The Quick Change Room

Last week I regaled you with my performances on the stage. This week, we consider my work behind the scenes, at a different community theater.

I’ve had many part-time, temporary jobs over the years, but none harder than my stint as a costume director. I was paid what I was worth (a bag of chocolates, I think it was), so no one really had the right to complain about my performance. But surprisingly, they did.

The play was called “The Quick Change Room,” and my job was to coordinate the costume changes backstage. Whoever volunteered me should have known better: you don’t give this job to someone who is easily distracted, likes to chat, and can’t see well in the dark. Focused, silent, eyes like a cat—these are the stuff. And the more amateur the actors, the more at stake. This particular troupe took great pride in their entrances onto the stage (which were, I’m sorry to say, usually better than the acting they did when they got there).

The job requires precision. Prepare for complaints. “Next time, unzip the black dress before you hand it to me.” “Leave the top two buttons of the skirt undone—I have big hips.” “Could you sand the soles of my shoes? I slip every time.” And my favorite: “You need to set the hat eight inches to the left—I’m used to grabbing it there.” There were also dangers. Two actors came to me breathing murderous threats against each other; the issue was (I am not making this up) a shoelace hole. As the saying goes, there are no small parts, only short fuses.

I trouble-shot and fumbled my way through five performances and at the end of each, while the actors were out celebrating, I checked and rechecked zippers, repaired rips, ironed undergarments, hung slumps of dresses back on their hangers, and rinsed out the armpits of the men’s shirts. The bag of chocolates didn’t last long.

Half-way through the first performance, I knew this was not the career for me. There’s no future in a field where you are the personal pin cushion of a prima donna. There’s no workplace pride when a misplaced boot forces an improvisation that ends with an actress in tears.

The irony in all this was that “The Quick Change Room” is a comedy taking place in a dressing room. The setting is a Russian theater. The troupe, and the nation as a whole, is transitioning from communism to capitalism. The laughs come as characters bumble and hustle in and out of costumes, agonize over missed cues, and bemoan the public’s changing tastes. In the end, they turn Chekhov into a Broadway-style extravaganza, and the place sells out.

I can’t recommend it for the whole family (there is one scene that has, uh, no costumes and is rather…hippy), but it is a very clever play. And I learned a lot. Some fascinating discussion took place in the (real) changing room. The best actor was a big bearded Italian with a host of family anecdotes and a loud, happy voice. Joe was actually the one responsible for the lost boots (he had left them under his dressing table), and he graciously apologized, which was no small consolation amid the slings and arrows I was dodging. Joe liked to call attention to his orientation. He talked about his “crush on this guy at Walgreens," and he liked to describe features of the culture he hung out in. One actress bantered back and forth with Joe about their lifestyle differences. She was the mother of four. So was I. One night Joe said, “Do you know what we call women like you? Breeders.” The actress laughed, and I felt curiously unoffended. I liked Joe. He was nice to me. He was polite about buttons, and he sprayed all the shoes with Febreze. He meant no harm. He was simply offering a glimpse into a social order that he himself didn’t seem to take all that seriously.

As I sit here today watching the national news, I can't help but think that we're in a quick-change room. Rehearsals aren’t going well. It’s not exactly a family-friendly show. Apparently a new world order is being staged, and we'll all be fine if we just shift a little to one side. 

I am a mother (of an admittedly wild brood), not a politician or a pundit, and most of my job is done. The hustle and fumble and forced improv was worth it. I couldn’t ask for a better role. I’ll admit that, as the show goes on, I worry. But I have heard that the director is very good and, as he is wont to do, will flawlessly pull it off in the end.