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.