Theatre Thursday

Herding Cats – Backstage with a Large Cast

As you sit down to enjoy your next live theatre performance you may have no idea how much coordination and activity goes on during the performance behind the scenes: rapid costume changes, set changes, lighting and sound cues, mic adjustments, and chaos.  Sometimes the “show” behind the stage is just as entertaining as the show on the set.

So much goes into a good performance.  Hours upon hours of rehearsal, memorizing lines, learning blocking and choreography, and developing a character.  It all comes together the moment you step onto stage in full makeup and costume ready to show the audience the fruits of your hard work.  This process begins well before the curtain of every show.

I have decided that a cast of 60+ kids and 15+ crew members before a show, is a little like herding cats on crack.  You may laugh… that is a HUGE number of kids to get through a makeup call, into costume, and listening to last minute notes, not to mention all the quick changes and getting little people to the right side of the stage at the right time.  Here is a glimpse at what is happening backstage at Central High School’s production of Lion King Jr:

The cast usually arrive an hour and a half before curtain.  Some actors participate in a brief warm-up, physical and/or vocal.  Actors also check their personal props and costume pieces.  Most of the actors get to the business of applying the makeup designs in the “green room.”

The green room is a resting area for actors to hang out and wait between scenes and before the show.  This area is usually off limits to everyone that is not a part of the cast and crew.  With a production the size of our current show, Lion King Jr, the green room can feel very chaotic and crowded.

Makeup takes a while.  The designs are simple.  However, even with an army of student and parent volunteers it  takes the full hour and a half to get everyone into their makeup and first costume.

Most of the actors in Lion King have more than one costume piece to keep track of.  This is a difficult task.  We use four dressers and a handful of parent volunteers to help keep the chaos at a minimum while actors come running from stage, tearing off their clothes to get into their next costume.  The main characters have one costume (two if they play more than one character).  The chorus members have 3 to 4 costumes.  Nearly every scene they change and become a new animal. It is a good thing that most of the actors in our show are comfortable with the others.  Stage hands and actors see each other as equals. (We have worked hard to get that kind of atmosphere backstage).

Meanwhile, crew sweeps the stage, sets props and set pieces into place, and makes any repairs that may be needed before the audience arrives.  The crew also helps the giraffes strap on their stilts and test that everything is working to the best of it’s ability.  (Getting into and out of those stilts is tough.  It takes 2-3 people to help the giraffes make a quick change into their next animal in 30 seconds).  Sound technicians prep the 22 body mics and conduct a sound check.  The house manger tags all the reserved seating and cleans up the house.

There are so many people backstage that many of the actors and crew members “hang out” in the hall or in the scene shop.  Seriously, it is wall-to-wall people and it is hard to get away from the crowds.  A few actors find a dark quiet spot backstage to read, listen to music and to get more into their character.

Once sound check is complete, the stage is set, the reserved seating signs have gone out, the house is tidy and the pre-show music has been started, the directing team gathers the cast and crew into the green room for final notes and instructions before curtain.

My friend and co-worker created an ingenious method of storing and facilitating costume changes.  He hung peg boards down the hall to hang the 180+ masks and hats for each of the animals in the show.

I really can’t find the words for describe the well oiled machine backstage.  I decided to create a backstage tour video to help me out.

Well… herding cats is possible.  Lion King Jr is shaping up to be the largest selling ticket show of all the shows we have produced at Central High School.  We have 5 more performances and I can’t wait to see how the go.

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