I Stage Managed my first show in 1986, “Jesus Christ Superstar” It will always hold a special place in my heart. For many reasons. I’d always loved the music as well as the story. I had the opportunity to see the original in 1969(?). Your first show is always memorable isn’t it? I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Again, being young, I was asked, and said, “Sure what the heck?” There were an awful lot of things that happened for my first time of being in total control of a production. I was unable to allow an actor to take the stage, 1/2 hour before curtain one evening, which I’d have to say, was the worst thing. It was panic time. Ok, how do I completely re-block, re-choreograph and re-assign roles for the entire show in 30 minutes? (the person played multi-roles). Thank God I had a wonderful cast and production staff or it never would’ve happened. I remember the Director getting there just before the curtain went up and him asking me, “Ah Rae? Is there something I should know about?” “WHERE WERE YOU 30 MINUTES AGO?!?” I asked. Too late, call the cue: “House out and go”. Turned out, it was the best show of the entire run! It was a tense nite, but everyone pulled together and it was a very tight performance.
Because of the subject manner of the show, we naturally had our share of fanatics in the audience. One evening at intermission, some “stormed” the stage yelling about how the show was blasphemous. Others actually made it downstairs into the Green Room to acoust the cast. I was calling the show from the booth, so by the time I got downstairs, the Opera
House staff had taken care of things. They had to lock the doors to the Opera House once they removed the offenders that evening.
Night after night, Mark’s, (‘Jesus’), special effect light would NOT go on. No matter how many times I had my assistant on the floor check the switch box, making sure it was switched to the correct position. I’d call the cue, and nothing! Finally, one night it actually worked. There was Mark/Jesus, on the cross, dying, “clapping” with his finger tips ever so slightly! I could see his eyes look up at me briefly saying “thank you Rae”. I’d say Elvira had a hand in that show. Perhaps the subject matter was offensive to her as well?
A crew person breaking their ankle after an afternoon performance, trying to find a replacement for that nite and the rest of the run. A band that absolutely loved to jam because the music was so much fun. Poor Steve (‘Judas’). We/he never knew how long he would have to take to die each nite! It all depended on how long the band would feel like jamming. Which also meant I and Amy, my lightboard operator, had to be ready in an instant for the next cue! It didn’t matter how many times I would talk to them about it, they did what they wanted to do. I have to admit, they were good!
These were just a few of my “Virgin Stage Manager” problems. Hey, made me learn a lot – quick!
LEARNING NEW SKILLS
I learned so many things by wearing so many hats. Working on sets was enlightening. I learned how to make things appear to be marble, that started out as sheets of plywood. I leaned how to use sheets of insulation board used in construction, for many, many things. How to take it and make it appear to be stone with the use of cheese cloth and distressing it. Now the distressing part was fun! I helped build a few pieces of sets as well. I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of painting once they found out about my “color deficiency”. I was assigned base coating only for the most part. I learned the sponge and paint spatter techniques. Naturally, there is a right way and a wrong way to spatter paint! The most intriguing thing I found out was, that no matter what it looked like up close, which is usually like you know what, from the audience? it is truly transformed into the effect that you were going for. I also learned that neatness doesn’t count, again, from a distance? no one can tell. Went against everything I knew. Ah.. but the illusion of theatre, and that it is, an illusion.
Over the years as Prop Mistress I had to make quite a few props. This is where that insulation board came in quite handy. “Snoopy” was probably the most fun. I had to make quite a few things for that one. A working “Jaws” puppet was the best, and I do believe Gina still has that, as well as others from the show, in her classroom. An over-sized heart, that literally had to break-correctly and neatly- each nite. For “Follies” I had to make a rideable scooter for our beloved Al. Now Al was a big guy, so it had to support him as well as actually work so he could chase Amy around the stage on it. Quite the challenge. It was several years before I would let anyone destroy that one!
Food items have got to be the hardest things to make. At least for me. That color thing comes into play. What I think looks like a pork chop, looks like a piece of rotten meat to everyone else. Anytime there is real food involved in a show, it is a pain. Trying to keep the actors from eating it before it makes it on stage is almost impossible. If it is something that actually gets eaten, it means keeping it fresh for 3 weeks-ok, I lie. Ya gotta get new each week. It wouldn’t be very nice to give an actor spoiled food to eat now would it? Although… it has been tempting over the years as ah? payback?
Being Prop Mistress or as some lovingly refer to it, “Prop Czar” also means having to be quite the, shall we say bitch? at times. You do not play with, or touch a prop unless it is yours and/or before you have to use it on stage. Constantly fixing props is not my idea of fun. As I came to tell casts over time; “You break it? You either fix it, or you have no prop for the night.” Sometimes this works, most times not. Actors….they are an unruly bunch of sorts. They all become 5 year olds. “How did this break?” “Gee I don’t know? I didn’t touch it.” Yeah right, it just broke all on it’s own. Of course they don’t tell you it’s broke until 5 minutes before they go on stage. AGGGRRRR!!!!!! Always have tools and spare props I’ve come to learn. And as we say in the theatre? “If it can’t be fixed with duct tape or velcro? It can’t be fixed.” You should also have spares for when Elvira plays her pranks and she steals something out of the locked prop box on you over night.
ACTUALLY BEING IN A SHOW
There was a time way back when, that they actually let anybody on stage during the original days of the musical reviews; “Paradise People”. When I say “anybody”, I mean me! Yup, I was in a show! A whole entire show. Well, ok, not every number, but a lot of them. Of course I attended “Remedial Dance” every nite with a few others. This is when I was inducted, as the 1st female member of the “Tangle Foot Society”. I am proud to have that distinction. This is of course, the original ‘Tangle Foot Society’. There are many levels to it now, although, as a “Dark Underling” I believe I am?, I still do not have my official card – hint hint Norm. Making things espeically hard as far as dance was: dancing the women’s parts, but being a 1st tenor, singing the men’s parts. It got more than a little confusing on songs such as “One” from ‘A Chorus Line’. I choked on my 2 solo lines in 2 different numbers, and was given a partner to help me through them. I could do them in my truck just fine with no one listening! I had a riot doing it, even missed my 10 year High School reunion for it.
I’d been working backstage for about a year, had worked with “PP” once before, and when they asked if I wanted to be in it, once again, I thought it was a great idea. Hey, didn’t even have to audition!! You were just in back then. Since it wasn’t at the Opera House, it didn’t seem quite as intimidating to me. I was quite stiff to say the least on stage with few exceptions. I enjoyed the songs from “The Wiz” and was able to move a little better in those. ‘Walk Him Up’ from “Purlie” was fun as well. Even with the heavy, hot choir robes on, with our costumes under that for the next scene.
‘Paradise People’ was a hoot back then. Performing in an old, non air conditioned church, in the middle of August, a cast of over 50, and a church packed with people every nite. Can you say sweltering???? There was no back stage, to get from one side of the stage to the other, you had to run around the outside of the building. We changed our costumes as we went. Oh, but we had a blast. The tradition is still going on today, in the form of “Dille’s Follies” but the church has A/C now-not that it makes a whole lot of difference considering the space.
THE PROMISED STORIES OF THE INFAMOUS WALK-ON’S
There were a few times that my friend Gina got me to do some walk-on’s. I trusted her
when she told me, “Come on Rae, it’ll just be a little thing. You’ll have fun.” Ha! The
first was a non-speaking role as “The Prisoner in the Well” for “Man of LaMancha”.
It started out as a non-speaking role, but soon turned into a solioque each nite. I also
got very beat up each nite by the prison guards as they dragged me around by a rope
tied around my wrists, pushed me to the ground and shoved/pulled me up the stairs to
“my death”. Hey, I made some in the audience cry with my “moving exit scene”.
The worst part of this walk-on as I remember was my getting beat up. And I do mean beat up! I had 3 big guys that played the prison guards. I remember in rehearsal one nite, they were practicing carrying me and I was told to struggle. Struggle I did. I took all 3 of them down! Once we got to Tech Week, the enitre thing changed. I would not be “in a well”. Instead I’d be behind the set in a cell so to speak. A guard would come and grab the rope tied around my wrists, and drag me out. The other 2 guards would push me around from behind, as the 1st one, pulled me from the front. They knocked me to the floor several times before leading me up the stairs. Anyone who works in theatre, is well aware of how stairs are built. They have VERY sharp edges. You can imagine after a week of being shoved to my knees going up these stairs, what my shins and thighs looked like. However, having never being on stage, I didn’t say anything. I figured I was just supposed to do what I was told. My wrists were pretty raw by this time as well seeing as how it was thick hemp rope that was used around my wrists.
One evening in the dressing room after rehearsal, someone saw my legs and exclaimed, “My God Rae! What happened to you?” I told them it was from being pushed up the stairs. That nite I could barely get my pants back on, my legs were so swollen and sore. Whoever it was, (I don’t remember now) immediately went to the Director and told her. She asked me why I didn’t say anything sooner. The guards were a little less rough after that, but the damage was done. I ended up wearing knee pads and wrapping my shins in towels from that point on. Just the slightest touch was agonizing as you can imagine. With every shove up the stairs, tears were very close from that point on. I think some of my “last screams before my death” were at times, real! This is why my non-speaking role turned into a speaking role. I figured, if I had to get this beat up, I was going to get something out of it all!
THE WALK ON OF ALL WALK ON’S
NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN
BELIEVE ME I’VE TRIED
Then came the ultimate, “just a little part” that my friend Gina talked me into. The person who was originally supposed to do it, quit the show and I was to be, ‘The Ninth Follies Girl’
in “Follies”. As she explained to me, “You will be the special Follies girl Rae All eyes will
be on you.” OY! I was special alright and no one could miss me! What started out as my just
walking onto the stage from the stage right olio, striking a pose, quickly turned into a nitemare! Originally, Gina told me I’d have a beautiful long dress on, with a cape of some kind to go with it. Grudgingly I decided I could do that. Well, that idea somehow never came to be! Instead, my costume, if you can even call it that; nude body stocking, with very little draping of see-through gauze material, a large, heavy, albeit beautiful cape, and an enormous, somewhat heavy, head dress – I was transformed into ‘The Ninth Follies Girl’ at least that’s what it said in the program. I say, just the largest peacock to ever have set foot on the Opera House stage! What a way to spend my birthday (Opening Night) of all things!
My role? I use the term very loosly: gracefully, come down an entire flight of stairs to a platform, turn, down a few more stairs to another platform, a few more stairs, and finally, to the stage floor. It may not have been such a problem were I able to walk in heels, let alone go slowwwly down stairs, much like
a “wedding march”, holding the cape out to my sides, singing the whole time and not able to move my head
because of the head dress. Which meant, not being able to look at the stairs or hold on to anything. Gracefull? NOT!
Especially the nite the damn thing got caught on the upper platform while going
down the stairs! I had to do a slight leaning back, then out to my left to unhook the thing.
Not to mention the fact, because of it’s size 4 feet tall and 6′ wide, I wasn’t able
to come on stage with it on. No….. I had to crouch down, put it through the doorway, then go through
the door, put the thing on and adjust it. The next step was to ascended the winding stairs up the back of
the platform – sideways naturally because my beautiful head adornment wouldn’t fit any other way!
The audience was able to see all of this! My nickname during that show was, The NBC Peacock! The head dress had been made for someone with a much larger head as well. Cotton was stuffed around the inside, but it was always too big for me. Again, adding to the problem of keeping it balanced on my head.
The other follie’s girls were always complaining of how hard it was to come down the stairs. They were able to use the one railing on the upstage side, were able to look down at the steps, AND were dancers! Not a clod like myself. They also had little teeny head dresses and had more material covering their bodies. I never did open that cape quite enough for Michael. My special spot light never happened either-of which I am thankful for. I didn’t need a spot light to be noticed! Each nite I was petrified as well as mortified, as I came down those stairs. I was always afraid of loosing count as to the stair I was on,that a heel would catch, my bad knee would go out as it was supporting all of my weight, I’d loose my balance or the head dress would begin to slip a little too much. The whole time, Michael’s words echoing in my head, “If any of you ladies falls coming down those stairs, just be sure you do it gracefully.” Oh sure!!!!! Graceful is the last thing it would be!
I hid in the bathroom, locked the door and refused to go on stage opening night. I was way too heavy to be seen in front of people in such an outfit. I kept telling Michael that all along. This outfit was definately better suited for one of the younger, slimmer girls. Rather than
cause myself anymore embarassment, and to spare the audience’s senses; I would pull and stretch what little fabric there was each nite. I was very hesitant about holding that cape out very far and I never let anyone see me from the right side as there was nothing covering me there! Poor Michael, he spent so much time trying to convice me that I looked fine and to make me feel comfortable in his creation. Needless to say, all of his valiant efforts failed.
I was also working crew, as well as being Property Mistress. This meant after this little stint of coming down the stairs, I’d change back into my blacks, work the show, then change back into this hideous outfit for curtain call! Okay, sorry Michael! The outfit was beautiful as was the head dress, it was the person wearing it that was hideous okay? I don’t think anyone will ever forget this escapade, certainly not me!
The other walk-on’s were small, as promised, thank goodness! I made a brief appearance in “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”- the 1st one. NO, not as a “whore”. The entire crew were dressed as cowboys, and I had to be on a few times as a fill in. I was also a Nazi in the “Sound of Music”. Had to get all dressed in a Nazi uniform just to run across the stage, yell “Halt”, and then get back into my crew clothes! Those were more my kind of appearances on stage. They were also the last. 4 was more than enough, and “Paradise People” got any ideas of “acting” out of my system.
Otherwise, it’s like a deer in headlights being on stage for me. Even as a crew person, having to do a scene change that is not a complete black out is mortifying. Or getting caught when the lights come up. Of course that has happened more than once, and usually bending over with my rear end to the audience. I sometimes think those lighting people do that on purpose!
Keep me in the dark, that is where I am happy!
After all, crew performs best in the dark.