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The Tiring House
The auditorium is completely dark aside from the little light attached to my clipboard and the glow-in-the-dark tape on stage. The roar of the audience dims to barely a whisper. The last time a crowd this big turned out to see the school musical was over thirty years ago. My heart is racing, my blood coursing with adrenaline. Does Kristina feel like this every time she performs? I take a deep breath, letting the warm scent of sawdust and old memories calm me down. That was the first thing I noticed when I walked into this theatre. Not the pitiful half-finished sets, or the sound of someone practicing their scales in the music room. It was the smell.
The ceasing of the soft pattering of feet tells me that all the actors are onstage and ready. There’s nothing else left to do. Nervously, I tell crew to bring up the lights and the orchestra to begin.
Four weeks ago, I would not have been caught dead in this place. The theatre department at our school was a joke. The only people who tried out for the shows were the geeky drama girls and the people who could not get on a single sports team. The auditorium had not been remodeled since my parents were in school. The only reason kids watched the school play was because their teachers would give them extra credit if the wrote a review.
My friends bet me that I would not have the guts to climb up to the catwalk (where all the stage lights are) during the choir concert and drop a water balloon onto the soprano soloist’s head. I won the bet. I also won three weeks of detention and had to write a formal note of apology to Kristina Wise, the soloist. I had to read it on the morning announcements.
Unfortunately, Ms. Perez, the theatre teacher, did not see it as a funny joke. She was older than the auditorium, and her voice was loud enough to teach a deaf person what vocal projection meant. She was strict and no-nonsense, but for some reason all the theatre kids loved her. She was also probably going to outlive every single kid at our school. Ms. Perez was in charge of my detention.
“Alright, Mr. Cohan,” Ms. Perez belted out to me. “Since you consider yourself to be the Tarzan of the theatre world, you can climb right back up onto that catwalk and clean it out. Dust off the lights and get rid of any trash. There’s a closest at the end of the walkway where we used to store props and extra light bulbs. I want those down too.” I was pretty sure that those spare light bulbs were now considered illegal because of all the energy they wasted, but I was not about to add another week to my detention. “And I want you done by tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I repeated.
“Yes, because the dressing rooms need a new paint job. And after that you can help get all the old furniture down from the loft. This musical opens in less than a month, and we need to be ready.”
I thought about protesting. Surely this fell under the category of cruel and unusual punishment? Why couldn’t Ms. Perez make me do extra homework like normal teachers did for detention? Instead, all I said was, “How long should I be up there?”
“You can leave at five-thirty,” Ms. Perez replied. “If Kristina thinks you’ve done enough work.”
“What?” I protested.
“What?” Kristina Wise, who was reviewing her lines a few feet away, protested.
Ms. Perez said, “I need to talk to the choir teacher about some ideas for the pit orchestra. Kristina can supervise.”
Great, I was going to be stuck here for the next two hours with Kristina instead of shooting hoops with my friends. I climbed the narrow metal ladder that led up to the catwalk. Luckily I was not scared of heights, otherwise this job would have been torture. Then again, coming up here was what got me detention in the first place.
When I reached the catwalk, I was surprised how unstable it looked. In the dark, while Kristina had been belting out her solo and I had been waiting for the perfect moment to drop the balloon, safety had seemed like a primitive concern. Seeing the rotting floorboards and the low-hanging black pipes made me more than a little nervous.
I took a few steps, doubling over so that I would not hit my head on a crossbeam. There was a narrow pathway made out of wooden boards, below which was just the thin plaster ceiling/floor. There was graffiti all over the walls, probably older than I was. Two names with hearts linking them, handprints and class years, and about a zillion “We are everywhere”s. The dust was at least an inch thick, with foot and handprints beginning to fossilize in it. I smelled something that was similar to a five-year-old PB&J sandwich, and I found the perpetrator to be a brown paper bag stashed beneath one of the lights. Honestly, did they only clean this place when someone got detention from Ms. Perez?
“It’s dusty up here!” I called down.
“Too bad,” Kristina replied. “I’m going to do some organizing in the costume room. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Just then, I got a text from one of my friends. It read, so what’re u gonna do 2 mess them up this time?
As soon as my friends had heard that I got detention in the drama department, they suggested that I take this valuable opportunity to play a good prank on the theatre kids. I agreed, I just wasn’t sure how or when I was going to do it. I replied, not sure. Tell u when I know.
I made it to the end of the walkway and found the door to the closet that Ms. Perez was talking about. There were the light bulbs, whole boxes of them. There were also various styles of plates and silverware, fake flowers, swords, every type of hat ever worn by humankind, a real jousting stick (what was that doing here?), books, lamps, plastic food, baskets and buckets, canes, luggage, a chess set with half the pieces AWOL, and a bunch of other currently unidentifiable props. Forget finishing by tomorrow; it would take a year’s worth of detention to get through half of this stuff. Still, like the saying says, every journey begins with one step. My first step was going to be to find a box.
Most of those props have actually been useful for this show. Even the jousting stick has added a bohemian air to our production of Rent. So far, everything is going smoothly. The audience, surprisingly, sounds like they’re loving it. Into my headset, I tell Kristina to come down for her first scene. A minute later, she climbs down the ladder that is next to me that leads to the Tiring House. Up until a month ago, no one even knew that the Tiring House existed. Now it serves as a dressing room for the leading actors, since they need to get to the stage quickly.
I found the Tiring House while I was cleaning out the catwalk for Ms. Perez. The more props I took out of the closet, the farther back the closet seemed to go. Occasionally, I would talk to Kristina during my detention. We were in a couple of classes together, and mainly complained about our ancient chemistry teacher. I realized that Kristina was actually a pretty cool girl, despite the fact that she thought the world revolved around the stage.
On the second day of my detention, I put the last few props into their appropriate boxes. Finally, the last old-style camera was in a box marked “Misc”. It was then that I confirmed what I had been suspecting for the past day: this was not just a props closet. It was a props tunnel.
“Kristina!” I called down. For some reason, I felt like she should see this. “Come up here! I need to show you something.”
I heard her climbing up the ladder. A moment later she appeared next to me and asked, “What is it?” I didn’t realize that at that moment she was struggling to hold tears back.
“It’s not a closet,” I told her. “It’s a tunnel. Did you know this was here?”
She shook her head. “I heard rumors in my freshman year that there are tunnels and secret passageways all over this school. Most of them just hold electrical equipment and stuff. But I’ve never heard of one up here.”
I smiled. “Let’s check it out.”
“Are you crazy?” she asked. “We don’t know if this thing is stable! The whole floor could crumple out from underneath us!”
“Come on,” I pleaded. “There could be some cool theatre junk down there or something.”
I could tell that Kristina had no answer to this, and that she would rather keep an eye on me than leave me up here with the high chance of breaking something.
Where the tunnel connected to the catwalk, it was only about four feet tall, and we both had to duck. However, as we got to the area where the last of the props had been stored, the tunnel widened up, allowing us to stand. I turned on my flashlight. Unlike the walls around the catwalk, there was no graffiti. Instead, there were neat little signs, now faded, hung every ten feet or so that said, “This way to the Tiring House!”
“What’s a Tiring House?” I asked.
“It’s a place where actors wait when they’re not onstage,” Kristina replied. “You know, like in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the actors are rehearsing for their show and they say that the hawthorn tree can be their Tiring House.”
I shook my head, not even bothering to point out that this was a fact no normal person should know. She would probably just take it as a compliment.
We came to another door. It swung open easily, and on the other side, it was pitch black. I felt around for a light switch. When it turned on, I think I stopped breathing for a moment.
It was a small room, smaller than a classroom, but much more welcoming. Every inch of wall was covered in cast photos, old newspaper reviews, Polaroid pictures of teenagers, posters advertising shows, programs, ticket stubs, and murals of theatre stuff. Big squashy chairs and couches were scattered around, as well as a beautifully carved table and a few wardrobes and vanities. The areas on the wall not covered in posters did not have graffiti, but neatly written show names and a list of the actors and crew members beneath it. It was obvious that the room had not been touched in several decades. Everything was coating in a thin layer of dust, which only added to the history.
Kristina whispered, “Will, I wonder if Ms. Perez knows about this place.”
“Probably not,” I answered. “Otherwise she would have wanted to come up here herself.” I started walking around, taking in everything. There was an original poster from Grease. A program from Rocky Horror Show. A letter written by a famous actor to the old drama teacher. A photo of a high school cast dressed in amazing Shakespearean-era costumes.
There was an enormous bookshelf full of scripts, musical scores, and guidebooks that taught everything from set building to how to correctly apply stage makeup.
A bulletin board was full of and notices for upcoming events (auditions for The Crucible would be held in January, 30 years ago). There was a picture of two girls, one obviously playing Rapunzel, the other pretending to cut her hair with safety scissors. They were both laughing. There was a photo of a man who I recognized as the old theatre director. The students were giving him flowers and a thank-you card onstage. I wondered if it was his last show, because everyone was both crying and smiling.
Smiles, everywhere. The room was full of life. Even though these actors had all graduated long ago, and were probably now the parents of kids who were currently my classmates, they left their mark in this room. With a few photos and posters, they captured more emotion from the stage than any morning announcement or teaser scene in the lunchroom could. I would want to be in the school shows too, if they were as great as these old reviews said.
My buzzing phone brings me back to the present. I cringe, hoping that nobody heard. I forgot to turn it off. Still, I told everyone not to call or text me for the next few nights, so it’s either an emergency or someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word no. Hiding the back-lit screen, I read the message. It’s from a number I don’t know, but the message is clear enough: Ms. Perez back in ICU. Breathing problems. Will tell u more asap.
A large rock falls into the pit of my stomach as I read the words again, wishing that it said something different. I know that Ms. Perez is sick, but she was supposed to be getting better. She was supposed to be able to see our show tonight. I love being the stage manager for this show, but I hate how I got the job.
After discovering the Tiring House, I had turned to see Kristina silently crying, leaning against a mirror with lipstick smudges all over it. “What’s wrong?” I asked awkwardly.
“It’s Ms. Perez,” she replied, even now her voice coming out clearly through her tears. “I just got a call. I couldn’t believe it. She was fine yesterday.”
Kristina took a deep, shuddering breath. “Ms. Perez just got admitted into the intensive care unit at the hospital. She’s really sick. I don’t know what she has. She…she said that she’ll be fine, that I should take care of the show until she comes back. But…” Kristina collapsed into one of the chairs. “Will, I don’t think I can do this! What if something does happen to her? She’s so strong, and yesterday she was completely healthy. How could something like the happen to her?” She shakes her head. “I can’t just smile and dance around onstage like nothing has happened.”
I felt a lump in my throat. I barely knew Ms. Perez, but I knew how much Kristina loved her. Ms. Perez was like another parent to some of these kids. Before I knew what I was doing, I said quietly, “I’ll help you.”
“I’ll help you do the show until Ms. Perez can run it again.” I sit down next to Kristina. “You know everything there is to know about theatre. I know enough about tools and stuff that I could help with the sets, and you could teach me how run the lights or something.” Kristina just shook her head. “Look, Ms. Perez doesn’t want us to sit around moping; she wants us to do the show. So let’s put on the best show this school has ever seen. When Ms. Perez comes back, she’ll be coming back to a sold out show every night.”
My phone buzzed. It was my friends again, asking if I had any ideas about the prank. I did not reply to the message.
That was the start of everything. It took Ms. Perez longer than she thought it would to get out of the hospital, so we ended up doing the whole show by ourselves. I’m amazed that it worked, considering all the trouble we had.
To start, we had to build an apartment that was going to be the central piece to the set. That was fine, except after building all the wall pieces, we realized that the set was too tall and we would have to rebuild it completely, this time with the walls two feet shorter than before. Then one of the other leading girls discovered that she was allergic to some strange food, and missed rehearsals for a week. After that, during a tech rehearsal, we realized that some of the lights on the catwalk only partially worked, and could not be used as spotlights, only as normal lights controlled from the lighting booth.
And of course, there were my friends constantly bugging me about the show. They did not understand why I was still doing it. Why didn’t I just mess up the show and get it over with? They asked me if I had a crush on Kristina, to which I vehemently replied no. This only made things worse, however. They called me a dork and asked me if I had been fitted for my tutu yet. I tried to tell them that I was only doing it for my detention, and that I was using a bunch of power tools to build the set, but it didn’t really help. Sometimes they would be friendly toward me for a few days, joking around and acting like nothing had changed. But then someone would mention the musical, and everything would go downhill from there.
Eventually, I told them that I was saving the prank for closing night, so that everyone would be able to see it. I knew all about the catwalk now, and I knew that I could come up with a convincing defense for the prank, saying that the old plaster ceiling had finally crumbled or something. I did not want to do the prank, but I did not want them to abandon me either. If they left me, then I wouldn’t have any friends. I would be alone.
For the rest of the first act, I do the cues from rote memory, my mind far away. When intermission finally comes, the audience gives the actors a standing ovation. I clap too, but all I can think of is telling Kristina about Ms. Perez.
She runs offstage with an enormous smile on her face, breathing heavily and humming. However, when she sees the look on my face, her smile vanishes. Now it’s her turn to ask, “What’s wrong?” Coming from her, it sounds a lot more genuine.
I can’t speak. I just show her the message. She reads it aloud to the rest of the cast members, her voice steady but her eyes welling with tears. For a moment, everyone is silent. Then, one of the freshmen asks, “Should we stop the show?”
To my surprise, Kristina shakes her head. Taking my cue from her, I say, “Ms. Perez wanted us to do the show, and we’re not going to abandon her and the audience. Not now.”
Kristina straightens up, looking the actors directly in the eye. “Ms. Perez will be fine. We have to believe that. Just…just go out there and do the show.”
The cast nods, silent, and leaves to go to their positions for the second act. “How did you do that?” I ask Kristina. “Last time you got the message, you said we couldn’t continue.”
She meets my eyes and says quietly, “I’ve realized that sometimes smiling and continuing on doesn’t mean that you’re happy; it just means that you’re strong. We need to be strong for Ms. Perez tonight.”
I nod my head. Kristina turns away and takes her place onstage.
The shows the next few nights are not any worse for the cast hearing the news. If anything, the show is more emotional, both the happy and the sad parts. Kristina was right. I was right, I realize. I was the one who convinced her to do the show in the first place.
On closing night of the show, near the end of the second act, I hear someone behind me, the sound of a shoe scraping against the metal ladder. Someone is going up to the catwalk. I look down at my script just to be sure, and then look up again, confused. Everyone should be onstage for this scene, and none of the crewmembers need to work spotlights or anything. So why is someone climbing up there?
It’s my friends, I realize. I never told them whether or not I was going to do the prank, so they’re going to sabotage the show themselves. No, they are not my friends anymore. And they’re not going to ruin Ms. Perez’s show. They are not going to ruin my show.
I hand my headset to one of the assistant stage managers and tell her quietly to do the next couple cues. It should not be too difficult for her, and I have more important matters to deal with. Silently, I climb up the ladder and creep back into the shadows. I see two guys huddled around one of the stage lights. Next to them, I see a can of paint that is half full and a bag of feathers from the craft store.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I hiss at them, carefully stepping over to my old friends.
“Oh good, I thought you were going to be a no-show,” one of them, Chris, says to me. Chris and I had been friends since elementary school.
“Dude, do you wanna pour the paint once it’s time?” Josh asks, fiddling with some wires on the light. It’s one of the lights we never completely fixed. It works, but it can only be turned on and off from the lighting booth, not from up here. I wonder if they know that.
“No, I don’t want to pour the paint,” I reply, wanting to yell but my voice barely audible. “I don’t want anything to do with your stupid prank.”
“But you said-”
“No, I didn’t say, and that was my mistake.” I hear them coming to the climax of the show below us. The audience is completely silence, enraptured with the performance. “I should’ve said the first time that this was a stupid idea. But I didn’t, because I was being stupid and a coward. So I’m saying now that you are not going to mess up this…” I trail off, staring as Josh takes out some wire cutters. “What are you doing?” I ask, the anger gone from my voice.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Josh asks, putting the cutters down for a moment. “We’re gonna turn off these lights and then dump the paint and feathers. Once they get the lights back on, they’ll find six freshly painted-and-feathered actors. And guess what?” There was now a sort of evil grin on his face that made me nervous. “Now that you’re up here, they’ll be able to blame it all on you. Did you know there’s another door up here that leads to the art room? We found it a few weeks ago and were planning to share it with you, but now that you have new friends…”
“You can’t!” I cry out silently.
Chris snorts. “We can and will, Will.”
“No, I mean you can’t do that to the light! It’s not safe!”
“Oh please, Will, try a little harder, won’t you?” Chris asks, laughing. “You know that we never stop doing something just because someone tells us it’s dangerous.”
They don’t understand how unstable the light is. If they cut the wire, they could electrocute themselves and anyone working in the lighting booth. And I remember what Kristina said when I asked her why she wasn’t painting the sets with the other kids. She’s allergic to the chemicals in the paint when it’s not dry. This is not just about the show. This is about people’s lives.
Desperate, I lunge for the wire cutters. Josh steps back but drops the cutters. They crash through the thin plaster floor and fall to the stage. I wince, hoping that the actors keep going. Chris snickers, and I see the bag of feathers in his hand.
“Go away, Chris,” I say. My voice is low but no longer whispering.
“Fine,” Chris says. For a second, I’m stunned. “We’ll leave, and we won’t hurt your stupid show.”
I smile and start to walk toward him, thinking that maybe he has reconsidered and we can still be friends. I don’t see the open bucket of paint on the ground. I trip. My head clangs against one of the metal rafters, sending a shooting pain throughout my head. Paint splatters everywhere, especially on me. There’s a ringing in my ears, and I can’t hear the actors anymore, only Chris and Josh’s laugh as they sprinkle feathers on me. The last thing I see is them leaving through a small trapdoor in the floor, and the last thing I think is that at least I was able to save the show.
“What is the meaning of this?” I hear a voice shriek. Dazed, I open my eyes, which only increases the throbbing pain in my head. For a moment, I have trouble comprehending what I see.
Standing over me with a flashlight is Kristina, still in costume, the assistant stage manager girl that I had put in charge of the stage, and…Ms. Perez?
Not knowing what else to do, and with my head feeling as if it is going to burst open at any second, I laugh. I ignore the feeling of sticky, half-dried paint against my skin, and the fact that Ms. Perez looks like she wants to strangle me and then put me in detention. I laugh because Ms. Perez is safe, and the show is safe, and my old friends are safe too, although not for long. I tell them everything that happened, and soon the look on Ms. Perez’s face turns from anger to gratitude. At the end of my story, I ask, “But I thought you were in the hospital? I got the message that you were in ICU.”
“I was,” Ms. Perez replies. I notice that her voice is not quite as loud as it used to be. “But I was only there for one night. A few hours ago they released me from the hospital, and I decided to surprise you and see the show. I must say, I think those actors you saw in the Tiring House would be very proud of you, although the falling pliers did break the magic for a moment.”
“You know about the Tiring House?” I ask.
Ms. Perez nods. “Kristina was going to show it to me, and that’s when we found you.”
We all laugh this time. Then, Kristina says, “Come on, Will, I need you to do something.”
“Can’t I get cleaned up first?”
“No,” she replies, smiling. “In fact, you’re going to need that paint.” She leads me down the tunnel to the Tiring House, where I am met with applause from the cast members, although they look a little stunned at my appearance. Kristina gestures to a section of wall not covered in posters. I see the freshly painted names of the crew and cast members on the wall beneath the heading Rent 2012. “Come on, you’re the only one who needs to sign it,” Kristina says.
“This is stupid,” I say, shaking my head. But I do it anyways, because my friends ask me to. My real friends.
Years later, no one will know where Will is. He will be working in a small town in a small office. He will have a wife and children, and he won’t tell them about that night in the theatre. It was his shining moment, but now it is someone else’s turn to shine.
People at the high school will forget Will’s name. he will just be one more face in the school yearbook, one more name written on the inside cover of a textbook.
But the theatre department will still be thriving. Kids will beg to see the Tiring House on their first day of rehearsal. They will see all the pictures and names on the wall. They will not know who those people are, but they will care about them. They will put on shows that will almost rival that of the show Will and Kristina directed.
And sometimes a kid will see Will’s written on the wall, and they’ll remember a story that they’re parents mentioned a long time ago. A story about the day that a jerk became a hero, and made sure that the show went on.