Life Lessons from Theatre

When I started this blog a few months ago I had this idea that I would post really consistently. Then, as my mother says, life happened. This past weekend was a great example of that. I had a lot of determination to finish up a post before Monday morning, but that determination got derailed into finishing our set so that we’d have one when The Odd Couple opens on Friday. Therefore I decided that since theatre derailed my best laid plans that’s what I’d post about (not the derailing, but the theatre itself).

To put things in a bit of context, this whole consumption of my life by theatre thing isn’t really new. Despite my current employment in the realm of software, I have a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech.  I just had a hiatus for a few years while I worked for the Boy Scouts. Anyway as I put in yet another full work day on our set on Saturday I found myself reflecting on this life consuming currently hobby and some the things I’ve learned along the way. Here are a few of them.

Value the older people you know while you can.

One of the gentlemen in The Odd Couple is a lovely chap who is 92 years old. He doesn’t move very fast, but he has quickly become one of my favorite people. I really didn’t know much about him when we started. I’d seen him around and called his house once about costumes, but that was about it. Then we started rehearsals and he is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, which he only honed in the 40 years that he did radio. Not only is he funny, but he’s a sweetheart who is always willing to lend a hand and I feel blessed that he was suggested to be a part of our cast.

Al is just one of those that I’ve met to reinforce the Bible verses I grew up on about respecting your elders. While I was in college I had the privilege of being part of a small cadre of volunteers for the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC). As one of their sets of hands and feet at the conference I got to meet a lot of the gents and ladies of the theatre world. These are the folks who quickly accustom you to kisses on the cheek and tell you that your walk is the kind they wish they could teach their male students to do in heels. That is a compliment by the way, not an insult. The point is that these people and their stories have stuck with me even though its been over five years since I’ve been there. They are beautiful people who are willing to share their life experiences and wisdom, but it can be easy to miss in the whirl of life. When we miss that time with them it is we who lose the most.

Take the time to build a good foundation.

Another benefit of hanging out with theatre veterans is picking up practical skills from them – like the best way to put in supports on a platform. These past three weekends I have invested a lot of time and sweat into the building of our set. Looking back I am 99% certain this is the most work I have ever had to put into a set before. This is partly because whiel I have some construction skills  I’ve got a much greater history of constructing with fabric than lumber. Either way, patience and flexibility and creative problem solving are vital to achieving a good end product.

With this current project the portion that ate up so much time was that we had to raise/construct 4 additional platforms to expand the stage for our show. Until that was done most everything else was put on hold. We moved back the walls and could have wallpapered, but all of us working on the set those first two weekends knew that the most vital thing we could do was finish those platforms. They were essential to the visibility of the actors and even with them we had to cut back on set furniture due to space. That is not to say the show wouldn’t have happened, but it would have made things a whole lot more difficult. Besides, my stage manager learned some useful skills like how to use a chop saw and drill. Once we’re open I intend to get us some ‘Real Women Use Powertools’ shirts in honor of this.

Ranting is best done with a pint of ice cream.

Preferably this would be Ben & Jerry’s. Coffee Heath is a particular favorite of mine, but really just about any kind will do. If there’s not ice cream then chocolate works as a great substitute. It seems that there is this almost meta-physical calming effect that makes everything a little bit better when you have that combination of sugar and fat in your hands, melting in your mouth.

I know usually pints of ice cream are usually related more to post-breakup emotional breakdowns for girls, but when I was between my senior years of college I spent a summer working at Horn in the West Outdoor drama. It was a wonderful experience that has yielded many stories, some others of which will come up before the end of this post. The summer that I was there started out with the level of drama most would expect from a theatre company when our director quit over artistic differences. I understood his position. I think we all did, but the events following led to many evenings in one of the cast apartments with Ben & Jerry’s in hand sharing our frustrations in a fattening but otherwise non-destructive way.

Family is more than flesh and blood.

I did not become fully introduced to the world of theatre until college, but one of the first things I realized when I became involved is that thespians are family. Yes, there’s the strange uncle that half of the other relatives aren’t sure of and the other half swear are harmless. There are the older folks I mentioned earlier that love to share their ‘war’ stories. Then there are the young ones who are so bright and shiny with idealism and, of course, the ones who don’t really fit in with a particular group beyond theatre. Our local community theatre lost their building to a fire just before I moved here and in one of the videos done as a part of the campaign to rebuild a woman who is a part of the extended local theatre family talked about how when she moved here she had no family in the area and she found one in the players. My experience has been the same. The people who I have met and worked with have many of them become a part of my family. My mother hears about some of the bickering and frustration and wonders why I stick around, but part of that is because at the end of the day I love them and we are bound together by more than just our names being printed by each other in the program.

Dont’ be a diva and if you are, be a nice one.

A nice diva? It may seem to be a contradiction, but they really do exist. It’s the self-absorbed snobbish divas that give all the rest a bad name. I’ve known some wonderful divas. They’ve got quirks but, let’s be honest here, we all do. I would even say that the vast majority of us have a little diva inside who tries to escape from time to time. I think that’s part of why I survived working in Pontiac schools so well. The kids there recognized my inner diva and respected her attitude. Where the inner diva gets you in trouble is when it inflates your ego to the point that you can’t even learn from those around you anymore. When I was at Horn there were two gents I worked with that provide examples of both sides. One was a good diva. He was a talented dancer with a taste for the glamorous and knew his place in the order of things was upwards, but he was also a sweet lovable guy who I still find myself missing at random times. Then there was the bad diva. Unfortunately for me I shared a house with the bad diva, not the good diva. He was of the ‘I am older than you and therefore know better even when I don’t’ variety of diva who through his airs, aloofness and lack of respect for others managed to not only alienate several of us in the house but a good number of those in the greater cast and crew.

Stretching is good for the body and soul.

In the realm of theatre there is a certain type of person referred to as a triple-threat. These are the folks who can sing, dance and act. I personally am a singer-actor who can dance with a bit of practice, but am by no means an expert dancer. So when I am called upon to dance I know that I need to focus and prepare my body for the job. A large part of that is stretching. As those who are avid yoga practitioners will tell you stretching not only helps the body but it calms as well. It’s a time to think and find focus. It actually can be rather addictive.

Beyond stretching physically, I have found my experiences in theatre to be stretching in other ways as well. Whether you’re an actor, costumer or director that creative problem solving I mentioned earlier will push you to find new ways and in turn learn more about yourself through the process. While at times it may seem to be stretching to the point that its surely meant as torture, on the other side is generally a gem that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

There are other things I could talk about – preparation, research, being true to yourself – but I know this entry is getting long and I have another full day ahead of me tomorrow. If you, dear reader, are a thespian as well I would love to know what little treasure nuggets you’ve stored up through your experiences so please feel free to share them below :)

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