What lies behind the curtain?

July 31, 2014 1:30 pm

It is not uncommon to be in an audience, waiting in rapt attention for the start of a theatre performance, hoping to be taken into a new world for a few hours. What is less common is to be backstage, waiting for your cue to brush aside the curtains and step into the blinding lights. For a long time I had only been the former and it was only recently that I began to take a real interest in the latter by joining the Shakespeare Society at my university. Aspects I know I had not even considered whilst in the audience became integral parts of the show, but more than that it became clear that they combined seamlessly to provide the best possible show.

The first production I took part in – a musical retelling of The Tempest – was an incredibly useful introduction to being on the other side of the curtain. In terms of organisatiothe_tempest_7-1n, rehearsals were held daily, the actors permitted their scripts onstage for two or so weeks to allow familiarisation with the language and how the scenes fit together. The unusual aspect, however, was the music. The sheet music was well out of copyright, but it had been written for a professional choir and as passionate as we in the society were, very few had professional experience onstage. Thus the music had to be altered and taught to those of us that had chosen to sing as part of our auditions. I learned that breathing exercises were not just for the singers – those with spoken parts also used the techniques to improve their projection and delivery, particularly during longer monologues. It took many rehearsals not just to perfect the music, but also to integrate it into the scene, using spoken words as cues to begin.

It is sometimes as effective to have recorded music playing, which was highlighted in the second performance, Timon of Athens, when I decided to learn more about the technical aspects of a play. In a balcony above and behind the audience there were speakers and a lighting board that was connected to rigged lights that ran above the stage. For our production one person was controlling the sound cues and another the lights. Both shared a ‘master script’ that the director had marked in where they wished an effect to occur. A line and the instructions would be penned in red ink some two minutes before the cue as a warning, and the event written again in green. For the sound, the director’s notes would specify volume and duration, for in Timon, one song was to play for thirty seconds and then the volume to be decreased to half so the actors onstage could be heard over it as they delivered their lines. The lights could be something as simple as a single spotlight or as complex as a wash-light transitioning to multiple spotlights at 70% strength. This was also one of the more adrenaline-inducing aspects of the stage for it was abundantly clear that we, as technical staff, relied upon the actors to say the correct cues for our changes as much as they relied on lighting cues, such as blackouts, for their own entrances. Lighting and sound were something that the audience could not see the source of but experienced the effects of through its enhancement of the play.

MISMATCHED LOVERS: (L-R) Audra McDonald plays Olivia and Anne Hathaway, Cesario/Viola, in Shakespeare's madcap comedy, 'Twelfth Night,' now playing at the open-air Delacorte Theater. (Joan Marcus)

MISMATCHED LOVERS: (L-R) Audra McDonald plays Olivia and Anne Hathaway, Cesario/Viola, in Shakespeare’s madcap comedy, ‘Twelfth Night,’ now playing at the open-air Delacorte Theater. (Joan Marcus)

The last show, for we could only feasibly do three in an academic year, was the comedy Twelfth Night. Even after two previous shows, there were still lessons to be learned about acting and the stage. I played four minor roles with five separate costumes, which gave rise to a whole new experience. Sometimes actors multi-role because it is specified in the script for comedic effect or even for the sake of simplicity. Whichever the reason, it makes keeping track of cues and scenes more important which is why many of us felt more comfortable keeping our scripts backstage to follow the acting; for it is not always possible to be within earshot of the speech onstage. I have said controlling the lights was adrenaline inducing, however, multi-roling was even more so. Within the space of twenty pages I had made four costumes changes between a priest and a police officer; two of those changes within two pages of each other. Originally the two characters were onstage for the entirety of the scene so after talking with the directors we created an exit cue for the police officer where I could do a very quick change into the priest. Luckily, about half the costume could be used for both, and to save time I put on a black shirt directly over a white one and covered the result with a black cloak that plainly stated whom the character was while at the same time ensuring that my two costumes could not really be seen. Multi-roling need not always be so frantic, though it always has that potential. In Timon of Athens, some actors signified their change in roles by modifying their accents or tying up their hair. In Twelfth Night, however, part of the script was for the character of the Fool to pretend to be a parson to trick Malvolio, thus that change was for comedic effect and so was seen by the audience.

After completing the third show I looked back and realised how I watched movies with an eye for the lighting effects and the positioning of the actors. Naturally in films the actors can do several takes of a scene if something goes wrong, but in the theatre the acting is live. This does not mean that we are immune to getting our cues wrong or forgetting lines. It does mean, however, that we must develop strategies to cope with the occurrence. A certain word or line can often act as trigger phrase for an actor, and our directors stressed that due to the possibility of forgotten lines it was important, not just to memorize the line prior to our own, but also the gist of the entire preceding part so that we would not be caught unawares.

From one side of the curtain to the other I have learned more than I ever thought possible, and yet even that is but a fraction of what goes into a professional performance. As an amateur acting society we rely upon respect for whether a person is a minor or major character, or entirely unseen by the audience, everyone works together to create those few hours where an audience can be taken into a whole new place. The actors become their characters emerging only as themselves when they take their final bows under the bright spotlights.

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