“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!
There is just one place that can light my face!
Follow the link below for details, see you there!
I need to get out more often. And by that, I don’t mean dinner at the Outback and a movie at the local suburban multiplex.
I am going to put this blog post into a new I-know-you’ve-lived-here-all-your-life-but-ya’ll-it’s-all-new-to-me category. Because, I know all of you Detroiters know all about the Fox Theatre like I know about Radio City Music Hall (but hey, real New Yorkers know a trip to Radio City is just for TOURISTS).
But for me – the New Yawker newbie, a babe in the urban D woods – I am loving discovering my new city.
Last night, I had my first nighttime visit into Downtown Detroit. We were invited out by the same very interesting new friends (the ones who press their own apple cider) to a benefit to support the Jewish Association for Residential Care. The featured act: The Rascals.
You know, the Rascals:
My husband and I still don’t know how to get around downtown. ( I really don’t understand how to traverse a metropolis without a subway system.) They offered to drive. We happily accepted the ride.
Driving down highway 10 at night to downtown Detroit, you really get an understanding of just how blighted some sections have become. As you leave suburbia for downtown, the highway submerges, and what’s left of neighborhoods peek out from concrete walls that rise to the right and the left. Every now and again you get a glimpse of houses. Completely dark. What’s left of houses. What’s left of churches. And stores. And housing projects. Empty shells. Dark and lonely.
And then, reaching downtown, the lights, and life, emerges again. If just for a dozen or so square blocks that house the city’s businesses, theaters Detroit nightlife post baseball season is still trying to go on.
Though Comerica Park now stands quiet, it is lit up. Giant stone tigers roar into a post-season sky and roar into a mostly vacant parking lot. I make nice to them and promise I will come cheer for the Tigers (because they don’t play against the NY Mets) come the spring.
Across the street stands the glorious Fox Theatre:
Built in the grand style of the 1920’s, when auto manufacturing was in high swing, it has a 3,600 square foot lobby and a grand auditorium that seats 5,000. And every square inch drips with restored opulence snatched from the mouths of the Blight and Decay demons that caused many of Detroit’s architectural treasures to crumble or lay in waste.
Though I wasn’t that excited to see this 60’s band, it was the venue itself – plus a fundraiser supporting independent lifestyles for adults with disabilities – that made me plunk down the cash for the tickets.
“I bet you have been craving for a night like this in the city,” my friend said as we crossed Woodward – a main thoroughfare in Detroit that is far wider than any avenue in Manhattan. Outside the theatre, a small crowd gathered and a ragged group of street musicians played and asked for change.
Oh yeah, I miss going out into a city for some nightlife. I miss packed sidewalks and even further packed subway cars. Even little Rochester had some hopping areas, some beautiful theaters, jazz spots and restaurants for entertainment.
I stepped inside the lobby. I knew I had to make my way to will call to get our tickets. I knew I should have been more friendly and engaged in conversation with new friends in the community who made their way over to say hi. But they had already been in the Fox theatre. They had lived here most of their lives. This was all new to me. And I was having trouble keeping my jaw from hanging to the floor:
The grandeur of the Fox Theater lobby made me happy and sad all at once. Happy that this gem has been restored and saved from blight and stands as a reminder of what Detroit could be again. Sad to think of all the other architectural treasures of the city – other theatres, the Central Train Station, hotels, schools, mansions, homes – that just lay in waste, I thought of the Heidelberg Art project that arsonists just burned to the ground. Again. Before I got to set eyes on it.
We spent the night listening to the Rascals play with new friends and some JARC residents, who quickly befriended us and were happy to sing and dance the evening away, even though I thought the Rascals depended very much upon their multimedia show than pandering to the crowd:
After the show, the city was dark. No bars open. No restaurants to spend our money in. Just a few lingering panhandlers and straggling musicians. So, back to suburbia we went for a late night bite to eat.
We really wanted to spend more money downtown. But there was nowhere open to spend it.
This is not the city that Never Sleeps. Not even by a long shot.