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From Emma – The Drama Backstage

June 21, 2012

Photo by Anthony Medici

At Touchstone Theatre, the stage manager’s hang-out is usually the tech booth.

When I came to Touchstone four years ago, this was a surprise for me. Isn’t the stage manager supposed to be– well, you know– backstage? Or at the very least, on headset and in communication with someone else backstage? That’s part of the stage manager’s job, as far as my training and background stated: keeping a handle on things happening behind the scenes, knowing if we need to stall for a moment, or if we need to skip ahead. Was I seriously going to be managing these shows without any kind of lifeline to backstage, just taking it on faith that the actors would deal and find a way to communicate me in the booth if an emergency came up?

Apparently, yes!

Much to my (pleasant) surprise, this was very doable and much less nerve-wracking than I assumed. For the most part, the shows went smoothly, and on those rare occasions when a problem came up, communication happened, word was passed along, and all was well.

Seriously. It’s more fun backstage.

But I must admit– I find it much more fun to be backstage.

In the theatre world, it’s a bit of a cliche– “the real drama happens backstage!”– but there’s certainly truth in it. All of the epic drama, ineffable beauty, and side-splitting comedy is somehow made all the more intense by seeing the mad scramble that precedes it. A missing prop that isn’t found until half a second before your entrance cue? A costume change that takes just two seconds too long? An actor getting “emotionally ready” (whatever that means) before plunging into a difficult scene? Watching from the wings as someone struggles to pick up a line they’ve forgotten? It doesn’t get more scary. Or beautiful. Or hilarious.

The Young Playwrights’ Festival is one of the only times of year that I get to just stage manage in the traditional sense, and I love it. I love being able to sit offstage, watching the action onstage out of one eye and the action backstage out of the other– all the comings and goings, scurrying onstage with a cardboard set piece, scurrying offstage with an armful of greenery, getting to see all the frantic, frenetic motion that happens just out of sight.

There’s also the real human drama backstage. In one of our education programs, we introduced some young men– boys who, in some cases, had never before and would never again get a chance at an arts education–  to the world of acting, and when performance day came, just watching them get ready as the audience came in– the nerves, the energy, the angry anxiety, and the beautiful camaraderie were incredibly moving to see.

Shopping cart ballerina onstage, hair-do designer offstage

Follies is another great instance of this. By nature, the show involves a ton of quick costume changes, comic props, and carefully choreographed timing. You develop skills you never thought you’d need: learning to jump feet-first into a panda suit, for a thirty second cameo was my favorite this year. Some sketches are strategically positioned in the show just for the time it buys for preparing things offstage; Bill’s first Old Guy monologue this year bought us time to haphazardly change out of reindeer and elf gear, all while holding our jingle bells to keep them quiet. The opening beat of Little Red’s final scene bought Cathleen time to transform from Christmas Mouse to Tiger. The voice-over that introduced the zombie scene? Oh, yeah. That meant we had time to get into our “I AM ZOMBIE” t-shirts.

There’s also the period before the hectic storm, where the cast painstakingly does their hair and make-up, gets warmed up vocally and physically, finds their place of cool, collected calm… before sprinting onstage, dancing off, getting hair mussed, make-up smeared, fixing both in between scenes, and having a good time doing it all.

It’s a tricky dance we get to do, in live theatre, and for me, that’s most evident when watching the show unfold in the muted, dim lighting of backstage. Is it more stressful? Maybe, maybe not. But the dichotomy between the moment before and the moment of stepping onstage? It’s a wonderful thing to see. I wouldn’t trade my harried panda quick-change for the world.

Photo by H. Scott Heist

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