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If the Booze and Cigarettes Don’t Kill You, the Coffee and Donuts Will April 4, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.

I don’t know how professional writers do it.  I have a topic and a deadline and I’m damned if I feel like writing today.  Will you love me less if you know my heart’s not in it?  Does it matter if you’re not paying me?  Ah, that is the question.

Maybe today’s ennui is brought on by yet another round of snowflakes.  Yes, it’s snowing even as we speak.  At least they didn’t cancel school again.  I don’t know about your kids, but I think mine would have gone anyway and pounded on the doors demanding to be let in.  Enough is enough, already.

What was I talking about, then?  Oh yes.  Today is supposed to be about my Exciting Life in the Theater, most specifically the time I spent on tour.  I have no linear memories of touring and most of what I recall is in bits and bobs and I can’t remember all the who’s and why’s of it all.  Which is just as well, I think.  And understandable owing to the amount of consumables I consumed back in the day.

I say it’s a good thing my memories aren’t more sharp because I did manage to not name names.  I’m no longer in touch with the main players in this particular drama and since I don’t know if they’re currently deacons in their church or on the PTA or something, I’ll try to be discreet.

Oddly enough, I think the topic itself is kind of boredom-inducing because once the novelty of being on tour wears off it’s as tedious as any job.  In fact, it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked for a paycheck in my life.  Shit, if I’d have put half as much dedication into finding a cure for cancer as I did for making sure Peter Pan’s tights stayed the right shade of green, we’d be living in a lump-free world, people.

And part of why the subject seems boring to me know is that I realized some time ago that I’ve “outgrown” theater.  When I was in college it was the center of my life.   I knew every word to every song playing on Broadway.  I had no idea what songs were popular on the radio because I listened to show tunes.  I worked with theater people, ate with theater people, partied with theater people and went to class with theater people.  Nothing outside of that world was quite as colorful or interesting.

I don’t know when it lost its sheen, exactly.  But I know that my time on tour is a fairly short chapter in my life and it’s one of those things I think might be a lot more interesting to someone who didn’t actually do it and maybe kind of always wanted to.  It certainly sounds exotic and exciting.  I’ve been mulling life on the road around in my head, trying to think of the most fun and interesting things we did and funny stories that came out of life on a bus, and I came to the sad realization that my touring years weren’t the sunniest ones.

Touring, for me, was for the most part a lonely time.  Bear in mind that this was back in the early ’90’s…’91 through ’94 or so, so things like cell phones and the internet weren’t commonplace.  Mail call and packages from home were still cause for excitement and anticipation.  Phone booths had not gone out of style.  You couldn’t just pick up the phone and chat with a buddy back home when you got lonely.  You made new friends or you learned to like your own company.

My first time out was with Peter Pan and there were two of us who were new to the crew.  The rest of the guys had worked together for this company before and during summers at a regional theater as well.  I got the job on the recommendation of my dear friend from college, Michael, who had done the job before me, and the other guy (if I remember correctly) got the gig because he worked at the summer camp attended by the touring company’s owner.  Or something like that.  So from day one I was going in as an outsider.  Plus, Michael could be abrasive and edgy.  I loved him and feared him at the same time, and I think that perhaps some of the other guys thought that he and I were going to be cut from the same odd cloth.

I know now, hindsight being 20/20 and all, that I would have fit in better with the cast.  In fact, I usually did.  I had more friends among the Pirates and Lost Boys than I did on the crew bus.  You see, in college, I was the only tech major.  I was the only person in the whole college interested in pursuing a theater career behind the curtains as opposed to in front of it.  I had to take classes in dance, acting, and directing even though I knew I was never going to need it.  Because everyone around me was going the performing route, and my major course of study was centered around performing, I was surrounded by performers and not technicians.  College really didn’t prepare me for my chosen career, sad to say.

And while I’m thinking of it, please, for the love of God, don’t refer to any technician who has graduated high school as a “techie.”  We will refer to you as a “fucking dismissive asshole.”  I’m putting that out there just so you know.

Being surrounded by actors, singers, and dancers did two things.  It left me with a giant gaping abyss where my self-esteem about performing in public should be, and it left me unprepared for life on the crew bus.

Professional theater technicians live in their own world, and I didn’t really know that when I stepped into the theater in New York that first day.  I hit the ground running, shoving actor after actor into their costumes, pinning and altering and getting everything ready to go.  I don’t remember anything about getting that first tour ready to go except what the backstage area looked like.   I didn’t see much of the rest of the crew because my job doesn’t really depend on theirs and vice-versa.  Lighting and set crews work together, sound and stage crew, sound and lighting, but not costumes so much.  I worked more closely with actors all the time.

The majority of my time was spent in dressing rooms and changing areas.  Between Michael trying to teach me everything I’d need to know about surviving a tour, packing my road boxes, and trying to get everything show-perfect, I didn’t have much time to get to know any of the crew before we hit the road.

The hell of my job was that I worked hand in hand with the cast much of the time, but had almost no time to hang out with them socially because cast and crew were in a different place except at showtime and on rare occasions where we had a few days off in one city.   I did most of my work in the dressing rooms while the rest of the crew worked on stage and in the front of the house.  During the show I was backstage and in the dressing rooms.  But after the show was over, the crew ate together and partied together.  I won’t say it was an “us or them” kind of thing, because I think for the most part the cast and crew liked each other and got along well enough, but didn’t have a lot in common.  Our job isn’t showy, and as a result, most of the crew aren’t what you’d consider “show people.”  Though rest assured, we are like no people you know.

We didn’t listen to show tunes on the crew bus.  I mean, EVER.  We didn’t read quietly.  We didn’t sip Throat Coat tea, or eat salads, or try to catch a nap on the bus.

I triple-dog dare you.

We drank.  Beer, hard alcohol, and everything in between was consumed by the fuckton.  Substances were gleefully abused.  We ate things purchased from truck stops that would gag a maggot off a shit truck.  In fact, there was a bit of a competition to see who could find the nastiest, worst-for-you, sorriest excuse for a food item at every roadside stop we hit.  We ate in diners and greasy spoons and every place you could think where “with fries” was a menu description for everything.  The cast was looking for a restaurant with a salad bar; we were buying hot dogs off of one of those hot-roller machines and laying bets on who would get the worst diarrhea.

We listened to the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, Lynryd Skynryd, AC/DC, and the Doobie Brothers.  We stayed up very late drinking, smoking, listening to music and making less and less sense until one by one we all went to our bunks and passed out.

You did not “fall asleep” anywhere other than your own rack.  Bad things would happen.  Bad, bad things.  No, no one would probably write on your face with a Sharpie or shave something off of you.  That is child’s play.  The tamest penalty I ever saw meted out was when one ASM passed out on his back with his mouth open and all the guys stood around him with their dicks out and took pictures.    He’s quite lucky they didn’t make him the saltine in a circle jerk.

Trust me when I say you DO NOT want to hear what was worse than that.

There was a long stretch of learning to re-like things.  I still listened to show tunes in my headphones in my bunk, but I learned to love Jimmy Buffett and tequila shots as well.  And I do love me some chicken-fried steak.

Most mornings we’d have to go right to the theater and on days where we wouldn’t have time for a “proper breakfast” from a local establishment, the theater would supply coffee and donuts.  Always coffee and donuts.  Gallons of coffee and mountains of donuts.  Though I suppose with as much booze as we drank, we needed the caffeine and sugar to put us to rights again.  I’m pretty sure if any of us had accidentally eaten an apple our systems would have shut down.

So, the first two tours I did, I was with the same group of guys more or less that I started with.  There were occasional rotations in the lineup, but for the most part the core was made up of people who’d known each other for a long time.  I never really considered them “friends” so much as co-workers I had to live with.  But I was crew and that trumped any other consideration.  I was a card-carrying member with all the rights and privileges it bestowed.  And they were as proud of the fact that I could undo a knotted black shoelace in the dark in less than 10 seconds and change out a body mic in fifteen all while an actor is having histrionics about having a knotted shoelace or a wonky microphone as I was of their ability to replace a broken caster on a rolling set-piece mid-scene or handle a fresnel catching fire during the performance.  (That actually happened, by the way.  It was very exciting to look up and see fire where no fire ought ever to be.)

Then I did Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the whole dynamic changed.  I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that they’d landed a “star” for the lead role (the Marilyn Monroe part) and the Powers That Be felt that the regular crew was a tad too…earthy…to share space with the less-talented sister of a big country music superstar.  The crew that came on board was more diverse, had never worked together, and the whole tour seemed to be much more “cast-friendly” in my opinion.

Before Blondes there was a pretty clear vibe out there that the crew had jobs to do that were no less important than the ones being done by the actors and we needed our autonomy to get on with it the way we knew how.  In other words, get the hell out of our way.  On Blondes it’s like we were there to serve the cast in every capacity, so a kinder, gentler crew was needed as to not ruffle the “star’s” feathers and to stay out of the way of the cast.  Keep the cast happy.

Fuck that.

As tiresome as drinking and partying and living on a few hours of sleep a night was, it was an even bigger culture shock to be on the crew bus where show tunes were allowed, no one smoked in the lounge, no one had any weed, and most of them would have no more than a beer or two (if any) before turning in for the night so as to be well-rested for load-in the next morning.

I thought that being on a crew where I wasn’t the newbie and the outsider would have been a more enjoyable experience. But I missed the guys that I knew wouldn’t have stood for any prima donna antics by the cast (no matter who they were related to) and who could party all night and still work all day in a manner so well-oiled that it’d make your head spin.  I wanted to work with carpenters who would inform the tour manager that they would not under any circumstances handle the “star’s” luggage for her because they were fucking carpenters and not her personal piss-boys.

I kind of missed the guys who needed a half gallon of coffee and a couple of jelly donuts to get their hearts started in the morning.  Requesting bagels and fresh fruit instead?  It was fucking weird, man.

We couldn’t even pull off the occasional kick-ass theme party.  One night the stage manager (who had been on Pan with me) and I thought a Margarita Monday was in order and laid in supplies and cranked up the Buffett.  In an hour, we were the only two left partying.   Which was just pathetic.  We said as much, rinsed the blender out with great sadness and nostalgia, and went to bed.

The last tour I did brought together a lot of the first crew I’d been with on Pan.  Same dynamic, same…everything.  Nothing had changed in them from the first leg of my first tour to what was now my fourth tour.  The only thing I noticed is how often they’d arrive at a theater in the morning still drunk from the night before. They still did their jobs as professionally as ever, but I think it was a lot easier for me to see how utterly abused most of them looked most of the time.  It wasn’t fun anymore.  It was sad.  And as much as I tried to get back into the swing of things and enjoy Frangelico Friday (or whatever the hell the theme was) at that point it was just done.  I had outgrown it.

When I came off the road for the last time, I knew I wouldn’t be going back out.

I had big plans to move to New York and try to make it there, figuring if I could, I could make it anywhere, but the plans fell through, as plans so often do.   And I wound up back here trying to figure out how to get my life back on track.  And how to get my liver to start talking to me again.

When I first came home, I missed doing shows so much it hurt.  I got involved with a local theater company and the experience was so bad…well, let’s just say that it made all the pain go away.   I’ll never do it again.  It’s too much work for no payout.  At least when I did costumes professionally I got paid and even when I was as green as a summer’s day, I was treated as a professional costumer who knew what she was doing.  The day a fat-ass bitch of an actress with 30 years of amateur theatrics under her belt deigned to tell me why my design was all wrong was the day I quit and never looked back.  Community theater can suck my dick.

It all seems a million miles away now.  I don’t miss the manufactured dramatics at all.  I rarely listen to show tunes anymore and I don’t even like sewing Halloween costumes for my kids.  I realize it was something that made me happy once, but then swinging really high on the swing set used to make me happy once too.  All part of growing up, I guess.

And now the snow has turned to rain.  April showers at last.  Can I get an amen?



1. Aquarianshoes - April 4, 2011

Thank-you. You have just reaffirmed why I no longer do theater at all. I just applied for an usher’s job at our famous regional theater, and I think I am going to turn them down if they even respond to my application. I got the form email today. Our dear friend Michael tried to get me do do what you did, except I was not nearly as talented as you are. I would have been the ASM instead. But I opted to get myself tangled up in a really bad marriage, and a worse community theater. The last straw was “The Secret Garden”. I produced it, did the costumes (with a tiny crew), and was president of the Board, all the while holding down a full-time and a part-time job. I walked away from it when it was over and have never done another show since. That was the summer of 1995, and I thought it would never end. Now I have a bit of a twinge to do SOMETHING, but I think I have just outgrown the whole thing. But in 1989 I wanted to nothing more than travel the world and be in the theater. I wish I could find that girl again. She was ballsy and fun. Now she is older and tired. What the hell?

2. Yorkie - April 5, 2011

I came THIS close to choosing Theatre over English back in Uni. I really wanted that life–the aimless, emotionally-charged, wandering, deviated life you described–but in the end I went the safer route. Safer and less exotic and filled with regrets, but safe. I’m sure some people reading this would think, “If it were me, *I’d* have done it differently and not wound up so scarred…” That’s what everyone thinks, isn’t it.

Like you, though, I outgrew it. I did a lot of productions in front of the curtain, and I just got tired of it all. At the end of the night, when the show’s over, you walk off the stage and back into your pale, ordinary life, and that let-down is just too great. I don’t think anyone can maintain that mad pace (and the self-destruction) forever without burning out or becoming a puppet with nothing left inside.

You were wise to step back when you did before you turned into someone you couldn’t recognise or destroyed yourself. You’re far too valuable a person to so many others right now, and I’m glad you’re here. 🙂

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