06 October 2010

Backstage Life

I'm standing in the Green Room, the domain of the theater students. The room's cleaned pretty often, but never really neat - especially not with a performance lurking an hour an a half away. One of the round tables is littered with glass bottles of different sizes as well as a two liter bottle of off-brand cola, a cylinder of 5 pre-measured containers of off-brand kool-aid mix, a jug of Sunny D, a ziplock bag full of small bottles of food coloring, a bottle of cran-grape juice, and a bottle of sparkling white grape juice. People move freely in and out of the room, a steady flow of traffic as another table slowly gathers items brought for a bake sale and the third table still holds the remains of various quickly-eaten dinners. Some people, half in costume or dressed all in black, lounge on the worn green chairs/couches that line the walls. With black clothing encasing me from wrist to neck to my black steel-toed boots, I'm dressed for backstage work.

We're all hanging out, joking and laughing as I and my prop crew work on mixing drinks. Watered down cola becomes whiskey in one bottle. Some kool-aid and red food coloring turns it into rum in a second bottle. Water from the tap is used for fake vodka. Green powerade becomes absinthe. One or two actors ask what they'll be drinking, if the recipes have changed. They receive samples in shot glasses, which are them washed until they sparkle. Before long, though the drinks are not finished, I have to leave and trust my crew to complete the job. Out of the green room, I move down the hall and through the door marked 'Restricted Access - Backstage Employees Only', walk through the lobby, and into an unmarked door. The spiral staircase carries me up to the booth where I flip switches and start the house music playing.

It's 6:45, fifteen minutes til the gathering audience will be allowed inside the theater. As the music plays (I still haven't flipped the switch that will allow the lobby to hear anything) I run through the show's sound cues, making sure the right sound is coming out of the right speaker at the right volume - "checking levels," to use the technical term. Once I'm sure everything is working, I cut the sound effects, bump the levels (volume) on the house music, and head back downstairs, returning to the green room. I find the stage manager and let her know everything's ready. She heads out to help the light board operator run a dimmer check. Once that's done, the curtain will drop, hiding the set from view. I go to the green room and check on the drinks, reminding actors to check their props - once the show starts, those are no longer my responsibility until Saturday's post-performance strike. Seeing the drinks are underway, I'll claim a chair and open a textbook. This is one of the few chances I'll have this week to get my homework done and I've only got 15 minutes until the house opens. By then I have to be back in the booth.

I spend the show, an hour and a half of each evening from Sunday through Saturday, listening to a mix of dialogue from the stage and the SM's voice, the house manager's voice, the voices of stage-hands, etc. Everything but the dialogue comes in through the headset that wraps snugly around my skull. "Actors, house is now open. You have thirty minutes to places. Please check your props and keep quiet when on-stage." Were the curtain not down, the actors wouldn't be allowed on-stage during this time. Whoever's on headset takes advantage of the half-hour break and we start talking about anything until the house manager from the box office speaks up. "Are you ready to close house in five?" "Yes, ma'am, we're ready. Actors, I have five minutes to places, five minutes to places." (five minutes later, the SM asks for a pause in headset chatter) "Actors to places. Actors, I have places." "Warning, lights and curtain... House lights out. Curtain go. Warning, sound out and light cue 1. Lights go. Sound go." I slowly move the slider on the board down, letting the music fade out. Once it's out, I mute CD1, open the CD player, remove the disc and replace it with another for the end of the show, check that CD2 is muted on the board, check that the player for 2 is on and set to track one, turn back to the board, unmute 2 and wait.

While waiting, my eyes move up the row of buttons and knobs with perfect understanding. The small yellow key labeled mix doesn't need to be hit on row 2, only 1 and 3. Instead, the small keys next to 3 and 4 should be pushed, sending any sound from CD2 through the speakers backstage instead of the ones in the house. I bump the level up to -5 and wait for the SM. "Stand by, sound cue A." My thumb holds down a button on the small box at my waist, the mic close to my mouth. "Standing by." I release the button, making sure not to depress it twice and lock it into the on position, which would cause feedback. The line comes onstage, my cue, but I don't press play until the SM says "Sound cue A, go." At the word go, my body turned away from the board and towards the CD player in a space so narrow I couldn't possibly get a chair between the board in front of me and the bank of switches behind me, I push the play button. The sound lasts two seconds; I push pause as soon as it finishes, turn back to the board, and hit mute over the row that controls CD2. Once it's muted, I make the disc skip to the next track and wait again.

By the end of the week, it's all routine, something I could do in my sleep. I know the lines, the cues, the show, nearly as well as the actors onstage. Still, I never press the play button until the SM says the word "go" because that's just how it's done, how it works. It's one of the unwritten rules of the theater, like calling aloud before you fly something in or out so people know to get out of the way ("Curtain coming in!" "First electrics going out!") or leaving a "ghost light" on backstage once everyone's left the building or, in my department, calling "Hey, Clyde!" anytime you hear a strange noise in the catwalks or a light flickers when it's not supposed to. It's just a part of life backstage.

Now that that show has closed out, a week of performances where this commuter never made it home before 10 pm and then had to finish homework before waking up at 7 the next morning to get to class, I get to explore the acting side of things with our children's show. Once it's finished, I have mid-terms to study for and take, a project to complete for scenic painting class, and have to help paint the set for our third show. Though I didn't get cast in it, I might get to sound design. If not, I have to admit I'll be glad for the break.
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