Friday, January 05, 2007

Behind The Scenes

by Meryl Neiman

A few weeks ago, I received a rare privilege. The chance to go behind the scenes of the Pittsburgh Ballet production of the Nutcracker. My mother-in-law had purchased tickets for the entire family and the backstage tour was offered to large groups.

We began in the beautiful lobby of the Benedum, but quickly we crossed the threshold into a different world. This was a world of uneven stairs and narrow hallways. This was the story behind the story.

We saw the room where the dressers work. These are the ladies who are responsible for readying all of the costumes for the performance. On the day we toured, we had tickets for the 4:30 matinee. This was the second production of the three performances of the Nutcracker for that day. The costumes are now machine washable (in the old days, the poor performers had to endure the stench of each prior wearing) but these women have to wash all the costumes and have them back in their locations in about an hour and a half. Then the dressers are responsible for assisting with each of the many costume changes throughout the day.

We also learned more about these costumes. They are not made, they are built. The costumes must, and can, survive for years and years of hard use. These are the best made clothes you have ever seen. Each one is sewn by hand. Each bead, each jewel, is hand stitched onto the material. Some costumes have thousands of these individually sewn adornments.

The toe shoes worn by the ballerinas are kept in boxes by size. Although these shoes are themselves well upwards of a $100 a pair, some dancers go through a pair a day. Once the toe box becomes soft, the shoes are no longer usable.

The Benedum is huge compared to most theaters. The stage is the third largest in the country. Yet things behind the scenes still appear cramped. There are costumes hanging in wardrobes in the halls. The Chinese dragon rests perched along one wall.

My daughter's favorite part of the tour was the stage. The curtain was down. Dancers stretched and danced across the specially laid floor. Set pieces were housed along the side. There was the famous Kaufman clock. There were the carousel horses just waiting for the young dancers who propel them across the floor with their small feet.

We saw how the theater can stage multiple productions at the same time. And we saw where the stage manager sits. He is the boss of the show. He cues every action in the performance from the curtain rising to the final bows. He handles the unexpected, like what to do when the children in the cast are suddenly struck by chicken pox!

At the end of the tour, we stood in the audience in the front of the first balcony. We were the only ones in that part of the theater. At first, the curtain is down. It was an empty theater, devoid of magic. But then slowly things began to happen. We watched as the hands on the clock above the curtain moved into the correct position for the beginning of the ballet. The curtain came up. Sets appeared. Lights are dimmed. We saw that moment when the play behind the scenes merged with the production that the audience sees.

And then I realized. This was no different than the work we do as writers. Like the seamstress who hand secures each bead, we struggle to find the perfect word. Not so that the reader will stop and admire it, but so the whole piece will sing. The craft of writing isn't glamorous. Behind the scenes, we plot our books, we make sure that each character's arc is complete, we hone our theme, we add healthy doses of conflict and tension, and we sweat every detail, every word.

But like the Nutcracker, if we have done our jobs right, the reader won't notice any of our work. He will merely be taken away into our fictional world and given a hell of a ride.


Joyce said...

Meryl, your backstage tour sounds so cool! I've only seen backstage at the Shaler Area High School productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Guys & Dolls. Not quite as exciting as the Nutcracker!

mike said...

Meryl--It is another world backstage, isn't it? As for me, the opera company's move to the Benedum in '87 was a godsend: we supers had real dressing rooms, with mirrors and lights and even, Lord be praised, showers! At Heinz Hall, all the supers--men and women--got dressed in the same big upstairs rehearsal room, our only barrier against full exposure the racks of costumes, which, in those days, weren't dry-cleaned until the day before performance; dress rehearsals were rather smelly affairs! If the chance ever comes up, do take a backstage tour of the Byham--it's just like the cramped, aged, creaky backstage immortalized in Sondheim's Follies. Rough edged but magical.

Tory said...

I'm struck by the roles the dressers play. What a great occupation for a character in a mystery!

merylneiman said...


The dresser's role can be very stressful. A Backspacer is a dresser and she posted about her anxiety when she had to sub in for a different dresser who was ill. Executing intricate costume changes in a short time can be quite a challenge. I, for one, have trouble just getting my daughter dressed and out the door for kindergarden.

I do think it would make for a great series character.

Nancy said...

Some of my most fulfiling work has been in the theater. I think directing is a lot like writing a novel--except the characters are sometimes more out of control than the ones I work with on paper. Telling a story with real people has its challenges--like keeping the story straight and making it clear to the audience while also giving the actors room to give their input. Theater is less lonely than writing.--All that collaboration is exciting. You get immediate feedback, too. And you can make adjustments as you listen to the audience react.

But yeah, the backstage stuff always has more melodrama than what you see from the audience! Mike, I loved your story about the diva singer who played Salome!

kathie said...

Great post, Meryl. I agree the writing behind the writing isn't what people imagine. But still, magic in its own way.