I love a good practical joke, and it is that shared sense of cameraderie and physical humour which has always drawn me to working backstage and in related environments.
It is especially easy to get up to mischief when you have creative skills or the access to them. Very light things can be made to look identical to very heavy things, for example. One theatre I worked in has a polystyrene stage weight which – from a distance – is indistinguishable from the real thing. I had been there for a while before I saw it used, when the technical manager carried it level with the genuine weight in his other hand. He lowered and gently dropped the real one, then looked up and casually tossed the fake to the visiting production manager. I still remember the latter’s reaction, and am laughing at the recollection.
When I was studying, the lead carpenter convinced the designer that she should step inside the coffin they had built. He even managed to explain away the reason for placing the lid on top, and by the time the other guys had begun screwing it in position it was too late for her to do anything but accept the fact.
Those are my favourite jokes, the daft ones that involve everyone. No victimisation, no malice, just inclusive good fun. Today it is you dribbling juice on yourself because somebody pierced a hole near the top of your soda bottle. Tomorrow it is me trying to retrieve my hooded top, from its position tied to a flying bar stationed eight-feet above a freshly-painted stage floor.
The very best jokes, though, are the ones that are set up months or perhaps years in advance. Sometimes you do not even see the pay-off, but if someone else does then it is all worthwhile. I know of a theatre workshop which houses five identical adjustable spanners, one of which is plastic and came from a childrens play set. Its handle is taped and spraypainted in line with the real articles, and it was to my delight that I once witnessed a visiting crew member rush in and grab the kid-on one. A rare occurrence, but they keep it there just for that chance moment and I love that.
I consider myself pretty canny, not least because my keen wit means I instigate at least as many japes as I am party to. It is still possible to catch me out though. Recently, during a day working in the Care Home set of a local soap opera, my colleague (a permanent staff member there) asked me to open the door at one end of the room. I was suspicious – his ruse was not completely believable – but I was willing to play along. When I pulled the door handle I discovered that it, and the frame into which it was built, was a standalone unit. It is just a door in a frame, which can be positioned against any blank wall to give the illusion of further access points. “I love getting people with that,” he told me.
My birthday is in September, and one of my closest friends now lives next door to me. When I returned from running an errand on the day, I found that she had been busy in my absence. The dying bunch of flowers which had been destined for her bin were instead seconded and used as decoration. They joined a scribbled note which proclaimed “oontz” once in lipstick and ten more times in ink. When I walked into our close, the first thing I had noticed was the candle lightbulb on the floor. She had added it because it looked “industrial” (the type of music that we met through the love of), but its weight had defeated the sellotape used to attach it. I laughed hard at her efforts, and appreciate them more than she maybe knows.
Within a week, I had decided how to get her back. I hit upon something simple, easy, and guaranteed to entertain her – all I had to do was wait until Christmas. For three long months I held on, not daring to share my plan with anybody in case word got back to her. If you know me at all, you know that I can be trusted to keep your most precious secret safe for eternity. However, I find it very difficult not to share jokes, laughter, funny stories, or any other form or source of wit. I can be the worst conspirator, as I find it hard to keep a straight face at times – especially in the final build-up.
Weeks and months passed, during which I hinted that her door would be attacked at Christmas time. I knew that she would never expect what I had in mind, and I bluffed by attaching a tacky foil wreath to her door while she was out one day. Finally, after the longest time, I was able to enact my plan. I took the necessary measurements, prepared everything, then quietly set to work. On the morning of the 25th of December, the entrance to her flat looked like this:
Sadly, she did not respond to my knocks. I had to carefully peel up the bottom right corner, chap, and then quickly tape it back down before she answered. She did not answer, and I had to leave before she eventually emerged. I had wanted to capture her reaction on video, but I would not have seen it anyway, hidden behind a wall of paper – paper that she had already described as “the gayest” (she was with me in the shop when I bought it, haha. There is unsuspecting for you.)
Today, late on Boxing Day, I finally saw her. She said that it took her by surprise, as she only saw it as she was running out the door. She told me that she burst through it by punching her way out of it, which I regret not seeing. Like I noted above, though, my favourite jokes are the ones which take time to set up and which work whether they are seen by others or not.
I am certain that, upon posting this, I will remember other examples from my eighteen years in and around the industry. It is hard not to love a job, or hobby, which allows you such a degree of fun in the breaks while you are otherwise conducting yourself professionally. Just do it, lighten your co-workers’ life. Or your friend’s, or anybody else’s. Smile and the world smiles with you. It does not take much to brighten your day.