Tag Archives: performing arts

Theatre Pre-Performance Ritual for RENT

Main Piece

“[This ritual] is very common: the whole team tapping a sign before a game. In RENT, we have a plaque hand-carved by Jonathan Larson’s uncle that he carved when he died that his sister gave us. She came in and talked to our cast, and her and his college roommates gave us this plaque for the duration of our show. And it’s this big hand-carved plaque that says “Thank you, Jonathan Larson” on it. It’s hung up backstage, and after our group circle, we all have to go up to it one by one [before every performance] and like, place our hands on it and thank him before we go onstage to perform…Really simple, but we all do it and constantly remind each other of it and it’s really important to our cast.

Some of us like, if we’re feeling especially emotional, will literally sit in front of it and cry. I’m so serious, I’ve done that, ’cause Jonathan Larson is really important to me.”

Interpretation

Informant Interpretation: Informant related ritual to common sports team rituals of tapping a specific sign for luck or protection before a game. They also mentioned that the pre-RENT performance tapping of the sign was a means of “community building” and enabled cast members to “ground themselves” and “remind themselves about why they’re doing this piece of art.”

Personal Interpretation: This is clearly an important tradition to the informant and their cast, furthered by the subject matter of RENT (queer people living in NYC during the HIV/AIDS crisis) and fact that its creator, Jonathan Larson, died one day before the musical’s original opening in 1996. The sign is a physicalized reminder of the humanity and weight the show carries, and gives the cast members a material way to remember the real people it’s grounded in before going onstage. To me, it sounds like tapping this sign is a ritualized remembrance of the responsibility to tell and represent an important, nuanced story to the audience, and for the cast to honor the people around them–cast, crew, relatives, friends, and more–as well as the source of the art they’re bringing into the light.

Background

Informant is a 21 year old college student studying theatre at USC. The performance of RENT mentioned happened this semester, with rehearsals running January-April and performances in April. It was put on by the USC School of Dramatic Arts–informant performed in the ensemble for all performances. Informant is mixed race (white and Pacific Islander), and identifies as queer and fem-presenting.

Gypsy Robe

“I use to do community theater at this place called Starstruck. Theater people are just weird in general and we love weird traditions and culty kind of stuff, anything that nobody else might know about is great. A gypsy robe is a tradition with this theater company that you work on the show, you work really hard, and then everybody votes on who gets the gypsy robe. If you’re new, maybe somebody might tell you what it means, but probably not. You just have to figure it out when it happens. So we all load into the theater and it’s opening night and we all go to the stage to warm up. We do a group warmup: singing, dancing, weird theater shit. And then it comes the part when it gets really emotional and the director gives a speech like “You guys have done such a great job, we’re so ready, it’s going to be great, it’s going to be sold out.” Stuff like that; weepy weepy, cute, inspirational stuff. Whatever. So all that happens and its right before they let all the people in the house. The house is all the audience seats. We’re all on the stage and they can’t let the audience in until we get off. So then the director, as though she has a secret to tell, ‘Ok so some of you may know about this and some of you don’t know yet…’ I’ve been in their children’s shows and professional shows but when I first got introduced to it I was in high school so it was a really big deal. She points backstage and the stage manager would go and get this robe. It says ‘gypsy robe’ on the lapel and has trinkets on it from every show they’ve ever done. Well since they started the gypsy robe anyways. The trinket is embroidered onto the robe with the show name and attached is a prop, or a piece of the set or a piece of costume. It supposed to have something to do with the show but sometimes the things are random and then it’s like an inside joke and therefore even cooler, but doesn’t make sense. *laughs* So then the director takes a full sweep around the circle, showing off the robe, talking about the robe, saying what it means and gives the background, and says ‘One person has stood out and we all voted and came to the conclusion that _____(name)___ deserves the gypsy robe!’ She would then meaningful walk over the gypsy robe to the winner. It’s always a person who doesn’t have a really big role. It’s probably someone whose done a lot of shows with them already, put in your dues kind of shpeal, and you probably deserved a way better role than you got, but you stayed with the show and were in ensemble and didn’t really complain about it. It’s a prize but it’s pretty political now that I think about it. You’ve got the gypsy robe, you’re basically like MVP of the show/ Miss Congeniality of the show. So they put the robe on you and you’re so excited and then someone starts the gypsy robe song. I think it’s a real song but they put different words to it. “Cotton candy, sweet n low, let me touch your gypsy robe.” I can’t remember the rest of the song but, everyone is clapping, and stomping, dancing around the circle. The winner starts from their spot and run/dance around the whole circle. Everyone is supposed to touch you, like a pat on the back but some people use this as an opportunity to get weird. The winner makes it back to their spot and everyone is still singing and dancing. It’s like a dance party and then everyone cheers for the winner. The winner is suppose to wear the robe every night of the show, as they’re getting ready, before the show, every show. ”

Did you ever win the gypsy robe?

“I didn’t. I was ‘supposed’ to get it for Grease but then I didn’t. It was ok though, I liked the girl who got it. I was supposed to get it though so it was shit. It was extra political that year. Her mom was the costume designer.”

Have you heard of other theater groups doing this?

“I think they stole this idea from somebody else because I was with this performing arts center since 6th grade and they didn’t start it until 9th grade. ”

Even though you never technically won it, would you say this made it more fun and added to your experience?

“Mmm. Ehh. It was just kind of like a thing we did. It was just a nice thing we did on opening night. It’s nice to have tradition but it wasn’t an end all be all.”

I did some reserach and discovered the ‘gypsy robes’ are commonly given out in Broadway Musicals and goes back to the 1950’s. The ‘gypsy’ comes from “their continuous travel from job to job in show after show.” Some robes from popular musicals have even been housed in museums.

I thought it was interesting that she didn’t identify too personally with the tradition even though she was a member of this troupe for several years. It is most likely because she was snubbed and did not receive the award.