Ananya Rama Balakrishnan
Slightly exasperated excitement surrounded the backstage area of the theater on the Wednesday before the middle school production of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opened. One kid couldn’t find their costume, another wasn’t in the wings on time, and yet another had forgotten to bring a prop on stage. Scatterbrained and stressed out, I kept yelling at children and then feeling bad for being mean and then yelling at them again. Having acted before, I thought I knew how backstage chaos worked– lame jokes, rising levels of anxiety, frantic pacing. But as an actor, I had also only really stayed in the wings and the dressing room. Directing Harry Potter (alongside Mihir Dhawan and Pavitra Narayanan) meant more than that: props checks, conversations regarding how transitions worked with the stage managers, working closely with middle schoolers on their acting (and therefore finding out all the middle school gossip), whispered shouting over the communication headsets, and more reigned supreme.
I did not know what to expect going into this. I thought I knew how directing would work, having directed a few one-acts the previous year and a few odd scenes in my middle school drama class; one-acts and scenes, though, are not productions. The first primary difference that I found was that I actually could have some semblance of a say in the casting– this was completely new, and not something I disliked. Of course, one doesn’t expect that as an actor, but it’s a very different experience to be building the cast as opposed to praying that you’re good enough. The next thing that I noticed was that now I was one of the people who had to deal with the chaos. I was used to being one of the herdees, not the herders. In dealing with the chaos, I think I made a couple of early enemies (I don’t know if I’m just an easy target or if middle schoolers are ruthless, but I never thought I would be bullied by sixth graders)– another thing I was not entirely expecting. This made working one-on-one with them a little confusing, as some of them were scared of me and some of them made me scared. As one of their directors, I was able to make connections with them that I wouldn’t have otherwise, because not only was I able to help them portray their roles better, but also joke around with them.
The day of the show, I felt a sort of pride that I don’t think I’ve ever felt on opening night before. The buzz backstage is palpable whether you’re an actor or not, but it was accompanied by overwhelming stress this time. There was so much potential for things to go wrong – kids forgetting lines, light cues being missed, transitions being too choppy – and so many things almost did. The mistakes that happened were so much more stressful as a director by sheer virtue of the fact that I now was not only more invested in the play but that they were all being discussed in a hushed panic over the headsets, elevating the levels of stress but also trying to keep it away from the actors. It was also strangely exhausting, more so than it has ever been as an actor. Months of practice were finally paying off, but the little hiccups kept wearing on me. But the kids stayed positive and they stayed focused, much to my surprise.
Directing meant that I saw theater in a new way. I saw the mistakes more clearly. I saw the struggle to get things done. I saw the growth that the actors underwent. The relief, the happiness, the gratitude that closing brought. Directing meant that I learned more about not only the actors but how to deal with challenges. It’s an experience that I didn’t think I would have, but one that I’m richer for, because not only did I learn more about how theater works, but how people work.