UW News

February 1, 2007

A double life: Days at UWT, nights at the theater

Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted with permission from Inside Track, the faculty/staff newsletter at UW Tacoma.

By Jill Carnell Danseco
UW Tacoma

Naarah McDonald can pinpoint the moment she fell in love with theater.

She was 11. Her mother, who often worked as a theatrical costumer and makeup artist, took Naarah backstage. There in the wings, surrounded by actors, stage lights and the heart-pounding excitement of a live show, she discovered where she wanted to be.

“I got hooked,” she says. “You just fall for the theater — for the energy, the drama, the fun of opening night.”

Years later, she’s still hooked. McDonald spends her days as administrative coordinator in the Milgard School of Business and her nights and weekends backstage. She is often called upon to provide wardrobe help at rock concerts, and her latest directorial effort — a revised version of The Diary of Anne Frank—debuts Feb. 9 at the Lakewood Playhouse.

It’s not easy to carve out a career in theater. Many talented directors, actors and costumers, like McDonald, pursue other careers, widely divergent from their theatrical interests, and are content to let theater serve as a backdrop in their lives.

“It’s really difficult to make money in the theater, even for set designers and costumers,” she said. “Most people find their way to community theater. You develop a passion for it. It’s a great way to be creative outside of your daily life.”

After her first experience with theater, McDonald mastered a sewing machine and helped her mother put together costumes. Soon, she found her own costuming jobs — and went on to work on sets, lighting and props as a stage manager. She’s even stepped out on stage a couple of times.

“The first time I acted in a play, the actress had quit and they asked me to replace her, since I had been reading the role in rehearsal,” she said. “I really prefer being backstage. There’s not a lot of glory in it, but it’s where I’m most comfortable.”

That backstage experience helped McDonald land one of her most recent gigs — periodic work in the wardrobe department for major rock concerts. About a year ago, a concert company needed extra help at an Aerosmith concert at the Tacoma Dome. A friend referred them to McDonald. Since then, she’s done costume work at concerts by Kenny Rogers, Barney (yes, the purple dinosaur) and The Rolling Stones.

“The Rolling Stones — that was by far the most enormous effort I’ve ever seen for a show,” she said. “It was a bit overwhelming.”

At that concert, the local wardrobe staff helped set up brocade fabric-draped rooms for the band members, including a “meet and greet” area for the band called “Rattlesnake Inn,” set up like an 1800s ghost-town saloon with skeletons, snakes and feather boas. McDonald helped bring in boxes, hang fabric and arrange furniture to create half a dozen other ornate dressing and meeting rooms backstage at Seattle’s Qwest field. She never saw any of the band members up close.

“The finished product, the concert, is always spectacular,” she said. “But it’s just mind-blowing to think about the people and energy it takes to get it all done. There were 200 people working 18-hour shifts to make the Stones concert happen.”

Her work varies with each concert. Some bands bring their own personal wardrobe staff, leaving local workers like McDonald to unpack costumes, do laundry and repair torn clothes. At other times, she interacts closely with the artists.

“Some of the work doesn’t sound very glamorous, and it’s not,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t even meet the band — you’re just there to do a job. But when they walk onstage, I know that I was a small part of making it happen.