Tween tasked with spotlight duty for musical shines brighter than the cast

There are no small roles in a musical despite what your child may think. The tech crew is just as important as the star. As parents, don't forget: A child can shine from behind the spotlight too. 

Courtesy of Danny Heitman
Danny Heitman, left, and son Will on the day of the musical.

When my wife and I dropped off our 12-year-old son at a seven-week boarding camp for gifted and talented children this summer, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t sign up for the camp musical.

A self-professed computer and robotics nerd who also plays the cello, Will had never expressed an interest in theater.

But when we returned to camp nearly two months later for closing ceremonies, Will revealed that he had a surprise for us.

He was, in fact, part of the team staging “The Frogs,” Stephen Sondheim’s irreverent adaptation of an ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes. We’d have to look hard, though, to find Will in the production.

Learning of his interest in technology, a college student on the camp staff had recruited Will to help operate the theater spotlights. Will embraced the challenge with gusto, and he was eager to share with us what he had learned. Among his most interesting discoveries was that a light is not simply a light, but a tool of art that can create subtle pictures through illumination.

Donning headphones near a control panel, and summoning the quiet confidence of a maestro leading an orchestra, Will worked through the elaborate choreography of lighting that showcased the cast below for an audience of proud moms and dads.

But Will realized that unlike most symphony leaders, his true mark of success would come not from visibility, but from working unnoticed. A great spotlight artist knows he has succeeded, after all, when no one stops to notice his work.

But being a proud dad, I couldn’t help noticing Will’s handiwork during the two-hour musical. While the rest of the crowd trained its attention on the talented thespians on stage, I found myself tracing the bright circles of light on the set back to their source – a little boy in a balcony, training a set of lamps on his campmates to bathe them with brilliance for a memorable evening.

The experience made me think of all those other nights when Will sat on a concert stage playing his cello while some other anonymous soul trained a spotlight on him.

But I was gratified that on this special night at the end of camp, Will was embracing one of life’s most valuable lessons: You don’t always need a starring role to succeed. Sometimes, by quietly working in the shadows, you can make a contribution, too.

I’d concluded as much in a 2005 essay for The Christian Science Monitor, “In The Land of Oz, there are no small roles.” 

In that essay, I recounted how my daughter Eve, then age 8, didn’t bat an eye when she was assigned to be a munchkin, rather than Dorothy, in a summer camp production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Instead of whining about not getting the headliner role, Eve worked tirelessly to be the best munchkin she could be. She had, surprisingly, taken to heart my throwaway remark that there are no small roles.

At the end of “The Frogs,” as the cast members assembled on stage to take a bow, all of the eyes in the theater were on the actors and actresses basking in the spotlights.

All of the eyes, that is, except mine.

I had turned to the back of the theater, aimed my clapping hands upward, and offered my applause to a son I couldn’t see in his high, dark perch.

Sometimes, as Will reminded me, a child can shine just as easily behind a spotlight as in front of it.

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