I asked my friend Zelda how she guarded her breaks. She said “Easy, I smoke.” So I started getting up and going outside for breaks. It was a short walk, got me out of the dark and into the fresh(ish) air – after all the smokers were also outside. But I learned to value those ten minutes out of every ninety away from the current issues of tech.
Most of our crew folks worked with us for years, the turnover was slow and never all at once, so there was a shared history of horror stories and camaraderie. After a few shows together, when I started regularly appearing outside I would jokingly get asked, “Hey boss lady, want a cigarette?” I don’t honestly remember the first show it happened, when I answered “Sure, why the hell not?”
The crew was stunned for a beat, and the smokers debated who had the lightest cigarettes so they wouldn’t kill me. Then I lit up a cigarette for tech.
Now, I’m not a good smoker. I don’t think I inhale properly; I’ve certainly never had any kind of rush from the nicotine. But I do like the way cigarettes taste, better than how they smell, and the act of taking deep breaths was certainly welcome. So a new routine was established. My tech week cigarette.
I didn’t always have one. The super easy shows didn’t require it. But if things were on the higher end of stressful I’d have one. Or sometimes one a day.
Doing a world premiere musical with a cast that included six girls under the age of 16 was one of the stressful ones. Before the first preview I was outside having a cigarette when one of the young girls happened to see me. “Beeker’s smoking. But she doesn’t smoke. Did we break her, is she okay?” she worriedly asked a dresser, who told her I was fine, it was just that time of rehearsal.
I learned years later that the crew would gauge how tech was going by how early I asked to bum a tech week cigarette, and how often. I know cigarettes are expensive so I made sure to bum around, and to occasionally hand someone five bucks for a new pack. My awareness of not wanting to take advantage of the crew being amused to see me smoke typically set a high water mark on how many cigarettes I would have on any given show.
Until the last big musical I stage managed. I was burned out and the show was a mess. Friday morning, the first day of technical rehearsals, several large pieces of motorized scenery didn’t work yet, the ASM had informed me she was scared of numbers and therefore couldn’t do a large piece of her job backstage, and I was toasty done. By early Saturday I had already bummed from every crew member who smoked, and at least one surprised cast member. At the next break I went to our production manager.
“David, can I bum a cigarette?”
“Beeker, you don’t smoke.”
“David, I do this tech week. I got here at 8am yesterday and didn’t leave until after midnight, today is looking the same. I’ve already bummed from every member of our crew and they make less than you or I, please give me a cigarette.” David, looking a little scared, gave me several. I bought my own pack at the dinner break.
By the end of that weekend we had almost finished teching the show and I felt slightly ill – a combination of not enough sleep, too much fast food, not enough water, and definitely too many cigarettes.
I only stage managed two more shows after that. I left the company where I had been a resident for twelve years because I knew it had become bad for my mental health and I needed to do something, anything, different. It’s been five years since I last worked on a show, and now I miss it: the camaraderie of backstage, the learning really random small things necessary to just this play, the fact that the job regularly took all of my brain. I don’t know if I will stage manage a show again, but I’d like to try. I’d like to think I can even do it without a tech week cigarette.