A stage manager takes a director’s vision, a script, a cast, and a crew and wrangles them into a flawless production. Every light and sound cue is practiced to perfection. Transitions are mastered, props are placed, the curtain rises, and the audience is thrilled.
Topaz Cooks boned up on these skills while stage-managing several UMD shows. But on September 27, 2012 she learned that, unlike tightly scripted productions, real life can go horribly wrong.
When you ask Topaz if she’s like her dad, her eyes light up recalling the spontaneity of bringing home exotic fruit. “He’d always get so excited about it. Like, if he brought home a coconut, he’d be excited even though he’d have no idea how to open it.”
She shares her dad’s appreciation for small surprises as well as his artistic talent. If you happened to be at a restaurant where the Cooks were eating, you’d notice Topaz and her dad off in the corner, sketching on napkins. At home they’d race to see who could draw things faster. But it’s the quieter moments, really simple slivers of time, that Topaz is most thankful for. “One of my favorite things was we’d sit in the living room on Saturday mornings. He’d be awake before I was, sitting in his robe drinking coffee and playing Sodoku, and I’d just go sit next to him. We wouldn’t have to talk.”
Topaz’s dad, Rami Cooks, was the production and quality control manager of Accent Signage, known for both his smile and his drive to get the job done. Remembers Topaz, “They had really hard deadlines and not everyone was as committed as he was. So a lot of people were like, ‘OK, he’s the guy that you don’t mess with.’ And my dad knew that, but he would still make jokes at work.”
‘One hundred to one’ bets with his colleagues were his trademark. Topaz explains, “He’d say ‘100 to one’ that I’m right.’ If he was right, they’d give him a dollar. If they were right, he’d give them a $100. Just to rub it in, he’d have them sign the dollar bill, and he’d tape it up on his wall.” Amazingly, he was never wrong and had a gallery of signed dollar bills hanging in his office to prove it.
These bets unified the office. Accent Signage had a strong team, one that Topaz knew well. When she was little, she’d go to work with her dad and he’d bring home projects that she could pick away at after school. As she got older, her family worked at Accent Signage during the summers. Topaz says she grew up with the company.
The Cooks were especially close with the owner, Reuven Rahamim’s, family. Topaz babysat for their youngest son, her sisters and Reuven’s daughter were great friends. “Reuven was incredible. He and my dad were like brothers.” Topaz illustrates this by sharing the story of what happened when her Grandpa died unexpectedly. Rami Cooks had just returned from visiting his dad in Israel when his brother called with the news that their dad had taken a turn for the worse and the end was near. Rami didn’t think he could afford to fly back. “Reuven said ‘I have all these frequent flier miles and you’re going to take them. You’re going to go for two weeks and you’re going to take care of your family.’
Understanding how compassionate the company’s leaders were makes the tragic event of September 2012 even more incomprehensible. A disgruntled employee killed six people at Accent Signage, including Reuven Rahamim and Topaz’s dad.
“I remember when I was driving home that day when I found out he was in the hospital. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know if it was just my dad who was shot and I didn’t know who shot them. And I was thinking about it and I was like ‘what person at Accent Signage? It has to be someone who just came in off the street and went crazy.’ Then my sister, we were on the phone as we were both trying to get home, and she was like, ‘It was Andy.’ I knew him and I didn’t dislike him. We got along and we even joked. I had no idea there were thoughts of him being schizophrenic. He just seemed like a quiet person.”
College is stressful. Juggling stage management, scenic design, and classes is demanding. Topaz had it all mastered pre September 27. But how does someone carry on when tragedy comes crashing down so suddenly?
Somehow, Topaz is living the adage, "the show must go on" when the rest of us would draw the curtain. After sitting shiva, Topaz returned to UMD. One of her set designs won a national theater award and she made the dean’s list that spring. She gives a generous amount of credit to UMD’s theater department. Her advisor called her daily, her professors came to the funeral, and her peers were able to offer support, “The subject matter scared a lot of people, but my theater friends could handle it. Maybe they were used to the dark themes of many plays.”
But most of her strength, says Topaz, comes from her dad. A mantra that he started teaching her when she was an overwhelmed little girl has become her motto when she is overcome with grief. “It took him a while to train me. He’d be like, ‘OK, just take it one step at a time.’ Then in the last couple of years he’d be like, ‘What are you going to do?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m going to take it one step at a time.’
The steps, even one at a time, aren’t easy, says Topaz. She’s human and gets really angry and bitter sometimes, but her take-away from this unthinkable situation is one that we can all learn from, “I think that these sorts of things can either make you more bitter or they can make your heart so big. On the good days, there’s just so much that I’m thankful for. My heart just feels so big.”
Those who can, refuse to let tragedy dictate the last scene. If you happen to be at a UMD show and see a seat marked "reserved," pause for a moment and think of Topaz's decision to find gratitude. At every show, she reserves a spot for her dad who taught her this, the most important lesson of all.
Story by Lori C. Melton