The Drama Backstage
I’m not exactly an actor.
Actually, I’m precisely not an actor. Before this year, the entirety of my experience onstage was three and a half decades ago, when I played the role of King Claudius in an amateur production of Hamlet. Although I’m on the board of directors of Cape May Stage, which puts on six productions a year at the old Robert Shackleton Playhouse, and though I write its weekly newsletter, Stage Secrets, I’ve never for a moment deluded myself that I had any ability as an actor. Nor did I have any such aspirations.
But on the evening of August 4, during the company’s opening night curtain call for Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, I found myself on stage with five professional actors taking a bow before a sold-out house. Which, in itself, is a somewhat surreal experience: smiling broadly, I could hear the audience’s applause, but squinting into the lights toward the unlit ranks of seats I couldn’t actually see the people who were making all that noise. (That, of course, makes it impossible to dodge any rotten fruit that might be winging its way in my direction.)
And, at the moment I was thinking to myself: what in the world am I doing up here?
How I came to be there will unfold in the course of this story. More interesting, though, is what I learned—and what I will share with you, dear reader—about the fascinating, complex machinery that’s assembled, piece by piece, in order to turn a script into a living, breathing theatrical presentation. And then, night after night, that machine clanks into gear. What you, as a theatre-goer, see in front of you—a cast of talented actors bringing life to their characters and telling a story—is just the surface. Behind the scenes, backstage, up in the control booth, in the dressing rooms, the actors and the crew—the stage manager, dressers, props people—engage in beehive-like activity. .
Actors and playwrights have long been bemused by the goings-on backstage at any theater. That, indeed, is what inspired playwright Michael Frayn to create the madcap comedy Noises Off, which ran on Broadway in the early 1980s and which has been produced at countless theaters since. As the show unfolds, the audience first sees the play as performed by a clumsy set of dysfunctional actors who bungle their entrances, flub their lines, and make a mess. Then, before Act Two, the stage set revolves entirely around so we, the audience, see it as if we’re now backstage. The audience sees the same show, again, but this time from a behind-the-scenes perspective, revealing actor feuds, histrionics, minor catastrophes, and pratfalls that somehow coalesce to allow most of the actors to make proper entrances and exits despite the whole enterprise continually teetering on the brink of complete collapse.
In Noises Off, of course, it’s all exaggerated to point of farce. But in Cape May Stage’s production of Barefoot in the Park—which ran from August 4 through September 9—the reality is only slightly less entertaining. At least, from my perspective. For the producer, the director, the actors and the crew involved, a lot of it was just all in a day’s work.
Just a couple of months before it all started, I had no idea that I’d end up on stage. But one day Roy Steinberg, the producing artistic director of Cape May Stage, offhandedly wondered if I’d be interested in playing a small role in the show. Were I to do it, as an unpaid volunteer, I’d save the company money they’d otherwise have to pay to a real actor, he said. At first, I dismissed it out of hand, partly because I didn’t know anything about acting in a professional company and partly because it’d be a significant commitment of time to be in a show every single night —with Mondays off—for five weeks.
Let me digress for a minute. Cape May Stage is a professional theatre company that uses only actors who belong to the union, the Actors Equity Association (AEA). Unlike many companies in small towns, which operate dinner and community theaters, virtually all of the people who appear at Cape May Stage are Actors Equity professionals, most of them based in New York City, and many of them with credits that include Broadway and off Broadway stages, major regional theaters around the country, and film and television roles. They bring consummate skill and professionalism to their performances. So, I wondered, what about me? I’m not an Equity member, nor do I plan to be.
It turns out, said Steinberg, that for a small role such as I’d have, the union can provide a formal okay, called a “concession,” to allow Cape May Stage to employ a nonunion performer. In my case, the union did so.
What convinced me give it a try was that, according to Steinberg, my part (which takes up less than two minutes, and involves just one line) occurs at the very beginning of the show. Thus, he said, I could show up around 7:30, change into my costume, perform the part, and—unless I wanted to stay around for the curtain call at the end of the show—I could be back home by 8:30 every night.
Had there been a dotted line, I would have signed on it. I was in.
It all began in July, at what’s called a “table read.” By then, the actors have already memorized their lines, but the table read is the first time that the actors get to meet each other, and to hear the lines read aloud by the people who’ll actually be on stage with them. For Barefoot in the Park, the actors included Holly Williams and Stephen Anthony James, who’d play the two struggling newlyweds, Corie and Paul; Steinberg, who’d be Victor Velasco, the flamboyant neighbor upstairs; Marlena Lustik, Steinberg’s wife, who’d play Corie’s fluttery mother, Mrs. Banks; and Michael Basile, who’d be the scene-stealing, wryly observant Telephone Man, Harry.
And, of course, there was me.
Chris Dolman, a veteran director and actor who’d been involved with Cape May Stage since its founding in 1989, acting in three previous shows and directing eight others, was brought in to direct Barefoot in the Park. A particular challenge for Dolman, and for anyone directing a play at Cape May Stage, is that logistics demand a compressed schedule for rehearsals. From the time the actors arrive in Cape May until opening night, there are only about two and a half weeks—compared to at least four to six weeks for most New York shows.
But Dolman says that whether or not he has two weeks or six weeks to prepare a show, it’s always a concern. “I don’t think I’ve ever started rehearsals without worrying, at least a little, about whether we’ll have enough time to create something we’re really proud to put on the stage,” he says.
“Each element of a production, not just the actors, but also costumes, set construction, the interns, are all working incredibly long hours in the run up to opening,” he adds. “We all seem to have this internal clock that seems to be geared toward that first night.”
For Dolman, getting to opening night involved working with each of the actors on who their characters are supposed to be, then working with the whole cast on what’s called “blocking,” that is, running through the entire show—mostly without lines—to work out entrances, exits, and how and where each performer should stand and should move about the stage.
For Cape May Stage, set construction and rehearsals take place in a warehouse-like space on Texas Avenue, next to Big Wave Burritos. As the set itself began to take shape in rough form, during the blocking the actors got a rough idea of what the set will look like once it’s installed in the theatre. Once the blocking is complete, the directors and the six actors—five of them, plus me—did what’s called a “stumble-through,” a kind of stop-and-start process in which various scenes, and then the whole play, are performed in a way that allows the director and the actors to work out the kinks involving how lines might be delivered and how the actors will interact with each other. It’s a time when actors can explore the character they’re trying to create, ask the director questions, and get feedback from the director. Most nights, after rehearsals, Dolman would send around notes to the actors commenting on major and minor aspects of the show.
My own role, as Delivery Man, was tiny. I had one line, delivered offstage, announcing my arrival: “Lord and Taylor!” On stage, my job is to breathe heavily, exhausted after climbing five flights to Paul and Corie’s walkup apartment, plop down some packages, moan and groan, accept a tip from Corie, and exit. The fact that the apartment requires visitors to walk up so many stairs is a running joke throughout the play, and each character who comes in is huffing and puffing, to the audience’s great amusement.
My main concern during rehearsals was that, as small as my role was, I didn’t want to do anything that would embarrass the production or the five pros on stage. I ask Dolan if he’s worried about working with an amateur. Not really, he says. “My main concern was that we would find someone who could make the time commitment, both with attending some rehearsals and through our long run of performances,” says Dolan. “I’ve always found that each actor, no matter their experience or the size of their role, has this strong desire to make their contribution to the production and it’s that desire that leads to a positive collaboration and result.”
The first time the play is done on stage, inside the Robert Shackleton Playhouse, is the Monday before opening night during what theatre people call “tech.” It’s during tech that the director, actors and crew spend a full 12 hours (minus breaks) experimenting with the production on the actual set that’s just been installed the previous weekend. On Friday night, the previous show, Sex with Strangers, closed. After that, overseen by Amy Hadam and Barry Marks, the stage manager and her assistant, the crew works round-the-clock to move the set out of the Texas Avenue building and set it up, pulling all-nighters. By Monday, amazingly, it’s ready to go.
“The tech is the first time the actors deal with elements of the show such as sound, music, and lighting,” says Steinberg.
“We’re at 15 minutes.”
“Thank you. Fifteen.”
It’s the night of the first dress rehearsal, and Production Stage Manager Amy Hadam periodically pops into the dressing room to let the actors know how long before the figurative curtain goes up and the performance starts. She and the actors use what I learned is the standard backstage call-and-response, in which she proclaims the countdown and the actors echo it to let her know they’ve heard.
Things happen fast at Cape May Stage: Monday is tech, Tuesday is the dress rehearsal, Wednesday is a one-night preview, and Thursday is opening night.
At Cape May Stage the dress rehearsal is the first time the play is performed before a real, live audience. It’s held by-invitation only. “We had been working in the bubble of rehearsals, where it’s mostly just myself and our stage manager in the room, so it was nice for the cast to get some feedback from the audience,” said Dolman. “It’s a comedy, so it was satisfying to hear the audience laughing. There’s always a moment with a comedic play where you wonder, ‘Am I the only one who thinks this is funny?’”
Hadam is the mastermind of Barefoot in the Park. Ensconced in a curtained booth high up in a back corner of the playhouse, she’s the one responsible for making everything run like clockwork. With an array of computers and high tech gadgets, among other things Hadam is in charge of operating the pre-programmed lighting effects, sound effects (door buzzer, ringing phone), and transmitting cues backstage to coordinate entrances for actors who can’t see the action unfolding in front of the audience. She smiles when I call her the Wizard of Oz.
In front of her, on a cluttered desk, is the Idiot List. “It’s a list of things that literally anyone can pick up to get the show going,” she says. On it are 114 separate things that have to happen every night, including lights, sounds, positioning and clearing of props, furniture, costumes and more. Next to that is an annotated script of the entire play, on which Hadam has marked dozens of notes to herself about what computer-activated sound or lighting effect has to happen, and when. Plus, Hadam consults another paper, called a Track Sheet, that highlights two dozen important cues that she has to signal to her helpers backstage.
And backstage, a pair of interns—Chelsea Marlowe for props, and Taylor Adams for costumes—are constantly buzzing around, making sure that the actors have everything they need. During the day, long before the curtain goes up, Marlowe and Adams spend hours getting everything set: arranging and repairing props, washing and fixing costumes, and more. Among her other tasks, Marlowe has to “cook” the food the actors use on stage, including tiny rice balls for the supposedly Albanian “knichi” appetizers and a pot full of (cold) hearty beef soup that stands in for the “goulash” that Corie “prepares” on stage. “I wouldn’t really want to eat it myself,” says Marlowe—but, gamely, Holly Williams does. Every night.
And each evening Hadam and Marlowe load plastic “snow” into an air tube high above the set, for a crucial, funny scene during which the white stuff falls through a hole in the apartment’s “skylight.” Once or twice, the mechanism for the snow fails. “Well, it didn’t snow today,” says Anthony (“Paul”), with a smile, when he comes backstage after one malfunction. “The snow is our biggest problem,” says Hadam.
“We’re at five minutes.”
“Thank you. Five.”
Watching the actors get ready, behind the scenes—doing vocal warm-ups, stretching, getting into their costumes (and, for Williams and Lustik, doing their hair and makeup)—I realized how much intensity goes into their work and how each actor prepares each and every night on getting his or her part just right.
A moment from opening night stayed with me: before going on stage, Williams approached Anthony, her on-stage lover, placed her hands on his shoulders, and said, “Just make eye contact with me!” Why? Well, in the play, the moment Anthony (Paul) enters from stage right, Williams (Corie) rushes over and smooches him, newlywed-style. And because she wouldn’t have a chance on stage to actually connect with him before they kiss, she wanted to connect offstage.
“I don’t get to make eye contact with him on stage,” she says. “He enters, out of breath, and the next moment our mouths are on each other. So, the more authenticity we can communicate on stage, the better we can serve the audience.”
Dolman, the director, watching from the seats on opening night, was happy. “You have all these wonderful people from the community who love this theatre, who support it and the people who work here,” he says. “It was like sharing something you care about with old friends.”