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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

More Memories from PNME Summers Past

Last week I wrote about a PNME opening night to remember in which I fell off a ladder in the City Theatre lobby and shattered my wrist. (If you missed it you can check it out here.) While the opening show was able to be revised to no longer require my role, Week Two of that season was not so easily modified. The show was to feature five semi-improvised vocal pieces written and sung by me. These were short “vocalese” – sung pieces with no words, just vowels and other sounds – and each one was a transition between larger works. They were the glue holding the entire show together.

As I was preparing to go into surgery for my wrist on Monday, I spoke with the anesthesiologist: if I were to be intubated for the surgery my throat would be in no shape to sing for a week or so. “I’m a singer, and I have to perform this coming weekend. Are there options other than intubation for my anesthesia?”

“Sure,” he replied. “We’ll use a nerve block for your arm and then just give you a light sedative to knock you out. No problem.”

(A nerve block, by the way, was the most bizarre experience in the story of my wrist – and that story is a saga with a lot of bizarre moments. But it worked!)

So now that I was going to be able to sing without having to recover from an intubation, only one question remained: Where in the hall would I be positioned to deliver my transitions? You see, Artistic Director Kevin Noe had envisioned me singing from a very specific spot in the theatre: thirty feet above the stage in the light grid (not much more than a series of very large beams that hold up the roof of the building). I was to be a sort of disembodied voice wafting down from the heavens.

But how the heck was I to get up there now, given my injury? The only access was a completely vertical metal ladder accessible from the lighting booth in the rear of the theatre. Setting aside for a moment that I’d had enough of ladders for a while, it was simply not possible for me to climb it: I was sporting a bunch of pins that rendered my right hand completely useless. Try to picture climbing the pipe-like rungs of a metal ladder with just one hand and you get the problem: even if you could hoist yourself up to the next rung with your good hand, at some point you would have let go of that hand to advance up the ladder: for a moment, you would be floating without support. And I would not attempt such a thing even if I weren’t injured!

So we tried every option: perhaps I could sing from offstage? The tech booth? The upstairs lobby? The green room??? Every location had its problems, and none was satisfactory. We kept coming back to the inescapable truth: the only musical/artistic solution was to figure out how to get me up into the rafters. But that was of course impossible. As the Friday show got closer and closer, we were at an impasse.

Then Kevin had an idea.

“Look,” he said. “We’ve tried everything we can think of, and none of them work. So I have an idea to get you safely up into the grid.”

“Are you crazy? There’s no way I can get up there!”

“Can we at least try? I think I’ve worked it out so that you’d be completely safe.”

I looked at him skeptically. And if it had been anyone else I’d have never even considered it. But I’d learned something about Kevin in the (then) 15+ years I’d known him: he would never suggest something if he weren’t sure about it, and that if something went wrong he’d put himself in harm’s way before letting anything happen to me. And at that time in my life, he was literally the only person on the planet I could have said that about. (Now that list has doubled to include my husband.)

“Alight,” I said cautiously. “What do you have in mind?”

Kevin then proceeded to outline his plan: I would get myself positioned on the first rung of the ladder and then he would be directly behind me, holding on to the rails with both hands. I would pull myself up by my left hand and hop up to the next rung, and when I needed to let go to reach up my left hand to climb another rung I would rest all of my weight on him.

I wasn’t convinced.

“Let’s just try it,” he said. “I promise you I won’t let you fall.”

I let out a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s go.”

We went up to the lighting booth and stood at the foot of the ladder, stretching up into the darkness of the grid above. I had one last moment of trepidation, which I answered by reminding myself that if Kevin said he wouldn’t let me fall, he would not let me fall.

So we started. Grip…hop…and then the moment of truth: I let go. I could feel Kevin’s body behind me, solid and secure, cradling me while I reached for the next rung. One rung down! Grip…hop…let go…breathe. Grip…hop…let go…breathe. Rung by rung, we worked our way up the ladder.

About 10 minutes later, we were up. The first few times I grabbed as quickly as I could, but as I trusted Kevin more and more I took a moment to make sure I placed my left hand carefully and had a good grip. By the time we’d practiced it a few times we got into a steady rhythm.

Going down wasn’t quite as “easy.” Kevin had to position himself first and then I had to lower myself off the platform, find my footing, and once again give my weight to Kevin without knocking him loose and sending us both plummeting down to the light booth. But we managed it, and by the time the performance rolled around we had gotten positively efficient with our process. We would get me up into the grid before the show started and bring me down when it was over, and I was able to deliver my interludes from up in the ether.

When I went home after that first trial run and I informed my future husband what we were doing he was NOT amused. “You can NOT do this. It’s insane!”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “This is Kevin. He won’t let me fall.”

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