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LJ Idol week 1 "empty gestures"

Several years ago I worked on a production of the musical Ragtime. The show is huge; our production had a cast of 28, and a crew of at least that many.  With a show that big I was always a step, or several, behind. While organizing something that complex is fun, it’s also exhausting and made me cranky much of the time. Very few things could make me smile with any regularity during that process.


One of the songs in Act II is titled “What a Game”. Father, who is very upper class, decides to bring his son to a baseball game as a way to avoid having a more serious talk with him about race relations. It all begins much as Father expects it to; a gentlemanly afternoon of sport.


UMPIRE Play ball!

GIANTS FANS Ain’t this the kind of weather

BRAVES FANS For smackin’ leather,

ALL For playin’ baseball


But then the experience takes a turn in a somewhat coarser direction.


FAN #1 Let’s go, you sons o’bitches!

FAN #2 Let’s see some pitches!

ALL Let’s play some baseball

BRAVES FANS The Giants haven’t got a prayer

GIANTS FANS Aah, yer underwear!

BRAVES FANS Up yer alley!

ALL Go back to where yer mother once came!


At this point in the song there is a stage direction that reads ‘rude gestures’. However, it was written in the score with markings on the staff that seemed to indicate it should be spoken rhythmically. So once the cast had learned the basic harmony in the song, that’s what they did every time we practiced the number.


ALL Go back to where yer mother once came! Rude Ges-tures!


This, of course, was accompanied by all the rude gestures they could think of. It was a lot of fun.  Depending on the intricacy of the gestures, it always made me smile, if not laugh out loud. I was grateful for the silliness in the middle of an otherwise stressful show.


Once we got onstage though, things changed.  We had to get ready for our first audience, and that meant no more chanting ‘Rude Ges-tures!’  Since our director didn’t want to offend the audience any more than necessary, it also meant the cast needed to tone down the physical gestures. So we ended up with a lot of fist shaking and hat waving. One person even adopted the very Shakespearean biting of his thumb. The song was still fun, and audiences loved it, but it lost a bit of spark without the shouted ‘Rude Ges-tures!’ and the cast’s inventive ways of giving each other the finger. The silly joy was missing and the song became just another piece of a large and intricate show.


For the crew though, as we continued to deal with the complexities of the show during the run, that silliness would never go away completely.  We adopted the ‘Rude Ges-tures!’ and all whispered it at the right time, along with whatever gesture people could come up with.  Of course those gestures started to be as rude as possible and have nothing whatsoever to do with the scene onstage, unless miming motorboating a woman’s breasts has some baseball significance I missed.  The joy of ‘Rude Ges-tures!’ was still alive for us.  But the audience missed out.



@@@This is my entry for week 1 of LJ Idol - the topic is “empty gestures”.  I'll post a link to the poll once it is up, probably next Wednesday.  Thank you for reading.@@@

Yes, yes it was. I'm not sure how proud of that you should be though. heh.

This is adorable! I am sorry that they felt as if that was offensive to the audience because I think it would have been great to see!

It was certainly more fun, and probably more accurate, when the gestures were a lot ruder. I don't know how many baseball fans bite their thumbs at the opposing team.

This just goes to show you how rough tech was on us back there. I was already intimately familiar with the show and have absolutely no recollection of any of that.

Thanks for the giggle. I still owe you lemon blueberry muffins.

Heh. Yeah it is amazing how focused you end up on a big show, knowing your piece of it intimately but necessarily knowing how the show feels 10' away from you. Looking up the lyrics for that song was interesting, I've been humming songs from Ragtime for a day and a half now.

I'm glad this was giggle-worthy.

Isn't it funny, with all the attention focused on performing for the audience, how much the real life of the theater is in the moments when the audience isn't looking.

Thanks for this. I enjoyed it.

It's part of the reason when people ask me if they should see a show I'm working on my answer is sometimes "I don't know". My experience of a show is so different from being an audience member on that same show that it's hard to relate sometimes.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Someone isn't watching you the whole time when you're stage managing. You still are responsible for a lot (I said go 756 times per performance of Ragtime, someone counted) but it's easier to slide silliness in.

I love this inside look at theatre production, since I love attending plays but don't know much about what goes on behind the scenes. Great piece!

I'm glad you liked it. Yeah being backstage, or in the booth, can be an entirely different experience compared to being in the audience. Mind you, that's not always a good thing.

Haha, that sounds like fun. I've always wondered what it would be like to be in a big theatrical production. Always funny stories coming out of them.

I think the funny stories get retold to block out the craziness and insane work load that actually happens at the time. Though the bigger the show, the more random silliness it tends to attract.

Aww, thank you! I like your leaning kitty.

How fun...makes me wish I stuck with theater...:)

Thanks! Really I think we get sillier in proportion to how complex the show is, so the more work the more jokes. It's a good defense mechanism.

I can see how that could have been offensive, but glad you were able to make a turn-around, and take it differently to avoid issues.

Great stance on the topic!


I do get why the cast had to tone things down, but I'm betting the audience wouldn't have been as offended as the director thought.

i didn't work that show.

No you didn't, but I'm sure you've heard enough of the stories to feel like you might as well have.

I loved reading that so much! Rehearsals are always so much fun and it does seem that the audience miss out on a lot of that fun when suddenly you have to make everything "perfect".

Yay, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It amuses me that sometimes the accidents that happen in rehearsal are actually slightly more fun than the play the way it is intended to be.

That's a great story! I love this take on empty gestures. :D

Thank you so much. Honestly I read gesture and this story immediately came to mind.

It's always so strange when you're working on a production with potentially offensive scenes and the director decides it's more important to pacify the audience than it is for the story to have power. I always found myself wondering, in those moments, why not just choose a "G-rated" production in the first place, if that's how you're gonna roll.

Still, I can totally relate to carrying on with the ridiculousness backstage. Those kind of moments are some of my favorite memories of my time in theater.

Yeah, our artistic director tones things down too far sometimes, I think. But then, he has a really good feel for what our audiences want, and we've been slowly leading them to more unusual plays so it seems to work.

Years after a production it's usually the stupid backstage jokes that I remember more than the show itself.

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It has occurred to me that we could probably sell tickets to rehearsals and let people in on the crazy. Of course, once we did that than rehearsals would have to become more professional too - so it's not worth it.

Thanks for your kind words.