Backstage at Mary Poppins, watching the house fill

The view from behind the curtain

Did you know that, much like students, most teachers also have anxiety dreams as the first day of school approaches?

Though my interviewing process hasn’t included every teacher I know, a considerable number of teachers I have spoken to have confirmed it. Even the veteran teachers coming back for their fourteenth year, like myself, have these recurring dreams every August. In my dream leading up to the first day of school, I am backstage at a theater performance, and I’m about to go on stage to play a role that I have absolutely no recollection of. I stand there in a panic, looking around desperately for someone to help me find a script, or better yet, replace me on stage.

It’s an odd dream for me, since I am not an actor. I am a visual artist, and the stage is quite a mystery to me. It is that mystery that might explain why I accepted the invitation from our Upper School actors to sit backstage during one of their performances of Mary Poppins last spring. I have always viewed and admired the brilliance of theater from the audience’s perspective. I knew this experience would be like nothing I had seen before.

The actors set up a chair for me on stage left. It was tucked out of the way of the large props that would be moving on and off stage before and after every scene. I promised not to make any noise or get in their way.

Everything I imagined it would be like was wrong. I thought that actors would be nervous wrecks, pacing around and practicing their lines. The opposite was true. Our actors exuded a confident calm that was downright inspiring. In fact, they kept coming up to me and asking if I was okay, and if I needed anything. They watched and supported one another, laughing and smiling in all the right places, as if they were hearing the lines for the first time. They waited in the wings (a phrase originating from theater, because the wings are the spaces backstage where actors wait to go on stage themselves) and gave each other silent high-fives or hugs as they passed each other between scenes.

I imagined that there would be a stressed energy backstage, complete with people running into one another, and occasionally getting frustrated or curt. Again, the opposite was true. The actors moved around in the darkness in the same manner as the beautifully choreographed steps they performed under the theater lights. During the song “Practically Perfect,” the actors in the wings broke out into a rendition of the “Macarena” dance, which caught me off guard. It was completely out of sight of the audience, but I caught it on video. I asked them if this was normal, and they said they’d been doing it since rehearsals began weeks ago. They weren’t stressed; they were having fun.

As we begin a new school year, let’s remember our actors. Like them, we can make magic happen (Mary Poppins flying through the air in sold-out shows) and enjoy the journey it took to get there. We must support one another, prepare, practice, push through obstacles, and celebrate the joy of it all.