Behind the Scenes at Lubber Run
Hal Crawford makes the magic happen at Arlington's favorite summer amphitheater
The show was The Prince and the Pauper and Hal Crawford was crouching behind the stage set at Lubber Run Amphitheater in Arlington. A newly minted volunteer, he was waiting for the scene to end so that he could unhinge a partition that doubled as a palace wall and a fireplace, and roll it offstage. When the actor playing the prince walked out and asked, “But canst thou make a storm?,” the skies opened and it began to rain.
Crawford tried with all his might not to laugh, but he knew in that moment that the magic of the theater had won him over. Then he ducked into the fireplace to keep dry.
It was the summer of 1971 and Crawford, then 18, had just graduated from Yorktown High School. In the fall, he would head to the University of Virginia, where he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and study engineering. What he didn’t anticipate was discovering the two loves of his life—theater, and the girl who would eventually become his wife—in the interim.
Not long after the prince and the rainfall, he met Sandy Gregson on the set of an Arlington Theater Associates production of Little Mary Sunshine. She was working props and needed a ride home to Falls Church, but didn’t have a driver’s license.
“I thought to myself, She’s cute, I can give her a ride,” he recalls.
The following summer, he returned to Lubber Run—and to Sandy—for yet another season. This time Mother Nature took things up a notch.
To this day, the 1972 production of Anything Goes remains one of Crawford’s favorite productions of all time, not only because the performance was stellar, he says, but also because it was the epic summer of Hurricane Agnes. The torrential storm hit just a few hours after the cast and crew had finished their first technical rehearsal. At that point, the lighting cues and scene changes had been set for the musical’s first act, but not for the second.
Although the show’s debut was pushed back by two days, certain details were still out of whack on opening night. The crew had had no choice but to set the lighting for Act II in broad daylight, even though the live performance would take place after dark. “In the arts you get something different every day,” Crawford says with a smile.
He changed his major to drama during his sophomore year at UVA, focusing mainly on design.
Fast-forward to the present and Crawford, 62, is seated comfortably on a bench facing the Lubber Run Amphitheater stage. Tucked into a park by the same name at the intersection of North Columbus and Second Street North, it’s a tranquil spot, where woods meet the neighborhood, where birds sing against the ripple of the creek.
A few things have changed since the summer of his initiation. He and Sandy just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary (they live in Arlington’s Tara-Leeway Heights neighborhood and have a son, Ryan, 28). The stage has been renovated and the venue, which seats 300, is now handicap-accessible.
Plus, Crawford is now in charge. As director of facilities and technical services for Arlington Cultural Affairs, he manages the amphitheater during the summer season from early June to late August, when it hosts roughly 30 performances, from dance productions and plays to bands and solo musicians.
Booking the talent is part of his job. Some artists approach him directly or come by way of staff recommendations. (Among his favorites: a 2003 performance by singer/songwriter Richie Havens, who opened at Woodstock in 1969.) Others he discovers during the off-season, when he oversees the technical side of productions at many of Arlington’s indoor stages, including Gunston Theaters One and Two, Theatre on the Run, the Mobile Stage and the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre.
He credits most of his know-how to his mentor and predecessor, the late Harry Morse, who held the director position from 1971 until his death in 1996.
“I would rather be working for him than working his job,” Crawford says. “He had a way of boiling everything down to one phrase so that you just got it.”
He recounts the time that Morse stood backstage and simply said, “The harp is a voice.” At that moment, Crawford knew he was mixing the sound incorrectly.
Though he relishes the many seasons and facets of his job, summer remains his favorite time of year. That’s when he and Sandy watch shows under the moonlight from the amphitheater’s grassy terraces, where they lay out a blanket and picnic.
“It’s like Arlington’s Wolf Trap,” he says. “Only these shows are free.”
And if Mother Nature makest a storm? Crawford moves closer to the stage and waits to see what happens next.
Kate Oberdorfer was raised in Arlington and graduated from Mount Holyoke College and Columbia Journalism School. She writes a column about Cuba for The Huffington Post and is working on her first novel.