(As it first appeared in FaithWriter's Magazine Acting Up! columnJune 2005)
Humor in the Spotlight
By David Ian
They say pastors and actors have the best stories – mostly because there’s a lot of inherent tension in performance situations, whether it is a performance on stage or performing a wedding ceremony. So this month, instead of outlining some serious aspect of theatre, I’ll share something from experience.
I was directing an Easter musical which involved acting, solos and choir numbers with a full cast of about a hundred or so. Out of necessity, the choir rehearsed their bits separately and received their blocking (or cattle herding) during tech week, while we added on the technical aspects of sound, lights, costume and make-up to the show as well. As a result, this was the first time the running tech crews got access to the full show, how it looked and sounded, and they had less than a week to work out all the bugs.
Tech Week can get pretty intense.
The play centered around Jesus, his last few days on earth, and one specific scene involved a musical number with Pilate addressing the crowd and trying to figure out what to do with him. We added the choir for the first time, went over some crowd blocking basics and launched into running the scene. It was a nice little number where Pilate sings out, "What shall I do with this man Jesus?" and the crowd answers back in song, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" Pilate then replies, "But shall I crucify your king?" and the crowd replies again "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!"
Then Pilate offers up Jesus and Barabbas to the crowd and gives them a choice, to which the crowd begins chanting "Barabbas! Barabbas! Release to us Barabbas!…Barabbas! Barabbas! Release to us Barabbas!"
About this time I heard an unintelligible whisper in my headset followed by a great eruption of laughter over the channel that nearly split my ears. I spun around and saw both my spotlight operators in the balcony doubled over in laughter and my sound controller up there inside the booth slapping his sides with mirth as well.
I made a note to myself, "Pilate/Barabbas! – Tech??" and went on with the rehearsal.
At break time I hurried up the steps to the balcony and found a little knot of tekkies with conspiratorial smirks on their faces. Some looked like they were absolutely about to burst. Then, they all did, as if on cue.
I smiled patiently and let the laughter die down a bit; some were actually wiping their eyes by the time they had settled down.
"Oooookay. What’s the joke?"
They all looked at each other like little kids who have been caught at something that was well worth whatever trouble might be in store for them as a consequence.
"Well…" Spotlight Operator #1 began, then burst into snickers and couldn’t finish.
"It’s just that we’ve never heard the Pilate Song with the choir before," snorted Spotlight Operator #2.
"And we can only hear through these headsets, which, you have to admit, don’t have a very clear input," a grinning Sound Technician chimed in.
"Go on," I prompted patiently.
"Sooooo, when the choir started singing ‘Barabbas! Barabbas! Release to us Barabbas!’" Spotlight Operator #1 added before stifling sputtered laughter.
"We thought," Spotlight Operator #2 continued, "in our headsets, we thought they were singing "Da Wabbits! Da Wabbits! Wewease to us da Wabbits!"
Then my knot of tekkies broke into a perfect Elmer Fudd chorus: "Da Wabbits! Da Wabbits! Wewease to us da Wabbits! Huh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!"
"Shhhhh!" Sound Technician put a finger to his lips, "Be vewy, vewy qwiet. We’re hunting Bawwabbases. Huh-uh-uh-uh-uh!"
Who said tekkies aren’t performers at heart? I laughed with them for a short time, but also, while still wearing my director’s hat, alarm bells and whistles were going off inside my head. My face grew grim, I held up a warning finger, and I made sure I had my little mirthful knot’s attention.
"All right, now!" I warned. "This is not to be repeated to any performers on stage – choir members especially – anyone on running crew backstage, actors waiting in the wings, in fact, this is to stay between the three of you until the show is over, is that clear?"
By the looks on their faces I might have told them not to tell anyone they had just won the lottery. There is nothing in the world worse than to know a riotous joke that begs to be told, and then be forbidden to tell it – it is torture beyond reason. Waiting until after the show would be no good, there was a whole week to go, and it wouldn’t be half as funny by then. But I had a show to consider. I couldn’t afford having anyone in the choir busting up as they were doing their part, or worse, some smart aleck singing with an Elmer Fudd voice during the show. Then there would be the people who might start feeling self-conscious about themselves on stage, picturing everyone back stage laughing at the big joke while they try to do their singing bit straight.
And there’s no telling where it might spread as well. Who knows how many audience members might come to the performance, primed with the knowledge of the "Elmer Fudd Dawabbit" chorus? I didn’t need laughter or an undercurrent of snickering during such a pivotal and intense point in the program.
No, this had the potential of being too subversive for its own good, and during Tech Week stress ran high enough without an Elmer Fudd distraction rippling through the ranks. But I had just as dire a problem here with my tech crew; they were putting in long intense hours and needed something to break up the tension.
"Okay," I said. "If you keep our little secret here until the end of the run, I’ll wear bunny ears for the cast party and you can Elmer Fudd to your heart’s content then. Deal?" I thought I had it sealed.
"And a tail!" Spotlight Operator #1 negotiated with glee.
"And a bunny nose!" Spotlight Operator #2 added almost immediately.
What … did they plan this?
"You get one or the other, nose or tail, which is it?"
"Tail," Sound Technician snorted. "Definitely the tail!"
"Okay, bunny ears and tail, and you guys keep this among yourselves. Deal?"
"Deal," they chorused back. "Huh-uh-uh-uh-uh!"
On my way driving home that night, one thing, and one thing only kept replaying in my head: "Da Wabbits! Da Wabbits! Wewease to us da Wabbits! Huh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!"
The Pilate Scene never looked or sounded the same for me again.