I’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.