This post is the second of two regarding Daniel Krueger's training for a scene in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Find the first post here.
For me, being suspended upside down several feet above the stage in the Roda Theatre for the first time gave new meaning to the term "stage fright". It was actually terrifying. And it really came as a surprise.
As I mentioned, after a couple weeks of running my scene upside down in the rehearsal hall, I was really beginning to feel pretty comfortable inverted. I even encouraged Blake, our mad Padraic, to spin me around or push me a little here and there if he felt that the scene warranted it. And when Les wasn't watching, I'd sort of swim or dance, or spin myself around as much as I could (which is harder than it sounds, when you can't reach a wall or anything stable to push yourself off of). In other words, I was feeling comfortable enough to goof around.
But in all the fun, I hadn't prepared myself for how different conditions in the Roda would be.
For one thing, in the rehearsal hall, there was a nice thick padded mat underneath me at all times. It was for safety's sake, and also to make it more comfortable while I was lying there waiting to be hoisted up, or when I was being lowered back down into a sort of reverse headstand. In the Roda, there was nothing underneath me but hard, flat stage.
And while we always made sure to rehearse with me at my full height of about six feet above the floor, in the Roda Theater the stage is an additional three or four feet above the theater floor. So suddenly there I was, several feet higher off the ground than I'd ever been, upside down, looking straight down into the abyss. Well, the orchestra section anyway. I exaggerate.
Another comfort I no longer had was Leslie Radin, our incredible production assistant, who I considered my safety net. In the rehearsal hall, she would stand right next to me, holding onto and controlling the rope that I was suspended from. So if there was ever any problem and I felt like I wanted to be let down early, all I had to do was ask. Obviously in the Roda she could no longer stand right next to me, because she would then be in the scene, and there is no "Padraic's torture assistant" character in the play (although I wished we'd considered it). Now, Leslie was waiting offstage, very far away from me, and the ropes were being controlled by people high above the stage. And also by a machine. I no longer had moral support standing within arm's reach. The only other person onstage was Padraic, tormenting me with a bloody razor!
It's hard to really put into words what was so unsettling about the experience, but it's an odd sensation to be totally helpless like that. You're bound by your feet, upside down, and you can't touch anything at all. Of course we worked out a signal so that if I felt something was wrong, our stage manager would know and they could let me down pretty quickly. But even so, I knew it would take a few seconds, and I'd just never experienced a feeling like that before. I have to admit, the very first time we hung me up in the Roda, I didn't last too long before I had to ask to be let down. I started to worry if I'd be able to do the scene every night!
But things quickly got a lot better that first week when we experimented with a new kind of ankle harness. We did away with the bungee jumping harnesses, which would shift a little bit during the scene, giving the terrifying sensation that my feet were slowly sliding out and I was about to fall at any moment. I believe Leslie Radin and our stage manager Karen Szpaller ordered the Gravity Boots that we've ended up using for the whole run. They are fastened kind of like a ski boot. They tighten in two places, and you sort of ratchet them up to your preferred tightness, and for the first time I was actually able to make my ankle harnesses too tight, which was oddly comforting. Just to know that there was no way my feet were ever going to slide out made a HUGE difference.
From then on it was just a matter of reminding myself that I was perfectly safe. The ropes are sturdy, the gravity boots are strong, and this is not the first time the crew has done something like this. In fact, I believe some of them were on hand for the hanging scene in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, in which a live actor would fall through a trapdoor in the ceiling of the set every night with a noose around his neck and appear to be hanged in every performance. It was a very cool scene, and compared to that, this is really a breeze. (Thanks, Ross and Julia.)
People always want to know if it's hard for me to do the scene. And it is, but not for the reasons most people imagine. By now, I don't get dizzy, and it doesn't feel like the blood is rushing to my head (although I'm knocking on wood as I type this). The hardest part, at first, was just getting over the fear. And by now, it's really not scary anymore, which in some ways is too bad, because it really helps the scene if I'm actually afraid for my life! To tell the truth, the hardest part now is that my feet and ankles get sore. All of my body weight is being supported by my feet, and it takes some getting used to. I had to learn to let my body relax, which is harder than it sounds. Being hung upside down like that, your instinct is to tense up, especially in your feet. You feel like if you just let go, your feet will slide right out of the boots. But after about 11 or 12 minutes like that, your feet start to really ache. You have to fight your body's natural impulse, and just loosen up.
As we approach the end of the run, I am really going to miss doing that scene. It's been so much fun to experience the audience reactions, which are different every night. Some nights, as soon as the lights come up, there are audible gasps (which I love), or there are audible laughs (which I love even more). But as much as I will miss that scene, I do get to take a part of it with me. I'm keeping the inversion table, which they loaned me to practice. Turns out, it really does feel great to hang like that.
Only now, I'll be a little closer to the ground when I do it.
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