December 3, 2008

A final curtain call

This week I learned that American Musical Theatre of San Jose has closed its doors.

And I became terribly sad.

American Musical Theatre of San Jose (AMTSJ, or AMT, as I like to still call it) is the local professional theatre company here. I once auditioned interviewed for a job as the assistant to the Executive Producer. I heard about the position from a friend and was tired of working in accounting. The job paid little more than that of a Starbucks barrista, and I couldn’t afford to live on that, so I declined the offer. I had loved hearing about the theatre company so much during the interview process, that I decided to volunteer backstage as a dresser, helping with costumes during productions.

The first time I stepped into the studio space at AMT, I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone, and knew nothing about costumes, or sewing. But I was immediately greeted with a smile from Val, a seasoned AMT dresser. She and I became fast friends, and soon I met the rest of my backstage pals (sisters, as we called ourselves), including Jenni, Andy (a boy, but still a sister), and Kari. Working backstage became my new hobby, and I would have rather been backstage than at my office. A few shows after my first with AMT, I met Shannon and Steph. Others came and went, but our close group of dressers, the Chicks in Black (yes, even Andy), became a family.

We would arrive in the evening, after chowing down some fast food and changing from our day clothes to all-black. Most of us had day jobs, but during the three-week or so run of a show, we would put our lives, families, and friends aside, and drive straight from work to the theatre, and not get home until around midnight Tuesdays through Saturdays. (Sundays we got home a bit earlier because the evening performance started an hour earlier.) We did shows Tuesday through Friday, and 2 on Saturday and Sunday. (I once made magnets for us that said “Theatre people do it 8 times a week.” and shirts that said “Dressers do it in the dark/with velcro/quick”…etc.) In the beginning, we were paid for our expenses, which included mileage and black clothing. Eventually we got raises, but none of us did it for the money. We were volunteers. We did it for the art. For the people we got to work with. And, let’s be honest. For the naked men. Gay or straight, they’re still naked. Or at least in dance belts.

Upon arriving at the Center for Performing Arts each show night, I was transformed. I escaped reality and entered a world of fantasy.

  • I got to work with God, Adam and Eve, and watch Noah bring the animals onto his ark in Children of Eden.
  • I spent evenings under the spell of the Phantom and watched the masquerade ball from backstage, like a child spying on his parents.
  • I helped dress showgirls and then helped them into rain slickers for Singin’ in the Rain. Every performance included a rain shower onstage, for Don to tap dance in.
  • I witnessed nightly duels between D’Artagnan, Aramis, Athos, and Porthos and the bad guys. (The actress playing Constance in the world premiere of The 3hree Musketeers would go on to win her first Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie).
  • I finally got to dress boys when we did Victor/Victoria, but they dressed in drag a lot for that show, so my experience dressing women came in handy.
  • Grease, one of my all-time favorite movies had me singing along silently as I set my 50s costumes, waiting for a pompous little actor to run to me so I could rip off his clothes.
  • Evita began shortly after my friend Val passed away, and at our first run-through, we all cried (with Argentina) during the funeral scene.
  • During opening night of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I found out Jamie had cancer. I had to drop out of the show to take care of him.
  • After I resumed my pre-caregiving life, I stopped letting people rain on my parade and reunited with my theatre family for Funny Girl. One of the guys I was dressing wore chaps and liked to put them on with nothing on underneath.
  • Joanne Worley and her pup Harmony joined us for the next show, On the 20th Century. That woman can laugh!
  • After that, came Dreamgirls, starring ousted American Idol contestant Frenchie Davis. Every night when she belted “you’re gonna love me,” and hit that high note, I got chills. She was a kick, that Frenchie.
  • Dreamgirls was a busy show for me (wink, wink) so when A Chorus Line started, starring Dr. Craig Wesley from DOOL, it was a welcome change to be able to sit upstairs near the dressing rooms and knit for almost the entire show talking to Dr. Craig Wesley! until our singular costume change just before the finale.
  • After A Chorus Line danced out of the theatre, Carole King’s Tapestry came in. I spent a lot of my waiting-to-dress-my-actors time pretending to be really into Carole King tunes, and dancing around, doing my Janet Jackson impression.
  • The last show I dressed at AMT was the Wizard of Oz. Sadly, I had to leave the show mid-run because my toes swelled up like baby carrots. Damn that psoriatic arthritis.

I hated having to stop dressing. I missed my creative outlet. I missed my friends. I missed hearing the sound of beautiful voices warming up, and long-legged dancers contorting themselves to stretch their muscles before a show. I missed the girl talk in the ladies’ dressing room and the gurl talk in the men’s dressing room. I missed hearing the orchestra tune their instruments. I missed the cheers from the audience during bows. I missed going out for drinks across the street with the dressers, even if it meant I’d only get 5 hours of sleep. I still miss it. I miss all of it.

I wanted to go back someday when my now hectic work schedule would allow it, and be a part of something so special once again. But now AMT is gone.

Thank you, AMT. For the music, the talent, the laughs, and the memories. I will miss you.

5 people have roominated about “A final curtain call”

  • sizzle says:

    That is so sad. I am pretty sure I saw shows there when I was a kid. We went to a lot of theater. 🙁

  • Sandi says:

    I know how mych AMT meant to you and Jenni. I spent a lot of time in my younger days working backstage at musical theater and I remember the wonderful times, the feeling of closeness with the cast, they sheer joy of being part of something so exciting and special. Hopefully AMT will arise out of the ashes – in some form or other.

  • mil says:

    When are you going to write a book? This piece really gave me fascinating insight into theater, and into you.

  • Jeff's Place says:

    We are sad in our house as well. We have met MANY wonderful people through AMT, everyone of them will be considered friends. One of the best pictures I have of Sydney, our youngest, is her backstage in the “kid area” for Wizard of Oz wearing my headset listening to the calls from the stage manager. Also, worrying that Suzanne would be so afraid of “Liz” the wicked witch, that she had to warn the kid wranglers when she went to the pit.
    So many shows and we always thought it would go on forever. Liz wanted to try to go back to dressing when the girls were older. Sadly that will not happen with AMT.
    But, who knows, another may rise in its place, but it will not be the same… in any way!
    Thanks CLO, AMT, AMTSJ for letting everyone grow up and learn the business and for helping make lasting friendships!!

  • Jenni says:

    Great post Cath. I can’t say much more except that I’m so grateful for the experience – both for the memories and for meeting such wonderful people like you!

roominate on this yourself