ArtsLink: Life of Cyclical Risking and Failing, Winning and Losing, Learning and Growing ... and Falling

By Jason Young on May 21, 2020 from A&E Blog via Connect-Bridgeport.com

During my college theatre years I fell down a lot…literally…
 
It was the second performance of the holiday classic A Christmas Carol at FSU, the fall semester of 2004. The director of the production was Dr. Francene Kirk. We were working with a particularly wonderful adaptation of the story provided to us by David H. Bell,  and I had an awesome track. I was doubling between Mr. Fezziwig in Act I and the Ghost of Christmas Present in Act II. 
 
As the Ghost of Christmas Past brought Scrooge back in time to Mr. Fezziwig’s to experience some happier holiday memories, I entered in a rush from upstage left, clad in a glorious gold vest and carrying a box of decorations. The hall was being prepared for the Christmas Eve feast and revelry. I was given the direction to place the box on an upstage table, bark my orders joyfully toward Scrooge and Wilkins—who were downstage right—remove a length of holly from the box, get myself wrapped in it, and exit upstage right. It had worked perfectly in rehearsal and created much laughter on opening night. 
 
However, on this particular night, during this particular cross, I dropped off the decorations, picked up the holly, started raucously barking out orders, wrapped myself in the garland, and made it almost to the wings when my left foot slipped out from under me mid-pirouette and I went airborne. I achieved a near perfectly prone position, horizontal with the stage floor, before I came crashing down in a holiday heap. The building shook. The audience collectively gasped, then laughed, as I cautiously exited into the darkness and shame. 
 
Fast forward to a few months later, in the spring semester of 2005, in the same building on the same campus, but this time in a tech rehearsal for the much less family-friendly but still wildly popular Rocky Horror Show. Note that the stage production is not called The Rocky Horror Picture Show because it is live and therefore not a moving picture. 
 
The semester before, our design team had constructed an elevator in the stage floor. Via a lift from our studio theatre one floor below, an actor, of appropriate size, could rise through a trap door on the downstage right side of Wallman Hall’s thrust and magically appear before the audience. Throw in some lights, a nice sound effect, and even a little smoke, and you had yourself quite the entrance. It’s how the Ghost of Christmas Past arrived in A Christmas Carol, and it was how our Frankenfurter, costumed in a Marilyn Monroe sewer dress, was set to arrive during the Rocky Horror Show; and I was to be the one to operate the lift. 
 
I was also a cast member in the show, playing Eddie and Dr. Scott; but since Eddie didn’t show up until the end of Act I and Dr. Scott till the last 15 minutes of Act II, I had quite a lot of time on my hands and was willing to help. 
 
Let’s talk about how the lift worked. 
 
The scientific principles were the same as any elevator I would assume: Human stands on platform, equal or greater weight travels in the opposite direction of the human, and via a pulley system, human rises or falls at a rate controlled by gravity or some sort of braking system. How obvious is it that I skipped most of my physics classes?
 
The best part, or craziest part, depending upon how you look at it, our lift didn’t run on electricity but rather on sheer human girth. My job was to climb up on a ladder, position my body so that my butt was against the rungs, grab one of the cables running the pulley, step out onto a wooden plank fashioned opposite the lift deck, and let go of the ladder. My weight, being twice as much as the actor we were lifting, would propel the plank downward to the ground; and the actor would ride the lift upwards to the stage. 
 
I watched the lift constructor do it several times. He looked like a bad ass theatre pirate. I of course wanted to look like a bad ass theatre pirate. So on that fateful Sunday afternoon, I climbed the small metal ladder, scooted my butt around and switched my feet, reached out for the pulley cable that I imagined to be part of the rigging on the Jolly Roger, and stepped out onto the plank with one foot, took a breath, and let go of the ladder with my back foot as the entire unit spun, wrapping me in cable and stage weights as I plummeted to the floor. Thankfully this was just a test run, no Frankenfurters were harmed in the destruction of this lift, but I did spend a couple precautionary hours in the ER. 
 
Fast forward again, this time to the summer of 2008. We’re no longer on campus but rather on the stage of the Pricket’s Fort State Park Amphitheatre with a truly patriotic production of 1776. Not originally auditioning for the production, I joined the cast late to fill the role of Robert Livingston, a Continental Congressman from New York, one of the cool considerate men. 
 
The stage at the fort was constructed like a wooden deck, so in order to flatten out the notches in between the small boards, our scenic designer covered the entire stage in sheets of plywood. This way it could be painted and scenery could easily be rolled on and off stage. The only downside to the painted plywood decking was the weather. The fort’s stage was not covered, and it does rain from time to time, or quite often even, in the summer. 
 
On this particular evening it had rained pretty heavily before the performance, but the clouds had parted close to show time, and the decision was made to go on with the show. The stage management team was trying to deal with the standing water on the stage as the cast was in the dressing room preparing. The crew put out box fans and squeegeed the stage. 
 
If you have never spent a damp summer evening walking on a recently squeegeed piece of plywood, then you haven’t truly taken your life into your own hands. Imagine ice skating without any formal training. Now throw in several layers of colonial clothing, fetching powdered wigs, and in my case, penny loafers. 
 
Livingston was a small role; he was in a few numbers, spoke only a couple lines, but did have one fairly comical and overly dramatic exit. There I was, having just refused to assist in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, standing upstage, shoulders square to the audience; I tossed my cane in the air with my right hand, pivoted my body to the right, caught the cane in my left hand, took two over-striding steps when my right foot swept across the stage; and I took flight. This time I was supine, reclined rigidly on a bed of dread, staring up at the starry sky, as I plummeted backwards to the floor. 
 
Once again, in the middle of an FSU production, I was flat on my butt. 
 
…metaphorically…I fell down even more times during those same college theatre years. 
 
I made so many mistakes in college, skipped so many classes, phoned in so many assignments, and ignored so many opportunities, but ultimately learned so much. If I could go back to school now, 20 years later, I would be so much better at it; but that’s not really how life works. Instead we take what we learned then and apply it to now.  
 
There was a poster that hung outside our acting classroom that said, “Risk. Fail. Risk Again.” I still think about it to this day. Being an artist and an entrepreneur is to live a life of cyclical risking and failing, winning and losing, learning and growing. Right now is a particular low point for a lot of entrepreneurs. At least once a day on social media, I see an announcement about a small business somewhere in West Virginia closing, an entrepreneur’s dream dying, a risk failing, somebody flat on their butt. 
 
But here is the thing of it, the true message of the poster: Failure only remains if you don’t risk again. Theatre school teaches you how to fail, how to fall down; in fact, it pushes you to do so because it also teaches you how to get up, how to risk it all again. The artistic spirit is the entrepreneurial spirit, and the entrepreneurial spirit is the spirit of the Mountain State. 
 
Beyond this pandemic, life is never going back to the way it was; but that’s actually what gives me hope. We now have the opportunity to re-shape our future. We have an entire state full of knowledge and experience. We understand what worked. We understand what didn’t. And now, for what will be the only moment in our lifetime, we have a chance to take this shared wisdom and create a West Virginia that is beyond what any of us have dreamed.
 
It’s very risky but also very worth it. 


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