This is a companion piece to yesterday’s post about my high school English teacher, Mr. Wilson (which may—or may not—be his real name). This piece concerns something that happened in high school that changed my life. It’s one of those moments when you turn onto a new road that ends up becoming a permanent part of your path. As we say these days, it rebooted my life.
The road turn took place in 1970, but the first real seed was planted the year before. It was my first year of high school, and I went to see a play, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, put on by the high school. The play was staged in the school’s auditorium, a 1000-seat genuine theatre complete with fly galleries, lighting positions and a booth at the back for projectors and the main spotlight.
It was the first time I’d seen a live play or a theatre like that. Eventually, I would come to know every nook and cranny of the place, but at the time it was new and very interesting. The play itself passed over me like water over a riverbed. I was born with a severe hearing deficit, so things like plays have always been slightly out of reach for me (as has been much else in life: human conversation, movies, teachers and, now, many internet videos). But I was fascinated by the production of it all. The lighting, especially, commanded my attention.
There is a story of my childhood, told often by my dad. He had taken me to the circus for the first time. One of the main events was an exciting and, of course, daring trapeze act. As the audience cheered and applauded wildly, my dad turned to me and asked what I thought. “Look, dad,” I replied, “27 spotlights!” I’d missed the entire act, but, man, I’d nailed those spotlights!
My ability to confound my bemused father is cited in another family tale: He’d taken me to the Guggenheim Museum, famous for its long spiral lined with art works. We’d come to one painting, a nude, which I studied intently for a long time.
My dad began to fear what his young son was about to blurt out regarding the unclothed female body (it would be years before he had “the talk” with me). “Look, dad,” I finally said, “It’s all made of triangles!” He looked closer, and sure enough.
I was such a geek.
More to the point, I was a visual geek. The sounds of the world didn’t communicate nearly as much as its sights. My parents have described how, even as a very small child, riding in a car at night I was enthralled by the passing lights. The word “light” was the second word I learned (the first was “star,” specifically, the lit one atop the Christmas tree).
So now it’s 1970. It’s the beginning of the new high school year, my sophomore year, and I’m picking my class schedule for the year. Most of the periods are filled by the classes I’m required to take: history, civics, math and so forth. I have the latitude to order them as desired, so long as I cover the requirements. That still leaves room for a couple electives.
Being über-geek, one of those was easily filled: drafting class, of course! But that left my third period open, and none of the electives available really spoke to me. I had to find something, so after careful reading of the short paragraph descriptions, I settled on a class called Stagecraft. This is the decision, casually made, that would put me on an entirely new road.
I picked Stagecraft, because the description made it sound like carpentry might be involved. I had worked with my dad on shelves, desks and dog houses, so I had some basic skills in that area. It was the closest thing I could find that seemed interesting. I also had a memory of the play I’d seen the year before, and thought it might be cool to know more about that sort of thing.
Now it’s the first day of class, which is held in the auditorium. We students are sitting scattered in the first couple rows of seats. I had never been in an empty auditorium; it was a bit weird. Our teacher, we’ll call him “Jack,” walks in and gives us an introduction to himself and the class. And then he asks a question, “Does anyone here have any experience with electrical stuff?” I was the only one who raised a hand. Jack turns to me and says, “Okay, you’re the new lighting guy.”
(Wait, what? Huh?! I’m the who now??)
What followed turned out to be one of the great years of my life. I not only learned theatre lighting; I learned I had an artist inside me, a sibling for my über-geek. As I am prone to with new material, I threw myself into learning all I could. I was, indeed, the lighting guy. I lit every play done that year, every high school choir performance, a fashion show and several talent shows. I learned to do things they had never seen before; I hung lights in places no one had thought to try (you could tell: no clamp marks on the pipes).
This was in Los Angeles, a place that takes performance and entertainment very seriously. Our drama teacher was a former stage actor and director who wanted to break into the movies (as, quite literally, everyone in L.A. does). Our drama group was as professional as high school theatre can be (looking back, it makes me smile how seriously we took ourselves). Each year ended with an “Oscars” show (more accurately a “Tonys,” but people sometimes look at you blankly when you say that).
I won the award for Best Technical that year. I had to leave my position at the light board backstage to walk out on stage and accept the award.
Which was handed to me by actress Cloris Leachman!
Yes, you read that right. The intended subject of this article was meant to be another English teacher who was significant in my life. But my weirdly winding ways took me down another path once I began writing. I’ll write about her another time, but for now what’s important is that she was a former child actress who was friends with Cloris Leachman. That is how we were able to get the entire cast of the Mary Tyler Moore show (except for Mary) to present the awards (at that time, the show had just finished its first season).
My dad has a fond story about how Ed Asner mispronounced a name off the cue cards, and how, when he heard the audience react, his face dropped, and he said, “Did I let ya down, Rose?” (It was Rose’s last name he’d mispronounced.) When my dad tells that story, he always tries to do it in what he imagines is an Ed Asner voice. And because of the character Mr. Asner showed that night, we always loved Lou Grant in our house!
The best part was that, since I was running the lighting backstage, I got a chance to chat with the cast members. And quite a few years later I got a chance to meet the missing Mary during my brief stint as a backstage door guard (I’m sorry, but your name isn’t on The List). But that’s a tale from my college years, and we’re not there yet.
To say that entering the theatre world—and the arts world in general—rebooted my life is appropriate, as is the “2.0” reference in the title. The latter, of course, referring to an even stronger sense of something “new.” In fact, “rebooted” has come to have the same sense of “new” when referring to something other than a mere computer. Spiderman, for example, was recently rebooted. Both concepts, rebooted and 2.0, apply to even more important road I turned onto eight years later.
But that’s a story for another time.