I took a drama class in college. It was fun, we studied famous plays; we practiced dialogue, we performed scenes; then we did some really goofy stuff like pretend to be different types of animals; and learn how to say, “I love you” or “I hate you” using only the word “rhubarb.” One day the professor asked us if we’d like to be supernumeraries in The Metropolitan Opera of New York City when it came to Atlanta.
Supernumerary is just a fancy term for “extra,” and my prof pitched it as a way to get to see an expensive sold-out opera, up close and personal, while getting paid to do it. I didn’t see any downside, and signed up right away for 3 of them.
My first super role was for Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. On the night of the opera, I arrived by a backstage door. I was hustled into a dressing room with all the other supers where we were quickly given costumes. After dressing, we were moved as a group onto the stage where played a crowd of people. I recollect that I participated in 3 scenes with a costume change between each. It was the last one that has remained burned into my memory.
Back in the dressing room, we were given soldier uniforms. It included a shiny metal medieval breastplate, a leather-strap battle skirt, metal shield, spear, and a pointy Norman-style helmet with nose plate. We dressed quickly while several people pushed us to “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” I was the last to receive a helmet, and it was too large. I told the costumer, who said, “That’s the last one; it will have to do.” I replied, “Perhaps I could swap with someone.” Her response, “There’s no time, you’ve got to get on stage now!” And, off I marched in a column of 15 to 20 other supers.
We were taken to the top of a very tall stage set, and told to march back and forth. The top of the set was a very narrow walkway. Below us, toward the audience, were several levels that tiered down to the main stage. Below us, to the back, was nothing, just a sheer drop of 40 to 50 feet down to a concrete floor behind the set. Ordinarily, I was not afraid of heights, but my helmet kept sliding down over my eyes and I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see where to put my foot, and several times I felt it on the edge. There was no rail — there was nothing to keep me from falling off. With a spear in one hand and a shield in the other, I could not reach up and tilt back the helmet, so I would jerk my head with just enough force to make the helmet move back enough for me to see. That would last just a few steps, then I’d have to do it again. We’d march to one end of the stage, do an about-face, and march back to the other end. A dancer in the opera troupe was dressed as our ranking officer and marched beside us one tier down.
Meanwhile, I was sweating under the helmet, and the wetter my hair got, the more slippery it got, and the less it would hold back the helmet out of my eyes. It got to the point where I had to shake my head back with each step in order to see. I wondered if I looked like an idiot to the audience — the one soldier whose head was constantly bobbing forward and back. Then my foot went a little further over the edge than usual. I didn’t almost fall, but the feeling of nothingness under my foot freaked me out. Before my next step, I thrust my head back a little harder than I had been.
And that’s when it happened.
That was when I wanted to die, because my helmet when flying off my head and down behind the stage. If it had only fallen onto some canvas, a folded curtain, or a pile of clothing, it would not have been so bad. But it hit the concrete below with a very loud CLANG, and then it bounced, and bounced, and bounced again with several more CLANG, CLANG, CLANGs.
I was mortified.
I froze in place, halting the line marching behind me, and stared stupidly out at the completely full auditorium — every eye in the theater was on me — the only soldier without a helmet. Me, the guilty party who interrupted the famous New York Metropolitan Opera.
Our attending officer dashed across the set and started stage whispering to me, “Keep marching. Everything is okay. Look straight ahead; don’t look at the audience. Keep marching. Keep marching.” I followed his instructions, and gradually calmed down. At least now I could see, and could stop worrying about misstepping and falling over the side.
That was my last scene, and after we changed back into our street clothes, we were able to watch the rest of the show from the wings. I was told that we would have a chance to chat with the stars afterward, but I was too embarrassed to do so. I guiltily accepting my wages for the night, then slipped out into the darkness, where I could hide my shame.
What lessons did I learn from this?
• Keep moving forward, don’t let mistakes keep you from achieving your goals.
• Take one step at a time – just the next step – live in moment, and don’t worry about the future.
• Time heals even the greatest of embarrassments, which later on become great stories.
• And, finally, when they are passing out costumes, do whatever you must, but get to the front of the line!