Saturday, April 17, 2010

Terror at the Theatre (or Swings with Wings - thanks Ash!)

A little over ten years ago I was cast as a swing in Tapestry: a Review Based on the Music of Carole King at the Clarence Brown Theatre back home in Knoxville, Tennessee.  My female swing-counterpart was one of my best friends Ashley.  I'm not sure if you've ever been a swing before but, at least for us, it was possibly the most boring gig either of us had ever had the privilege to accept.

The show was very straight forward.  A couple of actors playing a couple of friends over a couple of years all to the music of a couple of Carole King songs.  Simple set, simple staging, simply Ashley and I sitting in the house taking about a page (total) of notes but mostly gossiping about the day.

Jimmy, our musical director, had taken the band to the lobby.  It was their first night all together and he wanted to run the songs without the actors so the musicians could work out any kinks.  Watching Jimmy leave with the musicians one of us turned to the other and suggested we go listen.  When musicians join the show it can be very exciting.  You're hearing the songs full-out for the first time.  You get a sense of how big the show is now that there's this other piece of the puzzle that is finally fitting into place.  Hell... we'd have been excited by dust in the sunbeams at this point.  So off we went to the lobby, trailing behind the band.  (We looked like preppy groupies tagging along behind this motley crew of student musicians.)

We listened for a while as the band made it through "So Far Away" and "You've Got a Friend" but eventually boredom struck again.  The band was getting through eight or ten measures and then stopping to correct something.  It was a little like being stuck in traffic, going five feet and then stopping again because of heavy congestion on the expressway.

"Have you ever been to the catwalks?" I asked Ashley.  She had not (as far as I remember).  "They're so scary," I said and we headed toward the open door that lead from the lobby to the stage manager's booth, then up again to the machine room and out across the catwalks that hung above the audience.  It was only a few feet behind Jimmy but he didn't notice as we walked away and into the stairwell.

Now, be assured that there was nothing unusual about the night.  We'd been to rehearsal for weeks now and nothing bizarre had happened.  But this night suddenly shifted into something very off.

We climbed up a seven or eight steps, not to the first landing, and then for some reason stopped to look back.  There was the door, wide open, lights on, Jimmy a few feet outside leading the band into "Smackwater Jack".    But something was very off and we could just feel it.  We couldn't have been looking for but a second when we saw a hand (from a body that we couldn't see because of the turn in the staircase) push the door shut.  Whether it slammed or simply clicked I can't remember.  My body froze and I could feel Ashley grip my arm from the step above.  Lights out!

"Wha...?" Ashley got out in a terrified whisper.  Someone or something had pushed the door shut and then switched off the lights leaving us in absolute darkness.  The stairwell had no windows as it was an interior climb and only a hint of light peered through the crack beneath the door.

I could feel my chest shaking.  Whatever had shut the door and turned off the lights had to be in here with us.  

"Jimmy!!" We both screamed after a minute.  Nothing.  No answer.  "JIMMY!!?"  Still nothing.

We stood silently for what seemed like minutes.  Ashley tightened her grip on my arm but I couldn't feel it.  I felt a mix of terror, exhaustion and numbness all at once.

"What do we do?" She finally asked... still hushed fearing he/she/it would hear us.

It took everything I had to get breath to talk, "Climb."  But still neither of us moved.  The thought that if we shifted even slightly that we might touch whatever was with us was too much.

A few moments passed when Ash asked, "When?"  At that we broke a little of the spell that was on us and in unison took a step up.  Then another.  Then another.  Nothing in front of us.  At least not immediately.

We hit the landing and without saying a word we both bolted, charging up the steps to the second floor fumbling over the landing and turning up to the third (and final) floor to the machine room above.  The beating in my ears sounded like footsteps behind us.  It might even have been chasing us that moment.  But still our hands reached out, praying for a doorknob and not another body.

Found it!


The door swung open.  No one was inside.  No one ever was really.  The room was an attic and housed the air conditioning system for the theatre.  It was pitch black but I knew where to go.  We hurried past giant metal boxes, all whirring and banging, air shooting past our faces as we desperately sped to the other end of the long room.  Still my heart was pounding, impersonating boots crashing quickly on the floor behind us.

For years there were rumors of this ghost or that ghost, like any theatre, and I'd seen some odd things (that's another post for another time) but no one had ever mentioned a ghost in the stairwell before.

Finally!  The doorknob that lead out of the machine room and onto the catwalks.  Even being terrified of heights I ran, Ashley following, straight across the grated metal path.  Our shoes hit the metal, clanging and rattling the rails.  It sounded like anvils falling onto sheet metal and the echo, along with the heart which was about to burst through my ribs, just reminded me that any one of those noises could be the entity behind us.

Looking down I could see the cast below us as we crossed through the small cutout in the proscenium that lead us above the stage itself.  We flew past the fly rail and finally hit the spiral staircase that lead down to the stage floor... and to safety.

I don't remember touching any of the steps.  It felt like we slid straight down leaving the terror above us. The cast was still on stage so we dashed through the stage door, into the small hall that connected to the green room and threw open the green room door and crashed onto the couches desperate for breath, for our legs to stop wobbling, for our hearts to slow down just a little.

It might have been the most terrifying night of my life... in terms of horror.  Whatever chased us didn't catch us.  We survived the fear and after half an hour couldn't help but laugh.  There's something cathartic about sharing a scary experience like that.  Ashley and I were closer... instantly.

After catching our breath we decided to rejoin the cast and headed back to the stage.

They were starting a break and heading our way as we walked through the stage door.  "Where have you two been?" one of them asked.

I looked at Ashley, "You didn't hear us running across the catwalk just now?"  She asked.

They were dumbfounded.  They just stared at us as if we just landed from Planet Crazy.

"No," they said together.  None of them heard us.  Kennedy didn't notice anything.  And when we asked Jimmy why he hadn't answered our cry for help.

"What?" He had no idea what we were talking about.  "We must have been playing loudly."  I suppose.

We explained our story to everyone... all of whom found it amazing, if not slightly unbelievable.  It didn't matter.  Ashley and I knew it happened.  We knew we'd had this terrifying and yet somehow amazing experience together.  And we knew that we would NEVER go into the stairwell alone or without a flashlight.

2 comments:

cashleyh said...

Tommy...you just brought me back to that moment. There is NOTHING like that feeling when you sense a presence in the blackness and your fight or flight response time seems to last an hour in a mere second.(it seemed like the ordeal took the better part of an hour, but like in the movies we were only missing for a couple of minutes). Maybe we were in need of a thrilling distraction from our boredom...maybe as creative types our imaginations got the better of us...or maybe...just maybe, we were spared from an unthinkable and horrific entity lurking mere inches from us in the darkness...an entity who couldn't kill us because it was laughing so hard at our dramatic reaction. I'm pretty sure whatever that demon was peed its pants and that's how we had time to flee. I will never forget that moment...and I will never forget how you turned a particular shade of white and the high pitched squeals we somehow produced (that no one heard). The movie Paranormal Activity totally stole the idea based on our experience...I'd do it all over again, but with no one else but you! Beautifully told Tommy...but no one will ever understand...

PS...I still do the EVITA impression...serious beginning and then breaking into the techno version? You crack me up. Love Love

Thomas said...

I like the idea that it was laughing at us too hard to do anything to us. BRILLIANT! LOL. And I would TOTALLY do it again. I'm going to need you to either come visit in NYC or, at least, create a YouTube video of you doing Evita. PLEASE!!!! :)
xoxoxo