Backstage Magic

Originally published in Ann Arbor Family

My daughter recently acted in the Young People’s Theater (YPT) production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  With a crew and cast of over 50 kids, the show ran for four days.  Of course, our family attended every single one of them.  After two and a half months of carpooling back and forth from rehearsals, we weren’t about to miss a minute of show time.  Each of the first three nights, we decided to sit in different seats to get different angles of the stage.  The fourth night, I decided to see what the view was like from behind the stage.  What I saw, I’ll never forget.

I was not alone backstage.  As a parent of a YPT actor, we are required to sign up for jobs to help make the production a success.  Some parents build the set, some sell tickets at the box office, some promote the show, and some sew the costumes.  There are countless other tasks necessary to put on such a big play—too many to list.

The job that I volunteered for Sunday night was Backstage Monitor.  Going behind the scenes was something that I had always wanted to do.  My duties basically were to keep things under control and give help where needed.  The night before this last performance, the director sent out an e-mail encouraging everyone to “enjoy the moment.”  I intended to.

An hour before call, the actors began to arrive—dressed in their jeans and sweatshirts.  These are kids from seven to seventeen years old, and they looked like it.  As they changed into their costumes, not only did their appearance change, but also their demeanor.  They suddenly became the adult characters that they were to play on stage.  I felt that I was in the company of small grownups, wearing wigs and painted mustaches—that is, until I walked into the dressing room and found Lumiere and the Beast stuffing Chip and the Bartender into a locker.  Reality check: they were still boys.  (For the record, it was Chip and the Bartender’s idea, just trying to kill time before the curtain went up.)

As I patrolled the hallway, I saw my daughter, the Baker, carrying a big brownie toward me.  New prop?  No.  It went right into her mouth, along with myriad other goodies from the “tech table.”  For those of you who don’t know what a “tech table” is, it is not something used for holding technological gadgets and props for the play.  Its purpose is to keep the actors from starving during the performance by supplying brownies, cookies, popcorn, cheese cubes, granola bars, water, and hot chocolate.  Tonight being the last performance, it was acting as an appetizer bar before the post-production cast party (where the kids would eat brownies, cookies, pizza, and chocolate covered pretzels).

As show time approached, the kids stuffed one last morsel into their mouths and got into character.  They became adults to me once again.  By listening to speakers in the dressing rooms, they all knew when to come out and wait in the wings for their cues.  The actors didn’t need help from me or even the director.  In fact, the director and producer were sitting in the audience.

When I signed up for this duty, I thought that I’d have to do a lot more monitoring.  I thought that I’d have to fix costumes and make sure Cogsworth was properly wound.  It turns out that the greatest service I had to perform was opening the stage door so Mrs. Potts could fit her doublewide teapot through.  These actors had 99% of it under control—very impressive.

This being the last performance, there were many hugs and a few tears shed after the final bows.  As the actors removed their costumes, I expected them to turn back into kids again.  They did.  But while they resumed their roles as high school, middle school, and elementary-aged people, there was something extraordinary about them.  It was what their experience in the theater had taught them—self-confidence.  These were kids who could overcome fears of stepping out onto a stage.  These were kids who knew how to converse well with adults.  These were kids who gained important skills that would help them in school and in life.

Monitoring, or rather observing, these actors had a profound effect on me, as well.  I tremendously enjoyed watching their camaraderie and enthusiasm.  I can think of no other experience like this in the grown-up world.  I wish we could bottle that spirit when we are young and take it with us into adulthood.  Kids, I would like to tell you that you don’t know what you’ve got here, but I think many of you do.  Just do us adults a favor, and believe us when we say, “enjoy the moment.”


Jim Keen is a free-lance writer and life-long Ann Arborite.  He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabby (9) and Molly (6).