Monday, June 10, 2013

A Life In The Theater, redux

After watching the Tony's last night, I decided to look back at my life in the theater. And it has been a LIFETIME. I've been a part of local and regional theater groups for over twenty years, which means I have been a theater geek longer than I haven't been a theater geek.

So the best way to look back at my life is to look back at my writings about or from that time. Thankfully I wrote a small handful of blog posts about my time working in the theater. I decided to take one of my old pieces and add to it with some more current thoughts as well as fix some of the pretentious writing.

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. At least not in money.

It all started because of a girl. That's the way it always works with me, it seems. A girl I had a crush on asked me to come to Drama Club during 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 if any 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 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. STRIKE THAT. My very first job with the Drama Club was untangling all the light cords. It took my friend and me over eight hours to untangle about thirty miles of dusty, dirty, grimy orange light 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 up 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 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 (literally) opened and closed the curtain on musicals, plays, one-act plays, pieces of Shakespeare, and so many other theatre pieces.

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. Every chance I got I tried to teach a thing or two to the kids working with me or for me on the stage crews I worked on.

Now I'm in my mid-thirties. I'm still helping out with that summer theater group. (CLICK HERE on more on this strike out) I feel so honored to be a part of that "little" theater group. When I think back on that first production of Lil' Abner, I miss how great it was... And the final performance (Hairspray) was so far from what Lil' Abner was. But at the same time, it we didn't grow so large that we forgot where we came from. We grew so much in the eighteen years we were putting shows on. And I use "we" because I really feel as though I had a lot to do with what was put on in all of the theaters we called home. So many of us literally grew up in the theater.

In the second to last production (RENT), I was mentioned (without my knowledge) in the program 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.

The final year I worked as Prop Master. It may not seem like a huge thing to someone who has never worked in the theater, but to me it was. The previous Prop Master didn't do a great job (from the whispers I overheard backstage) so I had to do it 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 did research online and at the library. I was pretty psyched about this gig. I knew I would never be the director with this theater group, but I wanted to learn as much as I could from as many people as I could.

I had no idea how I was going continue to work in local and regional theater once this group dissolved. But unbeknownst to me, people actually had heard of me. Maybe these other theater groups talked to my former band director/producer or to the stage managers I worked under looking for someone to fill a position. Or maybe they just knew I was that chaz who worked on so-and-so production. Who knows. Who cares. I was back in the theater! I ran lights on Guys and Dolls. I was assistant Stage Manager/Light Technician on Joesph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. I helped cast Seussical the Musical.

But then life gets in the way. This is always my curse. I have bills to pay. I have to work for a living. GOD I WISH LOCAL THEATER PAID.
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. I am slowly getting back to my roots and back into the theater. This summer and fall I plan on assisting a Stage Manager on a production. And maybe things will open up from there. Maybe I can find some paying gigs. Maybe I could actually do something with all this knowledge and passion I have for the theater?

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