The Dream Factory

IMG_2153I’m trying to explain to my friend’s friend, Richie, what a stage manager does. Richie’s a hard-boiled, musical theater loving, mentally-challenged adult. You can tell by the road map of wrinkles lining his face that he’s lived a lot of life, even if there are things he’ll never understand.

“Stage managers manage everything to do with the show. They make sure every day that everything runs smoothly.”

“Oh.” He blinks.

We’re backstage, past the costumes hanging in the hallway, past the quick change booth, by the disemboweled bowling alley and the rolling car seats.

“They make sure the cast and crew are in their place and ready to go so that the show can happen every night.”

He furrows his brow.

“The stage managers run the show. And rehearsals. They’re the everyday magicians, pulling all the strings.”

Now we’re on stage, looking out towards the crimson seats of the theater. A props person sweeps, ushers gather abandoned programs from the aisles.

“Can I smoke here?”


“Oh. Okay.” He tucks his crushed pack of Basic cigarettes in his front shirt pocket. “When can I smoke?”

“When we’re outside.”

Later at night, I wish I had asked drawn comparisons between stage managers and the professor behind the curtain who ran the Wizard of Oz. How the wizard-worker probably showed up every day, a black and white character in a colorful world, with his lunch in a brown paper bag, wished everyone a good morning, and disappeared behind the drapery, as the inhabitants of Emerald City went about their own lives for the day, never once asking themselves why he was there.

By then, Richie’s probably moved on, torn another filter off his Basic cigarette, and smoked it to its very nub. I’m left on the abandoned beach of my imagination wondering about the true essence of what it is we’re all doing on the rocket-ship called Broadway.

We’re part of the dream factory, a blessed machine built to remind thousands of audience members every day to laugh, smile, think, learn, and remember what it is to sing and dance. The dream factory is built on sand and powered by our dreams and imagination, each of us cogs in the hamster wheel, whether we’re ushers, props, electrician, or actors. Always balancing, always juggling, dodging the bad and embracing the good.

Like most jobs, working in a dream machine takes its toll.

Here, we sometimes forget who we are.

Which can cause a profound absence of perspective.

Some of us begin to believe we are someone else. Something other than, better or worse than, the person standing next to us, doing their part to tell our shared story to the audience. A wicked amnesia of sorts. Viral ideas of grandeur implant can themselves into our hollowed brains.

Silly things become important. A lipstick color will drive an usually rational, reasonable woman to tears. The difference between firm and hard hold hairspray might cause hours of concerned debate.

And yet, if a person suffers from a heart attack backstage, the show will go on. A performer might plummet thirty feet from a set piece and break every bone in his body, but the conductor will lift his baton, the actors will still sing, the lights will light, props and set pieces will move on cue.

Every performance is a runaway train, sometimes meandering, sometimes speeding, sometimes moving, sometimes painfully slow, but nearly impossible to stop. There should be a warning label on all things theatrical for any individual who thinks the theater is where they want to reside: objects in the mirror appear shinier than they really are.

A few days after Richie’s visit, my show has a put-in. A put-in is a rehearsal where the entire play is staged for the benefit of an actor or actress who is replacing another in a role. This replacement actor wears full costume and wigs. The other actors don’t. And so, if you’re watching this event, you see the melding of two worlds, a casualness that makes you fall in love with the people you work with, and a stark, sweaty nervousness that ignites your compassion for the new performer who is learning where to be, how to be, and what to be after rehearsing alone, guided by stage managers, dance captains, and musical directors in a studio for weeks on end.

Put-ins are about rebirth and relationships, moving through space and negotiating time. Grace, gratitude, humility, generosity. The challenge  of finding a unique voice within a role that’s been shaped by another. They’re singular moments in the dream factory that can fill the house with love.

They also remind us of how very replaceable we are.

That night, I dream of two fat opera singers, a man and a woman. They’re naked, their soft rolls of flesh jiggle with every note they sing. They hold hands and lean away from each other with all their weight as gravity cause them to spin, and spin, and spin.

“You know the saying ‘life is not a dress rehearsal,'” I ask Mark. He’s wearing his fake mustache, his fake glasses, chewing on his fake cigar on the fake car seats before his scene. “What if life is a dress rehearsal? What if every day, every moment, is a rehearsal for the next. If we’re meant to learn until the final number, strip away the excess posturing to find our true essence. What if, as we drill the written lines of the stories we’re given into our brains, we’re meant to find our own voice. Bit by bit. Organic. So we make it look easy? What if?”

He says, “maybe life supposed to be a performance. Fully embraced, fully realized. In rehearsals, even if an actor’s ‘in it,’ there’s a tiny part of his brain that’s somewhere out there, detached, watching.”

“People learn more, explore more, experiment more in rehearsal than they do when they performing for others,” I say.

And as the chorus pipes in with harmony, Mark moves towards stage right. “I see what you’re saying, but life is meant to be lived. Fully. In the moment.” And with that, he’s pushed on stage and into his scene on a rolling office chair.

I don’t disagree. I suspect we’re both wrong. Life is neither a performance nor a rehearsal. Life is life.

Fate is the script. Freewill is the detail work.

The directions, the stage management, the lost, mild-mannered professor running the show from behind the curtain… the levers and lights, sound, automation, set, props, costumes, hair and make-up… in the best possible world, they embellish, but do not change, the essence of the scripts we’ve been handed.

red shoes

10 thoughts on “The Dream Factory

  1. Maybe you’re both right. If so, we think we’re rehearsing while we’re actually performing, or we’re performing but we think it’s only a rehearsal. A scary thought. Thanks for the backstage view of the dream machine.

    • I suspect there are as many right answers as there are people. But who knows what personalities make up the audience of starts and space debris? Perhaps the difference between rehearsal and performance depends on who is watching…

      Our friend Jean knows all about that…


  2. This is exquisite and I love the analogy. It made me smile and also dearly miss the theatre. You see, my first career was going to be as a stage manager. I started as an actor when I was little and then did parallel work as an SM in high school and by college had transitioned to stage management. I was really good. I took a different theatre job when I graduated and am now in a totally different field, but stage management was the best training ground for what I do now (I’m an exec at a huge company). Perhaps someday I will be back 🙂

    • Rocketship theater moves really slow (everyone’s too busy looking in the mirror to man the controls…) I’m sure you can hop on anytime you want! In the meantime, does your company need a quirky, dizzy, somewhat creative writer and filmmaker who looks in the mirror a little too often? I could style everyone’s wigs!

      Stage managers are magicians. You must still have some of that magic in your blood…

      • Ah, thank you. I think you are right, actually…if it doesn’t sound too conceited. My job for several years has been getting big scary things done on time and on budget…trying to get hundreds of people aligned. I will always swear that my stage management experience at an early age was key to developing the skills I needed to successfully do what I do. I LOVED it. Sigh.

        I’ll have to look around the boardroom next time to look for wigs 🙂

  3. This is a great piece. I don’t see most of these interactions except for the rare occurrence when something onstage is just a little different- and makes me wonder what just happened back there. This week a little old British couple stopped by and said we made their night. It was their 47th wedding anniversary, and he had just bought her a ring at Tiffany’s. She showed it to me, so new she was still covering it constantly with her thumb.

    • Thanks, Julie! I was worried about being to harsh.

      By the way, this is what happens backstage: people soft-shoe tap dance. They look in the mirror. They spray their hair (which I think you sometimes hear through the mics…), some people read, but no one has time to knit. And every once on a while, someone tells a joke. Kenny sings along. Sometimes I do pushups…

      The best gift of working backstage is that you see a lot of people in their underwear and socks and come to realize that even the most handsome men and the most beautiful women look terrible under fluorescents in little black socks, mic belts, and almost nothing else. It’s very freeing, really…

      You are in the privileged position to be the portal for peoples’ effusive joy. I tell my staff every day that we’re making 1200 people (give or take) happy. They always laugh at me, but it’s true. What a nice job to have, when you stop to think of it… making people happy… we just have to keep reminding ourselves (or I need to remind myself) that we should count ourselves among the numbers that should be happy at least a few hours a night, if not all the time…


  4. Great analogy and always good to see what other people / other depts use in there backstage spiels. I love hearing and watching other co workers give tours to see what they focus in on. i.e. the flymen in the carpenter dept taking people up to the fly floor to see their perspective of the show.
    I usually tell people that stage managers are like an Admiral on a ship, nothing moves or happens unless they say its okay. Also they need to know everyone else’s job’s and terminology so if needed they can cover them in an emergency or at least attempt to. Like you said the show must and will go on…

  5. I like this one, too. It’s funny how many things do become so inflated and important, yet they really do seem it in that moment. One can only imagine what it would be like to actually have to save lives or move large sums of other people’s money around. I think we would all have a little mental breakdown. I’m all for being a part of the dream team that makes others remember to be happy, dance and enjoy life. Very thought provoking, Amy. Delightful.

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