Stepping Behind the Scenes of The 39 Steps
By Evan Ray
“How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?,” Hannay exclaims from his box in the audience. As Mr. Memory sorts through his extensive intracranial filing cabinet, I head toward the stage right clothing hooks. That was my cue to prepare Katie’s next costume change, the second of over twenty (it’s hard to count!) that will occur throughout the show. There are many instances like this one in the backstage orchestration of The 39 Steps, components of our own behind the scenes blocking that has formed both consciously and unconsciously in rehearsal and run. The play requests a high degree of organization from its stage crew and we make it our goal to bring that to the table (wings and booth?) in return. In a review of paper tech at the start of tech weekend, our stage manager, Kathy Stanley, produced a prompt book that likely contained more lighting, sound, and backstage cues than actual dialogue. My own script is full of graphs and charts reminding me how to position costumes for the most efficient quick-changes and notes about finally remembering not to leave the loops on that one dress over the hanger.
In spite of all our planning, an equivalent amount of creative problem-solving and quick thinking is necessary in a play notorious for rapid-fire action. If an actor is exiting the stage with a torn curtain—or a chair in three pieces, as the case may be—it is the backstage crew’s job to figure out what to do about it in that moment, especially if the prop will be needed later in the performance. For me, this synthesis of careful coordination and quick improvisation is one of the things that makes being backstage for The 39 Steps both an intense and intensely rewarding and enjoyable experience.
The clock reads 6:01 as I enter the mainstage door. I make brief stops at the sign-in sheet and green room and then start on the pre-show checklist. This consists of making sure the right props are onstage for the top of the show and the correct footlight is in place and “where did those biscuits go?” and the battery for the lamp is plugged in and “really, what happened to the shortbread?” and all of the money is in the right pockets and “seriously, who would have taken something from the prop table?!?.” Phew!
Compere jacket #2, British police cape, sideburns on a headband, three stuffed sheep—this is the eclectic inventory of items I pile onto my arm before heading to stage left to do final checks on the coat hooks and prop tables. “Fifteen to places.” We look over the stage one last time. Everyone makes sure the lamp works, independently of one another. No wonder the battery goes so fast. “Ten to places.” Water bottles are filled. “Five to places.” Are the safety lights on? “Actors in places and….
Here we go!” During the performance, it stays as busy backstage as it was before the show. My notes to myself, verbatim, often look something like the following: “Assist change to milkman SR (stage right), then hightail it to SL (stage left) with trench coat and bring compere jacket #1, dropping off clown hat along the way. Make sure sunglasses are in right pocket. Prepare coat with cape, take milkman costume quietly from Tristan, and assist Katie’s change to salesman SL. Then get to dressing room pronto for Bristol’s change to Pamela.” Yes, indeed, there’s certainly plenty to do and the pedometer in my phone doesn’t rest often.
Collaboration is key; this is especially evident in the middle of the show. A play itself is a giant feat of collaboration and the backstage crew is a smaller collaboration within the larger. Sometimes one action will involve many members of the crew, such as the shadow screen plane scene in Act I. Other things fall into a natural sequence; after a while you begin to notice patterns, walking past the same person in the hallway carrying the same things after that one scene.
Once the intermission checklist has been completed (tea is poured, chairs are placed, rope on the banner is properly set, etc.), it’s time for Act II. “Actors in places!” We sometimes refer to Act I as “the busy act” (it is, after all, the act where I run from “flying” a plane to trigger the fog machine and then immediately open the mid-traveler), but there are still many things to be done in the second half. Sheep must be herded positioned, flannel nightshirts must be wrestled with, and then there is what seems to and may be a matter of seconds to strike and reset the stage for the final scenes.
Curtains close, lights go up—it’s time to pre-set for the next show. This means lots of sweeping (if you’ve come to see The 39 Steps already, you’ll probably know why), tracking down errant opera glasses, or trying to attain some semblance of order in that one chaotic stash of costumes that always accrues on stage left. The post-show checklist is as important as the pre-show one, as this is the time where that one pair of sunglasses can be located before it has had time to disappear into the woodwork, seemingly of its own accord, and make you spend fifteen minutes looking for it the next day. That’s right sunglasses, you know who you are. After double-checking everything for a third time, we head out.
Kazoos, kilts, and knives—where else can you find such diversity of prop and costume? This medley is representative of the play itself, with a storyline that winds through territories from spellbinding thriller to screwball comedy to romance to a puddle on the dark Scottish moors. And now, when you catch one of the last three opportunities to attend this show (available at tickets.wicaonline.com or 360.221.8268!) and see all of the incredible onstage feats of acting, you can imagine the glorious frenzy occurring behind the scenes as well.
PS: *Can you find the Alfred Hitchcock references hidden in this essay?