Monthly Archives: July 2010

Making mayhem

Now, I am beginning — seriously beginning — to look into that question of a sheltered workshop. The time has come.

This became apparent last Sunday. The knock on the door surprised me. I had just settled down with a volunteer from my old high school to tackle a big job that had been hanging over our heads for far too long. I was looking forward to a peaceful afternoon of sharing the most boring task on God’s earth — misery loves company, and my friend Jeanette is the best of company — when I heard the ominous knock. Surprised, I went to the door and there was Janet (the Other Janet), production assistant for the Linden House Theatre Company, toting a variety of big bags.

“I tried to phone you, Janet,” she cried. “Is there a meeting today? You didn’t confirm it. You always confirm. But when I couldn’t get hold of you, I decided to come along anyway. I can go away if you like.”

“A meeting,” I said brightly. “Yes, of course. There is a meeting.” Two meetings, in fact. What you might call an embarras de richesses. What I call just plain embarrassing.

You will be surprised to learn — given that I am currently committing that most 21st-century of all acts, “blogging” — that I keep my life what I laughingly call “organized” by means of a large paper calendar that leans against the wall and sometimes slides down on to floor. That’s how it happened. I have a brand new puppy sharing my house, and as of last week she was ALMOST house trained. Apparently she didn’t think the balance of July looked all that promising because she used that page in lieu of newspaper. July went into the trash, and I achieved a new level of vagueness about my committments for the rest of the month. (Oh dear, as I write this, I hear a ripping sound at my feet, and there goes August!)

All this to show that the pressure is getting to me, not to mention that it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball when an 11-week-old puppy is puncturing your ankle with a line of needle-sharp teeth. My sister has no patience with this lament. She says it’s a sign from God that I have to start booking on my computer because, puppies or not, this is the information age.

Mind you, I have problems with my schedule even when Juno (that’s her name: “goddess of the starry constellations” because she has a big white star on her chest) has not destroyed my calendar (or my shoe or the ruffle on my nightgown or, the very final straw, the floaty hem of my favourite skirt — which is, incidentally, when she heard the words “bad dog” for the first time. You know the old cartoon, don’t you? The one with the picture of an appealing little dog with a thumping tail and a speech bubble, saying: “Hello, my name’s ‘No, no, bad dog.’ What’s yours?”).

Back to my calendar, which tends to provide a certain amount of intellectual exercise chez me. Even without Juno the Dog’s help, I often find myself wondering feverishly what such scribbled notations as “Avt ct — 8:30” mean, if anything. On these occasions, when the mind goes blank, I get dressed and wait hoping that whatever is going to happen is happening chez me and not in Halifax. When the knock on the door comes, I open it and gallantly pretend that I am not: a) confused; b) relieved; c) horrified; d) all of the above.

So it was last Sunday: the moment I saw Janet (the Other Janet), it came back to me in a flash. We had scheduled a meeting for the “set” committee to show the director, George, a maquette of the set and to discuss construction details.

I see no point in hiding my failings from the world (minor failings anyway, like forgetfulness and the odd homicidal impulse). Thus, if I ever accidentally commit murder (and I hope it isn’t Juno, because she really is sweet), I will confess instantly just to get it over with. Anyway, on Sunday, I instantly admitted my confusion to Janet and Jeanette, and Jeanette kindly allowed herself to be thrown out on her ear. She may even have been relieved.

The rest of the production team began to arrive with a really touching faith that I was expecting them: none of them have dogs, apparently, so their calendars are intact. Janet “K-M” (the initials of her surname) came back from the car with her maquette. I had tears in my eyes. We had never had a maquette before, and it was absolutely darling. You could see the little fireplace with stepped layers of simulated marble and two chevron-shaped arches and a little suspended window with real fabric curtains. It was like a perfect little doll-house. Janet had chosen to paint the walls in a deep shade of peach with pale blue pillars. There was even a tiny curtain hanging over the dear little window. And there was more! Out came a bag of white make-up sponges in different sizes, which George started to cut up and arrange as furniture on the stage.

Enough of playing with dolls. The conversation turned from delighted exclamations to more serious matters — fulcrums, flanges and outrigger feet. Tough stuff. We are discussing a table, you see, which has to wobble and bump and eventually fall over during a simulated seance, preferably without injuring any members of the audience. (You know: “No members of the audience were injured in the production of this play.”)

Well, if the gods spare us, we are going to construct a table that will stand upright, fall over gently on command and not break into a million pieces night after night. It also has to accommodate five people without taking up too much floor space or completely blocking the audience’s line of sight. It has to look vaguely art deco and, finally, it has to cost virtually nothing. I have suggested a hexagonal shape, but there is some discussion of a circle. “Janet, why did you want an hexagon?” demands Blaine accusingly.

I am immediately on the defensive. “I thought,” says I, “in my simple-minded way, that it would be easier to cut out of plywood than a circle.”

Amid discouraging cries of “No, no!” from just about everyone, Pierre holds up a magisterial hand. “Janet is right,” he says, “but in a wrong kind of way.” (I think to myself that the reviews could have been worse; they usually are.)

While we are processing the revelation of my essential rightness, Pierre continues: “We are trying to create an illusion of solidity. It would be harder with a circular table,” he pronounces. I don’t quite follow this, but I am a natural-born believer, so I let it pass.

We turn to building materials and to considering the possible weight of the table. Pierre looks grave. “There is a certain existential risk involved,” he intones. I wonder what he means for a moment and finally guess it is “risk to the existence” of actors. He continues: “But perhaps we can create a ‘controlled fall.'”

The idea of “control” is nice, and the discussion turns to the broader issue of controlled mayhem. In the final moment of play, two bad-tempered ghosts start to trash the house, and paintings tilt on their hooks, vases crash to the floor, the gramophone goes mad and cushions fly across the room. We haven’t actually figured out how to do any of this, and I am beginning to think that the easiest thing will be to murder one of the production team and have an actual ghost wreaking havoc. I am going to ask for volunteers at the next meeting.

Pierre has actually read the play — “No fair, reading the play!” someone shouts. He insists that one of our works of art should be a portrait of Elvira (our hero’s first wife: deceased). But how are we going to get a big portrait of Elvira? Could we blow up a photograph of the actor and overpaint it?

“We could, of course, use an epidiograph,” says Pierre in a considering tone.

“An epi-what?” says I.

“An overhead projector,” Blaine translates helpfully.

Somebody else, who may be guilty of substance abuse — oh, was that me? — suggests that during the finale the portrait could zoom out on wires into the audience. Audience involvement writ large! Just as things start to get silly, someone says quellingly: “Nonsense. Ruth Condomine would not have a portrait of her rival, dead or alive, on the wall of her house.”

That settles that. The discussion turns to the size of the two art deco paintings — not portraits — that will be suspended invisibly at stage right to create the illusion of a wall. Art deco posters-cum-paintings would be too small to create the effect we want. Janet K-M and Marlene agree to use some original art as inspiration for some simplified, large-scale designs. “The question is, how will they look to the audience?” asks Janet K-M. “After all,” pointing down the hall to a distant bathroom, “the audience is going to be sitting in the loo.”

Sitting in the loo!? Oh yes, I see what she means. (The audience will see the images from a distance. Get it, silly?)

By this time, a certain hysteria has infected the group. George is dancing in the middle of the living room with arms upraised, in the stance of a triumphant boxer. Apparently, he has experienced an epiphany (and no, that is not a medical event). “Wait!” he cries. “I’ve had a revelation! Janet K-M is wrong, but in a right kind of way!”

George disappears upstairs holding the mock-up of our picture frame and is gone for quite a while, while the furor continues downstairs. Just as I am about to send out a search party, he returns, bearing the frame and a wide smile. “I’ve measured the love seat,” he shouts. “It’s 48 inches — the answer to everything!” Now this reminds me forceably of A Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and, if you haven’t read that you should, because on page 97, it gives the secret to the universe. Which is actually “42,” but close enough.

Having solved the universal question, we turn to special effects. Curtains will be rigged to fall. Pictures to tilt. Vases to fly off the mantel as Elvira and Ruth indulge in a phastasmagoric temper tantrum. I am strongly in favour of fishing line strung all over the stage like a cat’s cradle, the obvious problem being that instead of trashing the set in the last act we would end up trashing the actors in the first. Janet K-M, the voice of reason, says, “Let’s just throw things from the wings.” Blaine, a man whose favourite toy in boyhood was a chemistry set that allowed him to blow up his brother, is shouting something about spring-loaded cushions. As for Marlene, she is either feverishly making notes or taking down evidence to be used against us.

“There you have it,” says George. “The end of the world. Or at least the end of the play!”

In any case, it is the end of the meeting. Creativity exhausted, they all go home, and I go upstairs for a doomed attempt to reconstruct the rest of July. Juno the Dog comes with me. The rest is silence.

Pure magic

What do set design and Black Holes have in common? Give me a measuring tape, and I’ll show you. It’s tragic. Whenever I get busy measuring a stage, it seems as though some mysterious cosmic force comes into play (either that, or my measuring tape is made of elastic). I know: I am notoriously vague about the finer points of physics. Still, I have come to believe in some yawning cosmic vortex — a Black Hole, in fact — into which every one of my measurements is sucked. I simply cannot get the same measurement twice running.

I have been brooding about these Black Holes for a long time. Indeed, I sat next to an eminent physicist at dinner once, and we chatted. When I told him that I understood that Black Holes were like cosmic drains in the universe into which all the stars would eventually be sucked, he looked surprised and took a long drink. Maybe I got it wrong?

Maybe it’s quantum physics I mean — which I understand to be a deeply weird avenue of science. I looked up “Quantum Physics for Dummies” recently, and even that I found — what’s the word? — “opaque.” Quantum physics, when offered to a modest intelligence, causes buzzing in head, sweating and mild nausea. Still, I may be on to something. I read a mystery once that used quantum physics to explain how the murderer could be in two places at once. Well, that’s just the kind of theory I need to explain the oddities of my measuring tape. I’ll get back to you later on quantum physics.

The truth is, my problems probably have nothing to do with science at all, but rather with black magic. It horrifies me when I see other people measuring. They aren’t careful. Not like me. I see them whip out the tape and eyeball it, calling out a measure quite casually and saying: “Make it an even 11.” They ignore my helpful little whimpers about straightening out the tape and asking if there isn’t another little 1/16th of an inch they’d like to record. Don’t they know about Black Holes? Apparently not, so when the “what-not” comes back and fits perfectly into the allocated space, it’s clear to me that someone has made an unholy deal with Beelzebub.

It isn’t fair. I lay out the tape carefully. I make sure there are no bends. I count every little 1/16th of an inch, and I do it two or three times just to make sure. You know the old adage: “measure twice and cut thrice.” Well, I do my best to obey that counsel. And still I live a life of disappointment. It reminds me of math homework at school or those awful science experiments. I once said, nostalgically, to an old classmate of mine: “Do you remember science class? None of my experiments ever worked.” “Yes,” she answered sadly. “You were always so confused.”

Even worse: it reminds me of whitewater canoeing when I had the very poor idea of paddling solo on the Ottawa River where souseholes are the size of a house, and you have to fill your canoe with inflated rubber tubes to maintain any sort of optimism. “Bring a couple of old hockey sticks,” said Blaine. “You can saw off a bit the width of the canoe, jam it under the gunwales and tie it in to hold the tires.”

Easy for him to say. I took my first hockey stick, laid it carefully over the canoe, made a mark, cut it briskly and confidently with my little saw and laid it back in the canoe. Impossible! It was several inches too short! I breathed deeply. Took a second stick. Measured more carefully, made a mark and then cut — very slowly. Curses! TOO SHORT! I had one hockey stick left and I don’t have to bore you with what happened. The rest of that day is kind of a blur — the way life looks when you are gazing at it through aerated water. In fact, I think I drowned and everything since has been a kind of otherworldly hallucination. That explains a good deal, come to think of it.

Eventually I gave up science and canoeing alike: in that order, beginning with science at university, where I made the ghastly error of enrolling in zoology because I like animals and ended up dissecting them. Good grief. They gave me a passing grade just to get me out of the department. Well, how would you like it if you were a teacher, to have a first-year student sobbing in the back row over her little white rat?

As for canoeing, it is still there, but I am too busy with my magic tape measure to get out much. And anyway, I am scaring myself quite adequately these days by putting on plays: just as frightening, though not on the whole as damp as canoeing. That’s how I happened, a few days ago, to find myself standing on stage, tape measure in hand and a wild look in my eye, the victim of bitter memories and extravagant hope. Indeed, very like canoeing.

Fortunately, I was not alone. And — get this — everyone else in the room came armed with his or her own tape measure! Recognizing the mark of masters, I quietly put my own tape away and retreated softly into the background in order not to disturb the vibrations. And over the next hour or so, I watched open-mouthed a July 1 firework display of sheer braininess. I felt like Bertie Wooster on first encountering Jeeves.

I don’t deny that I was looking for brains when I started making overtures to possible set-builders in my circle. I like brainy people, self-starters, people who aren’t necessarily waiting for me to have an idea before springing into action — a habit that, honestly, can involve us in a lot of long, awkward pauses. So I admit: I selected for IQ in putting the team together. And I outdid myself. I came up with people who take their time. They think laterally. They turn every problem upside down and shake it to see if it rattles. They are, frankly, intellect in action.

Not that brains are easy to live with. Do you remember Julius Caesar? “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” Well, that just about describes my friend Blaine. The word for him is “cerebral.” He thinks things through. Of course, the other word is “testy,” but the less said of that the better.

We spent an hour or two at the theatre last week discussing the plan. The director had sketched out his requirements, and I came up with a rough concept. The director liked it and added a few little twists of his own. Now we were facing that horrible gap between — what does T.S. Eliot call it — “the impulse and the action.” In other words, I needed some rough magic, which is another word for carpentry, to turn my scribbles into a set.

Blaine and Pierre are the men for the job. I suggest a flat with braces; one of them asks why we can’t suspend a panel from the ceiling for a more elegant suggestion of a wall? When I point out that there is nothing to hang it from, they start talking about levers or fulcrums and deflected what-nots. When I mention that an actor has to open the window, they propose a weighted anchor to hold it firm. When they begin to discuss manipulating perspective. I start to hyper-ventilate.

Still, it’s nice to see these two getting on. They come from different ends of the country and from different corners of the Canadian mosaic, but they share in startling degree — in the words of Hercule Poirot — “de leetle grey cells.” They can canter around me intellectually without breaking a sweat, and it is borne upon me, when I see how attentively they are listening to each other, that there may actually be some arcane meaning in the apparently meaningless sounds they are uttering.

Meanwhile, Janet (the Other One) is working her own tape measure and making notes. Her job will be to develop a maquette of the finished plan to guide the carpenters. Then, when the framework is delivered, she and Marlene — a multi-talented woman who is involved in just about every process of this production — will do their own rough magic with styrofoam and paint to decorate the set and turn it into the illusion of a 1930s living room, complete with chevrons and sunbursts.

It’s all coming together, and it is happening well before I start to come apart. Pure magic — and certainly NOT of the black variety.