The school where I work has a modest little auditorium where school drama productions and concerts take place. I’d been up there a few times to set up some presentation or another, but never really spent much time there.
Recently, I was waiting to meet someone in there, and I strolled around and realized something. The stage and surrounding areas were visually no different than any of the other ones I’d been on throughout the years.
The heavy black wing curtains obscured the usual clutter that one finds backstage. Cabinets and shelves holding battered props and costume pieces, various bits of cable, half-used rolls of tape, and inevitably a piece of set wall, the back of it ‘tagged’ by cast and crew-members from some long-forgotten show.
The plywood stage deck itself was painted the typical black, marred here and there by a gouge or scrape, with a piece of two of marking tape stuck to it. No, it looked exactly the same as all the others.
I’ve had a long-running relationship with theater, having started out as various ensemble or minor cast members in productions in high school. I worked tech there a bit too, lights, sound, set construction, etc. When I went to college, I again landed a few bit parts and ensemble pieces before realizing that I belonged backstage. Set work and crew was a ton more fun than being onstage was. I got to improvise set pieces and problem-solve on the fly. I actually had directors call me to work on shows with them because they knew I could work a stage. Hell, I got so good- someone screwed up and billed me as the chief fly operator in a show I had nothing to do with!
After college, I did some of the same tech work for a local theater company, teaming up with my old high school director for a couple of productions. As family and career grew, I sort of drifted away from the stage and its allure. Still, I often get nostalgic for the sights, sounds, and various strange smells that often accompany a theater production.
With this in mind, I realized that the stage at the school where I work is wildly different than all of the others I’d been on, and the difference was not aesthetic. It had no life. It was simply a wooden floor with curtains around it. I’d done no work there. When I was student teaching in that school a lifetime ago, I volunteered to run a bit of sound for a show that had been put on there, but I never had much to do with the production otherwise. Aside from that bit, I had no connection with the stage. I couldn’t hear the voices of the actors or see the sets I’d built on it. If I stood on the deck and looked into the auditorium, I couldn’t feel the lights as I directed cues.
Basically, the stage, though similar in its appearance to every other stage everywhere….held nothing for me to recall. It was just a big empty floor.
Theater productions take on a life of their own when you work on them. Each with its own set of challenges, problems, and triumphs. I remember wrapping shows and striking sets with people that I’d see tomorrow in class or work with on another show, and it still felt like I was saying ‘goodbye.’ Some shows were hellish nightmares to work on, and I wasn’t sorry to see them end, but they still burned themselves into my memory.
I know full well that if I were to walk out on the stage at my old high school or college, or anywhere else I worked after that, the feeling would be different.
Theaters are strange places. It’s really easy to imagine even the newest of them as haunted, with their various nooks and crannies, alcoves, closets, and dark, sometimes spooky atmosphere. The truth is, they ARE all haunted. Perhaps not by chain-rattling ghouls, but by the memories of each and every show that they host, and anyone who had a part of those shows can walk into the darkened theater and see and feel those memories, those ghosts.
Having worked on so many shows in so many places, I’ve known those ghosts, and to be honest, an empty stage devoid of those memories was just a little spooky.
The good news is that I know that this stage DOES have a life to those that worked on it, and it always will. Ghosts that I can’t see or feel are very real to someone else, which is comforting. No stage is really ever empty I suppose.