Best Seats in the House

Peter J. Marks | Posted on 01/01/10

When Julie Andrews was on Broadway a little more than a decade ago in the stage version of Victor/Victoria, she invited me backstage to follow along behind her through a performance. I was the New York Times’s theater reporter at the time, and so the prospect of getting a star’s-eye view of the life of a musical was not only personally thrilling, it was also a chance to see a show from a vantage point I’d never be able to replicate.

Andrews, then sixty, had wanted theatergoers to understand how grueling was the process of playing the central role in a big-budget musical. It was shortly after she’d committed an act — at once both self-serving and conscience-driven — that had stunned Broadway: she had refused to accept a Tony nomination for best actress, because it was the only category in which her show had been recognized, and she felt that other deserving people in the production had been slighted. “Egregiously overlooked” was how she famously characterized the snubbing of her colleagues.

So on that spring Sunday, showing up at the stage door of the Marquis Theater in Times Square, I received a fascinating crash course in the stamina-testing regimen to which an actress of Andrews’s caliber and discipline subjects herself.

What I had not anticipated quite as thoroughly, though, was learning an even larger lesson of backstage life: a star does not come close to creating a performance on her own. From the stage managers to the prop men to the women who waited for Andrews in the shadows of the scenery with her next costume and a bottle of throat spray, the exertions of a small army of theater people, invisible to the paying customers out front, were making the imaginative universe of the show possible.

In my theater-world travels, I’ve seen the collaborative ethos reinforced again and again. It is not a wholly selfless pursuit, working in the wings, aisles, construction shops, dressing rooms, and lighting booths of the theater. The pay is not bad, certainly not at the highest levels of commercial, unionized Broadway. (Of course, at lower dramatic altitudes, the salary drops to as low as zero.) And there can be ample psychic income in the commitment to the craft of play-making, from sewing the costumes to hanging the lights, as well as in contributing to an artistic endeavor that may have a lasting impact on the culture.

Still, much of the activity in the beehive of theatrical life goes on without even a minimal sort of public acknowledgment. It’s a strange dichotomy. For an art form so reliant on applause, most of those who work in the theater only hear it as muffled noise from another room. Propping up a star’s halo, the behind-the-scenes folks hardly bask in a sliver of reflected light.

It takes a special kind of humility to devote yourself to being backstage for the creation of a play, to knowing from the outset that you will receive little of the credit. There is, of course, a certain safety, too, in being out of the line of fire. But we are a culture that more and more seems to define success as the aggregation of renown, as the cachet of a boldface name, as the catalyst for a gazillion clicks of a mouse and qualifying for a sizable personal entry on Wikipedia.

So toiling anonymously in a public profession such as the theater translates for me into something rather noble. You know from the outset that there will be no fanfare for you, that the satisfactions will on some level always be vicarious. The good of the whole is what matters. Absorbing this reality requires an acceptance of modest status — a true spirit of deference.

You’d think that ensuring that others looked good would be a thankless chore. But that is not the impression in talking to the people who do it for a living. There can be a parallel level of satisfaction, it seems, in being the unseen hand, in participating in the allied arts of the stage. And the pleasure that some derive from such jobs comes from knowing they don’t have to worry about getting the hand.

“It’s funny: many people ask, ‘You’re a carpenter, but you really want to be an actor, right?’” says Derek Cook, who has been building stage sets since he was fourteen and now, in his mid-twenties, is technical director of Studio Theatre, an award-winning nonprofit theater company in Washington, D.C. “But I had no desire to be an actor. I learned very quickly that I was good working with my hands and I had found an art form that really spoke to me.”

After getting his start as a carpenter and stagehand at a summer theater festival in West Virginia, in fact, Cook had the opportunity to appear in front of an audience. One of the festival plays called for stagehands to dress in sixteenth-century costumes and be a prominent part of one of the scenes.

A revelatory experience it wasn’t. “Not my cup of tea,” Cook explains. “I was very glad when that one scene was over. It’s not that it was unpleasant, exactly. It was that it wasn’t important to me, and it wasn’t what I did this for.”

In The Dresser, the English playwright Ronald Harwood immortalized the role of the backstage factotum. His subject was a man who ministers to a cranky, doddering old Shakespearean, a helper so loyal to the star that his identity becomes subsumed by the actor he cares for, and who, it turns out, cares little about him. The part, portrayed to heartbreaking perfection onstage and on film by Tom Courtenay, is perhaps an exaggerated distillation of the humbling facets of life in the wings. And yet it provides a window into the ego-sacrificing nature of working on the edge of the limelight.

Cook, though, doesn’t see his job as anything close to servitude. As technical director, he’s the production’s engineer, figuring out how to make the sketches and renderings of a play’s set designer a physical reality. In this way, he does serve several masters. But he has significant responsibilities, running the workshop in which the scenery is built. And he views his participation as an essential element of the artistic process.

“The reason most people do theater is because of the community,” he says, taking a break from work on a Studio revival of the rarely performed ’50s comedy The Solid Gold Cadillac. “It is an art form where together you create something so much greater as an artist than you could do by yourself.

“People say to me that I could do [home] furnishings, work on interior design and make a lot more money,” Cook continues. “And that’s true. But theater satisfies a deeper creative passion and drive in me. One of the greatest things about this job is that you solve problems and overcome challenges. Each show is going to be unique, and it’s something you don’t get, learning to build cabinets in the quote-unquote real world.”

I’ve spent a good amount of time observing the offstage rituals, developing an admiration for the individual components of a production and how many of them must be well-oiled for the machinery to function. I’ve sat over the years in rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms, in box offices with harassed cashiers and in orchestra pits sandwiched between clarinetists and trumpeters. Backstage, people come in all sorts, but they share common reactions to the ups and downs of the jobs: elation when a show receives buoyant reviews, resignation at the stranger aspects of dealing with the public. One time, while I was interviewing a group of cleaners in a venerable Broadway house, one of them confided that of all the bizarre things she had found under seats after performances, the oddest was an entire meatloaf.

What I’ve come away with is an ever fuller appreciation of an esprit de corps that, even in this most cynical of businesses, overtakes the putting on of a play, whether it is by a fledgling troupe with little to pay even its actors or a well-heeled enterprise with a long commercial run.

Sometimes, the desire to work behind the scenes does emanate directly from a passion for what happens on the stage: one very fine actress told me that she started her career fresh out of college as a wig mistress, doing hair care for an older actress. Years later, they would perform together in a play to considerable acclaim.

Other times, you get the sense that there are people who simply love being close to a show-business stir, but not so close that they are the ones who create it. I have listened to a wig maker lovingly describe the hairpiece he fashioned for Mae West, to an elderly usher who beamingly recalled escorting the Duke of Windsor to his seat.

“It was so exciting to be around all these incredible people, people from all around the world,” recalls Mickey Berra, who entered through a stage door four decades ago and has never left. “I love it,” he says. “We’re backstage trying to create the magic so that the audience gets to see it.”

Berra grew up in a family that ran a carnival in Virginia, and he became a stagehand when he was a teenager. His first show was Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing. When the musical had its tryout at the National Theatre in Washington, he was assigned to scenery propulsion. “I pushed a chair on, with a stick,” he says, laughing at the memory. These days, computers and hydraulics are more likely to do the heavy lifting.

Over the years, Berra has worked his way up the labor ladder; he now runs backstage production at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the national showplace for theater, dance, and classical music. But in some sense, he remains a starstruck teenager. Don’t get him started about all the celebrated faces he’s been able to meet, and even befriend. “I’ve met every president since Nixon,” he says. “I hung out with Dustin Hoffman during Death of a Salesman, I went to the racetrack with Mickey Rooney, I was at a party with Elizabeth Taylor.”

He recalls an early point in his career when Yul Brynner, during one of his multiple runs as King Mongut in The King and I, requested that his dressing room be painted chocolate brown. But apparently not just any chocolate brown.

“I painted it chocolate three different times,” Berra says. “He finally liked the third chocolate.”

Berra remembers the episode without a trace of pique. Hey, a star’s a star! Perhaps a key to maintaining one’s balance in the wake of celebrity is not taking too much umbrage at the personality excesses. Not to mention that slathering on three coats of paint may be a small price to pay for a great anecdote.
It’s all still an adrenaline rush for Berra, and not just because he gets to hobnob. “I don’t care if it is Leonard Bernstein or a wardrobe lady from Moscow, it’s been an incredible exposure to incredible people.” So really, you can’t think of Mickey Berra as being on the sidelines. Because backstage, it turns out, may just be the ultimate ringside seat.