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When things go wrong

“Whatever happens, don't stop playing.” - Band leader, Titanic

“The best laid plans of mice and men”, Robert Burns once wrote, “gang aft a glay”. That was because he had a broken typewriter, but he never let on, maintaining for years later that that was what he intended to write.

Sometimes things don't go to plan, or break, on stage in the middle of a performance. It can be a disaster or a save, depending on how the performers handle it.

We've all had those nights when the lead singer has a fit of the James Brownes, hooks his foot in a speaker lead, and starts a cascade of speaker bins, light trees, and other ephemera raining down on the band.

And if you haven't yet, you will.

The important thing is what you do next.


Scene 1

Countess Maritza - The Latvian Society

The lighting position was down a trap in the front sidestage, so I am getting a worms-eye view of proceedings, not to mention a face full of dirt whenever anyone walks past.

All goes well until the garden scene, when a garden table complete with beach umbrella, chairs, champagne and glasses are brought on and situated right above my hole. When they ran the show up in Melbourne nobody had accounted for the fact that in Sydney there was a bloody great hole right there. The fact that it was real champagne may also have had something to do with what happened next.

Edgar, playing the Duke, is not a small man and when he throws himself down theatrically into one of the chairs because the Countess has spurned the advances of the sleezy Duke, the leg breaks and Edgar starts to topple slowly backwards. As he does so he puts his arm out to save himself and up-ends the table, bottle and glasses, the whole lot rapidly heading south towards my hole.

I jump for my life, and looking back see a shower of broken glass trying to be followed down the hole by the table with Edgar on top.

Between the performers pulling, and me pushing, we got Edgar and the table back up on stage and they did an ad lib about how clumsy the Duke was and played it for laughs. It was a mild romantic comedy of manners not supposed degenerate into slapstick.

After the show it turned out they were more worred about me than blowing the scene, quite sure I had been shredded by the broken glass. So concerned in fact that they completely forgot about the half-bottle of champagne that didn't break.


Scene 2

The Count of Luxumborg - The Latvian Society

A touching operatic duet, alone in the palace ballroom, he off to war until the following autumn, she waiting dutifully behind, me up on the catwalk making it snow outside the palace windows.

This sounds simple, but you can't just casually throw handfuls over the edge because it doesn't snow in great clumps and you have to make it last until the end of the scene. You also have to be careful it all goes behind the backdrop or it starts snowing inside the palace as well. Not a good look.

Now you understand that even after six seasons I still don't speak a word of Latvian, so this is approximate.

He is singing that he will return to her before the first leaves of (next) autumn fall.

There is a multi-lingual “gasp!” from the audience so I look around and down to the stage.

One of the gold-tinted gels from the lights just below us has let go, and is wafting, ever so gently back and forth, down right in front of the duo. They, like the audience, track its slow, swinging descent to the stage, back and forth like a tennis match, in dead silence because even the orchestra conductor has his arms held high, spellbound. It takes what seems like hours. It even stops the very snow falling from the sky.

Finally it lands, “splat” on the stage right at their feet. The air is electric. He looks at the gel and turns to her saying something like “Well that was a bloody quick year, wasn't it?” and the audience erupt into applause and hysterics for a couple of minutes.

They both stood calmly smiling, waiting, and finally when all had blown out and settled down the orchestra leader called a bar number, and the performance continued.

The talk in the bar later was his recovery, how he had defused the tension by acknowledging what had so obviously happened.


Scene 3

Der Rosencavaler - The Australian Opera

Dragged to a season of the Australian Opera by my double-bass playing girlfriend, I actually came to enjoy what I still can't stand to listen to on record or watch on TV. It's a spectacle and a whole Sir Humphrey Appleby experience. For opera, you really have to dress up and be there.

So this is the old story of boy keen on girl, accidentally overhears her and his best friend on a barge arranging to get he and her together but thinks she's after the friend, so being a man of honor, decides to exit quietly and keep his feelings hidden, heartbroken but he'll wear it; the orchestra playing a quiet and tender theme. Without crossed-wires there would be no opera.

He turns to melt away up the gangplank and trips on the end, falling towards it. He puts out his leg but he is well over, and exits up the ramp at a steep angle, accelerating like a V-1 on its launch rail, finally taking a headlong dive behind the tabs at a full sprint.

With flowing cape, hat with a big feather, and sword trailing, it's actually a bit of a swashbuckling Errol Flynn moment, almost expecting him to swing back in on a rope with a knife between his teeth. But this is serious opera, not Gilbert and Sullivan.

There is a moments silence, then the silvery moonlight streaming in suddenly turns stark white, then flashes up to the roof, followed by an almighty crash, bang, smash, “Oh ****!”.

There is one of those elastic moments in time which last only a second or so but seem more like five minutes.

Then they plough on as if nothing had happened!

Dozens of people in the audience are convulsing, trying not to laugh, some even bolt out, hands over mouth as if they were going to be sick, to explode into gales of laughter out in the foyer.

When the curtain finally does fall on the scene a few minutes later the audience at last does explode in babbling laughter.


Scene 4

Billy Thorpe - Sabastian's Melbourne

So Thorpie's just starting to get warmed up. We're only ten minutes in to one of his typical half hour boogies and Thorpie breaks a string! What to do?

This is before guitar techs and a different axe for every song. Thorpie and his red semi-acoustic came as a package deal. He didn't even take it off in the shower so he wasn't going to take it off for a mere busted string.

Nor, in fact, were the rest of his band prepared to stop for a busted string - they were going on with him, or without him, so Thropie limps along on the five he's got left.

Up rushes their roadie with a new string and it's rapidly threaded and tensioned, but what about tuning? This was BT - Before Tuners, so we watched in awe as he played on, taking snatches at the pig until it was in tune.

And he still had eighteen minutes of boogie left. ;)


Scene 5

Axis - Burnley Horticultural College

The end of year dance with everybody done up in their finest duds, staff, students and parents all together for a bit of a knees-up.

It's going well for the band too after a doubtful start where the organisers insisted they play on the floor, but up on pruning boxes. There was some debate about the durability of the boxes as a stage, but this was finally put to rest when the bass cabinet was placed on a box and promptly fell right though to the floor.

While the debris was removed the band relocated to the stage.

At the end of the second set everything was going so well the band members where getting quite relaxed. So relaxed that the clean-cut young vocalist forgot to turn his mike off, and as he exited managed to trip over his mike lead and fall flat on his face into the wings, but not before forcefully yelling “****!” into the live PA as he went down.

There was, as they say, a stunned silence in the room.

A couple of the band tried to hide behind their amps.

Realising what had happened the vocalist rolled over and moaned into the still live microphone “errr generally...” (click).


Scene 6

Student Union - Swinburn College

It had been decided that the Student Union needed a PA amplifier and that one of the third-year Electronics Engineering students would build it.

So it was that one day Westo bounced in with his new creation - a light green fiberboard box that looked like it had been cut out using a rock drill.

He was mad to plug it in but I could hear something metallic rattling around inside and insisted he unscrew the lid.

Sure enough a large metal clip and sundry wire off-cuts and solder dags fell out when I gave it a good thump upside-down.

There were a pair of kit amps and heatsink in the middle, transformer and bridge rectifier down one end, and filter caps up the other, the amp power feed however was back at the transformer end.

The heatsinking was inside an unvented box and couldn't get rid of its heat.

But more importantly the power supply layout was as bad as it can get with wires zig-zagging from end to end. It's important to minimise resistances between the tranny and bridge and to the filter caps because several amps of ripple current flows around this path.

In this case he had arranged for the ripple current to take the longest possible path. Then he had wired it all in thin single-strand bell wire, and the long run from the filter caps to the boards were certain to cause instablity.

The icing on the cake was on the back panel where he had used identical mains-type XLR's for the mains, and both speakers. Tim, a radio Ham, started to point out the many shortcomings and a row broke out.

“Someone will connect the mains to a speaker socket by accident.”
“Only an idiot would do that.”
“They aren't even marked!”
“I'm an Engineer, you're only a Ham!” shouted Westo, and stomped off with his creation under his arm to drill some vent holes.


A month or so later.

We are setting up a show in the theater and Tim and I are occupied in the bio-box.

“Westo's setting up” he remarks casually, and we both stop what we are doing to watch through the projection ports.

Down on the stage in a wash of rich blue light Westo is bustling about laying out speaker leads, placing the speakers, getting the amp and placing it on a stool under the lights.

“Looks a lot better at a distance in a dim light” Tim says.

Westo has plugged in all the leads and dissappeared into the sidestage dragging a lead, no doubt looking for a power point.

BANG!

A thin column of smoke rises gracefully from the new vent holes in the blue light, turning into a fragile mushroom cloud in the still air.

“Looks better now” I say.

Westo emerges, sees the rising smoke, then exits again, not to be seen around the Union for some months.


Scene 7

Revenge - anon.

Every cast has a Prima Donna and this one had managed to have a run-in with just about every member of the crew about something, and we were only half way through the season.

We are setting up for the big bar-room scene and I notice that one of the props, a real can of beer, is sitting on top of a stand light. So I move the warm can to its place on the set. A minute later it's back on the light. Well set dressing is not actually my job, so I climb back up to my lighting position and leave them to it.

Mid-scene the Prima Donna orders a beer and is handed a can which by now must be quite hot. But by the time this fact registers there is now no option but to pull the ring.

White foam jets ten feet into the air and covers the surrounding actors who, forewarned, manage to keep straight faces as great globs of foam drip off everyone and thing. It was the Special Effect you couldn't arrange if you tried.

He recovered with a crack to the publican about selling warm beer, but he was much easier to get on with for the rest of the production. Even went on to become a known professional actor.


Scene 8

Leads

Pixie had aquired a new long curly cord and was starting to take strolls around the stage with his bass.

One night he decided to go down front to see what the sound was like, so he hopped off the stage and walked a short distance into the dancers.

As he turned around the plug shot out of the front of his bass and back up onto the stage, leaving him to make a mad dash back and plug in again.


Getting a touch of the Chuck Berry's myself one night, tried a bit of a duck walk, ending when I stood on my lead and ripped it out of the back of the plug. A big thank you to an unknown member of San Sabastian for running up with a lead.


The band ground to a halt right after the song intro and she came storming up to the desk through the audience. “Turn me on!” she yelled.
“Your mike switch is off. - Again.”

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