Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Life (And Teenagers), I Learned From Stage Crew

When I was in high school, I was kind of a theatre nerd.

It started with some acting–a bit part in Little Women, fairy #17 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream–but I found my place in the world, it seemed, when I discovered the stage crew side of things.  You know, we’re the ones who hang the lights and program the sound and make sure the prop is where it’s supposed to be.  We call the cues and sweep the floor and lock up after the actors are done.

I caught the crew bug my sophomore year and lived and breathed it until graduation.  I suppose this has something to do with the fact that, when I was fifteen, crew just about saved my life.

I came to my high school from a tiny, Lutheran k-8 in a different school district, where I had graduated from the eight grade with sixteen other kids I had known, in many cases, for most of my life. That little church and school was my whole world, from the choir loft to the back kitchen hallway and everything in-between.  Some of the teachers there had served as interim parents for me during rougher patches of my childhood.  Most of the kids there I had known longer than I knew my adoptive parents.  Though, as an institution, they had some serious issues and a bucket full of methods I in no way endorse, this school was above all a stable place for me: a little girl in desperate need of security and support.

The golden years–6th grade.  I’m bottom center, of course.

So cut to me a few months later, fourteen and awkward, thrown into a high school of well over two thousand kids knowing just barely maybe half a handful of them.  I was entirely lost my first year.  I ate lunch in the band room hallway or the back bathroom if I got desperate.  I came home and slept in my closet every night for almost a month, just for the secure feeling of it.  I cried a lot.  I languished over stories all my grade-school friends were sharing about the neighboring high school, where most of them now went.  I felt very insecure and very alone.

That is, until I discovered crew.  The crew kids my Sophomore year were a rag-tag bunch of precocious, hard working under-achievers who took me in and taught me to live by three strict rules that still ring true today:

1. do your work

2. be deadly loyal

3. stay out of the spotlight

High school is, for many a teen, a time of intense relationships, that we know.  Bonds are strong, loyalty is holy wisdom, and the few adults who make the cut are revered as royalty, often for years beyond graduation.  High school is also the first time you really can and want to find something that is entirely yours and to work your ass off independently to make it perfect.

Crew was all about fulfilling both of these teeny desires. Crew meant kin; you respected your elders and supported your juniors.  The adults who respected us and let us be leaders, like our wonderful mentor/director Mrs. M, we would have done anything for, including listening to her and heeding her advice.  The adults who treated us like morons and never let us work independently were the first to find their props displaced, their sound cues altered, and their lighting designs creatively re-interpreted (a particularly colorful band concert comes to mind…).

Okay, so we weren’t always the most professional back then.  But still, the point I’m trying to make here is that crew took that urge a teenager often has to be viciously, vehemently loyal to something but also independent and strong on their own and ran with it.  There wasn’t any sort of desire to climb up and out, to the top of the social ladder a la Glee or Lindsey Lohan.  No, now that I had them, I wanted to be loyal to my craft, my mentor, and to my friends.  And when a new person signed up to join us (as many eventually did), I wanted to teach them absolutely everything.

Stage crew also taught me how to be a leader.

By participating in theatre, strangely enough, I also learned to stay out of the spotlight.

Just a few weeks after I had joined up, I found myself at a rehearsal for Music Man.  The director had called for a dinner break, and so cast and crew were all streaming into the cafeteria to dig into the pizza.  I went to grab a slice with the rest of them, until Jaime, one of the veterans, took me by the arm and led me in the opposite direction.

Crew, especially in those early years before the lines got blurry, was all about distinguishing oneself from traits we identified as those of the “actors”.  Actors need attention.  Actors are fragile.  Actors need recognition every seventeen seconds or they self-destruct.  Actors are first in line for the pizza.  Crew waits until last.  It was a sign of our strength and our solidarity.

Eventually, tensions between the groups lessened, so for the actors out there reading this, please don’t turn away in disgust.  The point Jaime was trying to make was that crew was all about appreciating yourself and your work even when you aren’t first to be recognized (or fed).  You know the old adage–the first will be last and the last will be first.  I don’t know how many of the details we had worked out, but what we did realize was that half of the beauty of being a crew member was that you still loved your work and were proud of yourself even if no one in the audience knew you existed.

Again, strangely enough for a high schooler, being invisible was an enormous point of honor for us.

So what did I learn from stage crew?  Find what you’re good at.  Pursue it relentlessly.  Bend over backwards for your teammates.  Respect those who deserve your respect.   Take humble satisfaction in your work, even if no one else does.  By the time I graduated, that theatre was more of a safe and secure place for me than my grade school ever was.

Now that I’m about to go teach high schoolers myself, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on what it was like to be a teen.  Yes, I was kind of a brat, but all in the name of respecting those who showed me respect.  Yes, I wanted to do what I wanted whenever I wanted, but what I wanted–above all else–was to have a place to put my skills to work doing something important and useful, a part of something greater than myself.

All that angst, that famous teenage angst–it can be harnessed for the power of good, my friends.  But when it isn’t, what a sad and frustrating waste.  It can manifest as hard work, loyalty, and self-satisfaction, or it can manifest as anger, frustration, and disappointment.  Helping kids feel simultaneously powerful enough and secure enough to find the better of these two options is now officially the greater part of my job description.

Though I had planned to give up crew when I went to college, fate never really let me let it go.  One person in desperate need of a stage manager led to another, and soon enough word got around that I was the girl to call in a pinch.  I worked shows all through college (which actually helped me pay a bill here and there), and even now when my life is heading in a very different direction, I still haven’t given up entirely the allure of being a “black shadow”.   It was too special.  It taught me too much.

The thought of giving some kids in Oklahoma the chance to learn as much, well it keeps me up at night, folks.  That it does.  What if?

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~ by Rachael on May 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Life (And Teenagers), I Learned From Stage Crew”

  1. My technical director quoted you last night during our awards show and i looked it up this is a great article and it really shows how much we work for little or no reward

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