Testing my Improvisational Writing Skills

I am about to post the following on my Facebook page:

“The first (non-obscene) writing prompt I get here decides what I blog about tonight… except it will be a short story, not a short essay.”

There. Posted at 10:30. First response at…

10:33. From my friend Trina: “Missed stage cue by a backstage cue member and you’re the stage manager”


Closing Night

They’re improvising. They should not be improvising. No one should allow actors to improvise in the first place. It’s hard enough getting them to say the things they’re supposed to say — the things specifically written for them to say and artfully arranged through careful direction, and it’s even harder to get them to remember where they’re supposed to stand and when they’re supposed to walk.

Who the hell is letting them improvise?

They’re repeating themselves, too. That’s not normal. That means they’re stalling.


Why are they waiting?

“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” comes a whisper in my ear. “I got it!”


I don’t have time for Deirdre. If this scene were flowing perfectly, I’d have six more cues to call in the next forty-six seconds. This is the sloppiest crew I’ve ever had to deal with, and I’ve already promised myself I will never work for this theatre again unless I get to hire my own folks to run things. By now, I shouldn’t even have to call the cues — they should be internalized, and everything is supposed to run like clockwork.

But not Deirdre, whose cue I called with three others ten seconds ago. Deirdre never runs like clockwork. And I do blame myself, a little bit, for letting Deirdre be the one to trigger the actual clock.

“There should be twelve chimes,” I whisper into my headset.

“I got it, I got it,” Deirdre wheezed back. There was a bang and a clatter, which normally would have been enough to set my teeth on edge, but by some blessed coincidence of stupidity fixing stupidity, the sound tech chose that moment to add an additional roll of thunder to the mix. I guessed he was trying to distract the audience from the weak dialogue of the flustered actors.

“We should be on the eighth or ninth chime by now,” I whisper. I don’t need to add any inflection. Let the actors worry about that. All I have to do is say the words, neutrally, and I know the message will carry through.

The sound on the headset tells me Deirdre has pushed her headset’s button to respond, but she isn’t saying anything. She’s either out of breath from hustling to the spot from wherever she was, or she’s out of words. I can hear her footsteps.

“Chimes should be done by now,” I observe.

“I got it!” she says, loudly enough that I can see one of the actors flinch slightly. And then the chimes begin.

“That should have been a pre-recorded cue,” mutters Josh, appearing at my side like some sort of henchman. Josh is the only actor I like. He knows where to stand, he knows when to cross, and he stays out of our way in the back. He returns his props to the proper location and during rehearsals he often asked what he could do to make our lives easier.

“Neill doesn’t like pre-recorded sound cues when the items are on the stage,” I explain patiently as the chimes continue. “He says it distracts from the realism.”

“Why not build a remote trigger?”

I arch one eyebrow and turn to face him. “Too unreliable.”

Josh purses his lips and then disappears back into the darkness, preparing for his next entrance. The chimes from the clock faded, and we were back on track.

“I want to see you at intermission,” I said calmly into the headset. I didn’t have to specify who. It was clear to anyone with a headset on. For this production, that would be fourteen people exactly. Deirdre would come see me, and everyone else would stay out of my way until I was done with her. There was enough for most of them to do at intermission anyway.

I resumed calling cues, and momentarily pushed Deirdre out of my mind. That was always the best thing to do — compartmentalize. Organize. Everything needs to be in its place, at its time, and pre-planned.

Two minutes before the intermission, Callie approached quickly but timidly. The fact that she hadn’t used her headset but wanted to speak to me directly suggested this was a sensitive issue. The fact that intermission was coming up and she knew I wanted to talk to Deirdre suggested this was also a serious issue.

Smartly, Callie waited until I finished calling the show into intermission.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“The ballast,” she said.

“The sandbags?”

“Yeah,” Callie said. “You heard that bang during the thunder effect?”

“What was it?”

“When Deirdre was hurrying to her spot, she knocked over the hanger rig. It landed on the ballast.”

I waited, and I was sure my neutral face was showing Callie my impatience more than anything else I could do.

“Five of the bags were ripped open by the hooks on the rig,” she said. “And I’ve looked at them — there’s no way we can fix them. I brought two rolls of duct tape, but I didn’t even use them. There was no chance.”

Of course. We needed that ballast for the last act. Without it, the walls wouldn’t fly away as the script demanded. It was the closing effect, on closing night. And Deirdre had managed to sabotage it with her idiocy.

“Thank you,” I said, dismissing her.

Deirdre, all five foot one inch and maybe one hundred pounds of her, approached. Her eyes were wide and her lower lip quivering.

“I’m taking all of your cues away,” I said without preamble.

“All of them?” she asked, trying not to cry.

“All of them. Your job is to go get me five more sandbags in the next hour.”


“I have no idea. I don’t care if you buy burlap sacks and raid kids’ sandboxes, but that’s your job. If you don’t get this right, the play doesn’t end correctly, and the last memory any of us have of this entire run is that you screwed up. Do you understand me?”

She nodded.

“Go,” I said. “If you’re not back here in one hour, don’t come back.”

She ran.

I put Callie in charge of some of her cues, and I recruited Josh to fill in for some others; I trusted him to handle it. The action started back up, and the second half proceeded smoothly. Perfectly. Organized.

At fifty-five minutes in to the one hour deadline I had given her, I saw Deirdre walking up to me out of the corner of her eye. It was almost time for the blackout scene, and I held up a finger to call the necessary cues.

The next few moments were entirely up to the actors, playing in low lighting as if in a completely darkened house — great atmosphere for a horror play like this one, but a nightmare for potential injuries.

“Where are the sandbags?” I asked.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said, tears starting to run down her face. “I couldn’t find any place to buy sandbags, or even burlap bags.”

“Did you get anything else?” I asked, stunned at her incompetence.

“Like what?” she asked.

“Anything heavy!” I hissed, sure to keep my volume low; there was no dialogue currently on the stage, and I couldn’t afford to be heard. “Those sandbags are ballast. They weigh down the bar that holds the rope that goes to the pulleys. When we drop the ballast off the ledge, the walls fly away, because the ballast is heavy. Did you get anything heavy?”

She shook her head, looking like a frightened mouse.

I sighed. I gave her a small, sympathetic smile.

“Let’s fix this problem, okay?” I said. “We’ve got three minutes. Move quickly and quietly.”

Three minutes later, I whispered into my headset. “Callie — can you call the closing effects?”

“If I have to,” she said. “Sure. Why?”

“You’ve earned it,” I said. “I’ll handle the set effects.”

“Thank you!” Callie whispered back.

She did perfectly, calling every cue where it needed to be called, and I waited by the ballast rig for her to call for my bit.

Two rolls of duct tape and some sturdy rope were enough to fix the problem.

And for once, Deirdre would be useful.

Callie called my cue. The walls flew perfectly.

With the swelling music, Deirdre barely made a sound when she hit the stage floor.

This entry was posted in Improv, Words, Words, Words, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Testing my Improvisational Writing Skills

  1. Lummox JR says:

    This is nothing compared to that time she forgot the sardines.

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