When the Lights Came Up
by David Drury
Cracks in the 8 p.m. performance were already visible by 7 p.m. The rain was blowing sideways outside the theater, stretching the nerves of Hair and Makeup inside. Five minutes to curtain, a side door blew open with a bang, knocking a ladder into a volunteer. The understudy for the third lead was in. None of the cast cared much for the understudy for the third lead. A phone in a stagehand’s pocket started blaring Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” during the first set change. Someone missed a cue in the second scene, and the energy of the whole thing flagged as everybody flailed to get heads above water.
When the first lead whispered, “Blink if you can hear me,” to his character’s dying wife—hanging that sadness on the air that grows heavier until it nearly touches the ground—the moonlight fill through the kitchen window came up too fast and too hot, barely giving the main character any time to observe with meaning his own shadow falling across the icebox. The icebox he’d bought for his wife with the extra cash. The extra cash he’d earned by selling his heart medicine to the man. The man at the trading post with shaky hands. Flustered at the lighting miscue, the lead repeated his line. “Blink if you can hear me.” When he said it that second time, the same moonlight fill flickered wildly and burned out. Murmurs, maybe snickers even, could be heard from the audience.
In the next scene, a prop wall sagged so far in that an exposed piece of frame hooked a character’s gown strap. She had to back up with her arm across her chest trying to unhook it while giving a speech on the Nature of Trust. The scene ended with laughter, though it was not intended to be funny. The scene following it was the one that was supposed to really cut loose the laughs, and while that didn’t quite come together either, at least the audience came into it warmed up. A measure of hope remained. We might save this thing yet, the actors thought. They gathered. They rallied. They reminded themselves what it really was all about.
Then the electricity went out in the entire theater.
There was darkness. A collective gasp. Scattered shrieks. Yelling backstage. Patrons cursed their luck, cursed the night, cursed their shins as they banged them against knees and seat backs, clamoring for the aisle. All hope was lost. The critically acclaimed “feast of the eyes” was reduced to little more than a spoonful of salted flour. While the scene on stage played out in blindness, the higher ups decided—We will pull the plug. But when the time came, the changeover to the next scene had already begun, and then the thought was, Okay, let’s finish this one and call it. In the confusion, not everyone got the message, and when an actor began the next scene alone, the other actors jumped back in to see it through.
The actors felt for the front of the stage. The audience shifted to the front of their seats. Lights and sets and cues and markers were all forgotten. Lines were improvised or even missed. In the freedom that the dark provided, members of the audience stood and sat when they pleased, put their feet up on seats, and spoke their feelings aloud. One woman held up her phone, aiming its light at the actors on the stage. Someone followed suit, and then another. Eyes adjusted to moving shapes.
In the darkness the spoonful of salted flour shed all pretense, and when it had shed all pretense, its own dimensions became of no consequence. It absorbed the dampness of the air, which now smelled like spit. It became a thing—rolled and kneaded and smacked flat back and forth between palms. It found a kind of warmth in which to grow and expand inside the darkness. It took on the feel of a different story. Not different in shape, but wider—a story that hemmed in the first maybe, or traced a kind of circle around it or orbited from some fixed trajectory deep in space—something about the Other and the Us, and the If and the Whether, and the Then and the Why, and the Well Because, and the well that runs dry, and the spring that is rumored to run beneath us, from here to the trees to the foothills to the ridgeline to the mountains and even higher. The story was age-old, born onto a primordial dirt floor and scraped into cave walls with rocks. The story had breath and life and lifted its head and flew and floated and walked at times out over upturned eyes of huddled pre-ancients—out and back, as if on air or water, dazzling them with a kind of magic they could now not do without, and the story stopped for a moment and knelt to face the faces of those it indeed treasured, who regarded it at once with a primitive but certain assurance, and the story stood up again and continued to unfold and unfold before them in the dim twinkling outstretched light of 285 mobile phones.
This story was inspired by true events. After a storm knocked out power to a small local theater, the show went on with the improvisation of the cast and the help of the audience. One paradox of this life and the stories we share seems to be that when the trappings we come to depend on are stripped away, we often end up with something more than we started.