The Black Hills Playhouse holds a special place in my heart, and not just because I’ve been attending plays there since I was 10 years old. I’ve also spent two summers working there.
The BHP is unique in that the company members live there as well as work there. It’s like a college campus -- we have dorms and a cafeteria. We’re with each other all the time. We wake up in bunks above or below each other, we eat with each other, we work with each other, and we play with each other.
Each day looks more or less the same from the outside. Breakfast is at 8:30. Work starts at 9 or 9:30, depending on how much we have to do and how much progress we’re making. This means different things to different people: the actors head off to the Old Theatre for rehearsal, the painters, carpenters, prop people, and costumers hole up in their respective shops, the electricians get busy in the theatre, the ticket clerks open up the office, and the snack bar workers put the coffee on. Lunch is at 12; work resumes at 1 or 1:30, again depending on whether we’re behind or not. Unless we’re really struggling to get the next show ready, we quit work at 4:30 and have dinner at 5:30.
Meals are usually followed by intensely competitive games of volleyball. Sometimes we have teams of three, sometimes teams of 12, but it’s always a lot of fun. The old standard rules of volleyball apply, but we have a few of our own, as well -- such as that balls are playable off the building to which the net is attached, unless it hits the building below the line of the net.
By 6:30pm or 7pm we’re all focused on that evening’s show. Cars are sometimes pulling up by 7pm, a full hour before the curtain goes up. Actors take their post-volleyball showers and start the costuming and make-up process. Workers from all the shops take on their duties as designated for this particular show -- maybe as a spotlight operator or set crew member, maybe as an usher or car park. Very few people are left with nothing to do before the show, and if someone is, you can bet he or she will be busy the next night!
In addition to the jobs we’re hired for, we all have other duties to help keep the camp running. There is a rotating duty schedule which has us washing and drying dishes or cleaning the theatre and bathrooms.
We only get seven days off the whole summer: Mondays in the middle of the runs. There are no shows on Monday, so if we’re in the middle of a play, there’s no work to do on those Mondays that can’t wait until Tuesday. However, if we’re opening a new show this week, Mondays are very busy! The plays close on Sunday afternoon, and we start immediately, even before the last audience member has driven away, tearing down the old set and putting up the new one, which has to be ready for the Wednesday night preview. We have no specific hours (and definitely no volleyball) during these intense few days -- we work straight through, often late into the night, stopping only for meals.
The work is serious, but we keep it fun. In the paint shop, we had dance breaks -- if a certain song came on, we all had to put down our brushes and start shakin’ it. Once, as one painter acted out her favorite part of the play we were rehearsing, an entire bucket of paint was knocked onto a set piece that another painter had spent a couple of days working on and had finally finished. In the face of such devastation, there’s only one thing to do: laugh. Another time, we had large tubes to use on a set as columns, and the carpenters invited us over to their side of the yard for a few minutes of rolling down the hill in them.
I’ve met amazing people, many of whom I count among my dearest friends. I’ve also had the opportunity to bump elbows with a little bit of fame! I played volleyball with Broadway star Jenny Fehlner and worked directly under designer Ahna Packard, who has worked on the television show Monk. Others, famous or not, are so remarkably talented, whether as actors, directors, designers, carpenters, or whatever. I am honored to say I know them, let alone call them my friends.
I look forward to more summers at the Playhouse. There’s nothing like working so hard with people you get to know so well to put something like a play together. There’s great pride in knowing that even if maybe you aren’t on stage, those people wouldn’t be, either, if it weren’t for you and the work you’re doing behind the scenes. It makes me giddy to hear the audience members talk during the intermissions about what a good play it is or how beautiful a certain set piece is or how they’re making plans to come out to the next show. I’m proud to be part of bringing such quality theatre to the Black Hills.