Exclusive: Backstage Magic At BLT’s “Rocky Horror Show”
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an exclusive behind-the-scenes story about what it’s like working on “The Rocky Horror Show” from one of BTB Advertiser Burien Little Theatre’s Stagehands, Melissa Malloy]
by Melissa Malloy
I have lived the theater life since I was thirteen. I love every aspect of the theater experience, from the audience to the stage. One of the most rewarding experiences is working backstage on a show. The audience gets to enjoy the show and they feed their energy to the actors. The actors create the experience for the audience. But itâ€™s the backstage crew that glues everything together.
The backstage crews create the costumes for people, collect or create props, manipulate light, produce sounds, build sets, and move sets. Costumers have to make or find clothes from every era. Sometimes it means raiding a closet, purchasing all the contents of a thrift store or designing new items. Modern plays can be simple. Just have the actor bring clothes from their closet. Then you have Shakespeare. The costume designer must create corsets, gowns, codpieces, and whatever else someone may need to be an authentic Elizabethan Romeo or Juliet. Or you could be designing for â€œThe Rocky Horror Show,â€ where you can use your imagination to make everyone look outrageous. Sewing skills come in handy.
Also working in the costume arena are the dressers. Dressers help actors change clothes during the show. I was a dresser for a production of â€œHair.â€ Everyone takes off their clothes on stage, so the big joke was that I was an un-dresser. Hardy har har. Being a dresser takes talent. You have to get clothes off and on someone else in a matter of seconds, but make it look like they took their time changing. You really never have much light to perform these balancing acts, and sometimes clothes end up backwards or inside out. I once had an actor spend an entire act with his shoes on the wrong feet. Costume mishaps are handled by dressers as well. If a costume rips, they need to be able to stitch it closed.
A props master really needs to be a creative person. It doesnâ€™t matter what show you are producing, some of the props are going to need to be built. If youâ€™re putting on â€œDracula,â€ not many hospitals have an ancient transfusion machine just lying around, and if they do, I dare you to get them to let you use it. If youâ€™ve got a big sword fight, not many actors can pick up a real sword, so you use lighter ones that look real. Props are all about perception. It just looks like there is a brain in the jar; itâ€™s not a real one. If it turns out to be a real brain, the director probably snapped and itâ€™s his.
The extent of my lighting knowledge involves hitting the GO button on the lighting board. Lighting designers, however, need to know how light colors will work together. They focus lights on all of the stage or just a small section. They are responsible for bringing the sun and the moon up, for differentiating the Phantomâ€™s crypt from Christineâ€™s dressing room. The lighting designer tells the audience where to look, so if youâ€™re an actor, make sure to suck up to him or your monologue will be in the dark.
Usually when you think of sounds in a play, you think of the music. Music is the easy part of a sound designerâ€™s job. You also need to find sounds for things we take for granted, like knocking on a door. Knocking on a stage door loud enough for an audience to hear can take down the whole set, because sets arenâ€™t always anchored or sturdy. They function to let people enter or exit. Knocking usually needs to be recorded. Doorbells, gunshots, approaching footsteps, animals: these are all examples of sounds a designer will need to come up with for a show. You also have the sounds that need to be configured for imaginary things. What sound does Riff Raffâ€™s ray gun make? When the Ghost of Christmas Past appears, what should you hear? What do the machines sound like in â€œCharlie and the Chocolate Factory?â€
The set of a play lets you know what kind of play you are going to see. It can be a simple set of two ladders for â€œOur Town.â€ Now you know you are going to need to use your imagination to see where the actors are. â€œCrimes of the Heartâ€ takes place in a kitchen. The set designer can decide to make it simple with a table and chairs or he can build a whole kitchen. Traveling shows need to have sets that can be taken down and put up easily. â€œA Shaft of Light,â€ a play about the painter Carravagio, needed copies of his original paintings for the set. More than one set may need to be built. If act one is a different setting than act two, then changes need to be made at intermission. Maybe a different bed is rolled out. Maybe the set walls are just flipped around. The designer just needs to remember the stage crew only has fifteen minutes to transform the stage from one place to another.
The stage crew works alongside the dressers. They are the people on stage helping the actors make the transitions flawless. They make sure the props are in hand and the set is moved smoothly. The stage crew is responsible for making sure the stage is cleaned before and after a show so actors donâ€™t end up with staples in their feet. After Dracula has successfully been dispatched they are the ones cleaning up the fake blood. A crisis during the performance of a show will most likely be handled by one or more of the stage crew. When the little wooden knobs fall off, the stage crew glues them back on. When the fake ax head flies off the handle, it is a stage crew person who duct tapes it back on. Duct tape and a glue gun are the main tools of the trade for a stagehand.
The person who brings everyone together is the stage manager. This is the big cheese. The stage manager is in charge of making sure all the changes that happen during a show run smoothly. They know what all the sound cues, light cues, costume changes, set changes, and props should be. Some stage managers delegate to the crews and stand back to let everything happen. Some stage managers jump into the ring to help everything go as it should. Once a play opens, the stage manager is god.
If everything goes right during a performance, you never know the backstage crew is there. The actors magically change costumes in the blink of an eye. The stage looks like a different place after intermission. That book appears as if from thin air. You never realize someone is there committing those tiny miracles of the theater world.
The good nights run smoothly, and the crew never breaks a sweat. The bad nights are an adventure all their own. There are the nights when the things that go wrong are easily fixed. A prop was misplaced and the stage crew must run and find it. The lead actress popped a seam and the dresser must safety pin it until it can be sewed. But then there are the nights when the cast runs into the set and it starts to fall down. You stand backstage and the life of Ed in the band flashes before your eyes. Then you end up running to the other side of the stage, quietly, yelling at everyone in a whisper to move so you can hold up the set until intermission when someone can come and screw it to the floor.
My favorite panic moment was the night all the sound cues disappeared. The first song of the show was coming up and the stage manager calls for the sound cue to go and â€¦â€¦ SILENCE! The actors are standing around waiting for the cue, the button is hit again and â€¦ SILENCE! It was deafening. Now weâ€™re hitting any cue to see if any of them will make noise. The actors finally realize the music isnâ€™t coming and just start singing without it. Now if this happened to me, panic and hyperventilation would have been the chosen response. I donâ€™t know enough about the equipment to help in this situation. I can keep a headboard from squishing the two actresses jumping on the bed, but I curl into the fetal position if I have to fix anything computer related. Luckily, I was not the sound board operator. The fine young gentleman on the computer – weâ€™ll call him Alex – uttered a couple of choice expletives, then went to the random back-up files and prayed that the numbers matched. Of course the first sound that was used was a very loud THWAP-CHING, scaring the actors into silence for a couple of seconds before they registered the sound cues were back. After Alex found all the cues he uttered a few more expletives, a thank you prayer, and asked for alcohol.
Going to the theater is an experience. From the time the curtain goes up until it goes down, you never know what could happen. Computers glitch, clothes rip, props disappear, things fall down, people get lost, fire alarms go off. No matter what happens the backstage crews will be there to make sure it is a good time had by all, even if it means spilling blood, sweat, and tears.
Right now I am working on the stage crew for â€œThe Rocky Horror Showâ€ at Burien Little Theatre. We have had our stresses. The set almost fell on the band, the microphones cause me to die a little each night, fishnet stockings donâ€™t hold up well when being taken off hairy legs at a fast pace. On the other hand, I get to do the Time Warp every night, I get to see hot guys in very little clothing, I get to travel to Frankieâ€™s place. Every show is an adventure. Last Saturdayâ€™s audience was amazing. Everyone got up and danced, yelled at the cast, threw things. It was great. Iâ€™m just glad I donâ€™t have to clean up all the confetti each night. If youâ€™re looking for a good time, and want to throw your inhibitions to the wind, you should come and see the show.
And remember â€“ we are watching, waiting, and most likely cursing because the microphones still arenâ€™t working!
There are still tickets left for the remaining shows (BUY TICKETS ONLINE HERE), which include:
October 10 at 8:00 p.m. Friday – Guest Narrator – State Representative Sharon Nelson
October 11 at 8:00 p.m. Saturday – Guest Narrator – Burien City Councilmember Kathy Keene
October 12 at 2:00 p.m. Sunday Matinee
October 17 – NO SHOW!
October 18 at 8:00 p.m. Saturday – Guest Narrator – Mr. Stephen Lamphear
October 19 at 2:00 p.m. Sunday Matinee – Guest Narrator – United States Congressmember Jim McDermott
October 24 at 10:00 p.m. Friday
October 25 at 8:00 p.m. Saturday – Guest Narrator – State Representative Dave Upthegrove
October 26 at 2:00 p.m. Sunday
October 31 at 10:00 p.m. Friday – HALLOWEEN!
November 1 at 8:00 p.m. Saturday
November 2 at 2:00 p.m. Sunday – Your very last chance to do the Time Warp again!
And if you didn’t see it when we posted this before, here’s a sneak peek video we shot of one of the final dress rehearsals of the show: