It was a dark and stormy night and Mark, another Mark, and I were flymen for a production of George Gershwin’s jazz age opera Porgy and Bess at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre.
The flyman’s role is to rope in backdrops from a catwalk above the stage.
The fly floor was a narrow dusty, dark wooden mezzanine that ran around three walls about 10 metres above the stage.It was dim up there and temperature-free. The Mercury’s fly system was all time-worn timbers and hemp. Hairy loops of ropes hung from metal cleats along the wooden safety rail vectored off into the creaking eaves.
Hard against the wall on the far side of the mezzanine was the fly system made up of racks of lines and torso-like cages of counterweights.
A surprising number of Gisborne and East Coast artists appeared in director Raymond Hawthorne’s production of Porgy and Bess.
A lightly-nuggeted Jackie Clarke sung Summertime Blues and actor George Henare played Sportin Life. Gisborne singer Mere Boynton and honorary Gisbornian Cliff Curtis were just embarking on their careers so they were cast as chorus singers.
There were real American-black opera singers for principals and a live orchestra in the pit.
Me and Mark, the other Mark, flew backdrops in the dark — a swamp, a shack, an island — then flew them out again.
Our scenery might have plummeted like an Acme piano when we hauled hard on our hemp ropes, but we had our cues, our marks, we had our systems.
The counterweights were so finely-balanced, backdrops could be flown in at great speed, slowed millimetres from the shrinking boards to land as light as the proverbial. When the lights came up it was like they had always been there.
This is the magic of theatre.
Some of the magic of theatre anyway.
Other parts are blacker.
A scene involving a hurricane was coming up. The stage manager called my cue over the headphones and I flew in the shack the Catfish Row residents were to shelter in.
Up in the control box, the techies got ready to hit the strobe and sound effects.
Mark and I leaned over the wooden rail to watch the storm scene.
The other Mark reckoned in the old days flymen didn’t have headsets to communicate with. They whistled in code.
Which is why actors and crew are superstitious about whistling in theatres. An unsuspecting luvvie, happy in his or her work, might strut across the stage whistling away.
Roused from his crossword or studies or model boats, the flyman thinks oi, oi, they want the Acme piano already — and flies it in.
Theatre history is littered with whistling luvvies lost to plummeting pianos.
Anyway, Mark turned to me and said, “Flip superstition, Mark”. Just like that, all caution thrown to the wind, the madman.
Language, I said.
Macbeth, he said.
He knew as well as I did, actors referred to Macbeth as the Scottish Play on account of the bad luck any mention of the play brought to the show.
“Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth,” chanted Mark.
“Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth Mac-”
At that moment a mortar-loosening roll of thunder crashed into the roof. A simultaneous zag of lightning clawed at the tiles and messed with the electrics.
Artificial lightning strobed silently all over the stage well before the special effects were due.
It did inspire in the actors a sense of primal awe though, even if they had to slip out of character to do it.
“What are you doing up there?” hissed the stage manager through the cans.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Just make sure you do then,” he said.
I turned to the other Mark and said “Next time keep that sort of talk to yourself.”