The things I’ve learned from Community Theater
“Hold this.” He whispered, shoving a clump of black curtain into my hand.
“When Frumma Sarah finishes singing, open the curtain from here very quickly so we can wheel her backstage,” the man in black ordered. “This will be your job at every performance.”
And just like that, I had my first job in community theater. While my son was doing his thing onstage being a shtetl boy, I had my part backstage helping Fume Sarah get offstage. And I did my job proudly, all the while pantomiming Frumma Sarah’s motions and words, with another stagehand who I had not met until that final tech dress rehearsal, every night I was not in the audience watching my son with pride.
I was a suburban mom. This other stagehand was a young woman at most in her 20’s. We had never met before that night, but though “The Dream,” we had an instant connection. And at that moment, I realized: I am not a soccer mom. I am a stage mom!
That was last year, the year my son came home buzzing about how he wanted to audition for Fiddler on The Roof with a local community theater group. He heard about it from a poster hung up at his new school. I drove him to every rehearsal and instead of dropping off and running home or going for coffee, I hung around.
This year, I was asked to serve on the board, and perform on stage, as a member of a long-standing mainly volunteer community theater group in the Detroit Metro Area.
As a transplant, getting involved in community theater has proven the best way for me to plug into a community. Now that the curtain has closed on our most recent production, here is a few things community theater has taught this newbie:
You cannot produce any old show you want – Planning to produce a show in community begins nearly a year before opening curtain. Music Theater International has strict licensing guidelines and a catalog of shows available for community theater production that is regularly updated. Nothing running on Broadway, or that is a Broadway national tour, can be produced. And licensing rights for some musicals, especially the Disney genre, are extremely costly. Being that our company is geared to be a family, multi-generational theater company also restricts our choices. Hair and R.E.N.T. are definitely no-nos.
Everyone counts: To the untrained eye, a theatergoer might think that the female lead with the canary-like voice or the dancer with the highest kicks or the tenor with the sweetest crooning is the most important facet of a musical theater production. But the ones you see on the stage, we are just mere puppets. It is everyone else: the sound engineer who follows the script line by line during every performance, whose fingers fly across the soundboard making sure your mike is hot only when it needs to be, the stage manager and their fearless tech crew who wheel stage sets around 180 degrees or pull the grand curtain open and shut within seconds, they are the backbone of any good production. As is the props master, whom months before opening curtain thought of every detail, and where it needs to be when not on stage, who matters. As is the costumer who hunts around at thrift stores and begs borrows and steals if she has to just the right costume from other community theater groups, who is up late at night sewing and resewing hemlines and taking in trousers, that’s who matters in a show. Not to mention (and OF COURSE they need mention!) the multi-piece orchestra that plays at your feet from the pit, whose musicians will even throw in their own laughter if a joke onstage falls flat. I don’t understand why they can’t join us on stage for a bow each night.
You gain an insane appreciation for people who actually want to do musical theater for a living – As much as I loved being in a performance, towards closing night I was wiped. How do people do this and keep it fresh, some for 3,000 performances in a row? Maybe it is because most of our company is slightly older than professional Broadway stars. But Broadway stars, for eight performances a week, have to give it all to their audience, even when they may not have it all that night. Even if they are under the weather. Or had a fight with their boyfriend. One night, while driving to rehearsal, I heard Seth Rudetsky on the XM Broadway Channel interview an actor who passed a KIDNEY STONE on stage while he played Horton in Seussical the Musical. After all, the show must go on, and the paying audience does not care if you are passing a kidney stone. When you need to be on stage, you must be on stage. Even if you have to pass a kidney stone. Or even pee. Yes, perhaps of all the things I learned about being on stage is that performers do not get to use the bathroom any old zany time they want to. For thousands of performances. Yet, they have to keep themselves hydrated? How is that all supposed to even out?
Hair and Makeup – This again speaks to the immense appreciation I have gained for professional actors, because this business is way too high maintenance for me, an otherwise hermit-like writer, when it comes to tending to hair and makeup prep that is worthy of the stage. To get myself ready for performances, I spent hours watching Youtube videos on how to create the perfect Gibson Girl updo from the Edwardian era. I found videos on proper contouring and learned how to apply blush not to my cheekbones but underneath. The first time I tried to apply my makeup, I looked more like a Geisha girl than someone who lived in River City, Iowa, but thanks to our volunteer makeup artist, a woman in her 40s who is also a national champion figure skater (!!), I got it looking just right.
Community Theater is not high school theater – You know where my favorite place in the theater is? Not on stage, under those hot bright lights, but deep backstage. Where the darkness is lit only by a string of lights. Where the smell of sawed wood and paint lingers in the air. Where you can find random things like an old stove or a stripped down Chevy Convertible from shows past. Graffiti that says things like “Best Cast Ever Guys and Dolls ’86” Because if only for a second, I can pretend I am backstage in my own high school. But this is not high school theater, even if this may have been the high school of others for many decades. It wasn’t mine. And as a transplant, few, if any of the audience members knew me, let alone knew me from high school. I also got that lonely transplanted feeling after performances, watching my fellow cast mates surrounded by adoring family and friends, awkwardly balancing bunches of flower and candy in their arms while they posed for a picture. When you are a transplant, this post-performance shower of adoration can feel a bit thin.
But this post is not about being a transplant. It is about showbiz! So let’s move on:
Breath Support, Personal amplifier – Just as a choreographer tells a dancer how to move their body, a great vocal director will tell you how to move your lips, teeth, tongue in such a way that you would believe that you never knew how to move your lips, teeth, tongue and even the roof of your mouth (did you know you can move the ROOF of your mouth?) before he taught you. Every note has choreography and a dynamic, and a good musical director will get this out of you if he has to beat it out of you to make sure you are sounding like a well-supported ensemble, a chorus capable of producing that building wall of sound. You might think that singing in the shower or singing in your car is singing, until you have taken actual formal instruction from a musical director. There really is a difference.
Community Theater truly is a community– My son discovered something that I learned this year. Yes, the cast and crew become like family. After all, in the intensive weeks leading up to opening curtain, you will see them more than your actual family. They are there for you – totally there – to celebrate your birthday, to say a community prayer of healing if you have a loved one in the hospital, to root for you if you are waiting on that job offer after months of unemployment. They are there for you to change you out of one costume and into another in under 90 seconds. Or loan you a favorite antique hatpin to keep your hat from flopping over your face, because, really, who owns hat pins in this century? They are there for you to hold your hand and wipe away a tear when it all becomes too overwhelming. And, if your cast is lucky enough to contain some medical professionals, they will do what they have to do to keep you healthy for those crucial last rehearsals leading up to opening night. Believe me. A month after closing curtain, and I am going through deep withdrawal missing my theater family. I cannot wait to do it all again next year!