So my primary function in this Opera is to walk (very) slowly and smoothly. I am to follow a route, move props around, and wear a silly costume, but the most important thing is to keep things slow and smooth. Although my initial route is a long way up-stage (thus I receive less walking notes than those brave souls down-stage, who are right there in front of the choreographer and audience) I think it’s fair to say that I took to this fairly easily. I credit both my lengthy stint as an alter sever as well as, weirdly enough, knee surgery.
When they go inside to find out how you came apart, you have to learn how to go back together again. Everything you assumed you can do isn’t so easy when there’s stitches and crutches and swelling and staircases in your way. Two dozen years on this earth and I had to learn to walk all over again, asking other people to go up and down the stairs so I could watch them and try and figure out why I couldn’t do with effort something they could do without thinking. It was a minor procedure from the doctor’s point of view, but for a dreamy wanderer who could thoughtlessly walk to the ocean if given the chance, it was life changing. Surgery gave me a knee and a fuller understanding of what it means to move a body around, and in this case it means that if you tell me to walk slowly and smoothly, it turns out I can.
So I know my movement had something to do with it, but more likely it was my boldness and my smallness that inspired the director and choreographer to pull me aside after a week or to into the rehearsal schedule. They had a special job that needed doing. A job requiring smallness.
In Act III, a cake on a tongue has to glide up the center of the stage to eventually pop through a hole in a curtain. The cake-on-a-tongue lives on top of a little black box, with a pushing bar and wheels, and someone who is small yet wiry has to kneel in there and push it across the nubby floor of the stage.
When they were telling me this I began to glow with excitement. “You want me to be a cake pusher!!”
The director (who is Welsh) paused and said, “I rather like to think of it as the cake-trolley driver.“
Since then “driving the cake” is what people have referred to it as in the production, and when the rest of the supers are dismissed over the intercom our minder usually says something like “…except Maggie, who needs to stay here to drive the cake.” This has led those uninvolved to assume incorrectly that there is a lot more to the job than there is.
I get a lot of imaginative questions about it, and I think I’m going to stop setting the record straight about how low-tech it actually is and just start encouraging the whimsy. Why not. Or maybe they think it’s motorized because I’m just that good at moving smoothly, and that’s no bad thing either.
Aside from being a delightful spectacle, this means that I get to spend a long time waiting to do my thing, and some of that time is spent surreptitiously gawking backstage.
It is a glorious jungle. All ropes and curtains and false walls and scaffolding. There is a rolling shelf covered in enormous wrenches on pegs. I saw baskets filled with the gingerbread children. There are television monitors at every wall and every corner showing a live image of the conductor in black and white, and one of these hangs quite artistically from the ceiling near a spindly staircase that winds so tightly on itself that it’s difficult to imagine how one could actually ascend.
Walking backstage is like walking into the back of a huge clock, with all the wheels and springs turning over to make something happen. It is dark and impossible to know how many people are back there, pulling ropes and sliding levers and carrying pieces of set around. They are quietly talking into their radios, they are dressed invisibly in blacks, and they are quick to return a smile but also hurry you out of the way if you don’t have a job to do back there. All utility, all functionality. They have a job to do, and one aspect of that job is to make your life much, much easier.
Now, instead of a director explaining to us what will be there, it is there. Now when we get off stage there are people waiting with towels so that we can wipe the raspberries off our stage-shoes. Someone from the dressing rooms will have already brought our walking-around shoes downstairs for us in a big rolling bin, so that we can leave our stage-shoes with the poor souls who must ream ground-in raspberries from the treads. One night someone fainted from the heat inside the costumes, and the next day we were all provided little handkerchiefs with cooling gel inside (that had to be labeled with our names, soaked in water, and drip-dried well ahead of our call). There are people who tell us where to stand, when to move, and how to leave, and who hold up flashlights so we don’t have any trouble getting there.
So much in life depends on the unseen superheroes that quietly move heaven and earth to make a thing happen, and I am in constant awe of them and the machine they create with their collective efforts.
I was reminded that I’m a part of this machine when I overheard some of the rope people talking to each other, saying “your cue is the tongue passing.”
I then had a brief yet vivid expansion of circumstance, a gestalt shift where I saw the thing for what it was: not as a clock run by unseen magic forces, but as a Rube-Goldberg machine. Because the tongue’s cue (my cue) is the door opening, the door’s cue is Carla with her binder and headset, whose cue is the sheet music in front of her lit by the little blue LED, the music itself, and (I assume) the notes from the director/choreographer.
Thus I cue the ropes.
Which cues Maureen and Sandy to move.
Which cues me to keep moving.
Which cues the first curtain.
Which cues someone to gallop from behind me all the way to the curtain and open the opening.
Which cues me to push through.
Which cues the black curtain just behind me.
Which cues the magicians to transform a German Expressionist forest into a gritty, cluttered witch’s kitchen.
Sandy and Maureen take cake and sing a key line.
Which cues me to withdraw.
Which cues the curtain.
I exit, stage left.
Carla says “Maggie’s clear”
Which cues the last few walls of the kitchen.
Which cues the real curtain.
And the next scene begins.
Everyone plays a part, and if one little component is missing the thing cannot happen. Therefore during rehearsals I wait a long time to be dismissed, because while my part is relatively minor in the scene change it is essential, and if we need to run the scene again I have to be there. So doing my special job during rehearsals means a good deal of waiting through the third act. I cannot be reached via intercom in the house, so most of my off time is spent loitering near the stage entrance, or in the green room on a couch, listening for my dismissal announcement and to the music and singing which also is transmitted over the intercom. I watch snippets of the Simpsons from the locker room television. I read the State of Oregon safety regulations posted on the crew cork-board. At one point the other night I sat upstairs with our two dressers, eating candy and talking them through the various plot points of Act III as we listened, giving them a context to the goofier sounds.
They weren’t familiar with the story…because nobody bothered to tell them? Or because they haven’t bothered looked it up? Probably both. A lot of things happen at the Keller, every night, and we are just a just another thing. There’s no need for the magic of any given production. There’s just the practical aspects — what needs to be where, at what time, in order for everything to work smoothly. And that means they can produce the raw materials for the magic without letting the plot points stand in their way.
It seems like the magic is gone in a different way for one of the soloists, who spends a certain amount of the waiting time in the green room griping about things. That’s sort of a cliche, and having not been around big deal people in a while I’d sort of forgotten people do that. Most of the soloists don’t, I hasten to add. There are crabbier moments, and I imagine this was just one of those. I was surprised by it though. I hope they love what they do, it certainly seems that way to me on stage when I see them at work, or even when I hear them over the intercom. Every job has its pitfalls, I just forget that for these guys it is not an amazing new adventure with so much new stuff to take in, it’s just another gig, just another stage in just another town.
The magic is NOT gone for me, and because my tasks are fairly menial (and because I have a host of helpers to take care of the details) I am free to marvel at the Rube-Goldberg machine uninhibited. The trade off is that at the end of the night as I gather up my things and walk to the parking garage I have to refocus on all of the details back into one head, because I am not an international star and no one will take care of those things for me in life.
Walk the darkened streets without a flashlight-escort.
Find my car, drive home.
I reset my own props, placing things for tomorrow in my bag.
And I put the bag in the place it goes.
I put the coffee grounds where they go.
I put my sandals by the bed, lay out clothes for tomorrow.
I get myself in the head space for the next scene — a dream sequence?
I change costumes from “somewhat tidy artist” to “pajamas”.
I get my book and wait for my cue.
Taking it all in all, if the trade off for keeping the magic is having to work hard and take care of every department yourself, I’ll take the magic.