Saturday, February 6, 2016

In the Spotlight

My dad knew how to put the "ham" in Brigham from the time he was young. As a middle schooler in Springfield, Mass., he and his neighborhood friends put on shows in somebody's barn, just like Mickey Rooney and his gang in "Babes in Arms."

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of seeing my dad in shows put on by the school where he taught, as well as shows at church and in community theaters. He played an apple-throwing tree in "The Wizard of Oz," as well as the wizard; TV personality Melvin Thorpe in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"; the Commissioner in "Damn Yankees"; a variety of roles in "Mark Twain - The Musical"; Captain Hook in "Peter Pan"; and countless other roles in dozens of shows.

I was always so excited to go backstage after the shows to see him, and I never failed to laugh at how much make-up he and the other actors wore. I felt so proud when his fellow thespians would tell us how great a job my dad had done.

He continued acting long after retiring from teaching, and was featured in this 1996 Hartford Courant article about seniors who love to act.

He passed on the "ham gene" to my brother, sister and me in varying degrees. My sister can be gregarious and loud, and loves to laugh and isn't afraid to jump in the spotlight at family events. She worked backstage on many of my dad's productions, and even had a few small stage roles. My brother is no stranger to breaking out into song (much to the annoyance of his 12-year-old daughter) and has graced karaoke stages and the sidelines of Clark University basketball games as a tongue-in-cheek Cougarette cheerleader.

As for me, I overcame my shyness and played in a band for two years during college. We played several shows on campus, and one at the opening of a local music shop. I wasn't a wild man, don't get me wrong, but I sang lead vocals on a bunch of songs and pleasantly surprised myself by getting on stage in front of dozens of people, and on a few occasions, more than a hundred.

The next generation of Brighams has had its share of stage time, as well. My niece, Grace, has starred in a few plays in her school in Maryland. I'm not sure whether her 7-year-old brother, Isaiah, has done any shows, but he certainly isn't shy. As for my kids, 8-year-old Amelia has been in the chorus of her after-school program's annual play the last three years, and she'll be in this year's show as well. Owen, who's 13, played chocolate-loving Augustus Gloop in his 4th grade production of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

Unlike his sister, however, Owen never wanted to be in the after-school program production. He's a shy kid, so we didn't push him to try it.

Watching Amelia in last June's after-school show, I had mixed emotions. I was proud of her for singing in the chorus, and for seeming to know more of the words than she had for the previous year's production. But I couldn't help wishing that our family could celebrate an equal accomplishment of Owen's. He had a difficult end of 7th grade, as well as 6th grade.

Later in the month we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of our friends' daughter, and then the next month we saw the daughter of another set of friends in a musical production. Both were such great celebrations and so much fun, but again put me to thinking that after being so socially uncomfortable in his first two years of middle school, Owen needed a victory, a celebration, a sense of accomplishment.

He entered a new school in late August, and struggled. After six or seven weeks, though, he began to feel comfortable with the teachers, his fellow students and especially the handful of dogs that are regularly in the school. All of us -- me, my wife, our families, his teachers and of course Owen -- breathed a sigh of relief. We'd found the right place for him!

But we knew that his challenges were far from over. From the moment we'd first heard about the Corwin-Russell School, we knew that during January and early February, they produced a play. During those five weeks, the kids had no classes or homework, but they had to hang out at a community theater, learn songs and choreography and prepare themselves for being on stage, many of them for the first time.

"How will Owen deal with that?" we asked ourselves. His teachers told us to prepare for more anxiety and possible refusal to attend, something we'd dealt with during the previous two school years. We knew that the dogs for the most part wouldn't be at the theater.

Well, we needn't have worried.

The first day back after winter break, Owen went off to school with no complaints. The students and teachers assembled at the school that day, but immediately set about working on the play, "The Little Mermaid." The next day, Owen told me, some kids would be going to the theater, but he wasn't one of them. Well, when I picked him up, he informed me that as it turns out, he did end up going to the theater with some of the kids and a few of the teachers. They worked on choreography. He wasn't fazed at all.

For several weeks in the fall, when I picked up Owen at school, he would tell me about which dogs he'd taken out for a walk or otherwise spent time with. The first week of January, however, he began talking more about his classmates. By that Thursday, he'd been added to a group text and ever since he's excited to pass along stupid jokes and comments from a variety of his friends.

Frankly, Beth and I are amazed. Owen has always been such a great kid, but his anxieties sometimes hold back his better qualities -- his sense of humor, his kindness, his willingness to be goofy. For the last five weeks he has complained little, if at all, about school and the play. He sometimes sings a snippet of one of the songs he'll be performing as part of the seagull chorus. He busts out a few basic dance moves that he'll show off as a fish in the production.

Finally, last night was performance night, the first of two.

As much as we'd heard from other parents whose kids have been in previous productions about how amazing the shows are, nothing prepared me for how fantastic it all really was. The sets are beautiful, the costumes unbelievably complex and professional, the lighting and sound system top notch. But of course it's the performances that touch everyone's hearts.

All of the lead characters -- Ariel, King Triton, Prince Eric, Ursula the Seawitch -- were absolutely fantastic. I'd spent time observing these kids during my time hanging out with Owen at school during September and October, and would never have guessed the talents that these kids possessed. So many of them seem quiet and even shy during the school day, but they absolutely shine on stage. It was really cool to witness their transformations.

And of course I'm still in awe of Owen and his ability to not only go through rehearsals without complaint, and with no shortage of excitement for the process, but also his utter lack of (outward) nerves leading up to last night's show. And to see him on stage, dancing and singing in a fish costume and a seagull costume, a big smile on his face, brought the biggest smile it was possible to bring to my face, and to Beth's, too.

Here he is in a dress rehearsal photo, in his gull costume:

I can't express how proud Beth and I are of Owen. He's matured so much just in the last few months. We're looking forward to another performance tonight, and are happy that Beth's parents will get to see him (Beth's sister and her family were at last night's show). Unfortunately, my mother won't be able to make it for the show. I promised her as soon as the school makes a DVD available, I'll show her how great her grandson was in his first stage performance.

Congratulations, Owen. Your Big Gramps would be so proud of you!