Perchedon a lavishly decorated stage, dressed and made up as a young boy, is Ashlyn Brown.
She loves the feel of her costume. She even loves the discomfort of binder she has to wear to don the guise of a young man and the smell of her makeup. She relishes the attention of the audience, captivated by the story she’s so lucky to be a part of, a production of "Hansel and Gretel."
“It’s actually magic, looking out into the audience and seeing them looking back at you, wanting to know what happens next,” she said.
Brown, 21, is an IU senior who studies and performs opera through the Jacobs School of Music. And when she’s not performing in roles or stage choruses, she’s working on behind-the-scenes set construction and demolition as part of the stage crew.
Hannah Davis, an assistant supervisor on the stage crew, said it’s uncommon for a performer to work on the stage crew, especially on top of performance preparation and classes. But Brown allows her stress to fuel her work rather than hinder her, Davis said.
“Building sets is physically demanding, but Ashlyn never backs down from challenging tasks,” she said. “The fact that she has worked on our crew for her entire undergraduate career speaks to her work ethic and her interest in the many realms of theater.”
Brown’s introduction to music came from her parents, a pair of jingle writers. They’ve written catchy tunes for everything from frozen yogurt stores to heating and air conditioning businesses, she said.
“My whole life I’ve been singing with them, doing these short little 30-second clips, so I never thought I would be singing for four hours at once,” she said.
Brown grew up in Palm Springs, California. In her high school band, she played the oboe and was exposed to Mozart and Bizet. But the band performed entire overtures without vocal accompaniment. Brown, curious as to what the overtures sounded like with vocals, started listening to them. There began her fascination with opera and voice performance.
At one point, Brown said, she considered going into musical theater but ultimately chose opera because she preferred its power and because her voice was better suited to it.
“There’s something so special about opera because no matter what you do it’s going to touch someone,” she said. “For me, it’s one of the most influential arts because music changes how we feel, and acting changes how we feel, too, and since everything in opera is super heightened, it’s like the purest form of each emotion.”
Brown started studying opera later than most. Many start as early as freshman year of high school, while Brown didn’t really start until midway through junior year. Her adviser helped her choose colleges to apply to, and ultimately she ended up at IU.
“I found some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my whole life here,” she said.
Brown has performed in four opera choruses for IU Opera Theater productions and had starring roles in two shows, including Hansel in “Hansel and Gretel.” She has also worked the stage crew for 10 productions, such as “Oklahoma” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Working the stage crew, though taxing and occasionally dangerous, is advantageous because it familiarizes Brown with the sets she helps construct. It’s also rewarding because the achievements are more concrete, Brown said.
“Not only have I put my blood, sweat and tears into this, but you can see what I’ve actually done,” she said.
Sometimes, the blood, sweat and tears can be more literal than wanted.
Once, during a safety demonstration, she preached the importance of watching where you’re going. Moments later, she stepped wrong and fell on a bolt that drove itself a quarter of an inch into her leg.
On another fateful day, Brown said she and other stage crew members had to move a heavy piece of equipment when it toppled in her direction, nearly crushing her.
“If I hadn’t tucked and rolled, I would actually be pudding now,” she said.
Somehow, she said, performance mistakes are still worse than behind-the-scenes mistakes, even the physically harmful or life-endangering ones.
Thinking about the possibility of onstage screw ups makes her skin crawl, she said. She could miss a scene, fall into the pit, forget or miss a line or a variety of other blunders so severe the show couldn’t continue.
“I would rather die than humiliate myself,” she said.
Though some fear is caused by avoiding embarrassment, it also stems from a duty she feels to the other performers and to the community she belongs to.
Sometimes, the music school still feels like a dream. She doesn’t know where she would be without it, and she can’t get enough. Sometimes, after a show ends, she stays well into the next morning deconstructing sets.
“I never thought that I would make it here,” she said. “I just came from this small pond way out in the middle of the desert and dove right into this huge school, and somehow things are working out.”