Who made those beautiful costumes? How did that scenery just magically move? Who caused the lights to go up and down and change colors? Rain—inside a theatre? What if I could be a fly on the wall and see the actors onstage, the stage crew preparing a scene change and the audience watching the show, all at the same time?
As a child growing up in Baltimore, I had opportunities to attend theatre and music on a regular basis. It was important to my parents, who prioritized these activities, and who could afford the time, tickets and transportation to get us there. As a result, I have many clear (albeit youthful) recollections of what transpired on stages from Washington, D.C., to New York City: the performers, the songs, the excitement of lights going up to reveal theatricalized versions of living rooms, kitchens and coffee shops—and, of course, the meals afterward where we discussed at length what we’d just experienced. However, it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I became fully aware of the artistry that transpires behind the scenes, the huge iceberg supporting the tip that is the show.
Anyone who’s been at a theatre’s post-show talkback with young people knows that the most pressing questions have to do with how things are done technically, how certain exceptional stage effects are accomplished, or, in some extraordinary circumstances, how an actor prepares—beyond simply, “How did you learn all those lines?” Producers, meanwhile, generally prefer that the work’s content and social context be first and foremost on the minds of audiences, whether they’re aged 5 or 85, and that the “How’d you do that?” questions be left for another time. Of course, in some cases, it’s simply not practical to reveal the magic behind the magic—those are company secrets!
While I was well steeped in theatrical experiences at a young age, it wasn’t until I was on a work-study run crew in graduate school that I became cognizant of the detailed technical work that goes into making a theatre piece. My job on the run crew was to be on headset with the stage manager while she cued the dropping of fake leaves from a tension grid. The play was Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, and, yes, as the politicians commiserated and autumn approached, each leaf had a cue. They’d been carefully made out of material that would fall through the air precisely as real leaves would fall. The audience had no idea that four students positioned over the stage with buckets of torn, multicolored crepe paper were responsible for this lovely effect.
Eventually I concluded that one of my favorite places in a theatre space is that rare sweet spot where the audience, the stage crew and the performers can be seen at the same time. While some artists—Ariane Mnouchkine, for example—make a point of purposely incorporating behind-the-scenes activity as part of the theatrical experience, that practice is mostly the exception. Those “tech” places are typically out of sight and off limits to the general public. So audiences, especially those who aren’t theatre people, never get to witness those lovely moments in which a performance in all its workings is visible—including the collaborative, intricate and even poetic nature of the handiwork of designers, set, prop and costume shops, and the backstage machinations of performers and crews who execute the show while it’s actually underway. For some, these things may not be important: The tip of the iceberg is enough. For others, there’s exceptional value in gaining access to the varied unseen aspects of making and running a show. In fact, TCG’s annual Theatre Facts research has shown dramatic growth in audience interest in process and behind-the-scenes activity in order to understand how theatre is made.
As we enter 2014, we’re devoting this special Approaches to Theatre Training issue to the celebration of the practitioners whose work is made manifest on stage, but who themselves stay largely behind the scenes. The times and the technology have changed quite a bit in recent decades, and America’s training programs have the challenge of making sure new graduates are capable of working in up-to-the-minute ways. Ultimately, though, it’s the hands-on, satisfyingly concrete nature of the work that continues to attract people into rewarding careers aimed at making our physical productions and the running of them possible.
There’s a spiral stair to a catwalk in the nether reaches of the fly tower at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Think: high altitude. From that vantage point, the entire stage and everything happening in the wings can be seen. I went there once during a performance of A Year with Frog and Toad and managed to witness a beautiful moment, one that happened regularly but that I’m sure I was the first to see quite that way. Lead actor Mark Linn-Baker exited the stage, where he was awaited by dresser Ritchy McFadden, there to assist him as he changed his costume for the next scene. After countless rehearsals and performances, these two had developed a balletic routine—the change had to be accomplished quietly in a precise number of seconds, while another scene played out onstage. As McFadden completed this quick change, he patted Linn-Baker’s face gently with a hand towel, they nodded to each other and the performer crossed through from wings to stage, where he launched the next scene smoothly. There was a tenderness and beauty in that moment, and in many more I’ve witnessed since then, that makes me say, “Theatre. There’s nothing like it.” And to our technical staffs and everyone working behind the scenes, “We can’t do it without you.”