The plaque on the wall reads “Auditorium Capacity 970.” I’ve seen this hundreds of times, but don’t usually pay it much attention. Over the last 11 years, I’ve been to dozens of dance recitals, plays and musicals, band and chorus concerts, information and awards nights in the high school auditorium and I’ve never seen it filled to capacity. Actually I’ve never seen it filled even close to capacity.
Until last Friday night.
My daughters and many of their friends are part of the high school theater company, which had their opening night of “Grease” last week. The staff and volunteers were expecting a big crowd because, well, it’s “Grease.”
Full disclosure time: I was super-excited about this show. I knew every word to every Grease song on my 12 inch vinyl before I knew what most of the words meant. And by that, I mean my eight-year-old self belted out what I thought were the lyrics, completely not recognizing any swears and oblivious to most, if not all innuendos, implied and explicit.
Ok, so I was naive. But man, I loved that music.
Incidentally, that album was one of a dozen or so that I saved from my youth. It’s still in good playable condition and now my 13 year old has taken possession of it.
Along with a handful of other “theater parents,” I volunteered to help out on opening night. I was given “the clicker,” which meant that I was responsible for counting each and every person that walked into the auditorium. Push the button once for each person that walks in – an easy job, no big deal at all. I’d actually done it a couple of times last year.
Except on this night, it actually was a big deal. As people-A LOT of people, I’d even use the phrase “hordes of people,” which is notable in our small town- began to line up an hour before the show, the facilities guy pointed to the plaque on the wall. “See that?” he said, “That’s our limit- watch those numbers.”
Then we opened the doors, and people just poured into the auditorium. The line went on and on and on. My friend ripped tickets and I had an armful of programs while I clicked away. It sounds ridiculous to say that I couldn’t rip tickets and count at the same time, but I actually couldn’t rip tickets and count at the same time. Ripping tickets required two hands, and I couldn’t let go of that clicker for one second. Ever do a job that seems so easy that you begin to second-guess yourself because it’s so easy? Do you see where I’m going with this?
I couldn’t take my eyes off people as they passed through the doorway, lest I lost track of whom I’d already counted, or accidentally count a group of people twice. As this realization hit me, along with the warning from the facilities guy still sounding in my head, my heart rate went up. What if I lost track of whom I’d counted? What if I counted people twice? What if we’re close to that capacity number and I’ve counted wrong and there are no seats left, or I’ve counted too many people and there are seats left? What if we reach 970 and there’s still a bunch of people in line? I don’t want to have to be the one to tell them all to come back for tomorrow’s show. And where’s my back-up? I don’t even remotely look like someone with the authority for turning people away. Even if I used my Teacher Voice. I couldn’t even see the police detail from where I was standing. Not that I had even a split second to look away from the doorway and check my watch.
Seven hundred forty-one. That was the final count. Well, give or take a half dozen. I’m not going to pretend my counting was perfect. But I was got very nervous as we approached the high 600’s and I still couldn’t see the end of the line. My sigh of relief was probably audible to the orchestra way down in the pit up front when I realized I wasn’t going to have to turn people away.
But sitting in that auditorium with that many people? That’s a feeling I can’t quite describe.
When those kids came out on that stage and they sang and they danced with so much heart and joy, I swear I couldn’t get my hands to clap loud enough, and the people around me (including my son and husband) were probably sick of my hootin’ and hollerin’ after Every. Musical. Number.
The actors and tech crew performed with an energy that belied the fact that most of them had been running on an extreme sleep deficit over the last month just to accommodate all the rehearsal hours, homework, clubs, sports, jobs, and other commitments.
And when the very first group came out for their bows at the end of the show, this enormous crowd of over 700 was already on their feet.
I took a minute to look around me, to really take in this cheering, clapping, and screaming from friends, family, and community members. I was overwhelmed, smiling and tearing up at the same time.
I’ve known some of these kids since preschool and first grade, others only a couple of years. But I wanted to hug all of them and look in their eyes and say, “Look! Look at this crowd! You did this! They came because of you. This is what it means to be a part of something that’s larger than yourself, to be a part of something that fires people up, brightens and enlivens their smile, makes them FEEL. From the first rows of the house to the very last rows of the very last sections, you touched and warmed the hearts of 741 people on a rainy cold Friday night in March.”