The Observer

Breaking a Leg

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By JOSEPH HARRIS
Published: April 24, 2012
Excerpt from Performing & Telling Your Life

The lights come up. The stage is set. The microphones are hot. The pimply-faced techies are waiting for cues. I had a simple direction: cross stage left, hit my mark, wait for my next scene. I knew this very well. My legs, however, were given different intel. I took one step into the dew-dashed grass and I felt a sensation of numbness that I have only felt once before. Next thing I know, I’m face down in the grass grunting expletive upon expletive directly in range of the stage-mic. And the audience was doubled over in laughter. As I gathered, they had all thought that my ungainly fall was a part of the show. A creative decision to cast a spritely Theseus bumbling over his own shoes, relying on the classic physical comedy stand-by that is the fat man falling, haphazardly injecting humor to a particularly blasé scene. I paused for a minute to assess my situation; reading each of my fellow actors’ flabbergasted expressions of confusion, I raised my meager head to the nearest microphone and weakly growled, “Is there a doctor in the house?”  Then they laughed harder. The audience, of course, largely consisted of aging East Village avant-garde’ers, so I assume they were pleased to hear such a vaudevillian phrase from a grimacing thirteen year old.  It took far more assuring than it should have to convince them that I was in fact injured, and as it would happen, I discovered that there was actually a doctor in the audience. Technically he was pediatrician, and hadn’t been in practice since the early nineties, but he would have to do. After poking and prodding at my leg, he deduced that I had a laterally dislocated patella. For anyone who didn’t complete their residency at John Hopkins, my right kneecap was a fair few notches out of place. What, I didn’t even know that could happen. A knee needs a cap to make it whimsically knobby and able to lift the entire being of a person. What would do without my cap? I threw my head back when he attempted to relocate it, primarily because now my mind and especially my body were very much aware that something was not where it should be, and we were both freaking out. Furthermore, my guardian angel with a license to distribute lollies was in no way showing the delicacy that should accompany working with kids.  He was treating his reassignment mission as if he were trying to secure large cargo with a bungee cord that’s a size too small. But in a flurry of mind-splitting pain, a moment of relief descended upon me when my cap was at last home safe. It was definitely better, though any pressure on my leg felt like Thor was shaving it with his hammer. I could be worked around in this scene, but later on I knew I would be needed. Then I see my director speed-walking towards me. She puts an ice pack on my knee, shoves two Advil in my hand, and crouches down to look me in the eyes.  She looked directly into the windows of my soul and said, “Joe. What the hell just happened? What can I do? I’m sorry, I’m really drunk.” I saw a fear in her eyes. And I have never seen fear on her. This was her directorial debut, a former participant in the very same theatre group when it first began. It was also a sort of introduction to me as well. I was a part of the group last year, but at that time I was just the little brother of the stars. This was going to be my year to bring down the house. And instead, I became Dr. House. All she could offer me was a prop cane that looked like it came straight from under the arm of Tiny Tim. I relished the opportunity to play a gimped character, unintentionally method acting a man with severe leg pain. The house lights flashed to signal the end of intermission and the start of act two. I swallowed three more Tylenol and took my place backstage. The lights come up and I hobble on stage, wearing that awkward face that comes with preparing to speak, but my words fall flat against a wall of cheering. The audience is on their feet, clapping, screaming, and woo-hooing with such enthusiasm that I temporarily feared that they would storm the stage. They were cheering for me, or rather my resilient pain tolerance. I hadn’t told anyone I was going to continue with the show, so there was genuine surprise in the audience to see the sharp dressed teenager last seen writhing in pain, testing out every swear word in several languages. That very same baby-faced thespian was now hobbling onto stage with a crutch that was literally made out of a stick. This was spectacularly insane. In my mind, I was just doing what felt right to me. I was in some pain, but I’d rather not have a leg than not have a good show. And then it hit me. I wasn’t just the little brother anymore. I had a legacy now. From that point on, I was that one guy who broke his leg or something that one time. It’s an honor just to be nominated. Suffice it to say, I acted the hell out of that “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Also, the amount of jokes about or variations on the old theatre cliché, “Break a Leg,” makes me nauseous to think about.

 

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