Sightlines: A New Perspective

Article by Marie G. Cooney

I am very proud of the article that Marie Cooney has written.  She is a stage manager, writer, and stagehand with IATSE Local 13 in Minneapolis and has written a story outlining her battle with Traumatic Brain Injury and the strength and joy she has received through her art and profession in fighting and dealing with this handicap.  Her strength of spirit should be an example for us all. - Mike Wangen

I absolutely fell in love with theater as a college student at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Dr. Patricia Sankus didn’t choose the typical light-hearted musicals with large casts, that one might expect each spring. She chose challenging scripts, at a time I needed substance, not fluff. My senior year, I told her I wanted to work with her in any capacity. Without any acting experience and the desire to learn as much as possible, she said, “Be my stage manager.” Without even knowlng what that could be, I jumped at the opportunity. I never imagined how much that experience would change my whole life.

During the final dress rehearsal, I said to my friend, Paul, “Remind me to call home.” One thing led to another and another. I zipped right through “Warning. Places in 5 minutes,” to “Top of the show,” through intermission scene changes to “Top of Act II,” and all the way to the final curtain. I was in heaven! Around midnight, Paul said, “Damn. I forgot to remind you to call home.” As soon as I said, “It’s too late,” I had a sinking feeling in my chest. “Actors get butterflies, not stage managers!” Paul teased me. “Well if this damn elephant doesn’t leave after this weekend, I’m going to get it checked out,” I said. The next morning I learned my father had died of a heart attack.

My best friend, Michelle, drove me to Logan Airport to pick up my older sister, and then she drove us home. “Please go see the show,” I begged her. I later learned she was given seats at front and center, those reserved for the director’s special guests. In the midst of unbearable sorrow, that one gesture made me happy. A week before my college graduation, my Dad was buried.

Carol, who would later marry Paul, called the show, totally in the blind, from my stage manager’s book. In 1983, I graduated with a BA in Education, as did many of my friends. However, I remember saying that I wanted to be working in theater within three years of legitimizing my degree in education. I taught at Hudson Catholic for a few years, and then I started freelancing in theater!

In 1996, while I was working a Larkins dance recital at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, one of the younger dancers dropped a bow or a costume piece of some sort. I told Cindy, the stage manager, that I had an eye on the piece and to hold the blackout. As I snatched up the piece from the floor, the senior boys took the stage. Apparently, as I began to stand up, the boys began to spin to the music. Then, “Bang!” I was thrown into another world in one split second.

“Dad?” I asked in total confusion. Bright lights. Extremely bright lights!  Painfully, bright lights! Severe headache. “I’m sorry,” my Dad communicated to me without words. “Me too,” I mutely responded. He reached out. “No. My play, my play…” I drew back from his outreached hand. One of my plays was being produced the next morning. As much I missed my Dad, I couldn’t go with him. I had to come back. Later I learned I had sustained a Closed Head Injury. I waited for years before telling anyone about this encounter.

Almost ten years later, I had another life- threatening injury. I flew off the stage, while working as a member of IATSE Local 13, at a Carlos Santana concert. This time it was, “Splat!” I landed head first on the cement floor of the Xcel Energy Center. I don’t remember much of anything. I had been working with Collette. Apparently, Melissa rushed to my aid to slow the severe bleeding from my head. Numerous stagehands called 911. Matt was the first to get through, and an ambulance arrived within minutes. Many of my co-workers thought I was dead. But then I had a grand mal seizure. I woke to the angelic vision of Sherri, wondering what she was doing in the hospital. “No honey, it’s not me, it’s you,” she explained. “I need the keys to your apartment to take care of Tucker.” I had sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

The theater, which was a world that once inspired me, had become a world that overwhelms me. My brain could not quickly process lighting changes, differentiate between foreground and background noises, adapt between hot and cold temperatures, or handle overwhelming scents. The first six years after the TBI, any time I attempted to go to the theater, I became extremely sick. I begged friends to stay through the end of the show, so I could live through their experiences.

 

Now, I can return to some shows, because of compensatory strategies, which I have learned over many years. Wear dark glasses and a visor. Bring earplugs. Carry a black sleeping mask in case of strobe or strobe-like lighting effects. Ask friends about gunshots, pyro, or other troubling scents. Ask stagehands, stage managers, actors, directors and designers about how show might or might not affect me. All these friends have given me my life and love of theater back again.

Sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury has also given me a new perspective on what it means to broaden the notion of accessibility. It’s important to have American Sign Language translators, audio-describers, accessible seating for people in wheel chairs, allow service animal, give tickets to personal aids, and more.  I, myself, am very grateful to anyone or any theater reaching out to audience members with neurological illnesses, disabilities, and challenges. Thank you!

I hope the world of sports follows suit and stops using strobe lights to simulate the excitement of endless camera flashes.