Adolescence happens, and it is a miracle any of us survive to adulthood. After a childhood filled with light (see earlier posts) both indoors and out, I began to encounter the opposite: darkness. At the same time I also took the “light as a toy” theory to heart and began manipulating human emotions with my new super-power. For me, adolescence was a roller coaster of darkness and lighting.
I grew up in an era when extra-curricular activities were considered extra, and I enjoyed plenty of free time until I entered Junior High and joined the incredible Drama Club of Mrs. Page. I had “acted” periodically as a younger child, playing small roles here and there when a child was needed, but acting on stage always intimidated me. During one performance of a play in which my older siblings were involved, flying monkeys came out to scare a kid in the audience. Since flying monkeys are truly terrifying, even when they are junior high kids dressed in costumes, I refused to be pulled out of my seat and taken onstage. My younger sister was braver than I.
As a young boy, I went on stage in South Pacific at our local high school. It was my first time on a “real” stage, but it would not be my last.
But I loved drama club none-the-less, and was a bit of a ham. That’s my grandfather’s term for individuals willing to do silly things for a laugh, and I confess I still suffer from these tendencies. If we’re ever together, ask me about the napkin tricks I picked up from my oldest sister and still do from time to time.
I also wanted to be special, and there is nothing like being the last person to come onstage at a curtain call. This spot is reserved for the biggest star, and I enjoyed this literal spotlight just a few times when I played Peter Pan, Charlie Brown, and Ebenezer Scrooge in junior high. The whole cast is clapping for you, the entire gymnasium is clapping for you, and the applause and cheers can feed a certain hunger in your soul. It is not, I believe, a hunger that can be satisfied by applause. But in the moment, it sure feels good.
The real fun of Drama Club was being a part of it all: the rehearsals, making posters, building sets, wearing costumes, and cracking jokes with your friends backstage. When a show was eminent, I willingly gave up Saturdays and Sunday afternoons to build and paint scenery and hang out with the other kids likewise inclined. This era is full of wonderful memories, like being able to go into the janitor’s room (!) to wash out paint brushes, exploring underneath the bleachers where we stored scenery, and getting to go into the teachers lounge to buy pop (soda) in glass bottles from an ancient machine. Even out of the spotlight, drama club made me feel special.
A particularly fun component for me was “setting up the lights.” We had a very small lighting system in our very small gymnasium in our very small town, but that was the best way to start. I learned how to connect components to make and control light, to set up dimmers, a control board, and different kinds of lights with exotic names like Fresnel and Leko and Ellipsoidal and PAR. While I was playing with these toys, the seeds of a career were sown.
I am in the middle row, with a striped shirt on. The boy behind me is about to spin the propellor on my hat. The play- Inside a Kid’s Head- was about what I was thinking when I should have been paying attention to class.
My fledgling knowledge of lighting technology came in handy in the emotional pinnacle of Junior High dances. Picture me once again onstage, but this time the action is happening on the gymnasium floor. The DJ, a high school kid who somehow seemed a hundred years older, played Bon Jovi through the loudspeakers. My friends (and enemies) ran around the gym, jumped up and down, swayed with their partners, and did just about everything except dance.
I am standing in front of the drama club’s light board, with ultimate control of twelve dimmers. Connected to each is an array of stage lights with colored gel- filters- that respond to my command. When the drummer hits the bass drum, I hit the red buttons that bump the lights on and off. I translate aural energy to visual energy, and the crowd jumps higher. For me, this was fun and power. I wanted both.
During the slow songs, I could turn the lights down and down until the principal came and told me to turn them up a bit so chaperones could count hands. I would set the levels and leave my post, if I was currently “going with” a girl, and slow dance. This meant she would put her arms around my neck, I would put my hands on her waist, and we would sway back and forth to the beat. Ah, love. I once took a two-step class with my grandmother and learned just a bit of real dancing, but this swaying stuff is still my favorite.
Then the DJ would switch to Guns’n’Roses, and I would rush back to the stage to make the lights flash with the gnashing guitars. I have no idea what my girlfriends did during those songs, as I was (and continue to be) a little clueless. I suspect most girls stood in a row at the back of the gym while the boys tried their best to headbang. Shaking their heads up and down and jumping, sometimes playing air guitar, the boys shook off excess energy while the girls watched and hoped it would get better. Later, when my wife was chaperoning similar dances, she would comfort the girls and let them know that yes, at some point, the boys would start growing up. We were always just a few years behind.
I was playing with light as a toy, and this continued into high school. But like everything in high school- homework, exams, sports, romance- light would begin to grow up. As I wrestled with tougher academics and what I would later identify as depression, I would begin to see light not just as a toy, but as a tool to make money. Light was becoming Lighting.