Cabaret Night at the High School

I DON'T know why I did it, because all I was going to do was pull the dirty curtain ropes in the one auditorium in our town with lights and a stage, but I put on a bow tie. They had put me down in the program as co-director with a senior who was in Who's Who and a National Merit Scholar: She was wonderful and had organized the high school cabaret for which our poor county had received a grant at the last moment, within weeks of school getting out. The grant had a deadline and if we wanted ``art'' in our county, the show, or a show, must go on.

The way the grant was written, the student director and producer both had to have an adult ``in the arts'' to work with. I had published a few things and had goofed around at the local radio station on a broadcast play that surprisingly went to an awards ceremony at the Hilton in Denver. So she asked me.

She had organized the acts at school; the cheerleaders who were to be the dancers in a Broadway line had their thing down to a T and didn't need anything but my appreciation of their superb timing and vitality. They matched quite decently their own billing as ``The Girls of Summer.''

My co-director lived 30 miles across the valley up a mountain I can see from my mountain. The town and the school were equally far away. However, I got together with her and some of the older kids who had elected to write a funny news broadcast and a spoof on their principal. The others in it were scattered around this vast pinon and rocky land where the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom along the Huerfano River.

After the harsh winter and with the end of school approaching, I was surprised so many kids had committed their talents. But as to getting together on an exact day or time, you may as well predict the afternoon flight of an eagle. Announced rehearsals in school fell apart after the buses took them hundreds of miles away from each other, on dirt roads.

I did what I could; but concentration was not at an all-time high. These are good children, who have learned to live with hardships, some with deprivation, many of whom go from backwoods settlements to fine colleges. But the hard land turns soft in spring; and when they got together out of school, they were apt as anyone to have their preferable thoughts ``turn lightly to love.'' At one of the few meetings we'd had, I had broken up ``Antony and Cleopatra'' wooing on the couch, to get on with practicing lines. The starry-eyed girl, to show off to her boyfriend, had said, ``Are you going to rehearse us to death?''

By opening night no one had seen the full show run together. I had really directed nothing. At the last minute I went around and made a list asking each child or group what kind of curtain they wanted. The stage manager and my co-director were both in several acts, so they could not do the curtain. So the ropes fell to me. We had a good man on lights and on sound - an old friend of mine from the radio station, its engineer, a genius in electricity and an eccentric disciple of the father of alternating current, Nikola Tesla.

AS always, the adults, whether parents of kids or not, gave their unpremeditated and often eccentric and colorful gifts as volunteers to the next generation: It was the way our valley worked, ever since the first busload brought them and their protest songs after Selma and Woodstock to settle down in a deep rural experiment, making friends with the old Hispanic families of the land.

Their more conservative descendants were the kids of the cabaret that night, Hippie kids, Yuppie kids, ranchers' kids, dark-haired kids.

Just before curtain I checked my list of cues, thoroughly prepared to let the kids do it. I was eager to see the show I was supposed to be directing.

Suddenly, it happened. I heard myself call the first act of ``Summer Girls.'' Thirty seconds. House lights. Applause. Slowly opening the curtain on the backdrop painted by the kids with help from a New York artist who lives in our hills. The girls went out. Never any trouble with cheerleaders. They lived in their own elite society, an after-school clique of dance, dance, dance.

But the unrehearsed drama of backstage began to unfold. Standing in my bow tie by the ropes and pulleys, a girl I didn't know came up and asked me how to walk on to her piano: carry her classical music or leave it on the piano for the stage crew? I told her, walk up to the front of the stage, bow, holding her music, then walk to piano. She straightened my bow tie.

A father-daughter guitar team needed someone to hold a mike as the girl would play one song with the guitar overhead, behind her neck. Then an eighth-grader asked me to ``borrow'' my wire-rim glasses for his act. It'll just be for a few minutes. Then right in the middle of a dark-haired girl's karate-chop dance called ``Love Thy Neighbor'' an alarm went off. She kept dancing - I looked down at the soundman, head deep in his earphones. Eh? What? He mumbled at the alarming buzzer. He waved it away. Intuitive genius: popcorn machine. It pulls too much for the old circuits.

Please keep your seats, ladies and gentlemen, I said through the mike backstage, it's not the fire alarm ... ``Cleopatra'' was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. ``Run around the building, in the side door. Tell them to cut the popcorn - quick!''

She looked at me in amazement, then was gone. When she came back the audience had relaxed and was laughing heartily at some of her friends doing a skit, ``The Kid Converter,'' a machine their fictitious principal had for turning kids far-too-quickly into adults. He was saying, ``You ... you're acting just like a ... a teen-ager.'' Meanwhile, I had had to find the extension cord for the Christmas lights which blinked on the gray-painted box each time a kid went through and became a perfectly boring citizen.

Outside in the cool spring dark on the backstage steps, when I had made sure things I didn't even know about were set for the second half, and I went out to cool off from the hot lights on the curtain racks above me, I found many of the kids sitting there drinking pop. I was going to walk down the steps and take a short walk around the building to wash my hands. But ``Cleopatra'' looked up at me with her big made-up eyes, and said to the other kids, ``Hey. Shove down!'' When I sat down in the place she'd made for me, and the kids went quiet, she said ``It's going pretty well, isn't it?'' She smiled.

I left off washing my hands of the old ropes until I'd seen my kids safely through.

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