What’s the point of The Nutcracker? How I finally got it.

I had never cared to watch The Nutcracker. Ballet to me had always just looked awkward and uncomfortable. But with my position as “Performance Technical Director” at the local charter school, it was my job to know the show well enough that I could direct a tech crew of 7th and 8th graders for this year’s performance.

Before I could direct my ‘techies’ I had to figure out the needs of the show myself. I arrived at the school gym for one of their dress rehearsals and was amazed by the number of kids there. I think half of the school was in the show. Everywhere I looked were kids in tights and brightly colored costumes running around while volunteer parents tried to wrangle them into groups and keep them in order.

I surveyed the room looking for the dance director – without luck. I moved out of the way of a group of kids wearing oriental style hats and another group dressed like candy canes. I stood against the wall until someone needed to put a mostly empty costume rack there.

I noticed the school orchestra was set up in the middle of the room. I figured by their positioning that I could tell which part of the gym was going to act as the stage that evening and which part would be for the audience. Since I was here to watch and learn the show I grabbed a chair and sat a little ways behind the orchestra director. Just then the dance teacher tapped me on the shoulder and informed me that I was sitting in the middle of where the dancers were going to be performing. I apologized and moved to the other side of the room and sat up on the actual stage which, being too small for their dances, had a check-in table for volunteers set up on it. I figured that this should be the most out of the way place to sit and take notes.

The rehearsal started and the dance teacher asked everyone to be quiet. The slight decrease in volume lasted about 5 seconds. After a few minutes I was asked to come run the music which was blasting distortedly out of a portable speaker system stage right of the dancers.

“Let’s go back to Pas,” the director would yell out or “Start over with Drosselmeyer,” and I would scan the playlist for clues as to what she was requesting. Hours later, my ears ringing and my head spinning, I felt like I was having my own Nutcracker nightmare.

I went home and told my wife what I thought of the Nutcracker. The performers were doing a good job, but the whole story of the Nutcracker seemed pointless – especially the second act. I even came up with a slogan, “Short on story. High on toes.”

Just as I was getting worked up, my wife stopped me by saying that she enjoyed the Nutcracker. And added that she enjoyed seeing things portrayed through the imagination of the young girl.

Fast forward to opening night of the show. The Nutcracker had been relocated this year to a different school–a local high school with an auditorium that would allow twice as many parents and grandparents to see their child on stage. The choir rooms and backstage hallway were filled with noise while the orchestra out front of the curtain attempted to mask the sound for the gathering audience.

I hadn’t slept well for days. My tech crew was more interested in each other than they were in focusing on the play. Some last minute prop changes hadn’t been rehearsed and the night before had gone bad because I hadn’t sent runners to get people in time for their cues.

The curtain raised and the show began. From a backstage perspective everything seemed to go well. Nobody missed their cues. Everything worked like it was supposed to. The curtain closed and we started to clean up and reset for the next night.

It wasn’t until a few minutes after the show ended that my view of the Nutcracker was transformed.

A lady that I knew – a friend of mine who had been in the audience – came backstage. I asked her how she liked the show. I expected her to say that “it was good” or that “the kids were cute.” But instead she said, “It was beautiful” and she was visibly moved by it. I was surprised by this. It had affected her more than I would have expected. After she walked away, I talked to a few other people who were also seemingly in awe of how beautiful the show was.

I had to process this.

To me it was just some slides projected on a screen with kids dancing in front of it. If they had seen what I had seen backstage they wouldn’t be so moved by it. But then I remembered what the purpose of theater was. All of the craziness and backstage workings were there to create the show that was only seen in that limited space on stage. That was the point.

I looked at the now completely empty stage. I wondered how many different stories had been and would be performed in that space.

Theater was all about creating a ‘suspension of disbelief’. That is what all of those dances were for. They were fabricating a fantasy experience. My wife had been right. They were seeing a different perspective – a dream brought to life – if only for an evening. Story was important, but what we had done was world building. We had transported people to another place. A place where mice had battles with wooden soldiers, where fairies and flowers danced, and the various cultures of the world celebrated together in harmony.

Then I got even more philosophical and thought about how our lives are only a moment when compared to all of eternity. And about how we are each creating our own world as we live our lives and make choices. Do we appreciate the beauty around us? The temporary show that nature is putting on display just for us – blossoming for a season and then transforming into summer and later fall. We enjoy the mystery of the opening act and the beauty of the subsequent acts. And when the curtain closes, we know that it will return again for us next year – just like the Nutcracker.

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