Tonight, one star is a stage light

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.

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–>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.

Al and I would talk about that, too. I think that’s why I used to go to his school’s shows. It wasn’t just that we were friends or that I knew some of the kids through my daughter or through their parents. It’s that shows for Al always seemed to be about more than theater. I saw that again Thursday when I went to see a rehearsal for his final show. His kids — witches, munchkins, and Ozians alike — rallied. They hit their marks. They knew their lines. Their stage makeup never ran — even if their hearts couldn’t help but wonder about their teacher on the far side of the rainbow.

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.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “Tonight, one star is a stage light

  1. Olivia D'Alessandro says:

    I’m so sorry that your friend Al is gone. His passing will leave a hole in those kids’ lives, as well as yours. But I have to tell you…you now know another person who has eaten hardtack. Me. Also, you have to read “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz. I think you might enjoy it.
    I followed the “comfortable alone on stage” link. What a hoot! You’d make a good stand-up comic. The underwear. OMG

  2. Olivia D'Alessandro says:

    Soooo…I read “Meet John Trow.” Now I have tons of questions and Thomas Dyja, unlike you, does not have a great board that I can go to for answers. For example: do you think Wally Manskart was pimpin’ Nasty Nancy? I think we were led to believe that Manskart had a hand in all her underhanded dealings. Also, while I understand that this was a psychological novel more than a ghost story, I still wonder about his knowlege of certain things like the specifics of the battle of Cold Harbor and the making of charcoal and the black banker. And Dyja said something I don’t agree with. He said: “No one re-enacted panic, no one re-enacted fear because that wasn’t the point of re-enacting.” I beg to differ. It goes with the territory if you’re hardcore.

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