Going Beyond the Classroom and Behind the Scenes
Written by Victoria Kelly
As part of the core curriculum, every Hillsdale student must complete a fine arts class in music, art history, or theatre. During my sophomore year, I found myself in Understanding Theatre with Dr. James Brandon, chairman of the Theatre and Dance Department. As someone relatively inexperienced with theatre, I was relieved to learn we had multiple opportunities to earn extra credit by volunteering backstage. Dr. Brandon assured us that many prior students had found volunteering backstage to be among their most fun experiences at Hillsdale.
I volunteered for a small production featuring only six actors: three men and three women. The play, Ada and the Engine, was written by American playwright Lauren Gunderson and was directed by Lecturer in Theatre Tory Matsos. Ada and the Engine has a contemporary feel with a historical subject matter. Its protagonist is Ada Lovelace, the daughter of English poet Lord Byron, whose work with Charles Babbage immortalized her as the first computer programmer.
I reported for the first time at 6 p.m. on the Monday night of tech week—the flurry of technical adjustments and dress rehearsals before the weekend performances. Once I arrived at the Fine Arts Building, I weaved through the basement hallways to the costume shop. There, I helped costume designer Corrine Langford put the finishing touches on the costumes she had made for the show. Nothing that she needed was beyond my ability to learn, even as someone who had never before worked backstage. I ironed, finished seams, carefully placed some needed safety pins, and learned to use a professional steamer. I then assumed the title of Costume Run Crew: the person in charge of the costumes during the performances. Since this was a small show, I performed the task alone.
Because I was a part of the crew, I had the pleasure of watching the show before the premiere. I found it fascinating to watch without an audience’s reactions. Watching my classmates work through their lines, and even make mistakes, made their characters feel all the more real. As the week progressed, I heard the entire play multiple times through the speaker system connected to the women’s dressing room, where I studied when I wasn’t needed elsewhere.
I spent the majority of my time backstage working with the three incredibly welcoming women starring in Ada and the Engine: Kenda Showalter, ’25, Meg Smith, ’24, and Heather Hobson, ’25. I worked the first few nights of tech week on fitting dresses and adding closures. Then corsets needed to be laced, dresses needed to be fastened, and one bow had to be tied perfectly before each act.
By opening night, I had become confident in my backstage role. Kenda and I had the one quick change in Act 2 down to a routine. I knew how tight the women wanted their corsets, and I could quickly steam the costumes as the actresses did their hair and makeup. Even the few inevitable surprises were perfectly manageable. I kept a close eye on the state of the costumes and when one seam started to unravel, I fixed it before anyone else noticed. When theatrical wine (also known as grape juice) spilled on a dress, no one else knew.
During my time backstage, I also befriended the other crew members, and I was invited to the opening night party. It felt like my show. I caught myself thinking that I would fix something for my lead, and that it was my crew I enjoyed working with. It was an opportunity to take ownership of something I had never anticipated having the chance to try. Though it was quite a time commitment, it was fully worth it.
After the last performance, I worked alongside the students and professionals in charge of scenery and lighting for strike—the deconstruction of Ada and the Engine’s set. Afterward, we celebrated and prayed over the seniors for whom Ada and the Engine had been their final collegiate theatre performance.
I found a community within the production of Ada and the Engine, and I learned that I didn’t have to be a seasoned “theatre kid” to be welcomed into it. I was encouraged to try out for future productions or at least work backstage again. Dr. Brandon was right—that was among the most fun I have had at Hillsdale. I heartily recommend to anyone (especially Understanding Theatre students!) to seize the chance to go beyond the classroom by working behind the scenes in an upcoming production.
Victoria Kelly, ’24, is a proud country girl from upstate New York. On the rare occasion she is not studying or hanging out with all her favorite Hillsdale people, you can find her debating politics, practicing Tae Kwon Do, or swing dancing, preferably outside under the stars.
Published in November 2022