By Ken Bradbury
I’d not meant for this to be a sad story. I still hope it isn’t. I met Bill perhaps 20 years ago when I was doing a show in a neighboring community. He’d been recommended to me by several others because of his career in stage lighting. Bill had worked for a string of large amusement parks and had lit stages all over the country, but he was now retired due to his failing health. In addition to creeping arthritis, he suffered from depression and was totally incapacitated for entire weeks at a time. The guy simply couldn’t leave his house during the really bad spells, but I didn’t know all this when I called him to ask his aid in doing the tech for my upcoming play. His wife answered the phone and said, “Well, I doubt if he’ll do it, but I’ll ask him. He needs to get out of the house.”
Fast-forward 20 years. Bill is still very much alive, and he still does stage lighting, but only for me. I thought this strange. My shows are not much different from anyone else’s in terms of what I require, so why did Bill only choose to do my productions? I never asked, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t my pretty face. All I knew is that Bill showed up early to every job, showed a tremendous knowledge of stage lighting, did his work quietly and then went on his way until I called upon him again. He did like to hang around during rehearsals and that was fine with me. Theater has always been a delightful but money-losing proposition for me and that’s okay. The joy we get by bringing good theater to folks is more valuable than a paycheck, but this also means that the people who help me do a show are seldom paid. By the time the bills are covered there’s nothing left and such was the case with Bill as he’d spend hours climbing ladders and focusing lights. He knew that at the end of a show all he’d get was a thanks and a hug. My casts all loved Bill and he got the most hugs when we’d close a show.
I knew that Bill’s health was continuing to deteriorate so when I had scheduled my next show in his area I didn’t call him. I figured the guy was just pushing himself so he’d not disappoint me. Besides, I felt that I’d taken advantage of his volunteer help for long enough and it was time to someone else to work for nothing.
But as providence would have it, I’d cast Bill’s wife in this upcoming show and when we met for our first rehearsal she just came out and said it … “You haven’t called Bill.” I told her that I felt I’d taken advantage of him in the past. She didn’t accept that answer and simply told me, “He’s wondering why you haven’t called him to set the lights.” Oops. So I called Bill.
I’d arranged to meet him at the theater on the following day and when I drove into town Bill was standing on the sidewalk waiting for me. This particular theater had some real challenges. In the first place it was built as a hardware store and not a theater, and your average hardware store doesn’t feature stage lighting. All the fixtures in the auditorium (formerly the parts room) were scrambled together from a dozen different sources, none of them matched, the wiring in the building wouldn’t tolerate all the lights to be used at once, and in some places on the stage there simply was no lighting. Bill had worked this theater before and knew trials awaiting him but his attitude has always been, “Yeah, we can fix that.” And he did. Up and down ladders, balanced precariously in positions that would have given OSHA fits, smiling all the while and chatting about the various shows he’d lit in his luminous career.
There’s no denying it … I felt guilty. This guy with some severe physical and emotional problems was working his tail off as I stood there trying to act like a director who knew what I was doing. After a couple hours work we were finished and I took him next door to pay him … a cup of coffee. When we went to our cars I unthinkingly stuck out my hand for a final thanks. Bill looked at my hand like it was some foreign appendage and hugged me instead. I’d always hugged Bill at the end of a show. We all did. But on that nippy morning I’d simply put out my hand, forcing him to initiate the hug.
Sometimes I’m so slow catching onto things that I surprise even myself. All Bill wanted was a hug. That’s why he’d kept coming back to volunteer, why he purposely put himself among a group of actors who don’t mind hugging, why he was standing there with me on that cold March sidewalk. He simply wanted that hug. It made me wonder how many times I’d passed up that simple and wonderful gift that day, and I vowed to do better tomorrow.