Before you run, you have to walk a little. Through a friend, I was offered the opportunity to work as a stage crew member in a play at the Wilson Performing Arts Center in Red Oak Iowa called Bye Bye Birdie. This play was inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley and his draft notice into the Army in 1957. The main character in the play, ‘Conrad Birdie’, is an Elvis-like rock star that can make the girls swoon with just a simple shake of his hips.
Knowing that this would be a great opportunity to get an inside look at the inner workings of a community play, I decided to take the plunge and dive headlong into the world of a Stage Crew member.
Apparently….a play is not something that you just practice a few times and then go on stage and see how things turn out in front of a live audience.. Who knew??? Let’s begin by saying that in just the first week of this experience, the stage crew has put in 25+ hours of practice and live show runs. And, in a two-week period, there are only 3 days that we will not be required to work our magic. Now, consider the fact that many of the people involved also have real full-time jobs that they are working during the day, and you will begin to get the picture. In other words, if you have any aspirations of being on either a stage crew or to actually act in a play…clear your schedule bro. Because, you’ll be spending a lot of time at the theater.
The First Day
On the first day, I was taught about B.O.C.’ (Black out curtains)and Periactoids (A periactoid is a movable, triangular set piece that can have different appearances on each of the three sides so that it can be rotated to serve different scenes. Shown in the picture above.). I also met the cast and was greeted with a warm welcome and about a hundred snapping fingers (instead of claps). The Building itself is not new to me. In fact, while working as a Police Officer in Red Oak I had the opportunity to search and clear the building many times after some kind of movement or intrusion alarm had gone off. And speaking of the building, I have to say that you couldn’t really ask for a nicer, better equipped building than the Wilson Performing Arts Building. It truly is a nice, functional and durable building.
After a briefing and some introductions, the cast ran through the play (at a much slower pace than normal) and we, the stage crew, walked through setting up the stage pieces in the correct places. Sometimes we would practice the moves three or four times, until we got it just right. This first run took several hours. But, by the time we finished the play, we had a pretty fair idea of how everything was supposed to go. Before going live, we would run through the show, in its entirety, 5 more times.Practice run with a live audience
On June 11th, we performed a live run of the play for what is mostly considered family and friends night. It gives the cast and crew an opportunity to perform the play in front of a little more forgiving audience in preparation for opening night, which, as I write this, is tonight! Our live practice run went smoothly, with everything and everyone coming together nicely. And, I think everyone is ready to go. So….as they say (In my best Mafia voice) ‘Let’s go break some legs’.
Lights, camera, action!!
After all of our practice runs, going live seemed to be just another day for us on the stage crew. The first couple of live shows exposed some areas where we needed to make some minor adjustments so that everything would flow right. But, on the whole, the live shows went well and everyone knew, for the most part, what to do and when to do it. Our stage crew worked well as a team and occasionally one of us would forget something that another would remember. But we checked each others work and made it all happen as smoothly and flawlessly as possible.
6 Live Shows Later
After two full weekends of live shows, we were all done. All of the live shows went well and I’m pretty sure the attendance was very good. There was a lot of applause from the audience as well as a lot of laughter during the many funny parts. And, I have to say, that I leave this experience very impressed with the Actors and Actresses that performed in this show. Watching them play their parts over and over during the many practices and live shows, has given me a true insight into the dedication and near perfection that they bring to the stage. In fact, I made the comment that they had really made me question whether I could ever come close to filling their shoes. They were just that good.
Watching them watch each other
Being backstage through the entire play, I had an opportunity to watch the cast as they prepared to go onstage and were watching others that were currently in a scene. There was one recurring theme that I witnessed over and over. They all seemed to enjoy each others performances and it was rare that a smile would leave their faces while they watched. In other words, run after run, day after day, the cast gained as much enjoyment from watching the other cast members act, as they did acting themselves. So, if you ever ask the question “Why do they do what they do?”, I’m guessing the answer might not be as simple as I would have previously thought. Yes, it’s exhilarating to perform on stage. But also, there can be a truly fulfilling experience gained in the relationships and bonds that the cast and crew build throughout the entire theatrical process.
New found friends
One of the best reasons to get out and do something that you would not normally do (Something out of your box) can be described in one word… ‘Relationships’. The world becomes smaller and smaller as you meet and interact with new people, making new friends along the way. And, these relationships can bring fun, joy and laughter where otherwise there me be little or none. We all need each other in one way or another. We learn from each other, we feed off of each other and we gain insight into ourselves through others.
I can honestly say that I was accepted into this group of cast and crew with so much enthusiasm that I immediately felt as though I were part of a bigger family. The adults, and kids alike, were very friendly and I truly enjoyed working with all of them.
And, one thing that I’ve said before is that theater is something like group therapy. It’s nearly impossible not to be in a good mood when you are around the energy that surrounds a good musical. This young lady, for example, never stopped smiling or dancing throughout the entire ordeal. Had she stopped, for even a moment, she surely would have collapsed from exhaustion.
After the final run, the real back-breaking work began and we had to disassemble nearly every set piece used in the play. Every piece on the set was made of base pieces that were screwed or bolted together. much of which can be re-used for other plays in the future to save money. Luckily, a lot of cast members showed up to help disassemble and carry everything upstairs and we were able to completely tear the set down in less than an hour and a half. After the set breakdown we were greeted by boxes and boxes of pizza and one last moment of camaraderie before we all went our separate ways.
And then it was done
And, in a flash, just as quickly as it all began, it was over. and I was making the 35 minute drive home. Before I left, I asked a few of the cast if they would miss the play. Some shook their head in acknowledgement with a sad look in their eyes, others said ‘No, not really’ and one simply shook his head yes and said ‘I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with myself now’. For me, I think there are some mixed emotions. I can tell you that it’s taken a lot of time and I’ve had to put a lot of things aside to make the practices and the live runs of the play. I’ve ended nearly every day of the past three weeks truly exhausted, sleeping like a lifeless lump, only to wake up, work for eight hours and then go back to the theater for the remainder of the evening. I won’t miss being as busy as I have been for the last few weeks.
However, at the very same time I’ll miss each and every part of the whole experience. I’ll definitely miss the people, old and young. And, I’ll miss being a small part of a much bigger thing. In the end, I can truly say that this was one of the most rewarding ‘out of the box’ experiences that I’ve had since starting this blog.
In closing, I’d like to extend a thanks to Carol Wisner and the Director, Fran Sillau, for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the stage crew for Bye Bye Birdie. And, I’d also like to say thanks to the cast and crew for welcoming me into their group with open arms and smiles.
A few Photos from various scenes
Although mere photos do not convey the fun energy that surrounded this play, here are a few photos from various scenes. For me, each of the photos reminds me of a song, a funny line, or something that I won’t easily forget.