On Strike

Recently I was at a high school theatre production, chatting with one of the parents. Their high school production’s strike corresponded with our own strike for Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, and we were commiserating on how we both had long Sundays ahead of us. He commented to me that even though strike was the next day, many of the kids probably wouldn’t come to help because it was too painful to see everything they loved about their production disassembled and loaded into trucks. Although I understood where he was coming from, it still gave me a moment of pause because it was so different from the way we’d felt about strike in high school theatre and so different from the way I feel about strike now, in professional theatre.

I got to explore these feelings deeper the next day when I showed up for our own Aliens strike. But first, a little more about where I’m coming from.

I went to what my husband would later patiently explain to me was the equivalent of a performing arts high school: a school that had healthy, competitive performing arts programs across the board, placed as much emphasis on those programs as they did on football (which is quite a lot, in Texas), and produced many students who would go on to work professionally and successfully in the arts.

I started out there as a general technician, then a stage manager, on upwards to production management. (You could sprinkle in some light acting, but it was a negligible amount, regardless of how enjoyable.) I climbed ladders and hung lights, I operated power tools fearlessly, I check and re-checked props, power cables, extension cords.

And then somewhere along the way in my career, I moved away from the artists and technicians to the “front of the house” – box office management, house management, fund raising, human resources, general arts administration. It was a slow transition, and my former technical prowess faded into dust.

I didn’t even notice that my technical abilities had fled until I met my husband (then a technical director) in the spring of 2007 and realized that not only were my technician’s senses totally dull, but I’d developed something worse: fear. Fear of doing something wrong and looking like a fool at best, and a stereotypical woman who can’t handle a power drill at worst.

When ironing a blouse for a job interview a few months later, I was day dreaming and accidentally set the iron down on the part of my hand between the thumb and index finger. It left a hell of a scar that was still visible a year later in all our wedding photographs.

And at the time, I looked at my hands with long manicured nails and I thought to myself, This is the first scar I’ve had in a long time. It stood in pretty stark contrast to a period where my nails had been filed short to avoid tearing one off, and my legs would be banged up from moving stage bricks and cinderblocks, and my hands would be rough from sandpapering things or drilling in screws or going over bolts and bolts of costume fabric. (When getting my nails done for my senior prom, my beautician commented to me, “Just what do you do over at that theatre that makes your hands look so ugly?“)

Flash forward to February 2011, my first formal strike in eight years.

Did you see Aliens with Extraordinary Skills? Do you remember the rolling taxicab?

I disassembled that almost entirely on my own. And I am inordinately proud of that.

When I showed up to strike on Sunday, Doug asked me how comfortable I was with power drills and gestured towards the makeshift taxicab that needed to be broken down into pieces.

“Terrified,” I answered truthfully. “But also kind of exhilarated.”

“Okay,” he replied, thinking a bit. “Let’s focus on the ‘exhilarated’ part.”

Over the course of two hours, I took this thing apart piece by piece, like Dr. Frankenstein working backwards, reducing it literally to a bunch of wheels, nuts, and bolts. Every time I’d get to a piece I didn’t know how to take apart, Doug would give me instructions on what tool I needed and how to operate it. Pieces of wood stacked up, piles of washers rose like tiny smokestacks on the stage floor, wheels (so many wheels!) lay cast aside like fallen soldiers.

“How do you feel?” he asked me on break.

“I feel… awesome,” I said, albeit with a few more expletives than necessary. And I meant it – I felt sincerely awesome, in literal awe and wonder about what my own two hands could accomplish. I felt empowered. For the first time in years, I was not back in the office filing or writing grants or paying bills (although all those things do need to be done to keep a company running), but I was actually part of the work getting done inside the theatre itself.

As we took the set apart, all of us getting together in the moments where huge flats needed to be laid on the ground like a reverse barn-raising, I thought to myself, I love strike. I mean, I really love it.

It’s communal, and that’s its own type of wonderful, but it’s also getting to watch the pieces get turned from something magical and cohesive back into their individual, uninteresting parts. The curtains get folded and put back on shelves, the pipes and wood pieces go back into inventory, the props transported neatly into storage. It’s not the least bit sad to me; it’s inspiring in a “Just look at what we did!” kind of way that can’t be fully appreciated until you break things into pieces.

It’s a bizarre sort of funeral celebration – a wake, a time of remembering the great accomplishments of a show even as we disassemble and bury it, and looking forward to the next show, and the one after that, and so on, when all those pieces may again be given life to form something else spectacular and larger than the sum of their parts.

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