WOODWARD — As the crimson curtain opens at the Woodward Arts Theatre, you see a man in a gray suit in front of a model ship, singing about creating a floating city.
Soon, a young man playing Frederick Barrett, the man who tends the ship's furnace, enters the stage and begins to sing a song, asking the question, “How did they build
Just a few days earlier, the actor was in the the
Friday and Saturday, these Woodward residents will perform the play for a second weekend; their first performances were last weekend. They've been practicing since January for a play that almost didn't happen.
Six people — three adults and three children — died after an EF3 tornado struck Woodward during the early morning on April 15. The tornado demolished 89 homes and 13 businesses in western Woodward, and at least 28 people were reported injured.
One hundred years ago, on the same day that the tornado struck Woodward — April 15 — the Titanic was sinking into the Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,500 people died, including passengers and crew.
Onstage in disaster
The night the tornado struck, Woodward resident and actor Charlie Burns and cast mate Eryn Brooks had planned to have a small remembrance for the Titanic passengers who died.
“We were so caught up in our own disaster, we couldn't remember that one,” Burns said.
Burns and Brooks were on the stage of the downtown Woodward Arts Theatre when the tornado struck. They were working on finishing a life boat for one of the final scenes. They took shelter in the theater basement as the tornado spun about two miles away.
After the storm passed, they went to their neighborhood, where they saw the devastation. They rushed to the home of fellow cast member Bill Stanley nearby and saw his truck beneath a tree. Neighbors had just pulled Stanley out from the wreckage.
Buried in rubble
Moments earlier, Stanley had awaken to a tornado blowing off his roof and ripping away the walls of his home. He was buried beneath loose installation, with his head uncovered, the rain spitting in his face.
It took several minutes to realize what had happened. Four other houses on Stanley's block were damaged or destroyed.
“This always happens to somebody else in some other town,” Stanley said. “This made me realize — next time I hear about a disaster like this, you just have to go help just to carry on that compassion, that human compassion, which is really what the people of this country and this state and this town are made of.”
Stanley, who was originally going to play Frederick Barrett in the Titanic musical, didn't anticipate how the tornado's destruction would affect him. He didn't expect the highs, the lows — or the survivor's guilt, he said.
The tornado hit only five days before the opening night of the play. Stanley, who has been performing on stage for more than 40 years, said he couldn't focus at practice and soon realized he would have to back out of the play.
“For me to back out was the toughest decision of my life,” Stanley said, his voice quivering.
Cast is family
Many members of the Titanic cast refer to each other as family. And when family is in trouble, you step up to help. Burns soon took on Stanley's role, giving Burns a total of three roles in the play: Frederick Barrett, the ship's stoker; Mr. Pitman, the ship's third officer; and the ship's lookout.
“Really, ‘The show must go on' could not apply any more than in the current situation,” Burns said.
With Stanley's absence, it took more than just Burns to pull off his additional role. Cast members banded together to help him with his many costume changes. One costume change must happen so quickly that a play volunteer stands backstage with glue on her finger, ready to smear it across Burns' face and press on a mustache.
Throughout the week, Burns has found inspiration not only in the spirit of the cast members, but also the energy and kindness of the volunteers who have helped Woodward recover.
“It says something about Woodward and it says something about Oklahoma, that regardless of the disaster, regardless of the issue, no matter how big or small, there's always a willingness to help ... even if it is just driving down the road and handing out a bottle of water to a volunteer. Even if it just putting glue on your finger and smearing it across someone's lip, it is important, and it's certainly reflected both in our production and in the tornado relief,” Burns said.