One of the ideas that we promote at Pigeon Creek, is that the work an acting company does back stage is just as important as the work that happens on stage. Oscar worthy performances can be ruined if, for example, a set piece doesn’t get placed in time, there is distracting noise coming from behind the curtains, or an important sound cue is totally missed. In other theaters, there is a crew of “techies” that handle a lot of that work. But as an original practices company, all the backstage work is actor driven. So in addition to all of our regular work as actors, we also handle all of the sound cues, set and costume changes, and any other “tech” work that needs to be done. Some shows have more tech than others, but it is essential that, to the audience, it always appear seamless. Today I’d like to walk you through a little bit of my backstage work with “Cymbeline.”
We typically arrive at the theater an hour and a half ahead of show time. I prefer to arrive a little bit earlier if my day allows. The more time I have to prepare, the better. If I rush myself too much I’m likely to forget an essential part of my preparation. My ideal would be two hours prior to show time, but sometimes that’s a luxury. Usually the first thing I do is relax a bit. I’ll talk with the other actors who have arrived, discuss anything weird that happened in the previous show that might need to be adjusted, and maybe eat. I know a number of actors who don’t like to eat before a show. But I’d much rather act on a full stomach than an empty one.
A few minutes before call (the official time we are required to be at the theater.) I’ll take my personal stuff downstairs and change into my tights and show shoes. Putting on tights (for me at least) takes a little bit of time, and I like to wear my show shoes for a while before performing. Once we hit call, we have a brief warm up and then a fight call. A fight call is where we run all of the bits of combat or complex physical business to make sure we stay sharp. After that, the cast disperses to get ready for the show. Because I’m playing a woman, and wearing clothes and make-up that I am unaccustomed to, it takes me a little bit longer to get ready than usual. But that’s ok with me. I’m usually dolled up just in time to go on stage for our pre-show music.
Ours leads directly into the first scene, and I’m in that scene. So after I finish the song, I rush backstage set my guitar down and zip back onstage for my first scene. After that I’ve got a little bit of down time. Usually at this point I move around a little backstage making sure instruments are in place for when they are needed later in the play. I’m fortunate that in the first half of the play I don’t change costume at all. I’ve got five scenes in the first half all as the same character, and five scenes in the second act. Every scene in the second act I’m a different character, so I run around a bit more then.
After my second scene I’ve got a little bit more time, but during this break I have a few sound cues to cover scene transitions. The first cue is to get the set on, then I hang out with my guitar backstage while I wait for the cue to get the set off stage. After I do that, I need to set my guitar down and help Imogen (Brooke Heintz) get back into her corset, which she had taken off for a scene. Iachimo (Sarah Stark) and I rush to lace her back up before I have to enter for my third scene.
After my fourth scene I hand out just behind our curtains for two quick pages. The script calls for a “cave entrance,” so we prop open one side of our center curtain so that the actors have to duck to get through it. It’s my job to open and close it at the appropriate time.
After my last scene in the first act, I ring the intermission bell and get ready for the busiest part of the play for me. During intermission I help to get instruments set up and tuned for the two pieces we perform. I’m usually doing that up until a few moments we go on stage. After we perform the second song, I rush backstage to start a hectic chain of things I have to do, one immediately following the other:
1.) Take off my make-up and change into my soothsayer costume
2.) Grab my costumes for the two other characters I play in the second act.
3.) Pick up my guitar to play for a song that two characters sing on stage
4.) Go on stage as a soothsayer
5.) After I exit, change into my second character of the act
6.) Drum cue for a scene on stage
7.) Go on stage for some combat, as soon as I exit I take over drumming so someone ELSE can fight
8.) Go on stage for a scene
9.) Rush off stage to change into my third character of the act, this is my fastest change.
After Act 5, Scene 4, I have my longest break of the evening. I spend a good deal of this time putting away costumes and props I no longer need, and changing back into my soothsayer costume for the last scene of the play.
I’m fortunate that I never have to change into or out of my Queen costume quickly. And I’m also fortunate that this play isn’t as hectic as others that I’ve done. But in the end, I prefer it. Even at it’s most hectic, it’s still a fun way to say involved and focused on the play and the story we’re telling.