Last Monday, I shared some mishaps that I have had as a flyman – the person on a stage responsible for flying scenery, props, and even people on or off a stage. This week, I share one of my favorite stage stories – the beautiful, heartwarming Christmas classic ballet, The Nutcracker, and how a decapitated angel disrupted a family friendly performance.
The Nutcracker is a perennial favorite of audiences and dance companies. The ballet is so popular that a dance company can often earn half of its annual revenue from that ballet performed repeatedly through December, supporting the work the company stages the rest of the year.
The show is chaos with a huge cast, many of them children getting their first taste of performing with professionals.
For the two people in the world who have never seen the ballet, here is a quick synopsis.
Act One has three scenes.
The first scene is Stahlbaum’s home hosting a Christmas Eve party. The key plot point is that the young daughter, Clara, receives a nutcracker toy which is broken by her brother, Fritz, proving that siblings are always a pain even in the magical world of ballet.
The second scene is the dream scene. After the family has gone to bed, young Clara sneaks into the living area to check on her prized nutcracker toy and falls asleep on the couch. In her dream, she shrinks to the size of the toy. A giant battle breaks out between the mice of the house, led by the evil mouse king, and the toys, led by the valiant nutcracker. Just when the mouse king appears on the verge of winning, Clara throws her shoe and stuns the mouse king, giving the nutcracker a diversion to stab and kill the mouse king.
Scene three – The nutcracker, transformed into a prince, escorts Clara to his kingdom through a swirling snowstorm. End of Act I.
Act II consists of candy and toys dancing for Clara and the prince back at his kingdom. Not important to today’s story. Go see the ballet.
The Ballet From A Flyman’s Perspective
And now to explain the critical components to my story, let me highlight a few key items from the flyman’s perspective:
In scene one, a large Christmas tree, sparkling with decorations and lights, sits upstage center just behind a giant row of presents. One of the many children in the scene places an angel on top of the tree. The angel, in our case, was about 18 inches tall and decked out in a white dress and wings. The child has to hook a wire over the top of the Christmas tree securing the angel.
The Christmas tree is a wire mesh drop hung from a batten. We interlaced greenery through the mesh in a triangular shape to create the tree. Attached to the tree were various decorations and lights.
In scene two, the Christmas tree “grows” over several minutes so that its top soars high into the fly tower leaving only the wide base in the audience’s view. This creates that magical effect where Clara feels like she is shrinking to the size of the toys and mice around her.
On some stages, there is a basement where the base of the tree can hide which makes growing the tree easier. In our case, however, we folded the base of the tree back and forth behind that row of packages so that when the tree grew, it unfolded its base. That unfolding creates a sway in the tree.
While the tree grows, the various pieces of furniture fly off stage, the last pieces being the presents that have been hiding the base of the tree.
Once the tree has grown, the flymen get to rest for a few moments during the epic mouse/toy battle. At the end of the battle, the scene transitions again from the house to a snowy forest.
The first step is that we fly in a snow scene drop and snow legs covering up the entire house scene, including the giant Christmas tree. Because a snowy forest looks very different than a house, this is a quick transition. And, to complicate matters, we flew out the house legs. Thus, we had five pipes simultaneously moving using a crew of three.
Finally, it snows. A lot. For nearly ten minutes.
We accomplished this with “snow cradles.” You take a piece of cloth as wide as the stage. Hang that cloth on two different battens so that the cloth hangs in a giant U. The center of the cloth is solid, but the sides have large holes cut into it. You fill the cloth with tiny pieces of white plastic. To make it snow, you “rock the cradle” – pull the fly ropes back and forth so that snow falls out of the holes and floats to the stage below. You do it slowly for gentle snow and fast for hard snow. And, in the Nutcracker, you do this for almost ten minutes. Long, grueling minutes. We had two cradles, so I worked one and another flyman worked the other.
How Things Start Going Very Wrong
Simple, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Remember that little miscreant responsible for securing that angel on top of the Christmas tree with the wire? His misdeed haunts me to this day.
Only about six inches of space existed between the Christmas tree and the snow drop. The doll was four inches thick, leaving little room for error. Thus, we had practiced and practiced and practiced placing the angel firmly on the tree. The practice had paid off because the kid had gotten it right performance after performance.
Until he didn’t. The wire was barely on the Christmas tree. The doll was leaning precariously forward.
But this is a live show.
We can’t fix the doll. I needed to grow the tree with no bounce at all to avoid knocking the angel off the tree. And I was going to have to be very careful to avoid hitting the bottom pipe (weights on the bottom of a drop to keep it steady) of the snow drop as the angel passed it in the fly tower.
Cue the shrinking scene. The tree starts growing slowly, inching and inching higher. As the bottom unfolds, it creates sway in the tree. My back is to the stage to fly the tree, but I am turning my head like an owl – watching the angel swing and jiggle on the top of the tree. The stage manager is speaking through the headsets, his voice squawking into my ear. “Easy. Easy.” We are inching upwards, the angel’s head right below the snow drop. Closer. Closer.
The angel taps the bottom pipe of the snow drop. The angel shudders. Shifts. I hear the stage manager gasp in the headset.
The angel stops moving. It is staying on the tree. I continue growing the tree. The angel slips safely behind the snow drop.
The giant battle ensues on stage. Approximately 2000 children portraying mice and toy soldiers enter and exit the stage.
Ok, maybe not 2000. But each of those children has parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts – all paying for tickets to see the Nutcracker. Having lots of kids involved boosts the box office. So ballet companies make sure lots of kids are in this scene. And that means lots of kids milling around backstage.
The fly crew, though, can rest for a few minutes, safely confined inside the fly floor. Yes, we have such original names. The fly floor is the area adjacent to the ropes and pulleys of the fly system and is off-limits to anyone not on the fly team for safety reasons. Even if you are a cute little six-year-old in a mouse costume.
I leaned back against the ropes and studied the angel. Its head is resting against the back of the snow drop, but still safely ensconced on the tree. We had dodged a bullet.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
The battle on stage is drawing to a close and our break is over. Time for the fly crew to work hard. We have to transition to the snow scene and make it snow. I have the backdrop ready to go and two others are flying in the snow legs. I have a headset but they don’t, so I must signal to them with hand signals or low whistles.
The moment hits. The cue is given. My back to the stage so I can pull ropes, I fly in the snow drop. Hard. Fast. The snow legs are coming in at the same speed while the house legs are flying out. The audience can not hear it, but we hear pullies groaning as the ropes fly.
The stage manager is eyeing for talent missing their mark, putting themselves in danger of being hit by heavy, rapidly descending drops. The kids have been safely escorted away, but stragglers are always possible with a such a large cast.
The first thing I hear is a gasp. Collectively, the entire audience takes in a giant breath. The stage manager is doing the same. Fearing someone is about to get hit, I reach to apply brakes, but the stage manager is still calling, “Go. Go. Go.”
I can’t see. He can. We have worked together many shows. I trust him. The drop keeps flying in.
The sound of a large object crashing to the stage floor.
I instinctively check my mark – a small piece of tape on the hemp rope that indicates when the drop is fully in. The mark is rapidly approaching, indicating the drop is still flying in freely. The thud was not the drop.
My only clue to the real problem is someone muttering over the headset, “Angel down.” Snickering starts from the other crew members on the headsets.
The friction of the snow drop had loosened the angel and started its plummet. The audience watched it fall. Head over heels. Completing a full three somersaults before landing with that loud, echoing racket. Gravity had let the angel fall faster than the drop – a few seconds ruining the magic.
Nothing I could do about it now. Besides, the snow drop would soon hide everything upstage, including the fallen angel. The magic of snow falling would make the audience forget the error.
The snow drop reached the bottom of its trajectory, but the last four inches were weirdly soft. I didn’t worry about it because I had done what I could. The lights would hide any gap from the bottom of the drop to the stage floor. I locked the snow drop.
I had snow to make, so I unlocked the two ropes holding the snow cradle. I signaled the other flyman and began to rock, pulling first one rope and then the other. The snow flakes gently drifted from the ceiling.
Audiences “ooooh” at the sight of falling snow.
But not this time. I heard a different noise – giggling. The audience was tittering.
The sound and light technicians, safely located in their soundproof booth behind the audience, had the perfect view of the stage. They were roaring with laughter. Guffaws filled my headset.
Making it snow, my back was to the stage. I couldn’t see whatever was wrong. I glanced at the stage manager. He was shaking his head but just motioned me to keep going. I looked to the other flyman, rocking the downstage snow cradle, and he was working and sweating away. Without a headset and with his back to the stage, he was blissfully unaware.
I could only keep rocking the snow cradle.
A dancer exited the stage behind me. Snickering.
The light man caught his breath and muttered over the headset, “The guillotine has been lowered.” That sent the sound technician into another fit of laughter. I looked over at the stage manager and even he was laughing.
I still had no clue.
Minutes crept by with my back to the stage, muscles burning and sweat rolling. Minutes of making it snow on the stage while listening to headless Frosty jokes and angelic murders.
But I still didn’t understand the full horror. The angel had fallen. So what? It was only visible for a few seconds. Why was this so funny?
The scene mercifully ends. The stage curtain closes. Worklights come on. Stagehands are grabbing brooms to sweep up the snow. Dancers are exiting the stage, coughing and spitting “snow” out of their mouths (you try dancing among swirling plastic).
The stage manager taps me on the shoulder and motions me to join him on stage. Then, and only then, did I realize the horrific sight.
The angel had landed with its head facing directly downstage to the audience. The snow drop had landed perfectly – on the angel’s neck, hiding the rest of its body. The sparkling snow drop didn’t hide the head – it accented it. And the doll’s head was center stage, directly under the point of the Christmas tree now hidden behind the snow drop. The falling snow had drifted around its neck, creating the illusion of a detached angel’s head in a snowy field.
The audience had just watched ten minutes of snow falling and snow fairies dancing around a beheaded angel.
So much for that Christmas magic.