Backstage smells. An acquired taste, it’s not unpleasant, but specific and familiar. A symphony of old wood, dusty fabric, hot lights, hairspray, and bodies in motion. The dressing room air conditioner has stopped working and there are too many sticky people jostling for real estate in front of the mirror. Elbows knock together, but no apologies follow. No one bothers, for it will happen again and again.
Chaos swirls. Every available space is occupied by kaleidoscopic makeup, hairbrushes, crumpled tissues, and someone’s half eaten sandwich. There’s never enough time for a real meal. Sugar high, caffeine buzz; junk food gets passed from hand to hand like a drug.
There’s a flurry of fabric – silk and sequins, turn to zip a friend. Stockings run. Costume pieces mysteriously disappear, resurfacing in unexpected places. Too tight. Too loose. A button pops. Emergency alterations are made with pins and tape. Prayers are whispered that they will hold. Any god will do.
Someone knocks. A man’s voice asks for this or that. The door flashes open and it’s handed out. No one covers up – there’s no time for modesty. He sees what he sees.
Movement is constant – a rising tide of activity in the too short eternity before curtain. Time is fluid. Energy runs high as people scurry to make the most of the last minute. Yet small eddies of quiet can be found to take a calming breath, to center, to share an encouraging smile.
Every opening follows a comfortable pattern. Mic test, warm ups, pep-talk. Is there time to run to the bathroom? Scores are checked, one last time. The scramble to place props before the doors open is laced with muttered curses. Something’s always missing.
The house lights flash. The buzz of the crowd, as the seats fill, is a potent reminder that this is real. Emotion is palpable, excitement shot through with a flutter of nerves on far too little sleep. Adrenaline surges: fear and exhilaration.
Running deeper is camaraderie born of shared experience. Fixed in the mind are the frustrations, long hours, mistakes. The fear of not being good enough. Yet, it is the successes that are tattooed on the heart – the accomplishments, the laughter, the profound moments of beauty and burgeoning friendships. To create and perform together.
That first eerie note pierces the darkness, then the lights slowly brighten.
This is the moment, there’s no going back.
(Photo: dressing room on the set of “Jesus Chist Superstar” Stowe, VT)