This past weekend was the spring musical at the school I teach at. This year it was Starlight Express (we did it on heelys instead of roller skates), and it was an undertaking. Also, strangely, the director needed a few more actors and put me into a role(s). I played Mum right at the beginning (of which I have no photos because it’s a mere two seconds of stage time) and Starlight Express (of the title yes) in Act II.
I don’t know if this would surprise any of my blog readers (a few of you know me IRL so to speak), but my goal and dream in life used to be, to be an actress. From about the age of six until I was about twenty-five years old. Which is a very long time to hold on to a dream like that, but that was me. I’m pretty sure anyone who ever met me as a kid and talked more than a minute with me, would find out that I wanted to be in movies, win an Oscar, etc. and so on and so forth. After college (theatre and writing major, though the theatre was more primary in my head), I went to acting school in Los Angeles, intent on the pursuit of the glittering lights of Hollywood.
It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. For one, it wasn’t that I wasn’t landing jobs from my auditions; it was that I wasn’t getting called to audition all that much. The world of acting is all about networking as well. Every place, party, class, interaction you have has this underlying agenda of ‘who are you and can I use you?’ And despite being a gregarious person, networking made me anxious. I felt weird about it, and awkward, and in general when I got home from work (barista at Starbucks, natch), going out was the last thing I wanted to do. So after a lot of soul searching at about age 24/25, I realized that acting was not a professional pursuit for me.
And until last year, I hadn’t been on stage as an actor in a good decade; longer for a musical. I did a bit part in our school’s version of West Side Story (when other teachers couldn’t fill in) in 2016, but it required no singing. Starlight Express is pretty much entirely sung, and I had to sing by myself (which I don’t think has happened since high school). Terrifying and fun. However…I’ve changed. I’d already figured out something about myself after my two community theatre experiences last year.
It was fun to be onstage last year in both Annie (ensemble) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hippolyta). I had lines in both, got to sing and dance in Annie, and got to speak Shakespeare in Midsummer. I’d never been in a Shakespeare play before despite my years of studying it as literature and theatre. And I’m really glad I got to do both.
But (especially in Midsummer) there was something missing. I’d be onstage, as present and alive as I could be in the moment, then I’d go offstage and wait until my next scene. In Annie, most happened pretty quick, and moving set and props was a part of the job which I liked. In Midsummer, I couldn’t move scenery because if I was seen, I was a queen doing labor (I understand the reasoning). But because of it, I was backstage for about an hour and a half doing nothing useful. I started grading papers outside the dressing room to have something to do; again useful.
And I realized some time during all of that, that I was no longer the little girl dreaming of an Oscar and making up my acceptance speech (it would have been epic). There was a thrill, sure, to being onstage and having eyes on me, and causing the audience to feel something. But it didn’t/doesn’t last long and I really don’t like the nerves that seem to make themselves known only seconds before going onstage. I don’t LOVE it like I did.
I like being useful. I like moving set, and opening the curtain, and making sure the actors are in place before I move us to the next scene. I like figuring out how to fix something mid-production because something inevitably goes wrong and that’s what I do as assistant director, part stage manager, part backstage adult. I problem solve, encourage the actors, make sure set is in the right place. I am actively doing something.
In Starlight, because I was in costume for all of it, I could not move our set, but had to rely on high schoolers to follow the notes I’d carefully typed out. If something went wrong on stage, I had to send someone else to fix it. I spent nearly twenty minutes just making myself look like this:
And I can’t help feeling, due to all of that and my general anxiety pre-stepping out and singing, that I missed out a little on the experience. I became focused on my performance instead of the overall show. Which is fine, that’s mostly the job of the actor. But not the assistant director, which is more of what I am these days.
A very strange and surprising realization for someone who was sure she was gonna make it big in movies for almost twenty years. But it’s nice to know that the work I do backstage is far more helpful, useful, and satisfying than standing on stage ever was.
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