As the seasons transitioned from winter to spring in Middletown this year, we endured many days of robust and damaging winds blowing across the campus. Of course, even on a fairly normal day, the Delaware wind can threaten to knock down a small child! Any student will tell you that rounding the corner into the Field House can feel like entering a spinning vortex rather than simply walking to practice. As you might imagine, sometimes these winds cause power outages. Because there is no generator for Forbes Theatre, I often fear the possibility of losing power during a performance. Happily, over the past 25 years, there have only been three occasions when a loss of power delayed our curtain time or extended the length of intermission. The most memorable of these was in the fall of 2004. No storm or wind in sight, this outage caught us by complete surprise, extended throughout the region, and showed absolutely no sign of being quickly remedied.
Although over ten years ago, my memory of this night remains very clear. I was meeting with the cast backstage, moments before the second act of The Laramie Project was to begin. The lighting suddenly changed from the blue hue of the backstage running lights to a strange, dim yellow. I stopped talking – momentarily stunned to silence. When I went to investigate, I found that what had happened was not some strange, repairable anomaly; the entire school was in darkness, except for small safety lights. What to do? We either found a way to continue or we invited everyone back to watch Act Two the following afternoon. The second choice being a thought none of us really wanted to consider, we excitedly jumped at the chance to press on. I addressed the audience and called for students to retrieve flashlights from their rooms. On the advice of a performer's father (a photographer) we gathered sheets of white paper to aid in illuminating the actors' faces on stage. I sent one of the stage managers to find the school orchestra's concertmaster, an impressive student violinist. When found, I begged him to prepare the saddest song he knew because, without electricity we had no sound system and would lose the emotional power that only music can provide for the final moments of the show. Then to my wide-eyed surprise, science teacher Eric Kemer appeared with the largest "flashlight" I have ever seen in my life. I positioned myself at the edge of the stage and used it as a spotlight for the entire second act, my arms soon shaking from both the strain of bearing the object's weight and the increase of adrenaline in my system.
When we were ready, all was silent. I have never witnessed an audience or a cast more focused or more determined to be part of something so completely unexpected. The house filled with students and faculty from distant areas of the School, amazed that the show would indeed go on, their curiosity propelling them down the stairs and into the theatre (even though some had already seen the play the night before).
For the last moments of the production, I had designed a special lighting cue to spotlight the very center of the stage in order to symbolize Matthew Shepherd, the murdered youth for whom the story is told. Another lighting cue was to create the "twinkling lights" that fell over the town of Laramie, as described by one of the characters in the play. When the final scene arrived, I felt sad that this planned visual spectacle would be lost. But my cast surprised me. As notes from the live violin began to soar through the room, the actors made magic with their flashlights. Some pointed them down toward the vacant spot on the floor for Matthew; others tilted them up toward the backdrop, doing their best to make them sparkle. As I watched this happen, tears of amazement and appreciation filled my eyes. What started as an unexpected disaster, ended as a magical moment of triumph.
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. If so, then belief in possibility and the resilience to press forward are the soul of creativity. As Arts Weekend approaches this year, I feel the magic of creative possibility in the air. It is cultivated by hours of preparation, nurtured by an ever-deepening understanding of subject, and enhanced by a probing exploration of the world and of our human condition.
All of this is what made such incredible magic happen the night the lights went out in Forbes Theater. Every hour of rehearsal; every minute spent preparing the set, costumes, lights, and sound; every moment of investigation and discussion—together these prepared us for the unexpected events of that night. For me the strength of that memory will never fade because it exemplifies the power of creative collaboration and all that it can teach us.
To quote a theatrical master: "The readiness is all."
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