The overture plays. The curtain lifts. The production commences. The performers sing, dance, act – sometimes all at the same time. The audience applauds and goes on their way happy and content having had a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre. What they don’t see is what is happening behind the scenes.
The fast costume changes, the unforgiving sets, the props being grabbed only moments before that crucial entrance. All the chaos behind the scenes is one of the trills of being in the theatre.
Just like the duck that glides delicately across the water whilst the legs out of sight are paddling like there’s no tomorrow, the backstage area can be a flurry of activity to which the audience is completely oblivious. And that’s a good thing. The audience is being transported to your world and for those few hours have been taken on a wonderful adventure because of the performers, the crew and everyone involved in the production. Well done, you!
To maintain a level of organisation within the chaos, here are the ten commandments of backstage. This list relates to backstage crew, the cast, ‘den mothers’ and anyone else who assisting backstage.
Thou shalt not leave thy costumes on the floor.
Leaving your costumes backstage is sometimes the only way the complete a quick change. But there are no excuses for leaving costumes on the floor. If your costume change is so quick that it needs to be completed in the wings – engage the services of a dresser to help you. The dresser can have the costume ready when needed and take the removed costume back to your dressing room. Leaving a costume on the floor will not only get the costume dirty but will be potentially dangerous. Costumes are slippery and a fellow cast member or crew member could hurt themselves sliding on a costume left on the floor.
Thou shalt not be there if thy dost does not need to be there.
A cast member standing in the wings watching the show even though they are not on stage for a couple more scenes, ‘Den Mothers’ standing in the wings taking photos. We’ve all seen it/done it. In short, if you don’t need to be in the wings at that time – don’t be in the wings.
Thou shalt not look at thy audience for thou could be seen by thy audience.
This was one of the things I was told when I did my first show. If you’re in the wings and can see the audience – chances are they can see you. Seeing activity in the wings is a major way of breaking the illusion you are trying to create for your audience. And I can tell you now – don’t even think about peeking through the curtain…
Thou shalt not TOUCH THE PROPS! Thou shalt not eat the food props. Thou shalt be responsible for thy own props.
Props. Where to start with props? The old saying ‘Actor breaks an irreplaceable prop. Prop Master breaks replaceable actor’. I understand the temptation of touching an awesome prop. Be it a sword, hat, mask, a genie’s lamp, a plant in a Maxwell House coffee tin – that little devil on your shoulder really, really wants you to touch it. What could possibly go wrong? It might get dropped; it might get broken; It might get misplaced. If you touch the prop – then someone else might too. There is nothing more stressful than an important prop not being where you carefully left it when you need it. Do an audit of all your props at the beginning of every performance – be responsible for your own props….and for god’s sake…don’t eat them unless it’s part of the show.
Thou shalt be quiet in the wings.
Whilst I appreciate that sometimes it’s the person doing the Shooshing that is the loudest person – they shouldn’t have to do it at all. The audience will hear you; your microphone might be on; stage crew needs to hear cues. I don’t think I need to dwell on this one – just zip it!
Thou shalt not eat or smoke with a microphone or costume on.
The microphones are delicate and very expensive to replace. The costumes can easily be damaged. If you must smoke – which is your choice – remove your microphone and use a dressing gown to cover your costume.
If thou needeth help, thou shalt just ask.
There is no such thing as a bad question. It is better to ask the question and get a simple answer than wish in hindsight that you’d asked. If your question will ensure a smoother run for the production, then by all means ask. Musical theatre performance is a confidence game and the fewer questions you have the better things will be. Keep in mind that there is a time and place for questions – so try to ask them at an appropriate time.
Thou shalt listen to thy Stage Manager.
The Stage Manager does not go out of their way to be mean to you. Sometimes decisions and requests need to be made quickly. So, please, listen to your Stage Manager and excuse the lack of pleasantries. Being a Stage Manager can be a stressful job. There are many times during tech runs and the performances where the Stage Manager will request assistance from you. Whether it’s by moving out of the way, helping crew move the set, assembling on stage for announcements. The Stage Manager is just trying to keep everyone safe and for the show to run smoothly.
Thou shalt think safety.
Safety is everyone’s responsibility. And I mean EVERYONE. If you see something that is a potential hazard, please fix it or report it to the Stage Manager. Be aware of the dangers inherent in the production, ensure you know who the first-aid officer is and ensure you know the evacuation procedure and assembly point. If at any time you are given a safety briefing, please listen – the first time. You never know when you’re going to need it.
Thou shalt be respectful to those around you.
At all times, keep in mind that everyone involved in the production wants to produce a great show. There are stressful moments within any rehearsal process especially during tech week and opening night. If we all try to be patient and polite, everything will feel more harmonious and achievable. We’re all in this together. Let’s treat each other with respect.
I’m sure that there are plenty of other things that we can all do to keep backstage a safe, organised and effective space. What else would you add to the above commandments? Most of these points are just politeness and common sense, therefore it should hopefully come naturally to everyone. Fingers crossed.
I would encourage any cast member should at some time in their musical theatre ‘journey’ fulfill a role behind the scenes. I would also suggest that any Stage Manager or crew should take the time to learn the show prior to tech week and have a full understanding and appreciation of what the cast is trying to achieve and respect that they have been working hard for many months.
Alright, …starters on stage! Let’s take the audience on an incredible ride together.
Until next time.
*Please note that I have not included specifics relating to dressing room etiquette – I’m sure you’ll agree that it is worth dedicating a whole top 10 to that subject!