Curtain hides backstage magic

Snoopy forgot his collar and Melanie Chabin rushed to save the scene.

The craziest moment for Chabin, a sophomore tech theater worker at Bonanza High School, came during last year's "Snoopy" production. For one scene, the actor playing the beagle forgot an important prop -- his collar. Chabin hurried to create a collar out of paper, but that was only obstacle No. 1. She then had to maneuver her way toward a big, white screen, which blocked her route to the dog. On her hands and knees, she squeezed the collar underneath the screen to Snoopy. She salvaged the performance and saved her fellow theater friend from humiliation.

"It's always fun being backstage behind the curtain," Chabin says. "It's exhilarating."

Sitting below the stage, the audience catches sight only of the actors. What they don't see is what makes everything happen behind the curtain.

High school productions are not solely accomplished with the effort of the director and actors, but also with the help of the tech theater workers. While onstage performers practice their lines, tech students perform backstage, creating sets, arranging props, putting together costumes and applying makeup to the actors.

"What happens backstage stays backstage," says Jordan Linklater, a Bonanza senior.

Everything that these "techies" know began in the classroom. The teacher of the tech theater class, usually the director of all productions, explains safety guidelines and the procedures of working onstage. Similar to Boy Scouts, techies learn how to tie several kinds of knots, which work well when dealing with arbors, or the ropes that lower the lights.

A couple of weeks before opening night, after daily practices for the actors, they begin to run through the production with the stage crew. By this time, the techies have prepared for the big night by creating all the set pieces, gathering the props and placing them in their proper locations. Each item must be positioned on the correct side offstage in the order that it's needed.

Chabin says her favorite prop she made was a sculpture created from coat hangers for the musical last year. The prop took more than a week to build.

At Bonanza, about 10 minutes before curtain call on opening night, all the performers and crew gather outside for "pass the squeeze." They form a circle and hold hands; the first person squeezes his neighbor's hand and that neighbor then "passes the squeeze" to the next thespian until it reaches the end. From there, they raise their hands and yell, "Act well your part, for there all the honor lies."

The last production of the year is the most special. Before "pass the squeeze," seniors give a little speech that usually brings tears, but actors must be careful so the makeup the techies applied doesn't smear.

"It's so much fun to put the makeup on the boys," says Shelby Johnson, a sophomore actress and techie at Bonanza.

After the fun outside, all the actors rush inside to take their places while the techies get ready near the curtain and in the upstairs sound booth.

During the show, the crew oversees lighting, operates the pulley system for the curtain, and plays the proper music and sounds at the right time. They even get to wear fancy headsets and use little telephones backstage to communicate with their peers in the sound booth above the audience.

After the production, both actors and techies clean up and organize the stage area, backstage and the dressing rooms. On the last night, when the director is content with the status of the drama room's cleanliness, everyone usually celebrates with a party or a night out at IHOP.

"I like being a part of productions because I feel important and needed," Chabin says. "Plus, I get to use all the power tools and see free shows."