Backstage during a play, there is sometimes a lot of waiting, or something that looks a lot like waiting. Actors wait, reading by dim light, listening to iPods, or knitting quietly, the clicking of needles punctuating the muted sounds of conversation from the stage. The stage manager sits, idly turning pages of a script, occasionally setting off sound cues, while the director paces maniacally, ears perked like a setter, having placed all control of her show into the tenuously held hands of the actors and the audience.
I recently played a small part as a prostitute in The Station Theatre’s production of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” wherein I spent about three hours per night waiting, my hooked garters carving rivets into the backs of my thighs. The story takes place in a whorehouse, so I wasn’t the only working girl with time to kill; scantily-clad females splayed across prop coffins, sat cross-legged in robes, and curled up on the floor, their fuck-me heels daintily set to the side. Actors who were about to go onstage performed their secret rituals; they stretched, counted, checked props obsessively, like witch doctors willing their scenes to go well. As it is with nearly any local theatre production, a survey of the room at any given time would have revealed a roster of actors I admire, and have admired since the first time I took my seat in a Champaign-Urbana theater, fully-clothed and ready to hear a story.
As a theatre scholarship student at Parkland College, I was often outcast by my peers, having come in mid-year and therefore threatened the fragile self-conscious teenage bonds that had been forged before me. I spent a lot of my free time alone that semester, and so would often do my work on a show—steaming costumes, selling tickets, or finding props—and then take a seat in the back of the theater to secretly watch the production. I always chose seats far in the back, sometimes against side walls; these were seats which no snobby theatergoer would reserve, and so I could sit alone, without being disturbed, or noticed at all. The lights would go up on the stage in one great godly moment, warming the theater and illuminating the actors, and casting a glow on the faces of the audience as well, no matter where we were sitting. No matter how many students littered the hallways, gossiping about the new girl, the entire show could have just been for me, as far as I could tell; as far as any of us could tell, it could have been put on only for us.
Sometimes, while backstage, I think about how queer it is that we put so much time and effort into what we do, and that, on larger scales, theatre is a billion-dollar industry to which some people devote their entire livelihood. “How strange it is,” my friend Samantha once said, “how being in a play together is like being stranded on an island together.” We rehearse for months, we give money, we memorize and wait and work—in order to play pretend. This, to me, isn’t sad; in fact, it gives me hope, and reminds me of the power of storytelling.
Backstage at a play, actors listen closely to the sounds of the audience: if a crowd is mostly dead, and doesn’t want to laugh or respond out loud, the power of their silence can quiet even the most notoriously loud laughers, and you can hear it happen—half of a lone guffaw, and then an embarrassed silence. Alternatively, an exuberant crowd can lighten the entire mood of a story, and even change the ways the actors play their characters, continuously weighing the audience reaction. The most gratifying sound to an actor is an unintentional reaction from an audience member; when truly moved, people coo and cuss without realizing, as if they’re watching a melodrama. After a show, exhausted and with makeup smudged, the actors receive their audiences, who are often overwhelmingly grateful and touched; “Thank you,” they say over and over, touching hands, “thank you.”
Recently, as another performance of “The Balcony” was reaching its final moments, a handful of other actors and I crept quietly from the dressing rooms to the lobby, ready for the impending curtain call. One actor, a tall, middle-aged man, began silently imitating the onstage motions as he walked: You’ll leave by the right, through the alley, we heard from the stage, and he gave a slow, sweeping gesture to his right. His feet swept across the floor as he shuffled and swayed, slowly and deliberately, his head down—movements meaningless to those not watching, but those of us who were watching, costumed and waiting in the faint light, saw what looked a lot like dancing.