• Jeffrey Nytch

An Opening Night to Remember

Since my beloved Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble's summer season was cancelled this year, we decided to ask members of the PNME family to share memories from past seasons. Since tonight would have been our opening night this year, I thought I'd share my recollection of an opening night I'll never forget.

While leaders of small organizations often talk of the “blood, sweat, and tears” required to present their work and reach their audience, the phrase is usually understood in metaphorical terms.

Not so much at PNME.

I recall the time a member of the company twisted her ankle and could hardly walk. The time Kevin did some sort of thing with his leg at City Theatre (I don’t remember the details of it, I just remember it was rather grisly). Our dancer pushing through the pain of plantar fasciitis and performing anyway (after all: the show must go on). But I think I can safely say that I have the dubious distinction of having the most extreme example.

It was opening night of 2006, which featured the world premiere of Drunken Moon, the brilliant piece combining Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal masterpiece, Pierrot Lunaire, with a “prequel” of sorts. The central character of the Schoenberg descends into madness, but it begs the question: how did she get there? What was her story? How could we create a new work that would help us understand the emotional journey of the character, such that a classic piece of the repertoire famously known for its inscrutability might be understood?

The work used new music by long-time PNME composer Kieren MacMillan, collaborating with Kevin Noe to create a new dramatic concept for the combined works, the staging of which would result in what was essentially a one act opera. I had a non-musical role, a sort of avatar for one of the characters; though I never uttered a word, my presence and actions on stage were central to conveying the narrative we were attempting to present. (At PNME we have always thrived on multi-tasking.)

Then came the afternoon of opening night. If I recall correctly it was around 3:00pm or so on a Friday, and I was in the lobby of City Theatre getting ready for the show. This involved setting up tables, putting out programs and signage, and hanging a large vinyl banner at the foot of the stairs leading up to the theater. As I had done every weekend for the previous two seasons, I fetched a step ladder and positioned it under the first of two nails discretely left in the doorframe 10 feet above. The left grommet of the banner was hung without incident. The righthand one…

You see, as was often the case during those years, I was in a hurry. I had to finish getting the lobby ready, race downtown to do our weekly Live radio for WQED’s Drive Time afternoon broadcast, and get back to the theater to prepare for the show. So after attaching the left side of the banner I scrambled down the ladder and quickly dragged it over to the next spot. And as I did so, the legs of the step ladder closed up slightly, making it unstable. In my rush, though, I wasn’t paying attention. I raced up the ladder and as I got to the top, physics took over and the ladder went out from under me: it fell forward, I fell backward.

You’ve probably heard people talk about experiencing traumatic events in slow motion. It’s true. I’ve experienced it twice: once in a car wreck and once again as I fell those 8 feet to the floor. I remember looking at the floor and thinking “Don’t put your hand out to break your fall! Tuck and Roll!” So I tucked my arm under me and rolled to I would land on my side and not on my back.

Whether or not this prevented a worse injury I’ll never know, but I think there was a flaw in my plan: my right wrist was the first thing that hit the floor, and my full body weight was on top of that collision. I felt a distinct snap.

It’s funny, too, the things that go through one’s brain in these moments. You observe the oddest things, while also having an extraordinary clarity of thought regarding what you should do. As I lay there on the ground I looked down at my wrist: while the bone hadn’t broken the skin, my arm was clearly misshapen. And I had an almost uncontrollable urge to pop it back into place. Instinctively, I knew what I needed to do to reset the bone. (This was later confirmed when the doctor did exactly what I’d had sensed I should do – an act preceded by words you never want to hear a doctor utter: “This is going to hurt.”)

The other thing I remember about that moment was that after I told myself I should not try to set my own bone I looked up at the stairs. There was the ladder closed up on the stairs, and next to it on one of the steps were the leather flip flops I’d been wearing. They had flown off my feet as the ladder and I parted ways, and they had landed neatly side by side, as if they’d been carefully placed there. I thought to myself, “Wow. What are the chances of that?”

Just then folks came running. I don’t imagine that those last two paragraphs took more than a few seconds to transpire, but in my perception it was an eternity. An ambulance was called, my assistant, Danielle, came with me to the hospital. As luck would have it, the orthopedic surgeon on call that day was the orthopedic surgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers (a man who bore a striking similarity, in both looks and voice, to Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons”). I was in good hands.

Meanwhile, what about opening night?? Yes, “the show must go on,” but I was in no shape to fulfill my role on stage: I would be put in a temporary cast, pumped up with glorious drugs to the point of incoherence to get me through the weekend, and on Monday I would go into surgery for a proper setting that included a fistful of pins (I had really done a number on it). So what would we do?

Here’s where we get to one of the many instances of creative problem-solving that has characterized PNME for the last 20 years. Kevin and Kieren sat down and, in the space of a few hours, revised the show such that my avatar was no longer necessary. Keep in mind: this work had been under development for months, with each detail of the staging carefully considered to deliver a particular outcome. It was not something one could just casually rework 2 hours before the curtain. But that was what was required, so they did it.

While there’s much more to tell about my recovery (including perhaps my all-time favorite PNME memory of how I did manage to perform the next week, as well as more stories with “Dr. Burns”), the thing I most want to share about this story is how the team handled it. With just a few hours to do so, a show that had been carefully designed and rehearsed had to be reworked. Blocking had to be changed, lighting adjusted, the very narrative thread modified and reconceptualized. Danielle had to get back to City Theatre and cover my duties in the lobby before and after the performance. And they did it: nobody in the audience would have ever suspected that there was anything amiss whatsoever. That is of course the mark of the sort of professionals who make up the PNME team. But it’s also a great illustration of something essential to the PNME spirit, where commitment to the art is the driving motivation for everything, and where no single member is indispensable. It is a team effort, and it has always been a team I’m proud to be a part of.

Let’s hope that’s the last time I have to break a bone, however.

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