Backstage Baby



When I was a little  kid I loved to sing,  particularly to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” REALLY loud  (I was quite a bit older before I figured out why my parents always looked horrified about that.) I especially liked singing at school because we didn’t sing church hymns and the songs were vaguely hip, or at least hip to a rural island girl. When my  fourth grade choir concert rolled around I was super excited to show off my vocal prowess. There I was in the middle of the back row ( you know, taller than anyone else) belting out a song when all of sudden I got a giant elbow in the stomach. What the heck?  It was my friend (now ex- friend) Adna Plow (yes, that is her real name), who whipped her head around to loudly whisper at me , “shut up, you can’t sing.”  I was devastated, and since that day no one has ever heard me sing in public, no matter how many adult beverages I’ve had. (I do however  still love belting “Summer of ‘69” while by myself in the car.)


I also didn’t do theatre in high school. You know…conservative religious upbringing. But, I was a dang good seamstress in high school and everyone knew it. I was the kid making my prom dress in Home Ec class while everyone else made hair scrunchies. One year the Home Ec teacher asked me if I’d like to help sew costumes for the school play. Well, being the naïve uncultured island girl I was, I called my mom and asked if I could stay after school and help sew costumes for the school play, Little Shop of Horrors. My mom paused for a split second and then immediately replied “No.” What I later learned was what my mom had heard was, “Can I stay after school and sew costumes for the school play, Little Shop of Whores?” Needless to say, I was too naïve to know why she had replied ‘no.’ I give that quaint and embarrassing story to reinforce the fact that I was emphatically not raised with any theatrical appreciation.


But, this past week, Zoe starred as “school of fish #4 from the right” in her second grade class play and I might just be the proudest mama ever.


Zoe LOVES to sing and dance.  One of the first times I remember her showing an inkling of dramatic skill was watching her singing “Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me Kate. She was three-ish and standing in front of the TV, holding on to a chair with one arm for support, watching  Ann Miller sing and dance in her little pink leggy costume. Zoe waved her hands like  Lois Lane did with her big pink fan and mumbled out some words that vaguely sounded like “too darn hot.” Soon after that she was singing along to “Go Home With Bonnie Jean” from Brigadoon and doing a mean rendition of “Do-Re-Mi” while sitting cross-legged on the floor to an attentive audience of stuffed animals accompanied by a toy souvenir ukulele from Mexico. Many a car trip was spent listening to her sing the cutest rendition of “Just You Wait” from My Fair Lady, accompanied by lots of finger wagging. Music flows through my kid’s veins.


But, unlike her parents, she actually enjoys being a part of a group of friends creating magic on stage. Her play this week was a two part drama: “A Day at the Beach” and “Finding Our Way Home”. In the first act she was part of the school of fish and in the second act she was part of the jury deciding if a boy had disrupted the sea life on the beach. While she had been momentarily sad she wasn’t cast as the field mouse or the jellyfish, she quickly recovered. She worked hard on her lines for a couple  weeks and last week proudly announced that she was off script. She not only knew her lines, but also those of the jellyfish character.   The Thursday of her play, I watched her confidently walk in front of a group of 40 plus peers and parents and recite her lines, do her blocking, and then loudly and clearly say her name and what role she was for the curtain call. I was in awe of her confidence and love of performing.  I am so proud of her for not being remotely self-conscious about this and for embracing her love of the dramatic. The theater is an environment she is comfortable in and an area she knows more about than most kids. That doesn’t happen very often unless you’re talking about meds and hospitals.


Next week she has her second annual ballet recital. Last year, when this time rolled around, both Jason and I were sure she wouldn’t have the courage to perform in front of an audience. But you know what happened? She freaking nailed it! She grabbed the hand of the girl in front of her and stepped right on out in front of the lights when she was supposed to with a big grin on her face and a glint in her eyes and she went for it! She danced her heart out and loved every second of it. She was committed! This year, I am seeing the same dedication. She knows her steps and she is ready. I am in awe of her fearlessness when it comes to doing something she loves. It’s almost like her love of dancing and singing takes over her everyday fears, cautiousness, and physical limitations. She just leads with her heart.


So while there won’t be any elite soccer in her future (thank god), she gets to be my backstage costume assistant. She hangs backstage with me during tech. She gets to watch 10-second quick changes of the Dynamos before the stage lift takes them back to the stage level. She gets to sit in on fittings and meet the drag queens of Kinky Boots. She gets to be at the photo shoot for the Oliver orphans and the Von Trapp kids and watch me style them. She gets to sit at the tech table with me and help me take costume notes like “add more sparkles” and “needs more color.”  She gets to see the costume details up close up and watch run-throughs in the rehearsal space from the front row. She is around an incredibly diverse group of artists who put themselves out there daily to make the magic happen. Plus, she is always happy to run to the mail and copy room to get what I need when it’s “come to work with Mommy day.” At 9 years old, she already understands that her mama’s job has some crazy hours, but also knows that the shows eventually open and then we get to spend the whole weekend together and do things like have pizza parties in bed. She knows what it means to work hard doing something you love and are proud of.


When she was two she was watching me stitch costumes and do fittings. When she was four she was watching the orchestra dress rehearsal of Elf with me and meeting the cast backstage. She is in her element trying on Dorothy’s red shoes, Ariel’s mermaid tail, chatting with the designer during fittings for Pajama Game, watching the scarf dance from stage left in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and watching the automated computer screens as the elevator lift brings up the Dynamos in Mamma Mia. She has been able to sit by the cutting teams, ask them questions, and “help” them sew. She knows the stories, the music, the characters, the costumes, and the drama in the shows. During one particularly long hospital stay, she even got cards, letters, and care packages from the entire cast of Grease because they all loved having her around the theatre.


She has learned to thrift shop costumes with the best. She runs her hands down those racks of clothes like I do, waiting for the perfect thing to jump out at her; – like that purple Christmas cardigan sweater emblazoned with the word “JOY.” “This will be perfect for Pops because it has a J for Jason,” she told me. Hell yes, I bought that sweater!


She even has a costume rendering from designer Anne Hould-Ward, made out to her because Anne was reminded of what it was like to bring her own daughter to work with her when she was young. She recognized the importance of that experience and the heartache of never feeling like you are able to spend enough time with your child in this crazy business.


Zoe was able to go backstage at the Matilda tour and was starstruck by the kid actors. Especially when they oohed and aaahed over her and said she looked like the character, Alice. It started an all-out obsession with rocking an asymmetrical ponytail with my old plaid kilt and a blue blazer and tie and posing with a WHOLE lot of sass!


Zoe is born and raised in the theater business and while parts of this business make me crazy, I do love that she is learning what can be accomplished by hard work and how important it is to find what you love to do and do it! While I do get sad that I don’t see her for more than an hour a day during tech weeks, I love that she meets diverse people of all ethnicities, genders, abilities, and walks of life. I love that her world is so much more diverse and inclusive than I could have ever imagined when I was 9 years old. The sky’s the limit for her and she sees daily that she can be anything she wants, in spite of her disabilities. She sees that everyone is free to be themselves and that it takes this beautiful, eclectic, colorful, messy world to create art. She sees that we can stand up for what is right and important, especially in this day and age. She sees that everyone has a story to tell and she is mesmerized by the potential. Nothing is odd or wrong or uncomfortable to her (except for the those loud thunder sound cues). Her heart breaks and tears start when she learns that Quasimodo dies at the end of Hunchback of Notre Dame, but yet she is excited to meet the deaf actor who plays him because it reinforces that she can do anything she sets her mind to. She was in awe of the girls in Sound of Music because she could see herself in that 6-year-old Gretel. I love that these shows that she is allowed and encouraged to see have led to such deep and complicated discussions. Theater has been the springboard for conversations about childhood illness and depression after watching Secret Garden, being a single parent after watching Mamma Mia, and racial tensions after watching Ragtime.


While Zoe has never expressed interest in a career in theatre, she is certainly acclimated to the basic ins and outs of it. She throws out the words “tech” and “wandelprobe” like a well-seasoned pro. She recognizes the fabrics from shows and remembers ALL the characters and their plot points. Who knows what she will be when she grows up? Her first grade career choice of Elevator Operator has currently been replaced by Doctor/ Nurse. But, I do know that whatever she decides on, she will always carry with her an appreciation for the dramatic, a love of theatre,  an absolute obsession with music and dance, and an understanding and empathy for people who are different than her. Few careers are as inclusive as theatre and I love that my daughter is being raised in this environment. She is meeting, interacting with, and learning the stories of individuals, both on stage and off, who have embraced who they are and are unafraid to put themselves out there for the world to see. They do this in the hopes of moving hearts and minds, one person at a time. That includes the 9-year-old kid who is watching from the sidelines while singing and dancing to the music.

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