Crying "Fire" in a Crowded Theatre (Things I Have Done)

I have, in my life, cleared out two buildings that were (kind of) on fire.  The first one was at a production of Hello, Dolly!, the second was a local Wal-Mart.  I nearly cleared out the local mall, once, when the fire alarm was going off, except that security actually seemed to have it under control.

This is the story of how I cleared out a theatre when the fire alarm went off.

In the Spring of 2007, I was prepping for the summer Shakespeare production of Much Ado About Nothing.  As a consequence, my face had become somewhat recognizable in local high schools where I had been recruiting for our second year of theatre for adolescents and young adults.

What this meant was that I was going to see an inordinate number of productions - good, bad, and indifferent - after which I was expected to give some sort of review - always good.  So when the opportunity presented itself to see Hello, Dolly! at a local high school where I was not known (or, at least, only known to the director, whom I could avoid), I took it.

The production was typical high school production level.  The singing was good, the costumes were rented, the energy was so-so.  It wasn't the greatest theatre I'd ever seen, but neither was it the worst.  However, what was great was the ability to think whatever thoughts I wanted and know I'd never need to verbalize them to the cast and crew.

You can see where this is going.

Now, because I'd bought my tickets at the door, I actually ended up sitting in the very front row, in the very central seat.  This is a tricky place to sit because the actors can and do see you.  My sister and I sat front row center when we saw The Importance of Being Earnest in Dublin, Ireland, and I swear our intent gazes threw off Lady Bracknell by a lot.  Being cognizant of my precarious position, then, and wishing to retain my anonymity, I made sure to school my face at Hello, Dolly!  If I was unimpressed with a song, I merely thought it...but I didn't show it.  If I liked a scene, I smiled politely, but I didn't applaud enthusiastically.

Dolly Levi from our production of "The Matchmaker"
(Thornton Wilder's original play, basis for "Hello, Dolly!")
Spring 2007
I wanted to remain unseen.

Then, suddenly, in the middle of the Harmonia Gardens scene - moments before they were about to break into the title song...

The fire alarm went off.

I should probably mention, now, that this show was taking place in central-eastern Massachusetts.  We're very...polite...people here.  Kind of uptight British-y, in that we "don't want to cause you any trouble."  And so, like good little Massachusetts citizens that we are...

We all sat there.  While the fire alarm went off.  And the actors continued acting.  We.  All.  Sat.  There.

This continued on for a good few minutes.  There was a little polite squirming, as if to say: "Oh dear.  Isn't anyone going to deal with this?"  Hesitant looks at the doors to see if someone was coming to tell us to go, or gauging whether we'd be noticed if just one or two of us slipped off - not to disturb the show or anything, God forbid - but just in know...just in case there's a, well, a fire?

Still, we sat there.

"Someone must know more than we," we all thought.  "The actors don't seem bothered.  They're continuing on.  Perhaps there's just a glitch in the system.  Perhaps it's been going off all week and we should just ignore it."  And so on and so on.

And still, we sat there.

As I said two, three minutes passed in this fashion; an eternity.  When a little old man came out from the stage right curtain, down the front stairs, and started walking hesitantly across to the orchestra in the corner.  As he passed by me, I grabbed onto his sleeve and whispered:

"Excuse me?  Is this real?  Is there a fire?  Are we supposed to go?"

He nodded, and put his finger on his lips, and continued toddling across to the orchestra, seemingly with the intent of perhaps quietly and with a minimum of fuss letting every individual know that, if they didn't mind, they might want to consider leaving the theatre, since it was, in fact, on fire.

This wouldn't do.  Now, at that time, I was the Theology Chair at the local Catholic High School and had been working in the school system for a good six years.  You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can't take the teacher out of the fire drill.

I stood up just as Dolly appeared to sing her big number.  I stood up in front of the actors and the audience, turned around with my arms outspread, and called out in my biggest theatrical and teachery voice:


Everyone grabbed their stuff and left.  The actors streamed off the stage, leaving their props behind them.  Mothers and fathers and siblings dragged along to the show all grabbed their coats and streamed out of the theatre.  The little old man looked at me with something like affront, but I didn't care, I was making sure all the actors were off the stage and we were all getting out of the building.

So much for anonymity.

Ambrose Kemper knows the best way to get his girl
Is to throw her over his shoulder!
From our Matchmaker, Sping 2007
However, when I got to the doors of the building, everyone had clumped into a bottleneck.  Now that the first people to leave were safe, they didn't feel like moving out into the cold winter air.  (To their credit, there were snowbanks a good twelve feet high from all the accumulation that year.)  However, there were still people backed up down the hall and into the theatre.

"Don't do it, Emily," I tried to tell myself, even as the fire alarm continued to go off and we all stayed inside.  "You're not the principal here; you're not even a teacher here.  You don't have a kid here.  You don't even love this production all that much.  Surely, surely, there are local firefighters in the audience, or people who work in the superintendent's office, PTA presidents, bossy mothers...somebody who will deal with this."

No one spoke up.

And the fire alarm continued to go off.

I couldn't help myself.  I raised my voice (I've got a voice that's built for the Alps) and shouted: "C'mon people!  We know what to do!  Evacuate the building, ladies and gentlemen!  Get out of the building!  Keep going!  C'mon!  You and you!  I see you!  Stop standing at the door!  GET. OUT. OF. THE. DOOR.  People coming through!  Keep moving!  Keep moving!  Keep moving!"

We finally started getting out of the building and to the parking lot.

I tried.  I really, really tried.  There must have been the family of local police officials, dispatchers...good God!  Wasn't there one single teacher at that performance?  Certainly there was the directors, the stage manager...the students should at least know what to do at a fire drill, right?  Right?  But, nope.  Everyone was out of the door, and huddled up against the building.

And the fire alarm continued to go off.

I took a deep breath.  I didn't know where they were supposed to go in times of a drill.  But against the burning building probably wasn't the best idea.  I raised my voice again:

"C'mon people!  We know what to do!  Get away from the building!  MOVE. TO. THE. SNOWBANKS!  No, no, no!  Not back into the building!  I can see you!  Move away to the snowbanks!  Keep on going!  Move it, move it, move it!  The firemen will be arriving any moment!  Get out of the fire lane!  Over to the snowbanks people!  Move away from the building!"

I must have been bossing around the vice principal, or important bankers, or lawyers, financiers, politicians...I don't know.  I was mostly moving middle aged folk who moved reluctantly.  And while I was haranguing them, and the fire alarm continued to sound...

I suddenly turned around and was face to face with the director.  Who I really didn't like.  And who didn't really like me.  And whose show wasn't horrible, but wasn't great, and who I was so glad I didn't have to see.  Until now.

I smiled.  (I can act fairly well, too.)  "Hey!"  I said, feeling kind of bad for his show being disrupted...and also ticked that he didn't freaking move us out of the theatre if he'd been there.  "How's it going?  This is so sad.  I'm so sorry this happened.  You!  Yes you!  I can see you!  Get the freak away from the building, mister!  (To some venerable gentleman who'd tried to creep back to the school wall.  Now back to the director:) Anyway, this is so awful.  But the show was going really well.  Sorry about this.  I mean it, buster!  I can hear the firetrucks on their way now!  Back AWAY from the building!  Anyway, catch you later.  TO THE SNOWBANKS!"

Eventually, the firemen did come, and found that the custodians had set off the fire when drying a ton of towels from some sporting event and causing a small fire in the laundry room.  Everything got settled pretty soon after that.  We were let back into the building.  The actors began at the top of the scene, and let me tell you - the show was worlds better after the event.  The audience was appreciative of their work; the actors were grateful to finish the show.  We all clapped along to "Hello, Dolly!" as the waiters did their high kicks, and Dolly sang her heart out.

Cornelius Hackl is caught in Irene Malloy's closet
In our Spring 2007 production of "The Matchmaker"

The reason why I'm writing this story now is that I find that I'm crying fire in a crowded theatre again.  Those who are friends with me on Facebook have been subjected to a series of links that don't normally adorn my page.  Most often, one can find random geekery about Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Downton Abbey, or even more likely, updates and photos about my latest plays, or information about my novels.  Perfectly lovely, perfectly harmless stuff.  The sort of stuff that one might enjoy anonymously and without complaint - not so great, not too hideous - rather like that production of Hello, Dolly!

But lately, I have taken the very great risk of alienating my colleagues and friends by posting news about the recent actions taken by our government.  Now, you should know that by and large I'm with Mercutio on the issue of politics: "A plague on both your houses!"  I vote in all matters presented to me, I think about writing letters to my politicians, I will refer obliquely to something...but more often, I'll watch something pop up on my feed - opinions which are both agreeable or noxious to me - and I am silent.

The fire alarm has been going off for a while, and I've been sitting still.

There's a problem in this world, and that problem is me.

I can write all the lovely little stories in the world, all the fluffy comedies, all the sweet romances that I like - and all around us, O my friends, our nation is burning.

Well, it's time to go.  Time to stand up and speak.  Time to move not just a few people to safety, but all of us away from the danger, no matter the cost to our anonymity.

We have been sitting in a crowded theatre, watching actors, while the fire alarms go off.


Well, I would very humbly suggest that it's Time To Go.

I am a Catholic.  
And I am shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre.  
  •  And there are politicians, and financiers, and principals, and policemen who should be saying something, too, but they aren't.  
  •  And there are Bishops who are fighting, but who must not - once the Churches get to safety - bottleneck in the doors and keep the private business owners, the agnostic men of conscience, and all others who care about freedom to be caught in the burning building.
  • And there are people, private citizens who want to remain anonymous, who are huddling by the building - perhaps because they agree with what's going on, perhaps because they haven't really listened to the alarms, perhaps because they're just too tired to fight - and they need to move to safety.
  • And there are people who are furious at being moved, because the show was a good one, and it should go on.  But I swear to you, that it is better to stop the fire than to be burnt up for the sake of personal pride.
  •  And there are actors in our drama, who will continue on performing on a burning stage, because they don't know what else to do.
  • And there are little old men and little old women who will try to go up, one by one, to warn us in hushed voices that the fire alarm is going off and perhaps we should get going.
  • And there's you, my friend, and me, who need to stand up in the front row and shout it from the rooftops that the theatre is on fire and It Is Time To Go.


  1. Emily, I loved your story. I don't know why people don't ever respond appropriately to fire alarms, but they don't.

    I am not catholic. I don't personally have a moral or religious issue with birth control, et al. But I have a freaking HUGE issue with the absolute disregard for the First Amendment. Huge. Huge. Huge.

    I hope and pray this issue gets fast tracked to the Supreme Court and that the Constitution is upheld.

  2. You are absolutely right, Em. Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear and voices big enough to shout needs to get to it.

    I think somewhere in my subconscious is a teacher yearning to get out. More than once have I found myself in similar positions. Not fire alarms, but situations where the herd has to be mobilized, and suddenly I'm the sheepdog. Unfortunately, that makes everybody else the sheep, and as my mom has said many a time, "When Our Lord called us sheep, He wasn't paying us a compliment!"

  3. I have just stumbled onto this blog, quite as a matter of chance, following a series of links related to Austenesque works and sequels. This, needless to say, has very different content to that, but I was intrigued. I have been coming across more and more material (sad to say, articles like the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke issue do tend to get more coverage, for their sensational aspects if nothing else) that addresses this recent issue regarding contraception coverage in health plans, and it's piqued my interest somewhat.

    I was hoping you wouldn't mind if I asked a couple of questions.

    I want to emphasize that I am not, in any way, attempting to flame here - I simply want to understand, because this kind of debate is very different from one that might take place in Australia. We don't really have a direct equivalent of the First Amendment. Here, contraception is supported through the public health system. I have the medical condition Sandra Fluke mentions a fellow student as having, and contraception certainly is the prescribed medication. Here, it costs me at most $100 AUD a year, with no need for private health insurance. From what I can understand in reading articles, this is not the case in the US. I understand that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, and it seems that many objections relate to a violation of this freedom. And I suppose my question is this - how is it a violation of religious freedom? After all, the individual is still allowed to decide whether or not they access contraceptives, aren't they? Why is it a bad thing that this option is being given to all women, regardless of who they work for? Wouldn't it be violating their freedom if they were disadvantaged by not having access to contraception if they had no objection to it?

    Phew. That might have been longer than I originally intended it to be. Again, I want to emphasize that I am asking these questions respectfully, with an honest desire to understand the different sides of the debate. Many thanks, Lauren.


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