Now Appearing…

Original photo: Elizabeth Serena Bentley

March was a busy month. A major project kicked into high gear at my day job, I’d just come off a production, and there was a lighting design gig on deck for a mid-month opening. That was New Hartford High School’s Chicago, which consumed more than 80 hours before I realized I had to let it be. It was worth it – those hours rank among the most satisfying of my career; as Bob Dylan said after he recorded Like a Rolling Stone, “I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight.” My Chicago lighting didn’t fail; it was straight. But that’s not what this story is about.

Early in the month, I’d also booked another lighting/production job at the Stanley Theater, my professional spirit home. The show was called The Power of Love, a musical presentation of the Gospel message, scheduled for March 26, Holy Saturday. The job attracted me because it would be difficult to pull off – full lighting/sound/projection setup, afternoon rehearsal, early evening performance. In and out just one day, lots of moving pieces. Then it got complicated.

On March 9th I received a text message from the show’s director, which I’ll paraphrase: “I have a special request. I’ve been led to include the song You’ll Never Walk Alone, to be sung by a male vocalist. NOT ironically your name came up this early morn and I felt a sense of peace, so ponder this request.” Of course, I was flattered. For all the shows I’ve worked at the Stanley, I never thought I’d sing on that stage. (I have a pretty good sense of my talent and limitations – fair tone, reasonably accurate, only moderately interesting. Phrasing has come a long way over the years.)

Then I panicked. I can’t sing in a show I’m running! OK, I did it once, years ago, in a cabaret we produced at Spring Farm CARES. In that show, we made a joke out of the idea that I was running lights from the stage (complete with extension cords) while appearing in the show. Still, there’s a difference in scale: Spring Farm’s Kigercat Memorial Hall seated around 100, compared to the Stanley’s 2,963. Not to mention the union crew at the Stanley, for which I’d be responsible. So I made a wise decision and reached out to a friend who’s a MUCH better singer; happily, he agreed to sing the number. I felt better, and returned my focus to Chicago. Not only had I removed some burden from my shoulders, I’d done the right thing for the show – I thought the director would be pleased.

This was her response, paraphrased again: “Hi Chris – I have my answer to your suggestion. I’m sure [your vocalist] can sing this well – that being said, this time it’s you who is being asked. I know in my bones this is the right decision. You only need to accept the invitation.” Now, I should mention the director had never heard me sing. We’d worked together for the first time just a month before, on the show I’d just finished at the top of this piece. I was stuck – I couldn’t figure out how to refuse again. From that point on, my bowels weren’t solid until The Power of Love wrapped.

I had a recording to practice with, but I didn’t like the tempo, or the idea of making my Stanley debut with what was essentially high-fidelity karaoke. I asked my longtime musical church partner if she’d play for me – we practiced once, the day before. I bought a suit (I previously owned just one, which didn’t fit at the moment.) Saturday arrived, day of setup, rehearsal and show. It was on.

Later, I wrote the following to members of the stagehands union, a group I’ve sometimes criticized. “I wanted to express my appreciation for the work performed by ITEA stagehands on the March 26 show. Preparing for the show, we knew the schedule was very tight…The crew was instrumental in the success of the production – ensuring not only that the show went up professionally, but also keeping what might have been a stressful day low key and pleasant.” There was plenty of work, but none of it was frenzied. The rehearsal happened on schedule and we didn’t have to hold the house.

So how was my song? The short answer is, it was fine. I was part of a program with better vocalists, and if my number didn’t bring the audience to its feet, it wasn’t an embarrassment. I’d arranged for Sarah to run the lighting board after intermission, and I headed backstage. While I was there, Carol, one of the crew, asked, “Is that a new suit?” Yes. “You forgot to snip all of the threads – who has a scissors?” Two minutes before my debut appearance at the Stanley, I was saved that bit of humiliation by a good and honest stagehand.

On cue, I stepped onto the historic Stanley stage. Butterflies rose up (thankfully not in proportion to the number of seats in the house.) I could do this. I’d taped a few cheats to my handheld microphone – keywords for lines I tended to mix up. I never looked at them. The lights I’d designed blinded me, and I briefly thought, “I forgot to tell Sarah to run them at 60%.” Then I sung. I could hear the quaver, that bit of heartbeat that preoccupies nervous singers. It went away as I continued, and I didn’t crack at the climax. I thought I heard a chuckle as I finished, but Sarah assured me nobody had laughed. Like the best rollercoasters, I wanted to get back on as soon as the ride ended.

Here’s the thing: I know my Stanley debut wasn’t auspicious. Not failing had been my hope, so, mission accomplished. But indulge this concession to ego: I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many people who’ve designed and run a production they also appeared in, at the Stanley. Like other challenges faced and vanquished, the realm of the possible was larger once the event had passed.

Heartfelt thanks to Jovita, Joe, Carol, Irena, Rusty, and Sarah for making it happen.