Backstage at the YMCA

By Esmé Bleecker-Adams , FCLC 2021

Yes, that was me you might have seen trying to fit several large cardboard trees through the turnstile last month (and yes I know it’s not the weirdest thing you’ve seen on the subway by far).  

I first got involved with the West Side YMCA theater arts department through a technical theater class for teens when I was in 11th grade. As part of the class, we helped backstage with the Kids Company productions; my first show there was “The Sound of Music.” I was assigned to assist the costume designer, who has been a wonderful mentor, and I’ve returned to be a wardrobe assistant for seven more musicals since, most recently “Newsies” this past November.  

This semester I also designed props for their Teen Theater production of the Oresteia Duology (the cast wasn’t large enough to perform the whole trilogy), as well as props and costumes for the Studio Production of “The Addams Family”. These were new experiences for me because I had never worked on props before, and because I had never been in charge of any part of the production process before. It was a challenge for that reason, but a good place to start because neither show was overly demanding in terms of the cast size or volume of materials that I was responsible for. 

I will return to my experience working on these particular shows, but I think it’s worth a digression to advocate for the value of a strong arts education. I was incredibly lucky to have great art teachers and art classes throughout my time in New York City public schools, and I know how much it has shaped me personally (I’m a visual arts major now, after all), but working with the Kids Company has given me a new and wider perspective on the importance of exposure to and experience with the arts at a young age. The cast members are mostly in middle school. They come from school to rehearsal; they have tests and projects due on the same day as performances. It must be exhausting, but many of them have been in every show for years now. Anyone can see it means the world to them. It’s a place where they can connect with other people their age and relate to each other through common interests and creativity. 

Things can be chaotic backstage, but once the performers step out of the wings, they never fail to impress me with their level of focus and professionalism. The Studio Production cast was a little younger, mostly elementary school students. When I sat in on a rehearsal, I wasn’t sure if they were ready to use costumes and props, on top of remembering their lines, cues, choreography and blocking. For a few of them, it was their first show, and it seemed like a lot for us to ask of them, but you never know what people are capable of until you trust them with it, and I’m happy to report that they proved me wrong. The pressure of a live audience helped to focus the cast, and this group proved to be incredibly responsible and proactive about making sure that they had what they needed onstage. 

Their excitement made me excited too. When I walked into the rehearsal I had been met with a flurry of questions about the costumes. Backstage the students of three different classes who were performing that day buzzed around nervously, and it wasn’t long before their giddiness had me grinning too. Energy is infectious, and one thing I’ve learned from helping with stressful quick changes is that I have to try to project a calm front, even if I’m far from calm inside, because the calmer I can be, the calmer the actors can be, and that makes things run more smoothly for everyone. 

No matter the concern, first you respond “we’ll make sure it’s taken care of,” like a reflex, and second you worry about how to actually make that happen. 

I enjoyed sourcing props and costume pieces and also getting to make a few things myself. It was a good balance of different types of thinking that went into the process. The creative side: we needed an ancient Greek libation bowl, and since the constraints of budget and era prevented authenticity, I made it from a disposable cardboard bowl and acrylic paint. The organizational side: I made a detailed Excel spreadsheet, which went unused as I reverted to my natural state of scribbling lists in seven different notebooks and carrying all of them around with me. The thrifty side: I tried my best to buy only what was necessary and take advantage of the costume closet, the prop closet and occasionally my own closet for the rest (the latter was the source of Grandma’s costume, if that says anything about my personal fashion choices). 

My favorite thing about technical theater is being a small part of something bigger and getting to see from behind the scenes how it all comes together to make the magic happen during the show. When I watch a show now, I think about these things. I notice how many different costumes each person wears throughout the production, and how much time they have to change from one to another, or which side props enter and exit from and how set pieces travel from one place to another. 

My favorite thing about technical theater at the YMCA specifically is getting to work with a fantastic group of people: the designers and technicians, the arts administrators, the stage crew, the parent volunteers and most of all a fantastic group of children who have taught me so much. I am constantly amazed and humbled not only by their talent, but also by their dedication and commitment, and I’m honored to play even a tiny role in this opportunity for them to express themselves and do what they love.