ACS Drama, Dances, & "Technology"
by William Webster-Garman ('72)
Fri, 31 Jan 1997
My first real experiences, such as they were, with the many relationships between art and technology, happened while I attended ACS.
When I arrived at ACS as a freshman day student in the fall of 1968 one of the first things I did was to "try out" for the school theater lighting crew. We were living at the Phoenicia Hotel at the time, and for transportation to and from campus my sister and I took the public bus that ran the length of the Corniche past the US Embassy (the roof of which was utterly crammed with what I thought even then was an unbelievably brash number of obviously sophisticated radio antennas) and AUB.
I have an especially strong memory of the first orientation assembly in the gym, partly because the Moody Blues' "Tuesday Afternoon" was playing over a sound system as people filed into the seating area. Both the choice of music and the European-made, portable sound system made an indelibly positive impression on me ("Moody Blues music at a school assembly? Wow!!").
Later that day, I saw a hand lettered announcement tacked to a bulletin board in a hallway of the academic building. Basically it said that any freshmen who were interested in being "on the lighting crew" could show up for some sort of a try out in the auditorium after school that day.
After an intense first day of classes I made a point of arriving in the auditorium at the appointed time, and found 3 or 4 other kids my age (all of whom became good friends later on) sitting around, waiting for the same thing. Within a minute or two a very mature and self assured senior named Peter Jespersen arrived along with Andy Rogers (who was a junior): With a big, old fashioned key they unlocked a concealed door in the paneled wall and clambered up a permanent steel ladder leading up to the lighting booth mounted high in the rear of the room. Then they proceeded to call each of us up the ladder one by one for the "interviews".
The interior of the booth was, to my 14 year old mind, amazing. It was packed with industrial quality variable transformers (which they called "dimmers"), and was dominated by an obviously hand built control board (replete with big German-made voltage indicators) from which a flood of wires flowed up and over the top of the booth into what was obviously the area above the ceiling of the auditorium. Off to the side stood a large follow spotlight with a wheel of coloured gels in front of its large convex lens. This was clearly not a "UL Approved" facility and I was almost instantly captivated by the exotic and creative atmosphere.
Whatever I said to them must have sounded good enough, because the next day Peter walked up to me in the hall and announced that they had picked me, and that our first "job" for the year was going to be the lighting for a school dance. My first "official" lighting assignment was to splice and connect power lines to various fresnel lights with coloured gels which had been positioned around the terrace area on the lower level of the gymnasium building. At first, their apparently casual attitude about working with high voltage surprised me, and all too quickly, I'm afraid, it went to my head. My first night "on the job", when the dance was already underway, Peter very firmly scolded me for a poorly (and dangerously) taped splice.
He saw how devastated I was, and immediately calmed down and took the time then and there to give me a careful (and very expert) 10 minute lesson on what I'd done wrong and why it was wrong. I was surprised a month or so later to learn that he was a Norwegian citizen and had spent little or no time in the states. He spoke English with an entirely flawless American accent, slang and all. That sort of ability, of course, was not unusual at ACS.
I suppose we got past that little incident quickly because I soon had free access to the lighting booth key and they basically left me to my own devices to set up the lighting for the big Freshman dance in the elementary school auditorium a few weeks later. I vividly remember that I finished the preparations early, settling down at a piano behind the stage and idly figuring out the chords to "The House of the Rising Sun"-- within a few minutes I had attracted an audience and a lasting turn in my life was probably accomplished by late that afternoon.
The entertainment at many of the ACS dances in those days consisted of recorded music (remember that European-made sound system on orientation day?) and "creative" lighting effects. Over the next several months I learned the location and properties of every school-owned device that was even remotely capable of playing back music, and with the help of pirated music tapes made up on Sadat street, the dances had all the latest hits from the states and the UK. Once everything was set up and the event was underway I could frequently slip into the crowd and dance with someone.
"You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" was the first ACS play that I worked on. The ACS school plays were a major social event for the sophisticated expatriate community in Beirut and had far more entertainment value and importance than the typical stateside "high school play" (and the faculty took every opportunity to drum this into our adolescent heads). I was surprised and impressed when "Charlie Brown" played for 4 nights to a packed house, and they added a 5th show because of the demand for tickets. I was put to operating the big follow spot in the lighting booth. Not a very important role but I had a ball. Because of limitations in the building wiring, the spotlight could only be used when certain other combinations of lights were in use. When we brought up the power for the spotlight, the lights in the entire academic building dimmed momentarily.
It was at this time that I discovered the unique and positive camaraderie that ACS students shared with the faculty. It's hard now to describe the impact it had on me when my science teacher, Anne Ratcliffe, climbed up into the lighting booth on some evenings in blue jeans and a T-shirt and hung out with us, the conversation casually moving back and forth between the physics of electricity and the latest pop records, which she was obviously listening to.
By this time we were living in the Al Yamama building overlooking the campus and I was back down at school every night after dinner.
To save wire (and work) we ran only a single line from the control board to each light, and completed the circuit by connecting the 2nd lead from each light directly to the steel framework above the auditorium. This is how I first learned the basic concepts of AC power. One had to be careful crawling around up there: It was dark and stuffy, with no walkways. One had to move around as if crawling through a giant, dirty "jungle gym" riddled with countless taut, live wires. If you slipped, you'd fall right through the acoustic tile ceiling with nothing to stop you from splattering on the terrazzo-topped concrete floor 20 feet below. Later that school year, Andy was attaching a light up there, slipped, and fell partway through the ceiling before he caught his grip. For a moment, Andy's legs were dangling high over the floor and Bill Blakemore (the faculty member in charge of directing "Noah", the play we were doing at the time) nearly had a heart attack. For obvious reasons, my reports to my socially busy but easily worried parents about my extra-curricular activities at ACS were heavily edited. As a result, I'm not sure they ever understood the true appeal it had for me.
The wiring in the Academic building (and the gym) was so bad that I quickly memorized Ohm's Law, and was always making a calculation or two about circuit capacity before plugging something in. The elementary school auditorium, in contrast, was never a challenge because it was in a newer building with much more adequate power.
Sophomore year, 1969-70, my interests began to focus more heavily on Aleph Beth (the student newspaper), and the school literary magazine (due to the influences of Miss Heath and Mrs Sheckner, along with my admiration for fellow student Bjorn Hopen who tragically died later that year), and always the music. But lighting was still interesting and fun, and in addition to ACS projects I got involved with the local American Repertory Theater group. Frank Ford sent me all over Ras Beirut to set up theater lights in the most unlikely locations-- mansions, classrooms, as well as auditoriums. I remember doing lighting with John Heyl for an innocuous play at AUB about Thomas Edison's childhood. I also worked a few times with a Greek AUB student in his early 20s named Fadin Antanopolis. Fadin had wild long dark hair and the fanatical eyes of a true student revolutionary which often distracted from the reality that he was a truly regular guy. And he had an interesting approach to dealing with electricity.
Because of Beirut's unique, politically driven municipal procurement system, the voltage around town was usually somewhere around 110 volts AC, but sometimes it was closer to 220. One afternoon, somewhere in Ras Beirut, Fadin and I were backstage at some academic theater, staring at an ancient circuit panel that had probably been installed by the Turks, trying to figure out what the voltage was. I had several relatively expensive ACS lighting elements with me and didn't want to blow any of them up if I could avoid it. I mentioned to him in exasperation that I had forgotten my little volt meter. Fadin looked at me like I had total brain damage. At first I thought he was about to admonish me for my absent mindedness. But instead he broke into a smile and replied, "We don't need a voltmeter." Then he eyed a spot in the dark panel, grabbed the metal housing, and stuck his finger into one of the contacts. He jerked back in a spasm and yanked his arm away from the panel. With a blasť tone of voice, he announced, "It's only 110. No problem!" (He was right).
I never personally adopted Fadin's voltage testing methods, but sometimes they were forced upon me. At one point in late 1969 the Juniors decided to establish a student coffee house named Beit Ahwi in a very pleasant but seldom used activity room directly beneath the general student lounge in the boys B.D. Although I was "only a sophomore" I was somehow drafted into a central role for the lighting and music and immediately discovered (with my trusty Ohm's law) that the wiring in the room was wholly inadequate for what they wanted to do. But I tried my best. I even attempted to utilize some never-used ceiling fixtures as a source of power. Assured by the custodial staff that the power to them had been remotely turned off I trustingly opened one of them, grabbed the leads, and was promptly knocked to the floor by the electrical shock. It was one of the only times in my life that I've ever seen stars Roadrunner cartoon style. Later, when I told my friend Fadin about the incident, he related a story of how longline electrical workers in Saudi from time to time would fail to come in from the desert, only to be found days later in the sand below the high tension lines, burned to a blackened crisp. According to Fadin, in the Middle East it was always unwise to trust your life to anyone with an electrical power switch. I learned a lot from Fadin.
I solved the lighting problem at Beit Ahwi by not using much lighting at all. A dim blue light here, a red one there, aimed with all the precision and care of a Pre-Raphaelite painter. "It'll look great!" I assured the doubtful representatives (Leslie Jones and Karl Hubeny) of the Junior class student council. This is when someone had the inspiration to add candles. Beit Ahwi's mystic, lumens-challenged lighting helped turn it into an infamously successful make-out pit, and the place was always jammed with people on Friday nights. The faculty tactfully stayed away.
The school had bought a pair of very high quality loudspeakers (for the production of "Noah", as I recall), and we quickly appropriated these for Beit Ahwi, along with a turntable and good amplifier "loaned" by a young faculty member (whose name I can't remember) in the science department. We mounted the speakers up on the ceiling, astride a large seal that contained the painted likeness of Mr Stallings, the Junior class faculty advisor, in humorous 19th century British imperial style. I set up the precariously rigged sound system in an alcove off to the side of the room, playing the records from there, and that's what really interested me. Students brought in chunks of their record collections and I played them and my own: Now and then I'd hear a remark about how a lowly sophomore was choosing the music for the JUNIORS' club but somehow nobody ever really complained. It was all great. One evening we reverantly played all four sides of the Beatles' White Album (gad!). To this day I can't hear Tommy James and the Shondells or Blind Faith without thinking of those sweaty, hip, joyous nights of Beit Ahwi.
In the counter-culture miasmic glow of fall 1969, the school mounted a very successful and controversial production of "What A Piece of Work is Man", a royalty-avoiding knock off of 'Hair' . In truth, ACS was at the pitch of prosperity. The lighting demands established by the very talented faculty director, for example, were so ambitious and beyond the hardware capabilities of what we had that the school discreetly acquired sophisticated new lighting controls and brought in professional lighting people to install them. The stage floor and proscenium were permanently and extensively extended because of the staging demands. I remember even the dress rehearsals as major events. The play had a definite cultural impact on the school. Typical of the Viet-Nam War era, some of these effects were almost immediately unfortunate and unintended, but one of the more memorable spin-offs of the atmosphere it created was that many of the subsequent school dances featured live bands. I remember that for a few of these we created "psychedelic" screen effects with an overhead projector borrowed from one of the classrooms, along with a clear dish and vegetable oil from the B.D. kitchen and paints from the art department. Exposed "black light" UV tubes became ubiquitous and mandatory.
At one of these dances the band retained was a Lebanese group of AUB students who played British rhythm and blues, copping the style of the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. As I was setting up the lights and helping them find power and the like, the drummer got a sullen look on his face and pronounced that we didn't have enough lighting effects. I thought for a moment, and then looked down at his feet. He was wearing rubber-soled sneakers. "Are you going to wear those tonight?" I asked. "Uh, yes, I think so," he replied. And so I went to work on the kick pedal of his bass drum, wiring a crude but very effective contact switch that could handle lots of current, and connected it to a row of multicoloured fresnels mounted in the ceiling of the auditorium. "Now whatever you do," I warned him, "don't touch your kick drum pedal for any reason. Just play it with your foot. If you have to move it, do it with the sole of your sneaker." He nodded that he fully understood (and was probably regretting what he had gotten himself into). But I switched it on for several songs that evening and it worked, the lights flashing quite effectively to the beat of his kick drum, a bright blue spark popping off under his foot every time he, smiling broadly, depressed the pedal as the switch made its rudimentary contact. By the end of the evening his pedal had some new carbon deposits on it but he didn't seem to mind at all.
Throughout my two years at ACS I practiced piano regularly in the music room during lunch, and after school on the grand piano in the auditorium. That's how I met Mrs Churchill, who taught 4th grade over in the elementary school. She would come to sit and listen to me play, and we talked frequently. Based on our congenial contact on those quiet, late afternoons, it hasn't surprised me at all to read of the interest alumni still have in her.
Most alumni are familiar with the benign lack of comprehension our stateside friends have when we talk about the experiences and friendships we had at ACS. I long ago gave up trying to explain to friends and associates the impact my time at ACS had on me, that Beirut was good to us, and how fortunate I was to have been there at the very moment the campus reached its apogee.