If you were able to attend Fort Scott High School's production of "The Wizard of Oz," you no doubt recognized the magnitude of talent, the number of personnel involved and the team effort that went into this play. Inside the program you read a short blurb acknowledging the help of Russell McMurray. What it didn't tell you was that God used his kindness and positive attitude as key factors in me selecting this play, and in the end I gained a lifelong friend.
Last spring, as I began reading scripts, I prayed that God would help me choose the perfect one to direct. Our leading musicians mentioned "The Wizard of Oz" as being instrumentally delightful, yet challenging, but others on my team opposed it. I sent out an email, asking other theater teachers if they had directed it and, if so, what the pitfalls were. Most had not "because it's such a monster." I was told that there was, however, "a director from Burlington, Kan." who had just finished his final performance of it. I made the phone call.
After discussing some of the difficulties, Russell offered to loan us his set. Picturing cardboard cut-outs and cheap hangings, I asked if he had pictures.
They arrived three days later, and I realized then that Russell was a serious set designer. But there were problems -- his stage was much wider than ours, and he obviously had more wing space.
In our next phone conversation, Russell volunteered to drive to Fort Scott, look at our stage and see what would work. The following weekend he came, along with his costume designer and his set painter. They spent three hours here that afternoon, meeting with my co-workers, John and Ellen Kendrick, and me. The Burlington crew measured the stage and gave us ideas. To them, no problem seemed insurmountable.
Russell is a large man with a booming voice and an enormous laugh, but what impressed me most about this director was his attitude. There were no "cant's" in his vocabulary.
I still had my doubts, but Russell returned again in May when he and I discussed some of the logistical problems for mounted hangings, massive set storage and technical nightmares. We ended our day at Hot Wok where he opened his fortune cookie and handed me the slip of paper hidden inside: "There is a treasure for you somewhere over the rainbow." Surely God couldn't move through a cookie ... or could He? "Looks like we'll be doing 'The Wizard of Oz,'" I told Russell, and we both laughed. It was then I asked Russell why he was so giving. He said he loved helping people. That was it. He loved helping people. There was obviously more than just set design that I needed to learn from this man.
Three truck/trailer loads later, the entire Burlington set was delivered. Russell brought with him some of his stagehands who, along with my crew, spent the day disassembling set pieces that wouldn't fit through our stage door and then reassembling them once they were inside. He was tireless.
By the end of the day he was covered in sweat, but as he left he told me to be sure and call him if I needed any more help.
Russell drove to Fort Scott for opening night. If you were there, his was the contagious laugh and the extra-loud claps that generated a wonderful audience response.
After the show he said nothing about the set pieces we were unable to use but commented only on how much he enjoyed the performance and how proud he was of everyone involved. I hope the day comes when I can repay Russell for all he did for us, but knowing the kind of person he is, I'm sure he's not keeping score -- another philosophy I need to learn from my new friend.