Working in Theatre
Ever wonder what it's like to work in theatre? Author Devon Ellington will share some of her personal experiences. Stay tuned!
Working on Broadway
"What's it like to work on Broadway?"
I often get that question, when people find out that I spent a good chunk of my career working on Broadway. Of course, there is no single answer. There are as many experiences as there are individuals working there, and each show is uniquely different. Each show is a world unto itself. You have a tie with your fellow travellers on any particular show, because even other theatre people have not had that same experience.
But I can share some of my experience. It's not "the way it is." It's "the way it was for me."
I've worked every type of theatre imaginable: community theatre, university theatre, dinner theatre, summer stock, regional theatre, small professional theatre, off-off-off-church-basement theatre, off-off Broadway, off-Broadway, and worked my way up to Broadway. During those years, I've worked almost every crew position imaginable, including stage management, electrics, sound, props, running crew, design, but the bulk of my career, especially on Broadway, was in wardrobe. I stared in the business doing electrics for rock bands, believe it or not, way back in the 1980s.
"What's it like to work on Broadway?"
The easy answer to the question is, "Amazing!"
Broadway is the top of the theatre profession in this country, and Broadway is revered throughout the world. Every type of theatre has value to its community, and professional regional theatres are a cornerstone of the profession, but Broadway is what most people aspire to, even those who don't really want to work in theatre.
Remember, working in theatre isn't like working in an office. "The show must go on" is not an empty phrase. The show will go on, with you or without you. If there are too many "withouts", remember you can easily be replaced. You don't get to skip a few shows because you're tired or there's family in town or you want to go to a movie or a concert. You don't skip a few shows because you've set appointments. You set your appointments around your show schedule. You work nights, weekends, and holidays. You work when others play, because you are one of their playgrounds. You have one day off a week -- your "dark" day. Yes, you get a union wage and standardized work schedules and paid overtime and paid vacations -- but the show comes first.
"The theatre is a jealous mistress" is another expression that's more than an expression.
It can be darn hard work, especially during the technical rehearsals before previews and opening, and during previews, as necessary changes are made. It's exhilarating work, but there are long hours requiring focused concentration, and never enough time or money to get it all done. Yet, somehow, it does. Those who shy away from hard work don't last long. Nor do those who can't sustain consistent excellent work. Everyone has an off day now and again, and there are scheduled, paid vacations, but there's a high standard of professionalism and talent required for a long-running Broadway show. There's a lot at stake on Broadway, and not just in terms of money.
I remember one show on which I worked. We'd done our eight shows -- last show of the week was a Sunday matinee. We put the laundry in the machines and sent out the dry cleaning. Some of us packed the doubles of laundry and costumes in suitcases and garment bags. The car service waited outside the stage door. We (actors, crew tabbed to travel, stage management, company management) were whisked to the airport, and got on a flight to Los Angeles. There was plenty of reading, writing, and laughter on the plane amongst all of us. We were giddy from the eight-show week.
Touching down in LA, we gathered all our belongings (remember, the wardrobe people had to keep track of their own bags AND those with costumes), and were whisked in a bus to the hotel in Burbank. We settled into our rooms, and met in the bar. Because, even though we were on New York time, it was three hours earlier in LA, and we were wired from the eight-show week and from the flight.
Still, we made it to the studio the next morning (Monday), for rehearsal for the late night show on which we were scheduled to appear that night. We had several hours of rehearsal. We had a break, during which we shuttled back to the hotel, repacked, and checked out. We had to come back to the studio set up and prep, and then we shot live in front of the studio audience. We had to wait around for a quick jokey bit and bow at the end of the show, and then we changed the actors back into street clothes, packed the costumes, and boarded the bus, headed back to the airport.
We took the red-eye back to New York, arriving early Tuesday morning. The actors headed off into one set of cars to go home; the crew was bundled into other cars because we had to bring things back to the theatre. We unpacked, sorted, got more laundry started.
Then, a quick break, where we could drop our own luggage home and maybe take a nap. By one o'clock, those of us who had regular Tuesday day work scheduled (where you prep the costumes and do repairs) were back in the theatre at work. That night, was our regular performance.
Yes, we were paid. Yes, it was fun. But it's a busy schedule. Then, of course, there are the special events: Gypsy of the Year, Easter Bonnet, and, those ever-glorious Tony Awards. You celebrate birthdays and marriages and christenings and deaths together. You know each other better than anyone else.
Theatre does not fit around life. Life fits around theatre.
It's not just "two and a half hours" a day at the theatre for the performance. There are brush-up rehearsals and put-ins as cast changes and special appearances. If you work on the crew, you have prep work and repair work, and possibly building extra pieces for the road companies. There are fittings and changes all the time. A show is a living entity, and all the parts have to work in harmony for the show to succeed.
You spend more time with these people than anyone else in your life. You don't gossip about them to the general public. You might share something with your family, but you don't discuss what goes on in the dressing room. Backstage is sacred space.
If something nasty goes on, there are protocols. There are consequences. Most people want to work in a pleasant atmosphere, and there's a lot of room to be unique, as long as you don't sabotage the show.
It frustrates me when I see backstage depicted in books and films as bitchy and awful. Have I ever had those experiences working on a show? Yes, but usually at a different tier than Broadway. The bitchiest, most vicious level of theatre, in my experience, has always been at community theatre level, by those who didn't have the courage to follow their theatre dreams punishing others. Sometimes tempers flare in summer stock, mostly because people are exhausted.
But a long-running Broadway show has to run like a well-oiled machine. You may not adore everyone with whom you work, but you give each other as much emotional room as you can (even in a Broadway house, there's never enough physical space). People tend to forgive each other for more backstage than they would out in the world. Most people working on Broadway realize how few of those who aspire to this life actually get to live it. Most people are excited and grateful.
And when it's time to leave, you have to realize it, and it's better to go before you hate it. There are those who stay beyond their time, those who are afraid they can't survive outside the theatre, but they're miserable inside it, too. They get angry and bitter. The industry tries to move them into positions where they can use their strengths, but not sour the atmosphere of the show.
I'd always promised myself that when I walked through the door and didn't get that rush of joy, I knew it was time to go. As I got older, the physical aspects of the job started to get to me. The costumes are often heavy; you're working on a raked stage (Morag explains what this is in the book). You're pounding up and down concrete steps, carrying heavy baskets. It's hard on the knees, the shoulders. After awhile, putting in so many concentrated hours putting other people (the actors) and the show first, it takes a toll on the psyche.
In my case, it was getting more and more difficult to put the time and attention to my writing that it needed. I also found New York harder and harder to live in -- on financial and emotional levels. One of the few places I could get peace and quiet was to flee to the Museum of Natural History and sit in the Hall of Gemstones, where it's dark, the jewels are dramatically lit, and, in between school tours, it's quiet. I didn't want to give the best of myself to the show anymore. I didn't want to work my way up to being a supervisor. I liked being able to do my work and go home after the show, and follow other interests.
So, I stepped back. Instead of steady work on shows, I became a "swing", substituting when other dressers got sick or took time off. I was very lucky, because I got steady work. On the downside, I had too much steady work, and it still wasn't giving me the time away I craved. The only way I was going to stop working on Broadway was to move too far away to commute. So I did.
I suck at being a civilian, although I love writing full time. I miss the camaraderie and the creativity backstage. When I first moved here, it was sad how excited I felt to be able to go out to dinner and a movie on a Friday night like a regular person. I've gotten past that -- still prefer going out earlier in the week! ;) I like having holidays off, but I miss all the fun a show builds around them. The Secret Santa fun (very different than the perplexing "Yankee Swaps" they do up here), and, in general, celebrating each other and making each other feel special.
I was lucky enough to work on the last five years of MISS SAIGON's original ten-year Broadway run. It was incredible. I was onstage every night when the helicopter came down. In five years, doing eight shows/week, it never got old. It never got boring. We were also a creative bunch back there -- everyone was writing a plays or books or songs, and we all turned out to support each other's work. It was a magical, diverse group of people. We'd have potlucks every few weeks, where we'd bring our comfort food from childhood -- childhoods that had been spent all over the world. We could have deep-seated, long-ranging discussions about race, culture, gender -- and try to figure out ways to make the world a better place. We stimulated each other to be our best selves. When the show closed, we joked that we even missed the people we didn't like!
The actual nuts-and-bolts of quick changes are similar to the way I've depicted them in the books. Again, every show, every costume, every actor is different. But the rush, the sense of moving forward no matter, of having to think on your feet if and when something goes wrong -- it's wonderful.
There's a lot of creativity in the actual work on a show. I was a dresser, which meant I worked in the wardrobe department (like Morag, although Morag is much smarter and cooler than I am, and very much her own person). Dressers don't design the costumes -- that's up to the designer. The dressers maintain and prepare the costumes, and perform the changes during the actual show. Some dressers have strong enough sewing skills to also work as stitchers or drapers. Basic sewing skills are required for everyone, because sometimes you have to do repairs in the moment. For instance, if a costume rips in a change and you need it again fast - you do the basic repair in the dressing room as fast as you can.
There's also the case of rigging, how costumes are fastened so that one can get actors in and out of them quickly. Oversized zippers, large snaps (called "whopper poppers") hiding under buttons or other fastenings; Velcro; hooks and eyes to hold things in place. Much of it the savvy supervisor has figured out from reading the script, watching run-throughs, and working with the costume designer. But some of it will come up during the technical rehearsals, where the dresser and the actor are working out the actual change. In what order to pieces need to come off? Where do they go? In what order do the next pieces go on? Where do you need hooks, mirrors, etc.?
The dresser usually wears an apron with pockets, holding pre-threaded needles (because you can't thread in the dark during a quick-change), scissors, plenty of safety pins, extra bite lights a small shoehorn, a small mag light, and, often, on the belt, an extra pouch with the actor's water bottle (especially if you're in charge of one of the leads).
In the book, Morag has bite lights on tie line (what's used by electricians, black cord) around her neck, usually two or three on a strand. That's real -- I would do that, and keep a few extra in my apron. Sometimes, I'd have a hand mirror on a tie line around my neck, and slide it on for a particular change, if an actor needed to check something before going on stage, and we were doing the change away from a wall or other place a mirror could be hung.
Remember, most changes backstage are FAST. Seconds, not minutes. They have to be perfect EVERY TIME. The show doesn't stop because an actor can't get the costume on. If the actor is late for an entrance too often, and the problem can't be fixed, the dresser is the one who goes, and someone who can get it done is put in. Yes, even in a union house. You have to be good at what you do, and you have to be CONSISTENTLY good.
For some shows, I've carried pliers in my apron (rather than leaving it in my kit in the dressing room). When I worked on WICKED, several of the tracks I did involved "winging the monkeys", helping them get the harnesses on so they could fly on wires. It was a complicated process, and required pliers to pull particular hardware on the costumes through layers of fabric and fasten them so they wouldn't slip and put the actor, dozens of feet above the stage and over the audience, in jeopardy. The small, needle-nosed pliers I used for other things didn't work, so I got myself a big-ass pair of pliers that were easy to hold and use.
Since 9/11, there are regular checks at subway stations and the like of backpacks. Sometimes I carried parts of my kit or my kit with me, instead of leaving it at the show (if I had a special event during the day with an actor, or if I moonlighted on my dark day on one of the television shows shooting in NYC. Once, I was stopped in a theatre district subway station at a table with an older cop and a younger cop.
The younger cop pulled out the big-ass pliers, stared at them, and asked, "What are these for?"
Me: I dress flying monkeys of a living. (I might have even been wearing the shirt that said so).
Young Cop: What?
Me: (trying to be patient): I dress flying monkeys for a living.
Young Cop: What--?
Older Cop: (sighs): Let her go. She works on WICKED.
And . . scene! But yes, it really happened!
I also carried a box of toupee tape in my apron (brand name Top Stick). It's a great thing to use when something goes wrong in the moment, and also to tape in an actor if something is slipping out and could be embarrassing.
Safety pins -- I had safety pins threaded on a larger safety pin and fastened on my apron and on my belt loops. I still come across pairs of black jeans that have safety pins clusters fastened to the belt loops, and it's been over seven years since I worked a show.
However, it came in handy when I was at a Scottish Festival last summer, and a young musician had a kilt emergency. I happened to have on a pair of jeans with the safety pin cluster still attached, and I was able to help the embarrassed young man avoid further embarrassment.
You figure out where you can stand and not get in the way of scenery or block the traffic for the next scene. You figure out the details of the change. You figure out where to put things and what goes where after the change -- is it something you need again? Is it done for the night? There are a lot of people in a small space working in the dark with things moving quickly -- everything has to be perfectly organized.
When new actors come in or understudies go on, your job as a dresser is to train them in the logistics and make them feel safe. They have to go out there, do what they do brilliantly, run off from the bright lights into the dark to you, and know everything is handled. It's a close and synchronistic partnership. You're not a servant or a maid -- you're a partner.
Even though the show is "set", and, basically the same, every night, because it's live theatre, it's also always different, and that's why I never got bored. Every night, the goal is to run a perfect show with nothing going wrong. When it does go wrong, you deal with it in a way that is quiet, efficient, and keeps the show moving without the audience knowing anything was wrong. It's satisfying. It requires stamina, creativity, intelligence, focus, and dedication.
There's a scene in PLAYING THE ANGLES where Morag leads Simon out onto the empty stage, looking into the empty audience, and says, "This is what it feels like." That's something I used to do when I gave tours; because there is no other experience like it. Broadway is unique and wonderful. Even commercial shows are a type of creative nirvana. You have some of the best people in the industry in every department, making it all work.
I was immensely blessed to have the years I did working on Broadway. I am profoundly grateful. In addition to the paranormal and romantic suspense elements, much of the backstage experience in PLAYING THE ANGLES is an amalgam of my life backstage on Broadway.
I hope you get a sense of the love and the joy my colleagues and I feel working there.
Coventina Circle Romantic Suspense - Novels to Thrill