Michael Harrah circa 1972About a month into the second semester of my eighth grade speech class (in 1968), our teacher Mrs. Powrie had a heart attack and sat out the rest of the year. She was an older woman who ran the class pretty old school with lectures punctuated by our occasional speeches or other presentations. Pretty standard stuff if I remember correctly, and I really don’t remember much of the content of her class. I do remember her though, because a couple months previous my friend Carl and I were throwing snowballs at cars and hit one that turned out to be hers. Her husband stopped, got out and chewed us out while she glared at us from the passenger seat. I was all bundled up in my snow gear so I’m not even sure she connected this vandal with the kid in her class.

Anyway, all that just sets the stage for her replacement, a thirty-something man named Michael who would turn out to be a significant player in the next ten years of my life and its current ongoing trajectory. Where Mrs. Powrie had us giving individual speeches, Michael immediately put us into groups of four or five and told each group to pick a scene from a play to perform.

Maybe at Michael’s encouragement, my group of five males decided to do a scene from the musical “West Side Story”, where Riff and his Jets gang buddies sing “Officer Krupke”, lampooning their juvenile delinquent milieu. Of the five in my group, I was the least willing to sing so they had me play Snowboy, who pretends to be officer Krupke (a non-singing part) while the others in the scene sing the parts of the JD kid and the three bureaucrats the system employs to try and straighten them out. We rehearsed for several weeks in class, with Michael playing piano for our rehearsals and eventual performance in an assembly in front of several hundred of our fellow students.

We delivered our lines and sang our parts pretty well, with approving laughs and applause from the audience. It was the first time I had ever done something like this in front of more then a couple people. I did not realize it immediately, but it had planted a seed in me for theater.

Two years later in my first year of high school, I decided to take a Stagecraft class as an elective. The teacher turned out to be… can you guess? Michael. We learned about designing and building sets for plays, designing and setting lights and stage managing. Part of the class included participating in the stage crew for two student plays being done that year – “A Thurber Carnival” and “The Imaginary Invalid”. I remember in the former we had built a set that featured a row of three rotating panel frames across the back of the stage. Removable panels could be hung on each side, one facing the audience and the other facing back stage so it could be changed for another and then rotated into position between scenes to provide the new backdrop.

Back there in the dark, with several of my fellow students, male and female, wrestling with those four by eight panels, building the camaraderie of a “crew”, was an experience like nothing else I had had before. For me, getting to work in close quarters with a couple of my female classmates who I would be way to shy to even say hello to in the halls was particularly thrilling.

By the time we got to second semester, Michael asked me if I would like to design the lighting for “The Imaginary Invalid. This involved coming up with a paper plan showing each lighting instrument and what area of the stage it would cover (see “Designing Lights”). Then actually setting up and using scaffolding and ladders to get up to the ceiling of the small theater we were using to hang and position the lights. Next I was working with the director to identify all the lighting “cues” throughout the course of the play, including scene changes and the sort. Finally I was working from the lighting booth during tech and dress rehearsals and performances to pull the dimmer levers to execute those cues.

Now a key player in the technical backstage effort to put on a theatrical performance, I was no longer a shy kid with barely a shred of self-esteem. I would go on to join Michael’s youth theater group, “Junior Light Opera”, at his invitation and design lights and sets for several plays before being coaxed from backstage to actually being onstage performing.

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