, when I had more or less forgotten this particular ignominy.

Now I stood upon a stage at Hazard Community College, with lights so bright in my eyes I couldn’t see the audience, I suddenly couldn’t remember any of my lines.  And in high school, Miss Caudill loftily informed me, we didn’t use prompters; you were expected to do the job right the first time.

“But what if I forget my line?” I whined some days after I started trying to rehearse without a script.

“Then you’re going to have to invent something to do while we wait for your brain to come back,” she said.

“Don’t TV people use prompters?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t know, Hoss. All I know is–”

“Shuddup and learn your lines,” growled Benny.

Miss Caudill paused just long enough to catch Benny’s attention, gave him the eyebrow and beamed don’t do my job for me into his brain, and continued, “All I know is if you have a prompter, you will get lazy and depend on the prompter. No prompters. All right, Hoss?”

I nodded.

“Knock me here sirrah, and knock me soundly!” bellowed Benny. He beat his chest, confusing me. Was I supposed to hit him? Did he think I was stupid?

“Uh...” I said, sweat popping out on my forehead. “Uh.”

“I said Knock me here soundly, you sirrah, or I shall poundeth your head!” yelled Benny, even louder. I believed him, because the veins were rising out of his forehead and his neck muscles looked like they were ready to do the beating all on their own.

“Knock you, uh, here, sir? Why, has anyone here abused your worshipfulness?” I managed to croak, accompanied by a distinct smack caused by Miss Caudill’s hand colliding violently with her forehead.

Other entertaining events occurred during the dress rehearsal. Lyn had a special Velcro-fastened costume because she had to change rapidly from traveling clothes to a wedding dress during a short scene. During her initial confrontation with Petruchio, it fell off, revealing her ordinary non-acting, if skimpy, street clothes she was wearing underneath to preserve her dignity when switching costumes in our mixed-gender dressing room–a temporarily appropriated music room off of stage left dominated by a grand piano with just enough room to walk around it.  Deathly silence ensued as she reassembled herself.

Missed cues, bungled entrances, and dropped props ruled the day. My sister, portraying the housekeeper Curtis, dropped a tray with cups and glasses which scattered everywhere. If the wine glasses had been actual glass instead of dime-store plastic that might have brought the show to a literal halt. Biondello was nowhere to be found during one of the few scenes where he has something to say. He had misjudged the time remaining and went to buy a pop. For you folks out in the wider world, we called sodas “pop.”  I knew older people who would say “Co-Cola” for “Coca-Cola” whereas the younger generation would just say “Coke” like the rest of the country.

Finally, the play ended. Some of the attendees had already departed, and we were sure we knew why. Miss Caudill simply sat there with her head bent over her forearm, which was resting on the back of the seat in front of her. We noted she had moved from second row to the back of the theatre when we weren’t looking.

Rehearsal notes followed as always and we practiced fixing whatever was wrong right then and there, usually ten times as least until we met her standard of perfection. Some rehearsals went as late as 9 or 10 PM, and we even crossed the midnight line on occasion. Especially on dress rehearsal night. Not that we had anything to dress up in.

Tonight, however, she had no notepad, and her eyes were red and bleary; it was obvious she had been quietly weeping in the back of the theatre.

“That has to be the most Gawd-awful thing I ever saw in my life,” she said, choking back a sob. Sort of like Scotty on Star Trek, her accent thickened whenever she was emotional. And she was emotional a lot, both in frequency and intensity. “And I have to have my name attached to it.” She rolled her eyes so far back in her head, I swear all you could see was the bloodshot whites of her eyes between her eyelids. “Oh Gawd Almighty, help me,” she wailed.

“We’ll get it right tomorrow night, Caudill,” rasped Benny. His voice sounded older than it should. I couldn’t tell if it was the cigarettes he smoked or the situation we were in.

“I am so sorry, Aunt Cheryl,” said Lyn, who must have been saving the “Aunt Cheryl” for when she was in big trouble.

“I didn’t mean to forget my line,” I stammered, “I wasn’t used to the lights and ...”

“Don’t make excuses,” said Benny. I started to object but snapped my mouth shut when Miss Caudill held up a hand.

“No, It’s my fault. You’re not ready. You’re not. Obviously we’re going to have to postpone the opening and return the tickets.”

“No way in hell, Caudill,” said Benny. “No way in hell.” He raked back his straight brown hair and scratched the stubble on his chin. “We’ll do it right. We’ll do it right right now. “

“I’d appreciate it if you’d restrain that language around me, young man,” said Miss Caudill. “I don’t curse at you and I don’t expect it aimed in my direction.”

Benny looked like he’s suddenly forgot to wipe his shoes before coming in the house. “Yes ma’m. Sorry.” It may seem like fairly innocent transgressions on our part, but in those days, in that place, you didn’t say hell and damn to your elders. Of course, I hear worse than that every day in the hallways of my school in California. Someone needs to explain to these young whippersnappers that they’ve entirely diluted the power of cursing by overuse. 

Of course, every generation says that.

Charmaine Marshall, who by some awful twist of fate was extremely attractive and mature-looking to my eyes but for some mysterious reason was assigned the role of Kate’s father, said “Sure, we can prove to you we can do it. Who can stay?”

My sister and I wanted to but couldn’t. Of course we tried to stay anyway, despite knowing our father would be already sitting in the parking lot and fuming about having to wait to go home for supper the late hour of 8:30 PM because he simply came to rehearsal after work, sat in the car and waited until we were finished. My sister went to the parking lot to talk to him, and when she returned she was in tears. “We have to go,” she said. “Dad is really mad. He said if we were going to stay that late we might as well just stay with Miss Caudill all night.”

Miss Caudill heard this whispered report to me, and tilted her head over as she often did when concentrating. She shook her head from side to side, swishing her hair and gaining her composure simultaneously. Then she glided out of the theatre and my sister and I stood there, commiserating.

“He’s going to make us quit drama,” she said. “I know it.”

”Nah, he won’t,” I said. “Mom will make him let us stay.”

“That might be true,” she said. “She lets you get away with anything.”  I allowed that was probably true; I had my first bike at nearly the same time Jane did although she was three years older; I went on my first overnight sleepover younger than she did; I certainly had an easier time getting driving lessons from Dad than she did. I think that might have been the first time I realized it was hard to be the oldest, always having to talk parents into doing things for the first time, taking care of the younger ones–

Just then Miss Caudill returned.

“You two are staying at my house tonight,” she declared.  Just like that, no forms, no paperwork, no school board approvals. We didn’t know what she said to our father, or what he’d said in return, but we had a pretty good idea what he’d say to us – “Then you can just damn well stay there all week for all I God-damn care–” Then she waved her hand at the stage like a swordmaster with a rapier.  “Places!”

We all ran to our places and did the entire two-hour play...again. A little faster than we should have, but we got through it, and it was good. We knew then we could finish what we had begun all those weeks ago.

I even remembered to say “rebused.”

© Jeff Adkins 2014