A Theatrical Romance

Susan and Chris, backstageTwenty-one years ago this summer, I met Susan. July 1994, Utica College. Jackie Jones was directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and they had lighting trouble. Peter Loftus was in the cast, and he called me. I walked in the auditorium, the place filled with people I knew and many others who would become friends in the years to come. Peter introduced me to their lighting designer: “Susan, have you met Chris?” She saw a guy with a buzz cut, bushy red beard, flannel shirt and dirty jeans. We might have spoken two sentences to each other. The lighting problem was easy – students had assembled the new instruments, paying no attention to the colors of the wires. Turn them on, blow the breaker. I was finished in an hour. Many years later, Susan told me her first impression was “Nice guy, can’t carry on a conversation.”

In September 1995 I provided lighting for The Goodbye Girl at Players of Utica. About a week after the show, my wife-at-the-time accosted me: “YOUR GIRLFRIEND CALLED – SHE LEFT A MESSAGE.” Girlfriend? This was on the recording: “Hi, this is a message for Chris. This is Susan Wight. You may not remember me, we met at Utica College. I just wanted to say that I saw The Goodbye Girl, and I was really impressed with the lighting. Great job.” “WHO THE HELL IS SUSAN WIGHT?” Well, I had no idea. But it was a nice message.

The following winter, I was hired to light the show Mame at Utica College. It was the first time I’d actually designed in the space. I was there by myself, and I ran into trouble – no matter how I patched the board or plugged the lights, I wasn’t seeing what I expected. I remembered I knew somebody who’d designed there before. I found her in the phone book dangling from the pay phone in the lobby. New Hartford address – not too far. Maybe she wouldn’t mind swinging by? So I called: “You may not remember me…” It was frigid out, something awful below zero. Not only did she set me straight, she stayed and helped me focus. I couldn’t find a ladder, so I put a wooden box on top of a wheeled A/V cart (kids, not a good idea) and she pushed me around the stage. She told me I talked non-stop, but she couldn’t hear what I was saying and just made affirmative noises every once in a while. We didn’t meet again for three months.

In April 1996, I did the lighting for A Chorus Line at Rome’s Capitol Theatre. For many reasons, this piece is special to me. It was the first production I’d seen on Broadway, back during high school. I consider it one of the finest local shows I’ve ever been part of (Randy Fields and Peter Loftus drilled a who’s-who of Central NY talent for months to get the dancing right.) Peter had asked Susan to be one of the followspot operators. This is when we became friends. During a show, the tech crew is connected via headsets. In this case, I told the followspots when to turn on, whom to follow, etc. Between cues, we chatted. Susan is the best followspot operator I’ve ever worked with. She opens in the right spot at the right size without having to correct, and she’s very good with a diffusion gel – a filter that makes the light’s edge indistinct, and twice as hard to keep on the performer. Following dancers, she moved the light smoothly and made the beam larger and smaller as they moved around the stage. And she could do beautiful fades. I’d hired a (Rome) union stagehand crew to help take down the equipment, but they spent most of the time sprawled in the seats. Susan stayed and helped, doing more than any of them.

In May 1996, Players of Utica produced Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, a play about a marriage falling apart (among other things). There were two directors – Santo LaPorte and Joe Karam. One of them hired me (I made $250, which explains why I eventually went out of business) and the other hired Susan (who made nothing, in keeping with tradition.) We both arrived to work the same day, each unaware the other would be there. We decided to collaborate. During the run of Broadway Bound, two marriages and an engagement ended, perhaps not inspired by Simon’s scenario, except his words played in the background for several hours every night as we worked on our individual dramas. Susan and I talked and talked. She worked with developmentally disabled adults, helping them to communicate and live fuller lives. I thought she was one of the kindest people I’d ever met.

On June 1, my soon-to-be-ex-wife made an announcement to those gathered at our son’s birthday party: “My husband is a homosexual, and he’s having an affair with Peter Loftus. I don’t want my children exposed to that, so I’m kicking him out.” Ah, Peter. He’d written me a brief thank-you note after one of our late nights on A Chorus Line; I’d kept it in my wallet, she’d gone looking. There had been no affairs, although I learned that many in the theater community thought I was sleeping with the woman in the other doomed marriage from Broadway Bound (it made sense). I left my house in shock, realized my wallet was completely empty when I tried to buy gas (no cash, no credit cards, no note). So I went to my new friend’s house: “Can I sleep on your couch for a few days?”

Susan had a history of taking people in, male and female. During that time, another person was staying with her as well. To my addled brain, it seemed like a good decision. And in the long term, it certainly was. In the short term, it was dynamite. But to me, the marriage had been defunct for years. All through that spring, the shaved-headed, red-bearded non-conversationalist began to emerge from a long bad dream. The moment I drove away I knew I couldn’t go back.

I found an apartment, started attending church again, and eventually asked Susan on a date. Hundreds of shows later, we’re still at it. Last night, I picked up our daughter from Players of Utica, where she was running sound for Blithe Spirit.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

(Special thanks to Players of Utica, whose play logs helped me reconstruct this narrative.)

Hear this piece in Podcast Episode #7

Personal History: Players of Utica (Part 1)
A Theatrical Romance
Personal History: Players of Utica (Part 2)
Personal History: Players of Utica (Part 3)