Like most folks I’ve met in and around the theatre trade, I can more or less pinpoint the moment I caught “the bug”: a performance of Oliver! at the Phoenix Little Theatre when I was 8 or 9, a birthday outing I shared with a single best friend (theatre tickets were expensive even then, even in Arizona). It probably helped that nearly every character onstage was a boy, close to my age, and that they got to dress up like filthy urchins and cavort sans parental supervision. But mostly what I remember is the familiar epiphany I’ve heard echoed by countless others: I just knew somehow that was for me. I didn’t know what “that” was, exactly, and I could have had no inkling then that my role in theatre would one day mostly entail staying put in my theatre seat and reporting on what I saw there.
A harder question for me to answer, though, is when and where I first learned the conventions of the theatre—cues, props, lights, the fourth wall, etc. Sure, I did the obligatory tour of duty through high school theatre, but my awareness of the mechanics of theatre certainly predates that. I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watch my own young sons find their way into the arts from a variety of angles: as makers, as consumers, even as commentators. Recently my family made its first Broadway outing as a whole unit to see The Play That Goes Wrong, a literally knock-down farce about a bad British murder mystery gone hilariously awry. As my 6-year-old and 9-year-old laughed hungrily not only at the collapsing set and assorted metatheatrical pratfalls but the wordplay and deliberately hammy acting, I realized they were also learning, mostly unwittingly, about how the theatre is supposed to work: the actor calling “Line!,” the sound operator with his buggy headset, the tricksy doors and trompe l’oeil of the set, the etiquette of laughter and applause. For a moment I worried they might not understand everything, let alone get why the jokes were funny; not only had they never seen a British murder mystery, they knew precious little about the backstage mechanics of putting on a play.
But parody can be a great teacher. Much as I once first heard the names of the great philosophers from Monty Python, and learned about the theatre trade from The Band Wagon and the film business from Singin’ in the Rain, my boys are soaking up information with their laughter. Even the simple engine of most comedy—thwarted expectations—is a way to teach those expectations. So to watch a play in which actors grow furiously indignant for upstaging each other, or going up on their lines, or failing to improvise in the face of disaster, is to receive a thumbnail sketch in stage customs honored more in their breach than in their observance.
This special training issue includes a number of stories about theatre administrators—folks who caught the theatre bug and then, like me, figured out at some point that their place wasn’t in the spotlight but behind or around it. Their schooling in the field has gone well beyond watching a few frothy backstage comedies; indeed in most cases it’s led them through MFA programs. But for all the increasing professionalization of management, in nonprofit as well as commercial theatre, it is still fundamentally a practice of inviting groups of curious strangers into dark, enchanted rooms, and saying: Consider yourself at home.
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