“ It’s kind of like running laps in a sauna.”
As an Austinite, I’ve grown up going to the Hillside Theatre with my family to see the annual Zilker Summer Musical. This year I decided that I wanted to audition to become one of the lucky few to costume change in ungodly temperatures, sing with the bugs, and get my character heels a little muddy. Performing outdoors is an intense experience, so I’ve put together six behind-the-scenes secrets about what it’s like to perform in the middle of Zilker Park. And, I chose a landmark year—“All Shook Up” marks the 60th anniversary of this historic event.
We Eat Bugs
Much to my disappointment, the Zilker stage does not have a magical citronella bubble to keep pests off actors during the show. If a little critter decides to take a landing on my arm during a performance, I can’t frantically swat it away because I have to stay in character. As a member of the female ensemble, I play a human statue during one scene of the show. This means that I spend a great deal of time standing completely frozen on stage. One night, after a large rain storm, I encountered a large swarm of gnats. Actually, I think they encountered me. My fellow statues and I had no choice but to stand completely still while the swarm crawled all over our faces and bodies. It was truly straight out of an episode of “Fear Factor.”
Actors Must Expect the Unexpected
Every night is a new adventure on the Zilker stage, and actors have to be ready for anything and everything. Part of the rehearsal process includes knowing what to do if someone (or something!) wanders onto the stage in the middle of a performance. Raccoons, dogs and people have all been known to journey onto the Zilker stage for their five minutes of fame. Don’t try this yourself though because our stage management team will quickly have you escorted out. Never a dull moment!
We Walk Around Backstage in Character
Because it’s an outdoor theater, the Zilker stage is extremely open and exposed. Plus, large audiences can often cover the entire hillside. Actors can be seen from just about anywhere— even when we are standing backstage. To help keep the magic of the show alive actors are instructed to walk around backstage in character! I get a kick out of watching my fellow cast mates “take a walk to the store” as they jauntily run from one safe zone backstage to another.
We Are Just As Hot As You’re Worried We Are
Not only are actors outside in the middle of the summer in Texas, but we are dancing our butts off. Between all of the jumping around we do onstage and all of the fast changes we do offstage, actors in a Zilker production have their work cut out for them. This means a lot of repowdering and recurling happens backstage. But hey, at least we get a great workout every night. It’s kind of like running laps in a sauna.
This Show Has Lots of Quick Changes
Speaking of changing costumes, we do a lot of it during “All Shook Up.” Quick change moments can often be just as choreographed as onstage moments. In order to execute fast changes, members of the cast and crew help each other out. In one of my fastest changes between the opening number, “Jailhouse Rock” and the second number of the show, “Heartbreak Hotel”, Sue Breland, a beloved veteran of the Zilker productions and our Mayor Matilda, expertly helps me redress as I simultaneously undress. I think we’ve got the whole switcheroo down to under 15 seconds!
We Love Signing Autographs
After all Zilker performances, the cast lines the stage to take pictures and sign autographs for the audience. This is such a unique and exciting way for the actors to connect with the audience, and we truly love it. Chatting and taking selfies with little ones who look up to the actors makes all of the bugs, sweat and tears worth it.
Performing on the Zilker stage is truly a once in a lifetime experience. The show is a hip-swaying, rock n rollin’ good time, but it also says something important. In the midst of all of their tomfoolery, the characters of All Shook Up take on challenges dealing with race, sexuality and gender. Every night as I stand on the hillside and sing Elvis Presley’s “If I Can Dream” with my fellow cast mates, chills run down my sweating arms. Looking out into the crowd of thousands waving their arms to the words, “If I can dream of a better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand, tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true,” I am so proud to be one of the lucky few to stand on the historic stage and deliver such a powerful message.
I invite you to rock and roll on the hillside with us Thursdays-Sundays through August 18th. Shows are free and begin at 8:15 pm.
Austin-based Kaitlin Street is currently the EIC Editorial Assistant at Texas Lifestyle Magazine. Kaitlin attends the University of Texas at Austin and is active in the Austin theater community. Cover photo Suzanne McBride