Life Backstage

I Stage Managed my first show in 1986,  Jesus Christ Superstar  It will always hold a special place in my heart. For many reasons. I’d always loved the music as well as the story. I had the opportunity to see the original in 1969(?) in Chicago. Your first show is always memorable isn’t it? I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Again, being young, I was asked if I wanted to try Stage Managing, and said, “Sure what the heck?”

There were an awful lot of things that happened for my first time of being in total control of a production. I was unable to allow an actor to take the stage, 1/2 hour before curtain one evening, which I’d have to say, was the worst thing. It was panic time. Ok, how do I completely re-block, re-choreograph and re-assign roles for the entire show in 30 minutes? (the person played multiple roles as did many others in the cast). Thank God I had a wonderful cast and production staff or it never would’ve happened. I remember the Director getting there just before the curtain went up and him asking me, “Ah Rae? Is there something I should know about?” “WHERE WERE YOU 30 MINUTES AGO?!?” I asked. Too late, call the cue: “House out and go”. Turned out, it was the best show of the entire run! It was a tense nite, but everyone pulled together and it was a very tight performance.

Because of the subject manner of the show, we naturally had our share of fanatics in the audience. One evening at intermission, some “stormed” the stage yelling about how the show was blasphemous. Others actually made it downstairs into the Green Room to accost the cast. I was calling the show from the light booth, so by the time I got downstairs, the Opera House staff had taken care of things. They had to lock the doors to the Opera House once they removed the offenders for the 2nd Act.

Night after night, Mark’s, (‘Jesus’), special effect light would NOT go on. No matter how many times I had my assistant on the floor check the switch box, making sure it was switched to the correct position. I’d call the cue, and nothing! Finally, one night it actually worked. There was Mark/Jesus, on the cross, dying, “clapping” with his finger tips ever so slightly! I could see his eyes look up at me briefly saying “thank you Rae”. I’d say Elvira had a hand in that show. Perhaps the subject matter was offensive to her as well? Elvira is our resident ghost.

A crew person breaking their ankle after an afternoon performance, trying to find a replacement for that nite and the rest of the run. A band that absolutely loved to jam because the music was so much fun. Poor Steve (‘Judas’). We/he never knew how long he would have to take to die each nite! It all depended on how long the band would feel like jamming. Which also meant I and Amy, my light board operator, had to be ready in an instant for the next cue! It didn’t matter how many times I would talk to them about it, they did what they wanted to do. I have to admit, they were good!
These were just a few of my “Virgin Stage Manager” problems. Hey, made me learn a lot – quick!

LEARNING NEW SKILLS

I learned so many things by wearing so many hats in the Theatre. Working on sets was enlightening. I learned how to make things appear to be marble, that started out as sheets of plywood. I leaned how to use sheets of insulation board used in construction, for many, many things. How to take it and make it appear to be stone with the use of cheese cloth and distressing it. Now the distressing part was fun! I helped build a few pieces of sets as well. I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of painting once they found out about my “color deficiency”. I was assigned base coating only for the most part. I learned the sponge and paint spatter techniques. Naturally, there is a right way and a wrong way to spatter paint! The most intriguing thing I found out was, that no matter what it looked like up close, which is usually not much, from the audience? it is truly transformed into the effect that you were going for. I also learned that neatness doesn’t count, again, from a distance? no one can tell. Went against everything I knew. Ah.. but the illusion of theatre, and that it is, an illusion.

Over the years as Prop Mistress I had to make quite a few props. This is where that insulation board came in quite handy. Snoopy was probably the most fun. I had to make quite a few things for that one. A working “Jaws” puppet was the best, and I do believe Gina still has that, as well as others from the show, in her classroom. An over-sized heart, that literally had to break-correctly and neatly- each nite. For Follies I had to make a scooter for our beloved Al. Now Al was a big guy, so it had to support him as well as actually work so he could chase Amy around the stage on it. Quite the challenge. It was several years before I would let anyone destroy that one! No, not all props are kept beyond the run of a show.  Especially larger ones that require more space to store.

Food items have got to be the hardest things to make. At least for me. That color thing comes into play. What I think looks like a pork chop, looks like a piece of rotten meat to everyone else. Anytime there is real food involved in a show, it is a pain. Trying to keep the actors from eating it before it makes it on stage is almost impossible. If it is something that actually gets eaten, it means keeping it fresh for 3 weeks-ok, I lie. Ya gotta get new each week. It wouldn’t be very nice to give an actor spoiled food to eat now would it? Although… it has been tempting over the years as ah? payback?

Being Prop Mistress or as some lovingly refer to me, “Prop Czar” also means having to be quite the, shall we say bitch? at times. You do not play with, or touch a prop unless it is yours and/or before you have to use it on stage. Constantly fixing props is not my idea of fun. As I came to tell casts over time; “You break it? You either fix it, or you have no prop for the night.” Sometimes this works, most times not. Actors….they are an unruly bunch of sorts. They all become 5 year olds. “How did this break?” “Gee I don’t know? I didn’t touch it.” Yeah right, it just broke all on it’s own. Of course they don’t tell you it’s broke until 5 minutes before they go on stage. AGGGRRRR!!!!!! Always have tools and spare props I’ve come to learn. And as we say in the theatre? “If it can’t be fixed with duct tape or velcro? It can’t be fixed at all.” You should also have spares for when Elvira plays her pranks and she steals something out of the locked prop box on you over night.

ACTUALLY BEING IN A SHOW

I’d been working backstage for about a year, had worked with “PP” once before, and when they asked if I wanted to be in it, once again, I thought it was a great idea. Hey, didn’t even have to audition!! You were just in back then. Since it wasn’t at the Opera House, it didn’t seem quite as intimidating to me. I was quite stiff to say the least on stage with few exceptions.

I enjoyed the songs from “The Wiz” and was able to move a little better in those. ‘Walk Him Up’ from “Purlie” was fun as well. Even with the heavy, hot choir robes on, with our costumes under that for the next scene. I had a riot doing this show, even missed my 10 year High School reunion for it.

I attended “Remedial Dance” every nite with a few others. This is when I was inducted, as the 1st female member of the “Tangle Foot Society”. I am proud to have that distinction. This is of course, the original ‘Tangle Foot Society’. There are many levels to it now, although, as a “Dark Underling” I believe I am?, I still do not have my official card – hint hint Norm. Making things especially hard as far as dance was: dancing the women’s parts, but being a 1st tenor, singing the men’s parts. It got more than a little confusing on songs. I choked on my 2 solo lines in 2 different numbers, and was given a partner to help me through them.

‘Paradise People’ was a hoot back then. Performing in an old, non air conditioned church, in the middle of August, a cast of over 50, and a church packed with people every nite. Can you say sweltering???? There was no back stage, to get from one side of the stage to the other, you had to run around the outside of the building. We changed our costumes as we went. Oh, but we had a blast. The tradition is still going on today, in the form of “Dille’s Follies” but the church has A/C now-not that it makes a whole lot of difference considering the space. After being in the one show, I worked crew from that point on, returning to my roots, and where I was most comfortable.

 

 

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