Given how much time I spend speaking publicly with a microphone in my hands, it might sound disingenuous when I confess this: I’m a pretty shy guy at parties. I am actually more comfortable alone on stage than I am in a crowded living room.
Which is one of the many reasons I am going to miss Al Myers. Al is the Williston Central School teacher, Civil War re-enactor, and theater aficionado who died last weekend doing one of the things he loved most and did best: Hanging the stage lights for his middle school students’ production of “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s a bit like a painter dying as he applies the final brush stroke to a canvas.
I will miss Al because he was my “go to” guy at parties. And we were at lots of parties together over the years because we traveled in the same theater circle. Al was always that guy I could talk to when I realized I hadn’t a clue what to say to the 9 or 19 or 99 other people present. We could talk about the Civil War because he was one of the only people I knew who had actually eaten hardtack — the biscuit that had been a Civil War staple. We had read the same books, such as Thomas Dyja’s “Meet John Trow,” a tale of a middle-aged Civil War re-enactor who finds that things are getting a little too authentic in one particular skirmish in the woods.
We could talk about theater and not simply what shows we liked or disliked: We talked about theater as an educational tool. We could discuss the ways he used music and drama in his curriculum and the ways that it helped the middle school students on his watch understand linear narrative, gain confidence, and try things that otherwise were well beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone.
He often put the story in historical context — and he did this with the adults he directed in community theater production as well, finding teaching moments even with 40-year-olds. When he directed Lyric Theatre’s “Fiddler on the Roof” in the autumn of 2006, everyone in the cast learned a little of what life was like in the shtetl at the turn of the 20th century, and how the Holocaust loomed for these characters’ children and grandchildren. The cast members, leads and ensemble alike, were required to research and write down what their specific roles would have been in the community. When the Flynn Center curtain went up that opening night in November, the cast knew that it was also the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pogrom launched by the Nazis across Germany in 1938.
–>Yet, when he wasn’t directing, he could quietly retreat into the shadows himself, ever that Civil War foot soldier, doing the important but thankless work without acknowledgment. He volunteered long hours for Lyric’s summer theater camps for kids, doing the lighting or set construction so thoroughly that it must have been like magic for the 7- and 8-year-olds. Suddenly, at the end of the week they’d have a set and lights. All they had to do was sing and dance and be happy little divas.
Of course, it’s not just the shows that I’ll miss. It’s that “go to” guy at the parties. Rest in peace, my friend. I am confident that among the stars tonight one extra light will be twinkling.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 3, 2009.)