Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Life In The Theater

I've worked in the theater for over twenty years. And by "worked" I don't mean "get paid to perform duties." I've never gotten paid to do what I've done. Not in money at least.

It all started because of a girl. That's the way it always works, it seems. A girl I had a crush on asked me to come to Drama Club my freshman year of high school and from that day on I was hooked. I loved everything about theater. The prop room, the light booth, the backstage area. I also loved the history of it all. I would go to rehearsal early and look at all the old photographs of casts past and wonder how many of them became part of Drama Club because of a girl. I would check out the set pieces from old shows and imagine moving them on and off the stage. Then I would stare at the backstage wall. It was a wall that couldn't be seen from the audience, just outside the tech room that had different colored hand prints and painted messages and signatures from everyone who had ever been a part of the theater at my school. It was like an unburied time capsule. By the end of my first show my hand print was up on that wall in dark green with a simple "chaz, 1992." written below it in chicken scratch.

My first job in Drama Club was to help with lights. It was mostly just flipping switches when the vocal cue came. It was an easy job as long as I paid attention. Actually, now that I think about it, my first job was untangling all the light cords. It took my friend and me over eight hours to untangle about thirty miles of dusty orange cords. It was quite a bonding experience. She and I became great friends after that. We're still great friends all due to those damned cords. And to this day I always wind any cords I use very neatly so that they don't get tangled.

I worked my way up the ranks in Drama Club. I helped build and paint set pieces. I ran the spot light. I ran the curtain. I moved set pieces on and off stage. I controlled the flies. This last job was my favorite. The flies are the different banners or set pieces or small curtains that "fly" in and out from above the stage. These are all controlled by a set of ropes off stage.

I didn't just work in my high school theater productions. I also helped out with a summer theater group that was started by my old band director. It was in collaboration with Niagara University, which is a huge theater school here in Western New York. I was sixteen years old and hanging out with college kids (they seemed so old!) who knew so much more than me about building sets and tuning the lights and running the flies. I learned so much about theater and drinking and college life. I hung out with them in their apartments and on campus and it was just such a great time.

Looking back I can't believe these people in their early twenties wanted to hang out with a little kid like me. But I remembered that time. I remembered all the things they taught me and all the beers they snuck me and the times we had. And when I was in my early twenties, I paid it forward.

Now I'm in my mid-thirties. I'm still helping out with that summer theater group. It's so much bigger now and the productions we do now are huge compared to that first production of Lil' Abner. I was actually mentioned in the program last summer as the Assistant Technical Director. I built sets and I had a hand in how things should look and what we should do to make them look that way. I had a few high school kids working under me painting and drilling and cutting wood when needed. I didn't think I would ever get my name in the program for that. I never thought, "oh yeah, this is the year I'll see my name in the program." It honestly never crossed my mind. Working behind the scenes all these years in the theater, you don't ever imagine your name will be mentioned in the program. It's enough to just see your sets built and your lights tuned just perfectly.

This year I'll be working as Prop Master. It may not seem like a huge thing to someone who has never worked in the theater, but to me it is. last year's Prop Master didn't do a great job (from the whispers I overheard backstage) so I have to do this well. It's a lot more work and more responsibility. And it's also one step closer to being the director's assistant. In order to do a great job I've done research online and at the library. I'm pretty psyched about this gig. I will never be the director (she's married to the producer, my old band director), but I want to learn as much as I can from as many people as I can.

If I was smart back when I was graduating from high school I would have just gone to college for theater, but then again I always did take the long way around to get to where I wanted to go.


  1. I work at the theatre camp where I went to camp as a kid. I've been working there for 10 years now, and I don't remember what summer was like for me before I went there. I actually was singing one of the songs that was in my very first musical (and my first lead role) today, and thinking about how different our program is now from where it was when I started there at 10 years old, and even just how much it's changed since my friend and I took the program over five-ish years ago. I've seen kids from this program age out, go into theatre in high school, and then go on to major it it (or a related field) in college. Makes me feel old, but I can't imagine spending my summer any other way - I get to work with some of my closest friends, AND some truly wonderful, talented, down to earth kids.

  2. I didn't get to write about it in this post, but there really are some great life lessons that one learns from being a part of a theater group.

    I've been a part of sports teams and other groups, but the friends I made and the things I've learned in Drama Club and theater really have stuck with me much more than anything I learned being a part of a team.

    Theater is more like a family than anything else I've been a part of.

    So what was that first leading role you had?

    The first show we ever did was "Lil' Abner." I'd be really interested to see what that show would look and sound like if we did it again.

    Although I'm not a huge fan of that show.