“Why do you do it?” My mother asked me after I spent the last fifteen minutes telling her about my weekend. My family and I volunteered our time to a local community theater and this weekend was the opening of the Mary Poppins musical. My youngest son has a small part in the cast and helps backstage, my oldest son is working spotlight, and my husband works on raising and lowering the backdrops and flying Mary Poppins and Bert around. I help with moving the set pieces during scene changes. It is one of the most complicated plays I have worked and I was explaining all the challenges to my mother. She could not understand why we would volunteer so much time and effort. Her words were “You are not the even on stage, and nobody sees you, so why do you work so hard for little or no recognition?” Why? It was a tough question.
I do it for many reasons, one being I love the creativity of it all. I do it for the same reason I write, or gardens or complete complicated puzzles. It is creating something from nothing, and slowly it becomes something worth seeing. In theater, everyone has a part – big or small – and like a puzzle it all comes together under the guidance of the director. The magic of a story coming to life on stage is only part of it because behind the scenes it is just as magical, one only has to willing to be part of the puzzle.
Skilled carpenters build a setting and make it possible to change scenes as easy as it is to turn the page of a book. Creative painters brushed on reality – each stroke creating dimension and illusions to fool the eye. Light crews carefully placed lights to highlight the details. Spot lighters are trained to show the audience the importance of the scene. Strong and precise fly rail operators added backdrops to complete the illusion on the stage. The costume designer creates costumes for each cast member, – most wearing more than one. Dressers are ready to undress and redress in record time. Crew members are moving pieces on and off the stage with each scene change–like it’s own kind of dance. When it all comes together, the story telling is the finished product and the audience the witness. It is a craft done as a team.
I love opening night. I wait in the wings – with butterflies and chills – surrounded by crew and cast, my youngest son among them, their nervous energy contagious. Across the stage, I see my husband with the stage left crew, their hands wrapped around the ropes of the curtain backdrops and others poised behind pieces of furniture ready to be set in place. High above in the catwalk, my oldest son aims his spotlight, waiting for the star to emerge from behind the curtain. I hold my breath – the whole room holds its breath – as we wait for the show to start. I look over my notes for the hundredth time, praying I don’t forget something and then the music starts, the curtain rises, and the story begins.
On their cue the actors spill out onto the stage, their voices clear and their eyes shining in the light. I am soon lost in my backstage world, listening for cues, anticipating the scene changes, moving large, awkward pieces – disguising their noise during the climax of the music. Everything else fades as I and my fellow crew members concentrate on our task until the final bow and the roar of the audience. We have succeeded – this army of theater volunteers – we have accomplished our goal of making the audience forget the outside world for a couple of hours, and they are appreciative.
Everyone is grinning and hugging after the show as they make their way backstage. I collapse on a bench used in one of the scenes. The excitement of everyone’s voices carry up the ramp to where I rest; I hear my sons’ laughter in the mix. My husband joins me, and we sit together listening to the joy of a successful opening night. To us, it was worth every single minute, the weeks of preparation, the brutal technical week and the sacrifice of three weekends – this moment makes it all worthwhile.
I believe we go through life hoping someone notices that we contribute to the unfolding story that surrounds us. When one participates in something as extraordinary as a theater production and is aware of all the intricate components of each task that each person does – then one will learn a lifelong lesson. It is a lesson I want my children to learn – and one I need to remember. One does not have to be in the spotlight to make a show worthwhile; it is the one behind the spotlight, behind the curtain and in the dressing rooms. It is the people, who weeks prior were building, painting, choreographing and planning. And of course, it is the actors, those brave souls who face the crowd and give their heart and soul, as they become the characters of the story.
The most important piece of this puzzle is the audience and what they take home from the experience. Theater gives us an arena to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, to find what we are made of and to use talents we never thought we had. We hope someone in the audience will want to be a part of that magic. I remember sitting in the audience, and I was in awe of a theater production, but I did not think I had enough talent to contribute until someone told me I did. I found there is a place for everyone, even someone like me.
“And someone like you,” I told my mother, and she laughed “No, not me.”
“Well Mom, as Mary Poppins would say ‘Anything can happen, if you let it.'”