RAWLINS, Wyo. — Cue the car wreck.
"This is it, right now," said Aaron Willden in the sound and lighting booth of Rawlins High School's Fine Arts Auditorium. "Go. Go. Go."
Steve Sanger pressed play on the CD Willden prepped, but instead of a cartoonish screech and boom, country rock filled the seats.
"I've got new neighbors who are apparently very, very appreci-astic of music," said freshman Spencer Somervold, on stage as "Stanley," father of the female protagonist in the high school fall play, "The Matchmakers."
"Was he supposed to say that?" whispered junior Lauren Anderson inside the booth.
Sanger bit back laughter.
"No way. There was supposed to be a crash," said sophomore Autumn Tarango.
Willden pumped his right fist in triumph.
"Yes. Yes," he said. "I love live theater."
This is Willden's first time directing a high school play.
"I directed a little bit in college, but this is the biggest thing that I've done," said Willden, who moved to Rawlins in 2008.
He's no neophyte to the stage, though. From child to teenager, he picked up roles in the community theater and in high school in Tremonton, Utah.
"Theater, that's what got me through high school," Willden said.
It's also what got him a scholarship to Utah Valley University, where he was paired with a woman named Katie in a Church of Ladder-day Saints production, "Martin Harris, the Man Who Knew," in Clarkston, Utah.
"We played husband and wife," Willden said. "I remember our first rehearsal, I told her, 'This arranged marriage thing is working out well for me.' Lo and behold. ."
They got married, and within a couple of years he was working welding jobs in Rawlins. About a year ago, he picked up a job as a pipeline board operator at the Sinclair Refinery.
Today the couple has two children, ages 1 and 2-and-a-half. The go back to Clarkston every other year or so to reprise their roles in the Martin Harris pageant.
Willden didn't initially sign up for the high school director spot — RHS Principal Shane Ogden asked him if he'd be interested after watching his skit in a talent show prior to the start of school.
"I told him, 'Heck yeah,'" Willden said. "I love the theater."
A block in a makeup room corner, circa 1975, commemorates "Oliver!" Rawlins' first Fine Arts Auditorium production.
"We had grade-schoolers," said Larry Moore, a retired English and drama teacher. "We had a kid in third grade play Oliver, and he out-sang everyone. It was dynamite."
There're blocks for each play and musical after that. The one reading "Greater Tuna" is for the last play Moore directed before retiring in 2003.
Since then, there've been two primary directors — Dick Neuman and Tim Young, the latter teaches high school English and drama — although Moore's legacy endures.
"People told me about Larry and all the beautiful things he's done here," Willden said. "When I came into the school, I saw all these State Drama (competition) trophies, and I was a little scared."
So he enlisted Moore, who — along with Moore's daughter and son-in-law's help — filled in for Willden when refinery shifts overlapped with rehearsals.
"It went well," Moore told Willden after the Thursday morning performance. "There are some things we need to talk about, but I think it went really, really well for a dress rehearsal."
Backstage Moore and Willden shared notes with the cast — go slower, talk louder.
Later, reposed in a prop throne, Willden discussed his progression as a director.
"At the beginning I was super ecstatic, and in the middle I was super worried," he said. "It's been an uphill battle, but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
In fact, he'd like to do it again.
And the third stage?
During the show's intermission earlier, Willden left the sound and lighting booth to talk to his cast of 12 backstage.
Sanger stepped out for a breather, too, leaving junior Lauren Anderson and sophomore Autumn Tarango.
"We had a rough start but got it all together," Tarango said. "If you'd have asked us a week ago, I'd have said it was going to be a disaster."
"We were still trying to recover from losing our last director," Anderson said. "It was a learning experience for us to see how he (Willden) does things, but it all worked out."
Sanger returned — he didn't mention building more expansive set pieces than he's crafted for any of the last five musicals, but other cast and crew members did — and took a seat at the master soundboard.
"New directors get overwhelmed. Because we've done it so many times, we know what he's supposed to be doing, and we try to help," Sanger said. "Us having that knowledge makes it easier for him to transition. . Him and the kids? — It's amazing how everything and everyone's come together."
Willden returned and the second act began.Comment on this story
He rested his head against the wall above a square porthole, padded by a backward San Francisco 49ers cap. Willden repeated lines to himself and paced around the room, rarely sitting down.
Toward the end of the show, during a swordfight, a prop broke for the second performance in a row. The actors kept going, improvising gestures and dialogue to keep the now saber-versus-dagger duel going.
Willden laughed and shook his head.
"This is why I love live theater."
Information from: Rawlins Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com