The students file in and take their seats. They don't know it yet, but they're the stars of Kevin Bright's show.
"I want the audience to meet as many of you as possible," says Bright, an Emmy Award-winning executive producer best known for his work on the smash-hit TV sitcom "Friends."
Bright, 59, made his name in Hollywood. Every spring he travels 3,000 miles east to Massachusetts to produce the Possibilities Gala, Perkins' largest annual fundraiser.
It's early April and with the event just four weeks away, there's lots of work for Bright to do. Today he's scouting for talent and teachers have selected six students as potential Gala co-hosts. Bright has plenty of questions for them. They start off easy: What's your favorite food? How many siblings do you have? Who's your favorite musician? Then things get serious.
"Do you have a hero, Melissa?" Bright asks. The 14-year-old Lower School student says yes – her grandmother, who taught her to stand up to bullies.
Bright is laser-focused as Melissa and the other students open up with their personal stories, which he will eventually spin into a Gala script. The way Bright sees it, they're more likely to connect with the audience if they share their unique personalities and life experiences.
"This isn't just raising money for a theoretical cause," says Bright after the auditions. "It's getting to know the students. It's getting to be a part of what we do here."
Bright has a special place in his heart for Perkins.
It started in 2009 at a Boston Celtics game when he heard the student chorus sing the national anthem. A year later Bright volunteered to teach a filmmaking class at Perkins – "It was the most incredible experience of my life," he says. And in 2011 Bright began producing the Possibilities Gala, a star-studded showcase of Perkins' global mission to provide education and services for people who are blind.
His goal, he says, is to make every Gala better than the last.
Two days to go
It's Tuesday, April 29 – two days before the Gala.
Bright is back at Perkins after three weeks in Los Angeles, where he works as senior executive director of Emerson College's West Coast campus. He woke at 6 a.m. to write the Gala script and now it's time to hear what his most critical audience – the students – has to say.
The laughter filling Dwight Hall is a positive sign. Bright sits at a circular table with the six co-hosts. He's sporting running shoes, a grey fedora and a big smile.
"What do you think?" Bright asks. "I just wrote this fresh this morning."
The students love it. They're thrilled to read their own words in braille or large print. It earns a high-five from Secondary student Brendan, who will celebrate his 17th birthday the night of the Gala.
To mark this occasion Bright scripted a celebratory bit involving a birthday cake and the backing band. He insists they use a real cake – chocolate, Brendan's favorite.
Now the reality of their Gala performance is just starting to sink in. The students pepper Bright with questions, everything from what they should wear to when they have to show up. Bright tells them to wear Perkins T-shirts and show up fashionably late.
"Want to know why? Because you're the stars!" he exclaims.
The stars exit stage left and Bright walks over to the adjacent chapel, where the Perkins Student Chorus sings the disco hit "Le Freak." It's part of a 1970s medley that will open the Gala. Bright bobs his head in approval and starts clapping his hands to the beat. The chorus catches on and starts clapping too.
"You guys sound great!" says Bright. "Over the next couple of days it's going to get better and better. Sing big!"
One day to go
Another day, another rehearsal. It's Wednesday afternoon – 30 hours before the Gala – and the student co-hosts are feeling nervous. They arrive in Dwight Hall far quieter than yesterday. It's what a full day of memorizing lines will do to a performer.
Bright sits with the students and offers reassurance.
"There's no big pressure," Bright tells them. "I'll always be close by."
For Zac, 14, tomorrow will be his first time on stage. Bright has paired him with Melissa, who's already delivering her lines with confidence. Zac will require more polish.
He uses a braille notetaker to read his script and starts to loosen up after some coaching. It's about personality, not perfection, Bright reminds him.
"If you change a word, it's not going to bother anyone," Bright says. "Stop reading it and start performing it. Make it yours!"
The lines begin to flow and personalities start shining through. At Bright's request, Zac and Melissa take it from the top and deliver a few lightning-quick quips.
"Did you hear how tight that was?" Bright shouts. "That's how it's going to be tomorrow night!"
Thursday – Gala day arrives and the big tent is full of commotion. Work crews are everywhere, setting up video screens, speakers and monitors. Caterers unfurl tablecloths and organize silverware. Bright is in his element – and in the midst of a 14-hour work day.
The Gala is a big production. The three-hour program features the first public remarks by new Perkins President and CEO Dave Power, videos, an auction hosted by comedian Lenny Clarke and live music from funk powerhouse The Family Stone. But Bright maintains that it's all about the students: "It's their show – so check your ego at the door."
Zac and Melissa are on stage now, mic'd for their final rehearsal. Golden LED displays flash behind them. Disco balls sparkle high overhead. They're ready for tonight.
"Nice and loud!" says Bright. "Let's run it one more time."
There's so much activity, but somehow Bright stays on top of it all. One second he's offering a pep talk to students, the next he's shouting for the sound crew to mic the next batch of co-hosts. The backup band arrives to practice Brendan's birthday skit, and Bright gives instructions. When the crew realizes they'll need to hang black drapes behind the stage, Bright is the one calling in the order on his cell phone.
Watching all this unfold is Corinne Grousbeck, chair-elect of the Perkins Board of Trustees and the woman Bright originally approached about producing the Gala years before.
"He was like my white knight," she said. "He just took the Gala to a whole new level. Every year it's become a bigger event and better attended. Kevin came in at the right time."
When day turns to night, Bright is the first man on stage. He urges the 600-plus guests to take their seats and then gives a rousing introduction to the student chorus. Their '70s medley is a hit. Next up are Zac and Melissa. They're loose and confident and nail all their lines.
Bright looks on proudly from the side of the stage. Another unforgettable Gala is underway.
Soon it's Bright's turn to grab the mic again. He shares his story with the audience, bringing them back to that fateful Celtics game, to the filmmaking class that changed his life, and to the long hours preparing for the Gala. He's loved every minute of it.
"I am a Perkins lifer," says Bright. "Come back next year. You'll see the same guy up here."
View more photos from the Making of the 2014 Perkins Possibilities Gala »