Playwrights almost always owe other playwrights debts. Usually, the debts are in the form of influence. But there’s karmic debt as well. And I owe some of that to the playwright Jose Rivera.
In the late Eighties, I was an intern at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City. I served as the assistant stage manager on Jose Rivera’s play, The Promise.
The Promise is full of magic and spectacle. Flowers fall from the sky. A man’s soul rises out of his body. A dead woman materializes holding a bloody heart. When the play was performed in Los Angeles, the spectacle was accomplished through the use of wires and pyrotechnics. For the act one finale, a real bulldozer plowed onto the stage. When it was performed in New York, at the underwhelmingly equipped EST, the magic was mostly me, the sound of a bulldozer (on a sound system like a really good clock radio), and two spirits: Earth Spirit and Sky Spirit.
The spirits were the director’s idea: a terrible idea, actually. They were onstage during the entire play. Sky Spirit wore a blue leotard. Earth Spirit wore a brown leotard. For the most part, they had nothing to do except crouch and look mysterious. It was as though a pair of Solid Gold dancers had wandered into the middle of the Long Island backyard where the play was set.
But the spirits may have been the only thing wrong with the show that wasn’t my fault. Early in the run, it became clear that I was not up to the task of assistant stage managing.
First, there was the Balloon Incident. In the play, a backyard wedding is decorated with a bunch of helium balloons. The spirit world is not happy about the wedding and lets its displeasure be known by suddenly popping all the balloons. I have no idea how this effect was accomplished in Los Angeles. At EST, the spirits used the ends of artificial flowers to pop the balloons as quickly as they could.
During the last preview performance, for no clear reason, the balloons would not pop. Bam bam bam! The Spirits whacked those balloons again and again. Nothing happened.
It must have appeared to the audience as though the Spirits, trapped onstage with nothing to do, had gone insane and started to attack the set. Relatively soon, Sky Spirit realized it was futile and backed off. But Earth Spirit was on a mission. She appeared to think that the theatre had become infested with balloons and only she could save us. She jumped on them, twisted them, kneaded them, and when she finally did manage to pop one, she’d leap on the next.
It was strange, jaw-dropping performance. It was also, apparently, my fault.
After the show, Earth Spirit let everyone know that they had not been able to pop the balloons because the assistant stage manager had not filled them full enough.
Whether or not she was right, what happened the next night certainly was my fault. The first bit of magic in The Promise is that a flower blooms, suddenly, when two lovers kiss. This was my job, and it was simple. All I had to do was stand behind a fence and push on a piece of wire. In my opening-night excitement, I pulled instead of pushed, jamming the flower into the tube that held it. Panicked, I tried desperately to jar it loose, not realizing that my hands were visible. Instead of a flower blooming, the audience saw a pair of hands, writhing and twisting, a strange portent from the netherworld.
The stage manager screamed into the headsets to leave it alone, so I ran to the other side of the stage (at EST this meant running behind the audience) and got in place for my next job, which was to hand a bloody heart to an actress who waited behind a scrim. I pulled a black mask over my head to keep the audience from seeing me behind the scrim. But alas, I forgot the gloves.The same audience that had just seen a pair of hands squirming above a fence now saw the same hands floating mysteriously backstage, gesturing, then giving a little thumbs-up sign. Surely this was a motif.
While it would be comforting to attribute the mistake to opening-night jitters, the truth is, I never really settled into the production. It was rare that a performance wasn’t somehow marred by something I did or failed to do. Worse, the mistakes didn’t seem to get smaller. For spectacle, nothing surpassed what happened on the second-to-last night.
The quite spooky, oddly lovely final image of The Promise is that a row of corn plants planted in the backyard start to bleed. This was also my job, also quite simple. Backstage, I’d flip a lever, stage blood would flow from a pressurized tank, through some tubes and down the ears of corn.
One night, the corn bled too slowly. The audience couldn’t even tell it was happening.
By this point in the run, everyone knew who to look at when something went wrong. The stage manager screamed at me to make sure that next time there was plenty of pressure in the tank.
Now a confession. It may be that there was a touch of passive-aggressive zeal in me as I pumped up the tank the next night. It may be that I was thinking about all the other times I had been yelled at: The Sign Incident (which was, in fact, my fault), the Cooking Disaster (also my fault), the Pocket Watch mishap (actually, no), the Coffin Debacle (yes). I hope that is not the case.
At any rate, there was plenty of pressure in the tank.
Did you ever see the movie Carrie? Imagine that the title character is a telekinetic ear of corn, and you have a pretty good idea of what happened
The poetic final moment of the play became a gore-fest. The corn stalks whipped back and forth as blood spurted into the air, soaking the stage and cast members. As I recall, it got a round of applause.
So, Mr. Rivera, I apologize. It’s clear that I did not hinder your career.
Still, you deserved better.