Coop Goes to High School Part 5 – Behind the Lights

Stage LightsThe story picks up in November 1970 almost halfway through three years of high school, still recovering from having jilted my first girlfriend (and being too shy to even face her after that), and Smokey Robinson part of my current Greek chorus on the AM radio with his “Tears of a Clown”…

Now if there’s a smile on my face
It’s only there trying to fool the public
But when it comes down to fooling you
Now honey that’s quite a different subject
But don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression

It reminded me that the persona I was putting out in the world was still mostly smoke and mirrors as well. That admitted, my Junior Light Opera youth theater group was opening up a new world of possibilities for me to define myself as a talented technician rather than just a lovelorn loser.

Just a quick note before we get into this segment… I’ve changed all the names of my friends to protect their privacy.

Michael asked me if I would design lights for JLO’s December show, The Innocents, a theatrical adaptation of Henry James’ classic gothic novel The Turn of the Screw, about a young boy haunted by ghosts of a troubled past. I of course agreed, and was doubly excited because the show was being staged in the Little Theater (rather than the big auditorium) which as a much smaller stage allowed for more flexibility and possibility for the dramatic lighting effects that such a gothic ghost story really demanded. Michael was directing this show himself, and his two female leads were sisters and schoolmates of mine Priscilla and Kate, who had both been in the cast of Peter Pan. The play was a showcase for their acting skill, as their characters verbally sparred on stage over what to do with the troubled young boy at the center of the story.

Little did I know at the time that for the next 20 months of my life I was going to be involved one way or the other in some 24 theatrical productions, mostly JLO, working on as many as four at the same time.

As the lighting designer, I was collaborating with a very nerdy technically talented young woman, Alice, a senior at my high school, who I had first worked with on Peter Pan. She had been the Key Grip, in charge of arranging the set pieces for each scene, and was the scenic designer for The Innocents, designing a suitably dark and gothic set for the show. She and I needed to work closely because some of the ghost appearances in the show required special effects involving both the set and the lighting. She had to create a section of the back wall of the set that was covered with a painted translucent scrim rather than the normal painted opaque canvass. When light was shined on the front with darkness behind it, it looked like a regular section of wall. But when the area immediately behind the scrim was lit and someone stood in that area they looked like a ghost emerging from the wall.

This my second show with the company, and given a rigorous rehearsal and other work schedules, I was developing strong working and social relationships with my peers in the show’s cast, crew and production staff. Rehearsals were six days a week. Besides doing my lighting work I also was part of the construction crew with maybe nine other kids, some my age but some several years younger, still in junior high. The set construction was led by Alice, who gave me my first opportunity to apply many of the stage carpentry skills I had learned in my stagecraft classes the previous year, along with teaching me some additional carpentry and set design skills, the latter I would soon be employing. Working together for hours at a time building a stage set is a great opportunity to talk about anything and everything and really get to know your work buddies. For me that included becoming friends with Maggie, who was a senior at my school, and one of company’s key youth leadership staff, listed on several programs as JLO’s “President”. She had managed all the numerous costumes and costume changes for Peter Pan, and was doing the same in this show. Also Henry, my age and a sophomore at the other local high school, a talented and charismatic actor (when not building sets), and the sort of extrovert (unlike me) that could bring any room full of people to life, a talent that envied and I admired.

Performances of The Innocents were in early December and all the elements of the show came together nicely. It was particularly exciting to have the local Ann Arbor News theater critic come to our show and write a positive review, including mentioning my name in regards to the lighting design and effects.

As with most youth theater groups that I have encountered, there was a preponderance of female members, particularly among the older youth. These were mostly talented, self-possessed and charismatic young women, quite a compelling cohort for a shy heterosexual male like me to collaborate and generally hang out with. The backstage areas during dress rehearsals and performances were often tight, dark and intimate, with actors sometimes half-naked making hasty costume changes assisted by crew members. Though I was not part of the costume crew officially, I was right there in the tight spaces just off stage pulling light dimmers to execute lighting cues, and would occasionally get called upon to assist with a particular costume change. Imagine the thrill for a shy but libidinal 15-year-old male helping a female peer unbutton the back of her dress as she quickly wriggles out of it. Then less than a foot in front of me in just her underwear quickly climbing into her next costume and then signaling me to help her button it up. All this while maybe sharing a whispered comment or joke even, and a hushed “Thanks Coop!” at the end, as we all learned to depend on and be there for each other.

Even before performances of The Innocents began, I was already hooked into two more upcoming productions. First my high school choir’s musical production of Guys and Dolls in late January, closely followed by JLO’s children’s musical theater production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs double billed with an operatic version of Hansel and Gretel. Michael had translated the latter from a German operetta of the original Grimm’s fairy tale, and Kate had written a stage adaptation of the Grimm’s Snow White story, with 14-year-old Henry set to direct both shows. I was slated to design lights for the former and both set and lights for the latter, having already apprenticed in set design with my peer Alice, and I was now becoming part of the company’s youth leadership circle as one of the key technical staff.

My high school classes of course went on during all this, but as I got drawn deeper into my theater work, attending classes and particularly doing the requisite academic work after class became more and more problematic, a chore and a distraction rather than an engaging line of study. During breaks in rehearsals or work sessions, I’d much rather hang out with my thespian comrades than slink off to some quiet spot and get my homework done. And generally not getting home from those rehearsals and work sessions until well into the evening on those school nights, it was hard to even focus on school work then after a long generally ten or eleven hour day.

Relative to these intense creative endeavors and close encounters with my fellow theater comrades, regular high school seemed so muggle and such a thin broth. Classes were mostly listening or responding semi-formally to teachers a generation older than me and feeling way more like parents than peers. Though there was the occasional collaborative lab work or group assignment, there was not the same shared passion or opportunity to really develop relationships. And for shy me the social scene between classes and during lunch and breaks was mostly too pressurized, too many kids that I didn’t really know, and was therefore uncomfortable with. Actually as the year went on I would spend more of my lunch and break time in the backstage area of the theater, where I might have a chance encounter with Michael or one of my JLO comrades.

Though Michael was emerging as a compelling mentor for my life and development outside my family life, my mom’s best friend Mary Jane continued (along with my mom herself) to be another mentor within my extended family circle, sharing with me her radically unconventional take on our society. Woven into her feminist critique were the ideas of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who was a good friend of hers. In line with my own experience of my school classes shared in the previous two paragraphs, McLuhan said in his 1969 interview in Playboy magazine, that regarding the conventional school environment, the young person today…

Finds it difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electronic media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns… His natural instinct, conditioned by the electronic media, is to bring all his senses to bear on the book he’s instructed to read, and print resolutely rejects that approach, demanding an isolated visual attitude to learning rather than the Gestalt approach of the unified sensorium… They want nothing to do with our fragmented and specialist consumer society. Living in the transitional identity vacuum between two great antithetical cultures, they are desperately trying to discover themselves and fashion a mode of existence attuned to their new values; thus the stress on developing an “alternate life style.” We can see the results of this retribalization process whenever we look at any of our youth — not just at hippies.

During our previous summer in England my mom had met an Italian man, Massimo, at a “Son et Lumiere” (French for “sound and light”) show when we visited Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born and raised. Massimo was a fellow artist, and they had hit it off so much that they continued to correspond, and he had invited my mom to fly to Switzerland over Christmas to meet him, all at his expense (since she didn’t have that kind of money), which she agreed to do. So she arranged for my brother Peter and I to spend the entire winter break at our Dad’s down in Xenia Ohio.

It was a very introspective two-week sojourn for me, fresh off my intense experience with the JLO group and still a bit raw and unnerved from my romantic debacle, jilting my girlfriend Judy by passionately kissing her friend Caroline at Judy’s party that previous fall. This being a longer trip than our typical short weekend, we brought more with us, including a stack of our favorite record albums, including our usual Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, plus the new rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, which my mom, seeing how much I had enjoyed seeing the rock musical Hair, had gotten me for a Christmas present.

I had never been religious, and neither had my parents. I was essentially an atheist, though not so bold quite yet to define myself as such. I had only been inside a church a couple times in my life for a wedding of one of my parents’ friends. In the progressive, secular humanist university community I grew up in, religion was not a subject discussed very much, except perhaps in a historical or other academic context, rather than a religious one. So I had never really read The Bible, and was actually intimidated by the very august book whenever I encountered a copy, always reminding me that I as a non-believer might be headed for hell at the end of my life.

So listening repeatedly to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was my first exposure to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, with all its political context of Roman rule, Jewish religious hierarchy, and more secular revolutionaries of the period, trying to leverage Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities. It resonated with me as history, as politics, and since I was a budding thespian, as a compelling theater piece. Also from a McLuhanesque point of view, looking at media’s impact spreading ideas through world. Judas Iscariot sings in his soliloquy “Superstar” at the end of the story…

Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of your hand
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication

I continued to find in music lyrics the most profound comments about our culture and all of life’s issues. Particularly in the lyrics of Paul Simon, the introspective world his songs inhabited seemed so much like my own. Still today, whenever I hear songs off Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends or Bridge Over Troubled Waters albums, I see myself sitting in the bedroom of my dad’s tiny apartment in Xenia, on his bed, just a mattress on the floor, listening to those records looking out the bedroom window down to the snowy backyard and field across the way, feeling cloistered and pondering the troubled waters of my own development. From my favorite song on Bookends, “Hazy Shade of Winter”…

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around
For my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around, leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

Maybe there was some solace for me that Paul Simon, fourteen years older than I and infinitely more accomplished, seemed to struggle with similar kinds of issues. These issues were not my unique curse, but everyone’s, and we all needed to find a path forward, it was the human narrative.

So back home in Ann Arbor after New Years, my mom returned from her tryst with Massimo in the Alps, and inevitably back in school, I continued to gravitate to the stage as my emerging path forward and distraction from the routine routine of school. My stagecraft classmate and Peter Pan lighting crew comrade Natasha, who I was starting to develop a serious secret crush on (heaven forbid I should ever openly indicate I was interested in someone), was recruited to be stage manager for Guys and Dolls. Since I was running the lights, that meant that she and I were in close collaboration during technical rehearsals, dress rehearsals, and performances. We became good buddies though of course my romantic feelings for her remained secret. For Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, which had its performances just one week after, I was the overall technical director this time, with Natasha and Alice assisting me, Maggie running the costumes again, and Henry directing the show.

With a kid younger than I directing the show, truly a sight to be seen, again it at times felt like I had entered that alternate universe where adults were no longer the governing elite, an idea in its way more radical than the feminism my mom’s friend Mary Jane was espousing. I was in fact becoming much more comfortable in this alternate universe than I was in the conventional one where adults still ruled.

That said, to be honest there were various parents of JLO company members lurking in the background helping kids sew costumes, transporting kids to and from rehearsals, serving on the adult board of directors of the company, or lending a hand in some other way, but most of them rarely if ever seen. And Sue (a school music teacher and single mom with a bunch of kids most of whom were involved in the company) was JLO’s musical director, recruiting, rehearsing and conducting the youth orchestra for most of our big musicals. These were parents who were comfortable with a more egalitarian approach to parenting, that they did not need to “supervise” us in any conventional sense, but simply help provide us this enriched environment and lend us assistance where we really needed it. And of course JLO’s founder and director Michael, who seemed at times more like a capricious deity than a conventional adult, floating above the fray, injecting himself only occasionally as needed into the mortal realm.

I recall it was around the end of the children’s shows that I was given my next big opportunity to take another developmental leap. I would occasionally accompany Michael and maybe one or two other of the JLO youth leadership circle on a Saturday or Sunday drive to the Tobin Lakes Studio facility an hour’s drive from Ann Arbor where we would buy various supplies for our theater productions, including canvass for scenery “flats”, stage makeup, some costume accessories, colored gels for lights, and the occasional new lighting instrument. During the drive we would brainstorm, including ideas for shows to do. On one such trip I shared with him that I thought that William Golding’s dystopian (though I use that word now I don’t think I knew it back then) classic Lord of the Flies would make for a great and provocative stage play. It was filled with passionate young characters, lots of swearing and violence, and some deeply disturbing and thought-provoking underlying themes.

He pondered my idea for a bit as he drove. Michael loved being provocative, to a fault at times. I think he immediately grasped the potential of this novel to be a compelling and controversial theater piece. One big obstacle at least… someone had to adapt it to the stage. He had done such adaptations previously, but it would be a big project and he had a lot already on his plate. Like any good mentor, Michael never underestimated the opportunities for and capabilities of his proteges, and he suggested to me that I (as my comrade Kate had recently done) should do the adaptation.

It was my turn to ponder for quite a while as we continued to drive. My right-brained multi-threading mind initially had two powerful parallel thoughts. One was of me as the successful playwright getting accolades from my peers and the larger community for my great work. The other was of me utterly failing to deliver a usable script and having to fully acknowledge what I always feared, my inability to do anything really significant, and let down everyone else in the process. But on that day there were no tears from this clown! I told Michael that I would start right in on the project. My smoke and mirrors were intact, for the moment at least until I had to deliver an actual script.

As I recall, from mid February through the end of March I worked on adapting Lord of the Flies to the stage. In great timing, my mom, always intuitively tuned to what might enrich her sons’ lives, had researched and purchased a relatively inexpensive portable electric typewriter branded and sold by JCPenny. It probably weighed twenty pounds but was luggable locked into its modernistic metal case with rounded corners looking like a small piece of the crushproof American Tourister luggage that was popular at the time. I had access to it most of the time and would lug it into my bedroom and set it up at my desk. When plugged in and turned on it would give an initial shudder and then continue to whir fiercely though not too loudly and I loved the little beast from that first time I fired it up.

Though I was hopeless using a manual typewriter, and never could have even written one page of a script, it was no picnic for me even using the electric version. It was one thing to have written something longhand and then pound out a typed version of that handwritten draft. That’s how I started writing my adaptation, paperback version of the book pried open in my right hand while the left scrawled words on sheets of loose leaf paper, handwritten sheets then typed. I quickly realized that this was going to take forever and even if I had forever I would not have the patience for it, and I was going to have to compose directly on the typewriter, which presented a different set of problems.

If you are not old enough to have had the experience of using the ancient device known as a typewriter, it is a maddeningly linear machine for a non-linear mind like mine to try and compose paragraphs and even sentences on, and unlike the more expensive IBM Selectrics, there was no special gizmo key to backspace and erase a mistyped letter or word. (As a writer now I daily bless the high-tech goddess that inspired the invention of the personal computer and word-processing software.) But still going to school, still in rehearsals after school most afternoons and weekends, still on the hook for homework (as if), I managed to find and devote the 100 plus hours I needed to pound out a 24 page single-spaced script.

I quickly saw some of the challenges trying to take a novel and rework it into a stage play. A play generally does not have narration, so everything needs to be expressed as dialog or action or possibly in the actual stage setting and lighting. A novel generally has way more “scenes” than a play can realistically have, so at a minimum you have to prune the scenes in the novel to the key ones, including maybe moving crucial dialog from a pruned scene to one that you are keeping in. Also generally you don’t have a scene in a play with just a couple lines of dialog, so any bits like that in a novel either need to be excluded or worked into the dialog in another included scene. Those were just some basic issues, there were a bunch of others!

For example, the language used. These were British school boys in the book. I decided to write my script as if these were American kids, so British slang would have to be changed into the corresponding American slang. That was of course doable, but then you run into the issues of the swearing. The phrase “Bollocks to the rules”, used several times in the book’s dialog, was a particular challenge. “Bollocks” is an old Anglo-Saxon word for testicles, and is used in contemporary English slang to mean nonsense or to otherwise demean the object of the sentence. What would an American kid say in the same situation? After some pondering, the two Americanized phrases I came up with were “screw the rules” and “fuck the rules”. Profanity being pretty heady stuff for a fifteen year old unleashed to write what he wanted, I decided to go with the later of the two phrases, salted my script with the “F-word”, and Michael, after reading my script, supported me on this approach.

Michael, now just thirty, was in key ways more a grown up kid than a full fledged adult, closer in his thinking to us still under the age of majority than the generation of our parents and most of the other teachers at our high school. He had been a professional child and youth actor himself, but my recollection is that he had had a difficult time with it, and he was very supportive of the rights of young people to have their artistic freedom to speak their minds. As he wrote in the program for Sound of Music under the heading “JLO – At this point”…

JLO’s great success lies in the fact that it makes first-rate performance opportunities readily and continually available to our most talented youth. It gives them a chance to create in the freedom that any artist must have to be successful, and it protects them from the pettiness and inadequacies that plague artists in the school system.

If I was willing to invest the 100 plus hours writing the Lord of the Flies script, Michael was going to trust me, and back me, in my artistic decisions on word usage in the dialog, including expletives. And not that he would have done any different if he had done the adaptation. My passion to be gritty, profane and provocative was his as well.

While I was working on my script, the company was already in rehearsal for a stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which we were staging along with a short “curtain riser”, an adaptation by Michael of Ray Bradbury’s short story Invisible Boy, to be staged in our school’s Little Theater. Both pieces were directed by my classmate Priscilla, who I quickly saw had the gravitas (more than I at the time) to wear the director’s hat staging the scenes and coaching the actors with their parts. This time Alice was back to being the technical director and designing the set. I was now mentoring a younger kid in the company who did the lighting design and ran lights for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I designed and ran lights for Invisible Boy, which was a very intimate piece with just two characters, an old woman and a young boy, and the timing and flow of the light cues were crucial to help create the intended tone. That was an interesting experience for me, at the light board just off stage no more than twenty feet at most from the two actors. In a bigger show there would be a stage manager acting as the intermediary, cuing actors, sound, lights, set changes, etc. But this piece was so small and intimate with no set changes or sound cues, just the two actors, and I off stage, all three of us having to stay carefully in sync with each other or the show might lose its charming moody spell.

It is hard to do justice in a written piece like this, with its linear narrative, to the experience I had of so many things happening at the same time. Through March and into April JLO was well into rehearsals for our late April musical, The Sound of Music, which I was designing lights and helping build the set for. I was finishing my adaptation of Lord of the Flies. I had completed drivers ed in January, had gotten my permit and was practicing driving with my mom, who was pretty good about it, except that she sometimes felt I did not start braking quite soon enough, so that would freak her out at times. Plus I was hanging out at my mom’s parties and other extended “family” gatherings listening to my mom, her friend Mary Jane and my other “Feminist Aunts” share their thoughts and wisdom and debate the many compelling issues of the day.

I was still going to school each weekday morning but I was not getting my homework done and was often distracted in class, thinking about the script I was writing. This was particularly problematic in my Math Analysis class where I had previously been able when asked to go up to the chalkboard and scrawl out one of the assigned proofs. My maniacal math teacher was clearly disappointed that my interest in and work for the class had obviously deteriorated. She was an intimidating older woman, and I was too shy, plus not having enough of a relationship with her to pull her aside and explain to her about my whole deep dive into theater.

Also at the beginning of April was spring break, and mostly lost in the three ring circus of my life this school year was a yearlong plan, hatched at the end of my previous school year, for me to go to the Soviet Union for a week over break with other members of my high school Russian club. Ironically I had not been able to take Russian this year, because of a scheduling conflict with another required class, but I had participated in the club, and my mom and dad had both chipped in for me to go, with part of the cost I recall subsidized by some sort of government agency. This was 1971 and detente with the Russians was underway, to culminate a year later with the SALT I treaty.

So with the last day of school before spring break, in the midst of all these plays I was working on, plus just getting my drivers license, here I was meeting my Russian teacher, another adult chaperone I recall, and about fifteen other high school student members of the Russian club, at Detroit airport where we boarded the first of five planes that would some 18 hours later take us to our final destination of Leningrad (today renamed back to its older name of St. Petersburg). American Airlines to New York City. Sabina to Brussels Belgium. LOT to Warsaw Poland. Aeroflot to Moscow and then a separate flight to Leningrad.

Key members of the ongoing Greek chorus of my life, The Beatles’ homage/lampoon of the Beach Boys, “Back in the USSR”, kept running through my head…

Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it’s good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey disconnect the phone
I’m back in the USSR
You don’t know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the US
Back in the US
Back in the USSR

The subtlly ironic play on the acronyms in the last two lines not lost on me.

I recall our hotel was near the Neva River and the Nevsky Prospekt (the main drag) in the older part of the city with many of the historic buildings and other locations. More so than Moscow (over 400 miles to the southwest), Leningrad and its previous incarnations as St. Petersburg and briefly Petrograd was the westernmost city of old Russia, its “cultural capital” and the site of most of Modern Russian history. The three days we were there we saw some of the historical sites including the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum) and the Admiralty, took a boat tour up the Neva, and even journeyed outside of town to an old Imperial summer residence. We also had a couple afternoons to go out exploring the city streets on our own (with buddies from our group).

What struck me most about the cityscape was that all the old historic buildings along the Neva were basically painted one of four pastel colors – blue, pink, yellow or green – giving the feeling, particularly on the river tour on a sunny spring day of being in some sort of giant theme park. What also struck me was that whenever we went out wandering the streets on our own without our adult chaperones, the only people that ever approached us would turn out to be part of the black market.

The encounters followed a pattern and were less ominous than they might seem. A thirty-something young man would walk up next to us as we were walking the sidewalk and invariably say something in English with a Russian accent and the conversation would go like this: “You Americans?”, and after we acknowledged, “America is a nice place…” followed by a few other thoughts about our country. After a minute or two of polite conversation they would ask us if we wanted to sell our blue jeans or exchange three Rubles for a dollar (the official exchange rate was one to one). We had been told to say no and we always did so, and our interloper would eventually wish us well and move on. We had previously learned that there were certain products available only in special stores that were not available to regular Russians, because those products could only be purchased with foreign currency in special stores.

From Leningrad we took a day-long train ride through the woods and forest of northwestern Russia to Moscow, and stayed in a hotel just across the Moscow River from Red Square and the Kremlin. Unlike Leningrad, Moscow really fit the stereotype of a Soviet city – gray, dirty and commercial – with everybody minding their own business and no black marketeers soliciting us. The people were shy in public but friendly and smiling when you engaged them with eye contact or asked for assistance.

Our three days in the Soviet capital were more scripted, touring Red Square with Lenin’s Tomb, St. Basil’s Church and the “Gum” (pronounced “goom” like “doom”, an acronym for “Glavny Universalny Magazin” or “Main Universal Store”). Waiting in line to see Lenin’s embalmed body under glass, we were invited to move to the front of the line because we were Americans. Touring the Kremlin, the seat of power and governance of the communist world, included seeing a variety show in a giant auditorium there, featuring singing choirs, folk and ballet dancing, even comedians, plus a very proud and pompous Mongolian general in full dress uniform sitting next to us in the front row of the auditorium clapping and laughing approvingly at the jokes, most of which we could not translate.

Unfortunately, having not been able to take Russian that year in school, my language skills were particularly rusty when I was there. Between that, having all my American comrades to talk to, and of course being shy, I never took any opportunities to try to have conversations with any of the random Russians we encountered. But particularly in the eyes, smiles, body language and overheard conversations of the people we encountered on the streets, buses and subways, we got a sense of a very different culture than our own, and yet an underlying commonality of human nature and the human experience.

After just a week, returning from a strange and very different place on the other side of the world, the whole thing seemed more like a dream than an actual waking experience. I did come back with a Soviet flag, red with its iconic gold hammer and sickle, but my mom and dad (the latter there for my return) vetoed displaying it by the front door of our house. I continued to be intrigued by this country – flagship of the “Second World” to our “First” – and its very different cultural origins, historical narrative, and present circumstances than our own, which would lead to more explorations in my senior year to come.

But for now I was about to plunge into new realms of my theater experience, drawn on stage and into the spotlight where I had more comfortably lurked in the shadows just off stage before.

Click here to read the next segment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *