Back Stage Access

Last week, ArtsLehigh’s director, Silagh White shed her public identity as a Lehigh University arts administrator and became a dance mom for a local production of the Nutcracker Ballet. Experiencing the Zoellner Arts Center from a different perspective brought a whole new appreciation for the building and staff who handle all the details of every performance enjoyed in the building. Here is her story:

As the director of an arts engagement program at Lehigh University, I attend many performances and exhibit openings both on campus and off. It’s a busy schedule as there are so many wonderful experiences to soak in. Luckily, I can share these experiences with students, faculty, staff, and from time to time, my own family. I love watching the audience react to the experience as much as having my own. It amazes me to see audience reactions to quality talent and artistic expressions. Each gasp of breath, eye of wonder, and chuckle inspires me to keep trying new ways to entice people to experience the art available to them. Live music, theatre, dance, and original art works are special experiences that often cannot be replicated. When I’m a member of the audience, somehow the music always sounds sweeter in the full acoustics of Baker hall. The laughs are always fuller in the comedy in Diamond theatre. The shock of physical endurance more deeply felt when muscles are highlighted by the stage light angle. It is a truly magical moment that occurs between artist and audience.

Last week, I shed all of that to go back stage and become a stage mom. I was a little frightened of what I was about to experience. The Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley was presenting their 43rd Nutcracker production. The cast is a mix of community and pre-professional students, adults and hired professionals from New York City. They rent the space at Zoellner for a solid week, perhaps with a few extra days. I didn’t want my fellow dance moms to think I had any insight or special privileges, so I didn’t tell them I worked at Lehigh.

I was bracing myself for an experience similar to the television program, “Toddlers and Tiaras.” I knew I was about to enter a world of glitter, tulle, and frosty blue eye shadow. I had seen enough of it from my days as an orchestral musician; but then I had the protection of the orchestra pit, separating me from the back stage drama. But this time, from the dress rehearsal through the four school performances and two public performances, I saw something different.

All of the dressing rooms gave the dancers (especially the kids) a sense of being a professional. These rooms have real make-up lights. Some of the dressing rooms even have showers. The floors were clean enough for even the littlest dancers to stretch out in their warm-ups and color while they were waiting to get their costumes before they hit the stage. The kids’ dressing rooms were close by, but still separate from the professionals from New York City. They got to be really close to them; seeing them stretch, focus, and sweat. Since they’ve been just starting to practice their splits, they could admire the physical abilities from a tangible sense. They often made room for the artists to pass in the hallways – in a sign of respect, if not awe. The professional artists would smile at the kids, often wishing them “good luck” in their own numbers.

As the minutes to the performance time waned, we waiting in the dressing room. Over the house intercom system, we would hear the stage manager call a count down to curtain; “Ladies and Gentlemen, the house is now open. Curtain will rise in 30 minutes. 30 Minutes to curtain.” The first time the girls heard that, there was a group squeal. I think some of the dance moms may have contributed. Maybe I did, too.

Our group of girls were the youngest; the little angels that started the second act. At some point during the last number of the first act, we were to escort the girls to the back stage area (a place I knew as the workshop – and had lots of table saws and tools in it) to dress the girls in the large hoop skirts, angle wings and halos. We had to fit their costumes over hairspray and eyeliner that was a little uncomfortably thick for an 8 year old. We would wait then for the stage manager to call, “Dancers please take your places for the beginning of Act 2.” The stage manager would set the girls in formation while other Stage Moms distributed the battery operated candles. We then stood in the wings to watch the dance, and quickly escort the girls off and back to the dressing rooms to make room for the next number. It all moved so quickly, it was over before I realized I stopped breathing. (I was worried the girls would forget a placement, or crash into another dancer – those side stage lights can be pretty blinding.)

After I became more comfortable with my responsibilities, I started to notice the activity happening all around the production; in the other dressing rooms, the green room, back stage right and left. Moms were constantly touching up hair, steaming costumes or shepherding the youngest dancers into their next costume change. I saw the flurried activity of the artistic director and the other dance instructors making sure that all dancers got their notes from the previous run, and to keep all dancers focused. I got to listen to the stage manager call the house lights down, cue music, cue curtain, etc. realizing that she not only had to keep an eye on a huge list of simultaneously occurring events, but to navigate the chaos that would potentially become disastrous at any moment.

In all of that frenzied atmosphere, each member of the Zoellner Arts Center staff remained calm, professional and incredibly graceful. I was particularly moved by the poise of the stage manager when I heard yesterday that she was terribly sick during the last performance. I couldn’t remember her even giving the smallest hint that she wasn’t feeling 100% when I saw her at that performance. For the record, the stage manager is none other than Zoellner’s own R. Elizabeth Miller. It was herself, and the other staff on duty that made everything run smoothly from backstage to front of house (that means ticket services, ushers and the nice folks directing traffic in the lobby)

It was a new kind of magic I saw last week. Another reason why I’m so grateful for the facility we have at Lehigh University, the opportunity for members of our community to access it, and for the moments we all share inside that beautiful building.

It’s often said that any university is not complete without an arts center. A great arts center is made so because of the people who run it and take care of it, as much as it is the quality of talent it presents.