At the advanced age of 66, I joined the stage crew at Sacramento City College. I am one of the anonymous figures in black who move props on and off the stage between acts.
I don’t know for sure, but I assume the 20-somethings working alongside me are baffled by the old black lady’s sometimes confused and clumsy presence. I confess I am.
Twice I’ve wandered on stage, once before the performance started and once when it was over. Both times were when the audience was in the house – a big theater no-no, as my supervisor, a young woman more than four decades my junior with iridescent blue highlights in her hair, gently admonished me. Oops!
Still, I would not have missed this experience for the world.
It began when I retired and took a play-writing class at city college. One of our assignments was to attend a play. I went to two, “Cannery Row” and “Scapino,” and thoroughly enjoyed both. The productions were quite polished, but what impressed me most were the sets. They were as professional as anything I’d seen on Broadway. The program credited Shawn Weinsheink and his city college stagecraft class with set design. So, this semester I signed up for the class.
I used to pride myself in knowing the difference between a Phillips head and a flat-head screw driver. But that was the extent of my knowledge of tools. Within the first week of class, I found myself working with power tools, drilling through steel pipes, cutting lumber, painting, grinding and welding.
Shawn, the instructor – I soon learned that no one uses titles or last names in the theater arts department – is the creative genius behind set design. A rumpled-looking man in his mid-40s, I guessed, with three days’ growth of beard and lazy-looking eyes, he always wears a gray sweatshirt, tattered jeans and matching gray cap turned backward.
My class mostly provided the muscle and what were considered routine technical tasks. On the second or third day of class, Shawn instructed me to cut 12 pieces of steel tubing – six pieces 2-feet, 11-inches long and six more 2-feet, 5-inches. He demonstrated how the power saw worked just once, then pointed me to a 12-foot-long pipe and walked off.
Heart pounding, I picked up the tube and measured and measured, and measured again. And then cut and cut and cut. The saw tipped over only once, when I released the heavy blade handle too quickly. Water used to cool the red hot blade poured over the shop floor. I was mortified and not strong enough to tip the heavy saw back into place.
Shawn did it with the help of one of the other guys, and said, “It happens – don’t let the blade fall back on its own, and please mop up the water.” Lesson delivered gently and directly, and thoroughly learned, never to be forgotten.
I didn’t meet the acting end of the production until tech week, when the actors actually populate the sets I helped build. And for me, another phenomenon unfolded.
Thirty student actors, mostly 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds but some in their 30s and a few elderly veterans accompanied by a five-piece band, suddenly appeared – long lines of dialogue memorized, moves carefully choreographed, voices beautifully harmonized. The play, “The Cradle Will Rock,” by Marc Blitzstein, was the last work funded by the Federal Theatre Project in 1937. It’s a musical about union organizers facing attempts to suppress their efforts in an Eastern steel town during the Great Depression.
As the director, Christine Nicholson, tells audiences before every performance, the play has special significance for Sac City. The college’s original buildings were built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration. A mural from the era adorns the theater lobby.
In the policy circles I used to inhabit, student graduation and transfer rates dominate debates about community college. No one talks about kids who work 80-hour weeks to build sets, light stages and run a state-of-the-art theater. No one talks about the discipline required to rehearse night after night, to learn dialogue and lyrics, and where and how to move on stage, or the sheer logistics of keeping track of 30 different microphones and 30 different costumes, and hundreds of props, from a single pencil to a massive jail cell.
I now know the difference between a hex bolt and a carriage bolt, a flat washer and a lock washer, and just how much pressure it takes to drill through steel tubing. None of this is data the people who make funding decisions for community colleges will consider, and that’s unfortunate because there’s real value in what happens on that stage, value worth funding.
If there was anything this experience lacked, it was an audience worthy of the effort. If you attend the performance, I’ll be the crew member in black that moves the lectern onto stage right at the end of Scene Two, Act One. I’m also the one who cut 12 steel braces that hold up the bridge.
Ginger Rutland, former member of The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, is a stagehand for City Theatre at Sacramento City College.