I read an article in today’s Knoxville News-Sentinel that the University of Tennessee’s new master plan calls for saving the once-threatened Clarence Brown Theatre and includes updates to the facility to help improve its usability.
My heart nearly sank when I heard that it was being considered for demolition in favor of a new space. I spent so many years there, heavily involved in most areas of production, and attribute my current position and success in this business to what I learned there under the guidance of stellar faculty and friends.
One of my favorite memories involves a maybe-not-so-favorite moment… but in hindsight it has proved to be a fun story to rehash with friends.
I was cast as both Dick Wilkins and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a production of A Christmas Carol back in 1996. The show had been running for roughly a week when we had one of our first morning student matinees. Around 2am the night before I woke up in a panic. I was suddenly nauseous and felt like I might collapse if I tried to make it to the dorm’s communal bathroom. How could I suddenly be so sick? I had gone to bed feeling fine. Did I eat something bad? But I pulled myself up out of bed and, not bothering to put on pajama bottoms, I dragged myself down the hall. The bathroom felt abandoned. Thankfully no one in the dorm was up at this ungodly hour except for me so I had complete privacy as my body began to eject the day’s contents in various forms… far too graphic to divulge here. Let’s just assume that it wasn’t pretty and that I spent the better part of an hour in the bathroom trying to wash myself clean while limply sitting in the corner of a shower.
I made it back to bed, called my mother in a panic and after she talked me down from my “Oh my God, I think I’m dying” ledge I fell back to sleep. Waking up just in time to drag myself across the street I made it to the theatre in one piece, only stopping briefly to catch myself from a sudden dizzy spell.
“You look like hell,” came the kind words from my friend and stage manager. ”Are you ok? You’re face is green!” came a concerned shriek from another cast member.
“I’m ok,” I played it off as though I were just a little tired and hadn’t eaten. I couldn’t let anyone worry about me or the show… after all, it must go on whether or not I feel like death warmed over.
“You sure?” asked the stage manager.
I nodded and began to dress for my first character, wearing a thick woolen coat and wool trousers which I would parade across the stage in the opening number under the hot stage lights and plastic flakes of falling snow.
The heat was insufferable and I could feel myself starting to sway. I made it through the moment and hurried backstage to the dressing room to throw off the sweltering coat and switch into my Dick Wilkins garb for a scene in Scrooge’s childhood.
Act One ended and I was feeling pretty safe. No major disasters and the few times that I felt off-balance passed without incident.
Then there was Act Two. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was a 15 foot tall costume which included a thick, black skirt and a backpack-system that held up the monstrous puppets upper body and arms. Preparing for places I stepped into the skirt and pulled it up. The dressers hoisted the backpack rig above my head and as they lowered the thick, black thing down over my head the heat seemed to swell up and I instantly began to sway.
“You ok?” asked one of the dressers. No answer. I had to focus on standing upright. More swaying.
“Tommy, Tommy?” They asked again… and then it happened. Without realizing it I had vomited on myself and proceeded to collapse into a mass of arms, legs and velour on the stage floor. I was only out for a second but when I came to I was surrounded by castmates and stagehands.
“What happened?” asked my friend, the stage manager.
“I don’t feel very good,” was the most I could eek out. Unable to stand the pulled the costume off of me, slipping the skirt off my legs and dragging the backpack rig away from the sick that I had spilled onto myself.
“Come on,” said someone, as they tried to lift and drag me into the wings. ”Lay here. I’m going to get you some water and a towel.”
I spent the second half of the show laying on the floor of the stage left wing, watching the show from the theatre gills. Another friend, who was up to that point running the light board, was brought down from the booth and quickly dressed in the Ghost’s costume. She had played the role two years before so she knew the basics and, since Yet to Come has no lines, she simply had to follow Scrooge around (instead of leading him) from point to point as the story unfolded. The good news is that I got to see the show, partially, for the first time and realized that I must have looked stunning in the 15 foot tall costume. How eerie I must have seemed to those middle schoolers who were halfway watching and halfway shining laser pointers onto the stage.
By the end of the show I had recovered somewhat and was helped to the student clinic where I was re-hydrated, given some antibiotics and sent on my way. The sudden bug was gone as quickly as it had appeared and I learned my lesson about “the show must go on.” Yes, it must go on, but sometimes it is best if someone else goes on for you. Better that than to have the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come vomit on the first two rows of children, scarring them for life and, very likely, ruining both their enjoyment of theatre and their excitement for Christmas.