Portia Has Missed Her Entrance

It was a failed play.

It had taken too long to write, and it only ever got a few productions. But one of those productions was at an elite Southern school that had the resources to fly me out to see it and to work with the cast.

The theatre space had been described as a black box, but that was one serious black box. The play—Nowhere—was mostly set in an alternate universe, and the longtime tech director had outdone herself in creating it. Characters flew in. They climbed up ladders or emerged from entrances one hadn’t realized were there.

The director had staged it in the round—the square, actually– and had done so wonderfully. Each night, the two of us watched from a different side, and the square did exactly what arena staging is supposed to do: it gave the same story but differently nuanced depending on the vantage point

On the final night, fifteen minutes in, something was off, but I couldn’t tell what it was. The director whispered to me, “Portia missed her entrance.” A few days earlier, Portia had landed wrong while rehearsing on the zipline that flew her in. She’d fallen and suffered a concussion, plausibly the reason she’d missed her entrance.

Unfortunately, Portia was an Otherworld guide. She had an enormous amount of exposition that she spouted, unbidden, without which the next hour and a half were not going to make any sense. (Like I said: a failed play.) As sometimes happens in a crisis, a leader emerged, self-appointed.  He was small and, by the standard of theatre kids, shy But he took control.

Portia hovered at an entrance, waiting to fix the problem. But he locked eyes with her and shook his head in a way that made it look like he was stretching: it was too late.

His character had no way to know the information and so, again disguising a gesture,  he signaled to a character who could exposit the world. She channeled her inner Glinda and explained the rules of the world to the newcomer.

At the end of her monologue, she became a little grand and said to another character: “And what else should I tell you?” (To this day I’m not certain if she didn’t remember everything or if she simply wanted to parse it out it out in a way more expert than I had.)

That character took the baton, filled in the gaps, and the play moved on. Only two members of the audience knew what had just happened, and one of them had sweat covering his entire face.

Later, it occurred to me that I’d seen this situation before, but only ever in theatre. Only during a play can a group be called upon to confront a crisis in front of two hundred people without those people ever knowing that there is a crisis. Some combination of training, quick thinking and attentiveness to the other actors come together and the problem is solved.

After the show, I was watching the delightful ritual in which young performers enter the lobby, usually still wearing a bit of make-up, and get flowers and hugs. I was near the near the back of the lobby because I wanted to congratulate the beloved tech director, who I still hadn’t met. I’d seen her hovering backstage.

But she slipped out a side door. The rehearsal accident that had injured Portia had been deemed her fault and she’d been quietly let go.  At that point, only the director knew. The students would be told the next day.

It was a reminder— if one needed one—that theatre sometimes creates real problems as well as pretend ones, and that those problems can’t always be fixed.

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