Many moving pieces: Working backstage at Diwali
Brightly attired dancers spin and jump in perfect synchronization; actors portray humans and aliens in an alternate-universe version of Washington University; a capella singers croon interweaving harmonies. The audience claps, the performers bow and the curtain falls on the last performance of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that is celebrated annually by Ashoka, Wash. U.’s South Asian student association.
Diwali took place at the Edison Theater this past Friday and Saturday, Nov. 3 and 4 and was the culmination of months of work by the organizers of Ashoka and the performers. Sold-out crowds packed the theater, laughing, cheering and applauding in equal measure. Most audience members, in enjoying the show’s colorful and multitudinous offerings, may not have thought about what goes on behind the scenes of a massive undertaking such as this one.
Conversely, I got a uniquely firsthand glimpse at the cogs and wheels of this show: For the past three and a half years, I’ve worked on the Edison Theater technical crew as a work-study job. This was my second time working deck (aka being the person who moves microphone stands, podiums and set pieces on and off stage between scenes) for Diwali.
As a crew member, I got to see a totally different side of Diwali. (Literally—I was lurking in the wings on stage right pretty much the whole time). After the loud music of a dance performance stops, the audience’s adulations cover up the exhausted dancers’ heavy breathing—their physical exertion is extreme, yet they still keep smiles on their faces until after the lights fade to black. Sometimes the dances take an even heavier toll; over the course of the weekend, no fewer than three ankles were twisted or sprained, resulting in a makeshift hallway medical treatment center of ice packs and last-minute ankle wraps.
The show takes a physical toll on the performers, and also on their costumes; between the afternoon and evening shows on Saturday, I found multiple open “safety” pins laying on the stage, as well as countless sequins and feathers that had detached from their respective costumes. Those same costumes were pushed to their limits in rapid wardrobe changes; some performers had only seconds to quick-change into completely different outfits before elegantly dancing back onstage. Props were lost, found and lost again; the disappearance of one crucial prop resulted in cast members shouting “SAMOSAS?!” backstage at top volume before the samosas in question were located.
The technical side of the show has its fair share of difficulties, too: During the Saturday afternoon performance of Diwali, spotlight operators had to fill in for a lighting mishap, as a few key lights didn’t turn on when they were supposed to. For a frantic moment when the malfunction first became apparent, the crew discussed our options of pausing the show; the main curtain was on standby to descend abruptly, with an announcement of “technical difficulties.” None of this internal turmoil was communicated to the audience—they just experienced a slightly-longer-than-usual transitional pause between scenes. In thiås regard, among others, Diwali really lived up to its reputation as a battle between the forces of light and dark—fortunately, light prevailed in the end, and the rest of the performance went off without a hitch.
For all of the literal blood, sweat and tears that go into Diwali—for each injury and dangerous safety pin and unfortunate run-in with the underside of a staircase that’s hiding in the darkness—the payoff is more than worth it, in the form of the energetic, moving, otherworldly, almost magical performance that ensues. Student cultural shows at Wash. U. are a revered tradition for good reason; they are truly a labor of love. Audiences loved Diwali. Hopefully, they can understand a bit more the extent of the controlled chaos and behind-the-scenes labor that is required to put on the beautifully coordinated show they see when the curtain comes up.