By Shari Benyousky
The Wagon Wheel began in the summer of 1956 as a dirt floored tent with canvas chairs. A chicken coop (complete with chickens clucking) functioned as the shop for sets and costumes, and the orchestra consisted of one guy playing a Hammond organ.
Nowadays, when we walk past the ticket booth into the modern foyer lit with Christmas bulbs, we say we’ve come to see the actors. But now, just as then, the leading actors are the mouthpieces of words written by someone else. They wear wigs and clothing created by someone else, they walk the steps directed by someone else, and they sing the songs someone else wrote.
The theatre demands the collaboration of actors, directors, costumers as well as those who create lightning and sound. But there are others who make the show run — ushers, bartenders, ticket takers, staff, and innumerable people devoted to making the stage come alive. I wanted to know what it was like to be these people behind the scenes of the Wagon Wheel Theatre in 2022.
I started with Lakesha Green, the new director of the Wagon Wheel, and the hub around which all of these moving parts circle. Lakesha has a rare smile, one that makes you feel reassured. This smile illuminates the room and says that everyone she meets is amazing. It’s a smile you don’t come across but a few times in life.
She told me her favorite job is listening to people tell her love stories. Apparently, the magic of the theatre causes many couples to fall in love right there in the round circle. Lakesha chuckled. “I love this gem beyond words.”
When I asked her about other interesting behind-the-scenes things, she told me about something under the scenes named Shawshank (as in Shawshank the prison). When actors need to pop up on stage, they must simultaneously crouch and run while dressed in costume down a low tunnel from the set department under the center stage. Lakesha shivered. “I’m claustrophobic, so I have never been in it and WILL never go in it, but It’s the most underrated feature of the entire building!”
Although you probably won’t be lucky enough to see Shawshank (unless you want to try out for a show), you’ll see the same sight that I did when you first arrive: a very unusual center stage.
The Wagon Wheel seats coil around a round center stage meaning that the actors stand in the middle and face everyone at some point or the other. I arrived an hour before “The Sound of Music” started to see how it worked. Clumps of smiling people received instructions, ticket takers flipped on lights, the concession stand fired up the popcorn maker, someone ran a last-minute sweeper around the carpets, and a white-haired woman checked the position of bulbs on a Christmas tree.
As the lights flipped on, center stage glowed like a purple heart. The air rumbled and trembled with anticipation as patrons herded in dressed in their winter coats and scarves, clutching tickets.
The lobby gleamed with Christmas lights and the bright red coats of ushers smiling and pointing. I later talked with former Board President Deb Bishop who described behind the Wagon Wheel Scenes this way: “It’s impossible to tell who is a volunteer and who is staff because everyone pitches in wherever something is needed. It’s one amazing family.”
I followed the excited queue of ticket holders and met the head usher Carol Heinold who told me she has been ushering since the mid-90s. She’s been the head usher so long that many call her Captain Carol. She’s clearly in her element here, easily directing the flow of theatergoers and talking to me simultaneously.
She says the hardest job of an usher is memorizing the layout. “It really is exactly like the spokes on a wheel.” She shook her head. “But it’s hard to know which aisle to send someone to when the aisles keep getting larger the further you get from the stage.”
Captain Carol seemed to know everyone from the youngest to a retired usher in her 90s known as Shotgun. “That’s the only name I’ve known for decades.” Carol informed me that ushers are paid with an unusual currency — soda, popcorn, and the ability to see the show (if it isn’t sold out).
The Sound of Music on Sunday was sold out though, so they would need to return for another show. Captain Carol asked me to point out that anyone interested in ushering can find an application at the box office.
Next, I chatted with Donna and Krista who stood in front of their wall of jewel-colored wines and spirits hung with gold tinsel. They too had been working for the Wagon Wheel forever: “Well, at least eight years. Has it been that long since we’ve had the bar? I worked at a Country Club before this, and I love seeing my old patrons come through here.”
I asked which was the most popular drink, and after some discussion, they decided that the special was always the most popular (an aptly named Edelweiss with gin and grapefruit for The Sound of Music) followed by old fashioneds and white wine, mostly Moscato, on Sundays.
Now that we have a ticket and a drink, and we are carefully balancing our popcorn, we’re ready to find our seats and hear about love, war, loyalty, and one unusual nun. And just as Maria spins around and around the mountain singing, the Wagon Wheel spins its magical web around the audience which hushes as the first two actors walk up the dark aisle and arrive on the round stage.
If you haven’t had the chance to see behind the scenes, come to see the actors on stage, but also say hello to the myriads of people who make everything run. The Wagon Wheel is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. You can find out more about it and its mission here.
Know of an interesting place or person which you’d like to see featured behind the scenes someday? Send SB Communications LLC an email at [email protected].