A Writer’s first backstage pass.
ONCE I’d saved myself from the clutches of academia (for how I nearly ended up an Ancient History professor, read my post on How the Prophet Elijah got me Published), I managed to escape into drama school. Not just any drama school, but NIDA, Australia’s pre-eminent National Institute of Dramatic Art.
I hasten to admit I wasn’t one of the thousands of acting hopefuls, eager to audition. I was a pretty good visual artist, all through secondary school, and in my usual way (which means I worked it out for myself), I decided that in order to make my way in the world, I needed to ‘do something’ with those skills.
I was already drawn to some kind of theatre profession (read about my moving theatre experience in Waiting for Waiting for Godot), but the only way I could see myself in the industry was as a designer.
For me, design was a safer option. It didn’t put me personally on the line, as it does with actors; and it seemed more creative than Stage Management, which I’d tried at university as part of SUDS – Sydney University Dramatic Society.
So I applied, created a design for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and attended an interview with the Head of Design. He seemed interested in the progression my work showed between designing school musicals a year before, to my vision for Shakespeare’s last great play. I was sent for a second interview with the Administrator, and a few weeks later I got the call.
NIDA had recently moved to newly built premises on Anzac Parade in the Sydney suburb of Kensington. Everything seemed freshly minted. New students for all courses were welcomed to an orientation week, and then, horror of horrors, we were all thrown together to co-create devised pieces to present in front of everyone.
I was deeply closeted, painfully shy, and only good at expressing myself on the page. The idea of being up on a stage, away from the relative safety of school, was frightening. I did all I could to be a shrinking violet, and, thinking the point was to show some early skill as a designer, set about making the costumes.
Going with that idea worked a treat – I managed to be up the back with the ‘chorus’, garnered some notice for creating a huge collar out of newspaper for one of the acting students, and got through without having to do anything in the spotlight.
In fact the whole first term was a series of such challenges, the aim of which seemed to be breaking down barriers. But I had one very strong one, which you’d think a young gay man at drama school would need no encouragement in relinquishing, but nevertheless, I resisted.
Meanwhile my class was thrown in the deep end of the exact yet limitless world of design. Right from the get-go it was clear than near enough would never be good enough.
In the classroom I was forever resisting being stretched – commuting to keep up my waitering income meant having transportable designs, so bigger was rarely better for me. Where some of my student colleagues would take over the classroom for their projects, I was happy for mine to fit in my backpack.
In the theatre itself, however, I started to let go and enjoy myself. First year design and technical students served as crew for the main-stage productions of 2nd and 3rd year students. We were expected to learn the highly technical and accurate art of scene and wardrobe changes.
During the first technical rehearsal I was ever part of, with endless repetition of the same stage transitions and technical cues, I recall rolling my eyes with a kind of boredom, wondering when we’d be let go so I could catch my train home.
But when the magic of the theatre started to take over, and the transitions were coming together, something changed in me. A day later, the show could not be stopped by stage management unless there was some kind of emergency. We’d all just have to cope if something went wrong.
A new world opened to me, with its own theatrical rhythms, language, and that potential-filled half-light which exists in between reality and fantasy. Ever since then, I have loved being part of technical rehearsals in the lead up to opening night. They are often awkward and stressful, but they are my favourite period of putting a show together.
Working backstage on productions of works by wildly different playwrights like Chekhov, Brecht, Ayckbourn, and O’Casey; through to Australian works, like Too Young for Ghosts by Janis Balodis, was an immediate and thrilling way to learn the art of staging productions in a space.
The three-dimensional theatre world also broke the stranglehold that mere words had on me. Words on a page is where a theatre production starts, but they quickly dissipate into the very air of a theatre space. My writer’s brain began to switch off, because it was not needed.
Three years’ drilling in this creative process was the best performing arts education I could ever hope for, but as I soon discovered, there was a lot more to making a career in the theatre.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.