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Behind the Scenes with West Side Story SA

Rolling on to the stage and siting behind my sewing machine, I couldn’t help but giggle at the fact that about 30 minutes ago, most of the girls on the stage were fast asleep on the couches and floors of the dressing rooms at Joburg Theatre. It’s a 5-show weekend and we’re all running on the fumes of our opening night buzz. The mood is a mixture of hilarity and utter panic. Before the stage rolls us out from behind the scenes and in to the glare of the foot lights, legs are removed from tables, heads lifted from sewing machines and various costumes are secured. This is the first time the girls have been on stage…. the boys, however, have already run approximately 1,5kms while dancing and fighting and getting generally exhausted.

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The dress shop rolls on to stage with the ladies pre-set for action.

Theatre (read acting) is one of the only professions where racial profiling and gender based bias is not only allowed, but encouraged. That said, there is not much that a pale white girl can do in this show. In a 150-minute performance, I am on stage for approximately 10 of those. The focus is squarely on the Jet (Caucasian variant) boys and the Shark (Puerto Rican variant) girls. This means that the rest of us spend a lot of time going from zero to hero and exploding into action after a long time farting around in the dressing rooms.

West Side Story is a complex beast. It’s the first tragedy I’ve performed in. It’s both real and magical, raw and abstract, natural and contrived. As I said, the jet girls don’t get to do much. My character, Pauline, has a name but no lines. We don’t even sing more than a couple of phrases and some of us don’t even have mics.

After breaking my foot and spending 6 weeks in a cast last year between September and October, I was rushed through rehab in 6 weeks and dancing in heels by mid-December to be ready for this show. I thought I had been hired to carry the vocals for the Jet Girls (who are all brilliant dancers) and not to dance that much. But, surprisingly, all I do is dance. It’s been a wonderful challenge for me – overcoming both my mental and physical blocks to being a “dancer” again. And ignoring the talks about weight and eating that inevitably occupy the dancer’s dressing room. My foot held up better than the rest of my body, I’m (sort of) proud to say, although I could do with a day or two without pain at the moment. It would help immensely with my mood.

Our rehearsals were at the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA) where I spent a short few months studying before bombing out with a back injury and its consequent depression. This show has been cathartic for me in that it sent me back to the school where the path of my career changed so drastically, and at the same time, had me cast next to girls that had finished the course that I so badly wanted to do

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Leaving CAPA and changing tack was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Just 2 years after losing my mom, I ventured off to Cape Town with the biggest dreams and the smallest idea of how to cope with anything. Now, 9 years later, I felt how the building tried to switch my mentality back to that of an insecure teenager. It took me a while to remind myself that despite not finishing the course, I am still doing exactly what I want to be doing now.

The process leading up to opening night is the most difficult time in the life of a musical. It only gets to that level of work again when the show has been running for a few months and it becomes a challenge to keep it fresh and exciting. In South Africa, we don’t often get to that point. The lifetime of the show is dependent on getting bums in seats, and bums are sometimes hard to find. West Side Story’s first run in Cape Town was sold out. Here in Joburg, we seem a little less eager. Possibly because we don’t know what we’re missing out on, possibly because we are slow to catch on.

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Having done at least one major musical a year since Phantom of the Opera in 2012, I am most excited to be a part of this special production from The Fugard Theatre. Not because of the show it is or the role I’ve been given – I’ve definitely been in better roles on a personal front – but because The Fugard Theatre is an exciting new force in the industry. In addition to this, I have missed two opportunities to perform in West Side Story before. This opportunity I grasped with eager abandon.

Now that opening night is done and dusted and the reviews are rolling in (and I have a slightly lighter day job load) we are starting to settle in to a routine. The rituals before and after each scene are becoming set. We know when Chloe walks past wearing her petticoat as a dress and when Elzanne will rush back to the dressing room having forgotten to remove a flower from her hair in a costume change. And Cameron knows exactly when I’ve eaten supper or not when my dress pops open in the same lift every show. I have now found the slot when I can comfortably make a cup of tea, and things are starting to feel less manic. Less manic that is, until the 5-show weekend comes along.

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Dressing room 14 smells like flowers. It’s a familiar smell for a dressing room, almost as nerve wracking as the smell of hair gel and new tights. As I sit here listening to the progress of the show. I am reminded of how lucky we are to be able to create magic for an audience every night, even if it is fueled by Red Bull and Cataflam.

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