Behind the Spotlight

Only in Hollywood can someone be set on fire, charge through a major explosion, and fall 50 feet – and be completely invisible.

It’s Oscar season again. Which means that once again, we’re starting to hear folks make the case for the great missing piece of the Academy Awards. And I don’t mean the absent Best Director award for “Little Women,” or the lack of attention to “Rocketman,” or the alarm clock to wake up the audience after five and a half hours when it’s finally time to announce Best Picture.

No, this is an area where the film industry has long been stunted. Literally.

Hollywood has a complicated relationship with its stunt men and women. In an age where action movies of all sorts rule the box office, a good stunt performer is more necessary than ever, even in these days of computer-generated effects. But at the same time, the audience also needs to forget that they’re there. A too-obvious double for the actor is like a boom mic suddenly dropping into the frame – a bit of reality that suddenly takes you out of the story.

And so, the athletes and daredevils of the film world mostly work in obscurity. The only time a studio calls attention to the stunt work is when it wants to underline that an actor or actress “did their own stunts” in order to emphasize how incredible the film is … and even then, it’s likely there was a little quiet help behind the scenes.

No worries, right? After all, the audience also isn’t supposed to think about the cinematographer, the sound editor, or a dozen other specialists and teams who helped build the magical tale before their eyes – except that each of those get called out and honored, however briefly.

Stunt actors appear everywhere. They make the story work. And if you don’t know to look for them, you’d never realize how much they mean.

We all know people like that, don’t we?

This last week, my friends and I at the Longmont Theatre Company lost one of those “vital invisibles.” Mind you, Tracy Cravens wasn’t a stunt woman. In fact, she would have laughed her head off at the mere suggestion of it, likely with a joke about catapulting out of the way of the set-building crew.

But from the background, Tracy made sure that the show would go on.

Tracy, who served on the LTC board, was frequently the producer of our shows. In Hollywood, producers are big deals with bigger headlines. In community theater, producers are usually one line in the program and the smiling person you met for 15 seconds in the lobby. They’re also the hubs that keep the wheels spinning so that there can be a show, the masters of logistics who make sure that everything turns up in the right place at the right time. And that often includes tirelessly promoting the show, so that the audience turns up as well to see the wonders that have been created.

Tracy did that. With humor. With energy. With occasional head-shakes of exasperation. And always, with success.

To its credit, LTC recognized her phenomenal efforts before she left us way too early at the age of 53. A while back, she was given the Brooks Hall Award, the annual honor given to the people who have gone above and beyond for the theatre company. She was clearly startled – and just as clearly honored.

That sort of recognition is important. For all the vital invisibles out there.

Take a moment. Remember your own. Think about the folks who get the work without the glory, and make it all happen. The ones who hold everything together. The ones who suddenly get missed when they’re gone.

Take the time to thank them. And if you ARE them, thank you. You’re the ones who make all of us better.

And that’s a pretty amazing stunt.

Screening the New Year

The lights went dark. The ads went quiet. The familiar words appeared on the screen.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

And with that, it was time to hit the holiday hyperdrive into another universe – even if it was without the usual crew.

Once upon a time, this would have been time spent with my Dad. After I graduated college and took my first job in Kansas, I made sure to come back to Colorado for the holidays. That was when our favorite literary universe of Middle-Earth first hit the big screen, so Dad and I always carved out a night to go see it. From there, it became a habit, even after I came back to the Front Range.

The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit. Jason Bourne. Harry Potter. The Force Awakens. Something big and bold and splashy to wave out the old year and welcome the new one. As a kid, this would have been a summertime adventure, especially since Star Wars movies were always released in May. Now, it was something as brilliant as any string of Christmas lights and as dependable as any Times Square ball dropping.

This year, the count’s off a little bit. This year, with my parents in Washington State, it was my 7-year-old nephew Gil who got to see The Last Jedi with Dad. (Funny enough, that’s the same age at which I saw The Empire Strikes Back with Dad and became a fan for life.) This year, Heather and I watched the movie with friends even while our memories were with an audience far, far away.

And this year, it still felt more right than any countdown with Dick Clark ever could.

I’ve never been much for New Year’s resolutions. Easily made, easily forgotten. But with apologies to Robert Fulghum, everything I do know about New Year’s lessons, I learned from a night at the movies:

The story will go unexpected places. Let it. With the Tolkien movies, it was because Hollywood can never leave a literary adaptation alone, even when it’s done well. With something that’s pure cinema, like Star Wars, the directors will still have something in their back pocket. Maybe several somethings. (“Darth Vader is his what??”) Whatever story you find, take it on its own merits and follow where it goes – arguing about it in your head at the time will just mean you miss the best parts.

Talk with your family. Some of those surprises, of course, fueled many a conversation outside of the theater. The fate of Han Solo. The craftiness of Luke. Talking about them afterward not only drove them in more firmly, they tied us more firmly and created a family story to go with the fictional one.

Never give up hope. OK, this is practically routine for Hollywood, but it still bears remembering. Empire became one of my favorite films because its victory was survival. Nobody blew up a battle station. Everyone came away battered and scarred, sometimes literally. But they did get away. The fight went on, with promises made that friends would not be forgotten. That’s something that I think most of us can identify with.

Remember, and say goodbye. Not everyone gets to finish the story. On screen, we got that memory – and a catch in the throat — as Carrie Fisher performed what would be her last turn as Leia. Off screen … well, we all have our own separations and farewells, none of them at a time we would have chosen. Acknowledge them. They’re part of your tale.

Now it’s time for a new chapter. And whether it enters to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” or of John Williams, it will be yours to tell. Tell it well.

And don’t forget to bring a few dollars for popcorn.