Backstage at a festival

Backstage is my favourite place.

For years I hated it, it made me itch, reminding me of being nineteen, standing by the stage door smoking cigarette after cigarette, listening to the actors, knowing their lines better than they did, knowing the exact second the lighting operator would start to fade in the blue wash, the exact word in the script that would trigger the rumble of thunder through the speakers. It reminded me of being awkward, of liking boys who liked actresses, or other boys, of afterparties that started halfway through bump-out, that really started halfway through bump-in, lasting right through run week. Of drinking too much, too fast. Of sleeping across four fold-down seats one night after a hailstorm and a lightening strike so close we saw it hit, because I didn’t want to stay at the bar with everyone else but home was so, so far away.

For a while, before I left but after it all got weird, I had a job. I worked tech at the bar — the same bar, the uni bar, the bar where all the awkward happened after we shut the theatre up for the night. Wearing black and being able to slide behind thick curtains into rooms the public wasn’t allowed to see made being there bearable. I was useful. I had a reason to be there. I was getting paid to do this thing I’d stared doing for fun on school musicals when I was fourteen. I ran cables and I hung lights and I wore cans and during gigs I ran a camera, or sometimes I mixed the video, or worked the lights. On event days — Octoberfest, Foundation Day — I worked eighteen-hour days, fuelled by Clem’s Schnitzel rolls and the Red Bull they kept by the slab in the green room. When I stumbled home as the sun came up, having had nothing more to drink than a single beer, I fell into bed and there was so much taurine in my bloodstream I couldn’t sleep. When I went to work that night I hadn’t slept and my arms were glued to my sides like lead, and I was still shaking. Sometimes I stood on the side of the stage with the bands, a camera on my shoulder and a stack of speakers aimed directly at my back, earplugs in but the music so loud they made no difference, the vibrations rattled my insides and I couldn’t hear for hours afterwards but I was buzzing.

I was the only girl, the youngest and the smallest. The others were all more experienced, they’d been working together for years, and sometimes they spoke in a language I didn’t understand. This is the part where I should tell you that made terrible sexist comments, or treated me differently, but they didn’t, or if they did those aren’t the memories I’ve taken away. They treated me like one of the team, incredibly generous with their knowledge, and never made me feel like an imposter. They asked me to help them out on side gigs, which is why I still wake up in a cold sweat sometimes with a memory of standing on top of a ladder at full extension, it’s tips resting on a lighting pole hung from a ceiling by chains, a parcan in one hand and a roll of gaffer tape in the other, everything swaying as I worked to hang the light, the floor a couple of stories below.

I’m afraid of heights, but I wasn’t afraid that day.

For a long time, after I left, after it all got too much and I ran away to another uni and avoided the drama kids like they might have Ebola, I hated theatres. I’d get invited to plays and recitals and I’d make excuses, or if I had to go I’d stand outside for as long as possible, feeling strange and awkward and ready to kill a man for a cigarette.

Before this year’s Newcastle Writers Festival, a few of us took a tour of the Civic theatre. We sat in the audience and the manager explained to us how to evacuate the venue and it was all very serious and very important but I wasn’t listening (sorry Sheree) — I was watching the techs. We went back there and stood at the side of the stage and I looked at the lights and the ropes and the matt black paint and gaffer tape on everything felt so familiar and for the first time in decades it didn’t make me itch. I looked at gear, so much gear, way more than the uni set-ups I was used to, and all automated and connected to computers now, and I wondered idly how you’d go about getting a job there. Absence, it seems, had made the heart grow fonder, or at least made it stop pounding in terror.

During the festival I got used to that quiet backstage walk, to the backstage whisper, to being on the other side of a curtain to hundreds of people who had no idea how much they weren’t seeing. I got used to watching the sides of people’s heads as they spoke, to watching the audience’s reaction when they thought no-one was. I got used to the lights in my eyes.

It’s the best spot to watch from, to listen from. It’s also the best place to escape to. I saw and heard a lot of wonderful things at this years NWF. I laughed at stories about Irish ghosts and people trying to make fried rice. I teared up at comments on mental illness, and the idea that sometimes it’s not about a book reaching a lot of people, but just one, the one who needs it. I made peace with the knowledge that the novel I’m currently wrangling into something readable is indeed YA. Some of this I did from the audience, surrounded by hundreds of people, but some I did from backstage, where it was just me, a shit-tonne of matt back paint and a bright green exit sign.

I love volunteering for NWF. For a couple of days, real life stops and this strange beautiful thing happens and I’m not a mum or a wife or too old or too inexperienced. I’m a reader, a writer, a listener, a tour-guide and a walking information desk. I can talk to people, in a way I struggle to do in the real world. It’s like camp, except that I don’t hate it like I always hated camp. Camp without the getting-to-know-you games and the rubbery eggs for breakfast and the bunk-selection politics. It’s so much fun and such hard work and it’s exhausting but it’s so worth it.

And sometimes it can be just the thing you need to shift your perspective. On your work, on theatres, on everything.

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