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stage beauty
my life with the ghost light
by heather m. millen
5.5.06
general


When I was eleven, my fifth grade class presented a reinterpreted staging of "Cinderella." The story had the usual bells and whistles, evil stepsisters and a Fairy Godmother. But this production took place in a town called Pollution. A town that was ruled by a wasteful and frivolous prince (he only wore his crowns once and he didn't RECYCLE!) ...Gotta love the "Oh-shit-we're-screwing-up-the-universe" '80s.

At any rate, to win one of the two coveted leading roles, our teacher came up with some twisted version of a casting couch, where we had to write our way into the part by finishing the end of the socially-conscious story. Would-be actors could not get by on their doubtful acting talents or big hair alone. I have no idea what I submitted as my story, but as you can see here, I am in fact a fierce and formidable writer, and so the role of Cinderella was mine.

My performance was dreck at best, but I did get to wear jelly shoes as my glass slippers and I insisted that elbow-length gloves be added to the costume for the ball sequence, not only because I knew even at that young age how FABULOUS they were, but also to ensure that I did not have to actually touch the skin of that dreadful excuse for a Prince. (Secretly, I had a huge crush on him. If you know a Matt Long with sandy brown hair and some gnarly skateboard moves, have him call me!)

And while the love affair with Mr. Long didn't really take off, my love affair with the theatre did. I grew up in a small town and we didn't have but one single-screen Movie Theater, let alone actual live talent. But by the time I was in high school, it was a passion. While I did pick up a role or two (though never singing -- you're welcome), I can't say that it was the acting bug that grabbed me. I always felt a bit out of place prancing around the stage trying to be someone else... as if I was in on a joke that the entire audience didn't seem to grasp and I often found myself resisting the urge to laugh at their expense. And to be frank, I think actors are generally self-important and the way they get wrapped up in their VISION is questionable.

But I think there's some magical allure to sitting down in a dark theatre when the first few notes ascend from the orchestra pit and the curtain begins to rise from the stage... It really makes you feel a part of something. And I get choked up nearly every time in simple anticipation of what is about to happen. Sometimes that turns into full-blown tears of sadness by the end of the show (Looking at you, FAME), but you still can't underestimate the power of live theatre.

Still, all the while growing up, it never occurred to me that this would lead me on my career path. And here I am... working amongst one of the biggest presenting companies in America. I'm peeking out at you from behind the curtain of Oz.

And Oz is a magical place... for example, it is home of WICKED, in my humble opinion, one of the best theatrical events to come off Broadway in many years. And I get to be a part of that. Sure, no one delivers me flowers on Opening Night, but when I look out into a full house and see thousands of happy faces getting lost in that magic, I take a bit of pride in that my marketing efforts have helped bring this together. And when the crowd jumps to its feet in a raucous ovation at the end of the show, secretly I like to think that just a wee bit of that applause, a smidge really, is for me.

Not many people can say they get that sort of validation from their day job. But there are challenges... not every show is a WICKED. There's plenty of BOMBAY DREAMS out there. And just like the Wizard himself, things aren't always as fantastic as they outwardly appear.

Many people who know me and get a taste of the inner workings of theatre life are surprised to find just how bureaucratic it really is. As one friend said to me recently, "When even THEATRE is controlled by the man, what else is left?" What, indeed.

It's wonderful to believe in the myth of art conquering all, but art doesn't pay the bills. When I worked for North Carolina Theatre, a fairly large and well-respected nonprofit VERY dear to my heart, it was almost heartbreaking to see the theatre have to base the season schedule on productions that they knew their audience would embrace... and sometimes they had to choose the shows that would pay the bills over the ones that would inspire the masses. I still maintain that their 2004 production of RAGTIME is one of the best productions that no one ever saw.

But the pressure affects all of the theatre community, from the small town to the big top. Theatre, universally, is not a profit-rendering endeavor. You don't make the money on the butts in the seats, it's how much popcorn you sell at intermission.

Growing up, I always knew that I wanted a job that I loved. It's why I went to college... not to make a bunch of money. I just assumed my husband would handle that -- when I finally gave up the fight and took one. And I can say that theatre marketing is working for something I believe in. I don't believe in widgets and I can't market widgets, which is incredibly disheartening because Mr. Widget pays a whole heck of a lot more and there are no nights and weekends.

I've seen people leave the theatre for many reasons, often for those listed above. And I can't say that I'll be in theatre forever... I'm not good at saying I'll be at any one thing forever. But when I think of what it might be like, I wonder if I'd miss it.

The swell of the crowd as they settle back into their seats for Act II, still buzzing about Act I. The leading actress writing her grocery list backstage and, upon hearing her cue, busting onstage and belting out an amazing operetta, only to come back moments later as the crowd still feverishly applauses and exclaiming, "Oh yeah, milk. I can't forget milk," without missing a beat. The little girls dressed in their Sunday best and the way their eyes light up when the dancers hit the stage. And showtunes. All the showtunes I can handle.

At night, when the lights go down and the excitement of the show has long since dissipated... When the cast has flown from the stage door as fast as their feet can take them and the weary theatre managers make their way home much later, a "ghost light" is placed on the barren stage. Old theatre superstition believes that by placing a single light bulb on an unoccupied stage, it will scare away the ghosts.

I love that superstition. But I don't think that ghosts are what the theatre industry should be afraid of. And I truly hope that the rest of us don't get spooked in the process.


ABOUT HEATHER M. MILLEN

Heather has a penchant for drama, both personally and professionally. She secretly wishes people spoke in song and wholeheartedly believes that everyone deserves a standing ovation now and again. She finds it appalling that people reserve champagne only for special occasions, when champagne is clearly best on a Tuesday, while riding the subway, accompanying a slice of kick-ass pizza.

more about heather m. millen

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COMMENTS

sandra thompson
5.5.06 @ 8:54a

That was just lovely, and if it puts even one more butt in a seat it's worth it.

margot lester
5.5.06 @ 2:59p

great column, heather. i used to feel the same way you did, and your column has me wondering what contributed to my losing that feeling.

mike julianelle
5.5.06 @ 3:21p

Was it Sebastian Bach?

jael mchenry
5.5.06 @ 3:27p

Theatre is magic, but I must admit, high ticket prices keep me from attending as much as I otherwise would. I know it's not cheap to stage the extravaganzas they put on at, say, the Shakespeare Theatre, but it's still tough to swallow up to $60 per seat.

I was an active actress in high school and have fond memories of those musicals.

Keep the ghost light shining!

heather millen
5.5.06 @ 3:38p

I know that I just tipped the iceberg on some of the issues that face theatres and audiences alike here, but there really aren't enough words... Theatre prices for example. At our productions, you'd be hardpressed to find a seat for a "mere" $60. But between the stagings, the cost of production and actors, UNION costs... it's inevitable.

It would be easy to say that a theatre or even a huge presenting company like mine were milking the audience, but that's simply not true. Even on this company's successes, they don't make that much money. You make money on the enterprise, not on the individual production. And it often takes a long time just to get return on that investment.

robert melos
5.5.06 @ 11:57p

I know I've said it before, but if I could be anyone else it would be you. Your passion for living, and for what you do for a living, is uplifting.

I haven't been to the theater in several years, mostly due to the prices.

jonathan maack
5.9.06 @ 5:59p

Heather, great piece! I enjoyed it.

One point of fact: I work for Mr. Widget. There are nights and weekends.

[edited]

tracey kelley
5.10.06 @ 10:28a

I have to admit: I felt just like a little kid when I saw "The Lion King" recently. I've never been so intrigued by costume and presence at a theatre performance before, and it was a pure delight.

I also viewed a high school performance of "The Music Man" a couple of weeks ago. Now, I'm a slight bit biased about this musical, mainly because I thought Robert Preston was one of the best "music men" ever, and that was the first musical I'd ever seen, and I just love it, even though I'm not from Iowa.

But this high school production (featuring the debut of one of my nephews as a traveling salesman. Yes, sir. Yesss, sir. Yesssss, sir.)was very magical, because out of all the school performances I've seen over the years, I've never witnessed the players having such obvious, honest fun. Like any other live performance, the audience catches that enthusiasm in a glass jar and takes it home to enjoy for a long time afterward.



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