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Three score and ten or more

Sunday, August 31, 2008

I have promised this post a half dozen times back in the past. I have not posted it because it requires a lot of "back-story". I felt driven toward theatre when I was in high school, but I found all kinds of ways to avoid doing it seriously. I was offered a scholarship in theatre/acting at the University of Southern California while I was still in high school. (I believe I told you all how that came about many months ago.) My parents were proud of my acting but were very pragmatic folks. My dad was a boilermaker for the Union Pacific and my mother was a cosmetician and we were far from rich. Theatre seemed radically uneconomical at the time, and my mother was very nervous because a guy from the next block went away to New York and while there came out as a homosexual. (In my mother's eyes it was all the fault of theatre-- that was a different time). In short, my high school counselor, my parents, and most of my teachers convinced me that I shouldn't go off to California and get actor training.

I started college as a pre-med major, had a dream about doing surgery and changed my major to Political Science/ Pre-Law. At the end of my Sophomore year in college, I went away to be a Mormon missionary in Finland for almost three years. By the time I came home, I was twenty three years old, prepared to support myself through college, had met another missionary in Finland named Fred Adams (who has since been the receiver of a Tony Award, and who was both an active Mormon, a good missionary and a good theatre director) and I was determined to pursue a degree in theatre, which I did.

I had good training, became a competent (and in my own eyes more than competent) actor and picked up some professional gigs along the way. One of those was as a member of the acting company at the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival. While there I worked with a number of people who became relatively famous motion picture actors, a couple who later became stars of long running soap operas, others who managed well known theatre companies and I got some really good training from a couple of great directors. Maybe I will write about that in some detail at a later date.

One thing that struck me very forcefully. I met there a man (whose name has slipped out of my seventy plus year old brain) who was, I think, the best actor I had ever met at that time and one of the best I have ever met. He was in his thirties, maybe late thirties, was making a bare living in the theatre. His portrayal of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra was just awesome. He could even, when necessary, ad-lib in blank verse. What struck me most was that,as brilliant as he was, he was barely making it, and if I were ever to be financially as well as artistically successful in the theatre as an actor, I was going to have to get a LOT better than I was at the time.

One obvious conclusion was that I would have to go to graduate school, do a lot more work professionally and -- well I wasn't sure about the and, but there was something out there.

I went back to Idaho State University, married my sweetheart, applied to some good schools and received offers of assistantships or fellowships from Purdue University, Brigham Young University, Northwestern University and, I think, from a couple of other places. ( I had hoped in vain for an offer from Carnegie Tech because the Shakespeare Festival was up to its ears in Carnegie Alumni, and they all seemed to have wonderful training). At the time we began to sort out the offers we discovered that my bride had become pregnant, and was going to give birth in the fall, at the time when we had planned to travel off to graduate school, so I regretfully notified all the appropriate schools that I would be unable to accept and that I hoped that they might consider me some time in the future (yeah, right). The next step was to find a way to support us (at the time, I was selling shoes part time, and driving a school bus (and still managing to be four or five plays during the year.) After some panic, I was offered a job teaching Speech and Drama at Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls Idaho. All I had to do, in addition to graduating and paying the rent was to take enough Education Courses to qualify for a provisional teaching certificate before school started in the fall.

I quit driving school bus when school ended in the fall and took a job as the night manager in a Truck Stop (Eleven PM to eight AM six days a week.) I had already taken one course, Methods and Materials for teaching High School Speech and Drama because my bride was an Speech/Education major and that was a course we could take together. I took one more course along with my graduation requirements during the Spring Semester and took three or four such courses (mercifully my mind has blanked some of them out) during the summer. If you have an imagination, imagine spending all night pumping gas, changing tires, washing out trucks, and doing books, then leaving the station at eight o'clock and driving directly to attend a two hour long class in Child Growth and Development. (I was reasonably successful except for falling asleep during the final exam.)

I got my certificate went to Twin Falls where I had a real epiphany. Except for some of the paperwork, teaching is about the most fun you can have and get paid (that is legal and moral at any rate). The second epiphany came when I got into directing my first play, and I discovered that I was born to direct plays. I am, if you will excuse the ego, damn good. It wasn't true at that time, but after a little more training and a lot of experience, I have worked with and for directors of all kinds, and I really don't think I have ever met anyone better at it than me. (Probably not so anymore, I haven't directed a play for a decade.)

My third play at Twin Falls High School was named Rebel Without a Cause . Most of you, if you associate the title at all associate it with a very good movie starring James Dean with Sal Mineo in one of his best performances on film. I had no idea what kind of experience it would be. (Remember, this was in 1959 in a rural town in Idaho.)

I announced auditions, and the place filled up with men, only a few girls, but there aren't many in the play.

Just to get a feel of what kind of costuming problems I might have, I asked the group, right at the beginning, "Do any of you have, or know anyone who has a black leather jacket?" Every male hand but one went up along with four of the females. I gulped a little bit then followed up with the obvious question "I now am hesitant to ask this, but do any of you have, or know where I could find a set of brass knuckles?" Over two thirds of the hands went up. " This may be a silly question, but are there any of you who don't have access to a switch blade?" About four or five hands went up, and I realized immediately that no matter who was cast in the play, there were some skills that I wasn't going to have to teach. The costume problems were obviously non existent. (I had priced the rental of black leather jackets and had been wondering how we would costume the play.) The play turned out to be a glorious if unusual experience.

Several of the cast became quite well known after graduation, in a variety of outlets. One, Gary Puckett became quite famous with his group Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. I am embarrassed to note that although I knew he played the guitar well, I had no idea that he had a marvelous singing voice until I heard one of his records Young Girl Get Out of My Mind, which still gets play on some classic rock stations. I just knew he was a very effective member of one of the gangs in the play. Another actor in the cast became a personal manager for another rock star and once was the subject of a Time Magazine article. He was an entrepreneur in high school and before graduation owned a Dairy Queen and a Trampoline court (where one paid admission for so much time on the series of trampolines.). He also was an organizer. He was a classic black leather jacket type and when (after REBEL thank heaven) the school board prohibited black leather jackets in the school, he and his friends showed up the next day in sportcoats, white shirts and ties, and to my knowledge no students wore white shirts or ties to class ever after that except his group. (Yes, in those innocent days, it was not previously uncommon for guys to wear ties to class.)

I always made it a rule that no one could be in a play unless he or she was passing in all classes and in regular attendance at all classes. For the young man who played the Sal Mineo role, I think the only times in his life that he ever was passing in every class and in regular attendance in every class was when he was either in a play, or bringing up his grades in preparation for auditions.

The play itself was exciting, well acted and very moving. Probably the only other story I really want to tell was about the gun. There was a scene in the play, where, after a "chickie run" (look it up) this young high school student (the Sal Mineo role) is being threatened by a group of other students and he brings a gun to the confrontation (leading to the climax and end of the play). He pulls the gun and shoots another student. We spent a lot of time teaching the performers how to deal with firearms on the stage. (The wadding in a blank bullet can blind someone if it is shot toward the eye, or injure someone otherwise if it is shot in an improper manner.) Through rehearsals everything went well until the Assistant Superintendent of Schools attended a dress rehearsal and in the words of one of my students," had a cow." He prohibited the use of the gun on stage, so we had to set up a second gun with blanks offstage, fired into a bucket, and when the boy ontage pulled the trigger, the stage manager offstage had to fire the gun. This worked for the first performance, but during the second performance the boy drew his gun and pulled the trigger and nothing happened but "click click click" followed by the sound offstage of "click click click" (somehow the stage manager's gun misfired). The boy holding the gun, moved to attack his victim with the empty gun (which would really have screwed up some following dialogue) but in the mean time the victim, reacting to the unheard shots jerked backward, grabbed his chest and did a glorious swan dive to the floor. I am pleased to say that no other actors broke character, but you never heard so many ad libs all at the same time in your life. It was interesting to say the least.

For the final performances we had the backstage gun backed up with tape recorded sound. I determined that no victim was going to do a swan dive to a ground without appropriate sound effects.

I don't know any of the cast of that play who was not successful in his or her life, and it was one of the great experiences of my life. I was so proud of those switch blade carrying black leather jacket hoods. (By the way we couldn't safely use real switchblades either, but at that time, some company made combs mounted in handles like switch blades, and with very little adjustment they looked and worked in a way that was chillingly realistic.)

I learned a lot in that play. Actually I have learned a lot from all of the plays I have directed in high schools, colleges, community theatres and summer theatres (somewhere between one and two hundred, not counting puppet shows.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Looking back-- and forth

I doesn't take a genius to see that I have been in what might be called a "creative doldrums", and I seriously began to wonder if I was meant to be a blogger.  

In preparation for what I thought might be a withdrawal  from the system I decided to try to build an archive of the stuff that I have written since I began with the blog thing back in 2005.  I know that blogger has an archive and I have looked back into it a couple of times, but Patrick has bemoaned losing a bunch of stuff once as have others.  I don't know how you computer wizards  would build an archive, but I tried several things, including just clicking on a post, hitting "save as" and going from there.  I found this pretty unsatisfactory and ended up just bringing up all the posts from one month, copying them and pasting them into a Word document, which I then saved.  (I can see the computer literate shaking their heads in wonder about me taking six steps to do what could be done in one, but I am old and the old brain works that way.)  The advantage of this process is that I have had to go back and read my own stuff.  The disadvantage is that I have had to go back and read my own stuff.   (The other disadvantage is that I didn't get all the comments saved ---even though I seem to have preserved links to them; so I will probably go back and save the comments in the same way and insert them into the word documents.)

Reading my old stuff has made me aware of: 1. How much of what I have written lately is a sort of whining soliloquy.  2. How many documents I have promised (and started) but never posted.  I promised the story of a high school production of Rebel Without a Cause which never got here.  I promised a post on ethic humor, the draft for which seems to have been eaten by my computer.  I promised to show some samples of what I would call "my art" which would have to include some pictures of plays, puppets, dolls, etc.

(sidebar) I was taken, today with the content of Davo's blog, which I haven't been able to reach for awhile, but in which he shows a lot of painting and computer design and stuff like that that is really impressive.  (I really enjoy Davo--Wombats Waffles because though I probably don't agree with him on anything political, our backgrounds seem to mesh in a way that provides a mystic link to him, and he has had the idea of showing his art.)

Anyway, I am going to go back to my past and see if I can find any interesting tidbits that I haven't talked about yet, and try to deal with the onset of age without all the whining.

A semi political comment.  I watched about an hour of the Democratic convention last evening and Hillary's speech this evening and reflected that I am grateful that I am no longer teaching public speaking or persuasion.  Back in those days, I required my students to watch at least two complete evening sessions and to write critiques of the speeches.  That always require me to watch the whole dang thing (or both whole dang things) so that I could evaluate their critiques.  I came to the conclusion tonight that if I had to watch the entire convention now (and I suspect that I will feel the same way about the Republican convention) the result would be me shooting the TV or going totally bonkers.  Yuck.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Where we are now!!

Please excuse me if I repeat some things that I have written before, but it seemed important to put everything in context.  One of the men whom I revere in my life is a cardio-thoracic surgeon. I've mentioned his name before, but think that he might prefer to have his name left out of this discussion.  I first met him in the Meilahti Hospital in Helsinki, Finland at about nine thirty in the morning.  He had just come down from about five hours in surgery wherein he had saved the life of my wife, Janet.  I next met him again sometime later, in the waiting room of that same hospital after he returned from surgery where he had spent about two hours doing it again.

For the remainder of our slightly over two month stay in that hospital, I found him honest, swift to make decisions, helpful and caring for the needs of both Janet and myself to an amazing degree.

My only other experience with such a surgeon was the short Iranian man who gave me a quadruple heart bypass and saved my life, or at least lengthened it, I am sure.  He too was caring, swift, and reassuring.

From the experiences above, when our cardiologist discovered "anomalies" in Janet's descending aorta during a routine stress test and ultra-sound, and sent us (her, actually)  immediately to get a CT scan where they discovered that she had an aneurysm that extended from the bottom of the aorta to the top, I was quite secure when we went to see the cardio-thoracic surgeon at the Medical College of Georgia.  I was doubly reassured when he very thoroughly examined her and her tests, and sat down with us to explain the nature and seriousness of Janet's aneurysm.  He explained that though the condition was very serious, it probably could be reduced though an endovascular procedure (using stents of the sort that are used in holding open the arteries in the heart).  He then said that her surgery must be done within four to six weeks, he would line up all the equipment that was needed and call us in a week.  He didn't.   Although I called him and emailed him and it was not until I had a telephone fit with one of his staff, and our local cardiologist contacted him that he finally passed the word along through our cardiologist, and again by telephone that he really wasn't comfortable doing this surgery on Janet. He was worried about the outcome, including possible strokes, paralysis or renal failure.  He told us that he was referring us to a physician in Houston (and gave the impression that he had talked to the person in Houston.)

Now came another episode of waiting.  Gradually my appreciation for cardio-thoracic surgeons was approaching the appreciation held by American Mythology for lawyers.  (I decided not to tell any lawyer jokes at this point).  I also decided that the bureaucracy that surrounds Doctors in University settings is even worse than the bureaucracy in the rest of the University.

Finally the time came, Doctor Cosselli (who, by the way, if Google has accurate information at all is THE surgeon for the type of surgery that Jan has had recommended to her) got all the information from the Medical College of Georgia and from our local cardiologist (a prince among men), studied the information and records and notified us that he doesn't think Janet needs surgery at this time.  She is to get a new CT scan, go about her (and our) business for six months, get a new scan at that time, and if there are significant differences in the scans, he will bring us in to determine what, if any, kind of surgery or treatment is needed.

We have been basket cases from April to the end of August.  We have  given away two Time Share weeks because we thought we might have to go into surgery any day.  We canceled the cruise that we had arranged in celebration of our Golden Wedding anniversary.  I haven't been able to wrap my mind around anything.  For weeks I have sat at the computer, unable to generate anything but spider solitaire.  I belong to three mailing lists that have been very important to me for years, and at current count there are 526 unanswered and unopened messages in my mail program.  All of this because, either the Doctor at MCG over reacted to  the information he had, or because he was just in over his head and it took a long time for him to admit it to himself.  I am eternally grateful that he didn't let it become an ego thing that he had to try in spite of his reservations but that doesn't change the fact that we have lived in a state of somewhat terrified limbo for almost five months.

We Mormons have a lot tied up in faith, prayer, and the laying on of hands, and most of the members of our local congregation, along with many members of our family and a number of folks who weren't Mormons but who have faith and love, fasted with us and prayed on the first Saturday and Sunday of this month, asking the Lord for some kind of resolution.  Janet received  a blessing, through the "laying on of hands" that Sunday that the Lord would be with her and that there would be an appropriate resolution soon.  I consider what has happened since then an answer to prayer.  To those who read this who were involved in that fast, and who have prayed for Jan for all these months I would like to thank you from the depths of my heart.

Several of you who read this with some regularity have noted in the comments or by email that you have prayed for us or for some that don't believe in prayer, have kept us in your hearts during this period.  Thank you so much.  I think I feel that life will come to some sort of normalcy and I owe that to you, and to our Father in Heaven (that religious  stuff again)  Thank you again.  We have felt such love from so many in this time.  Janet is not healed,  they keep her blood pressure so low that she only has a few hours at a time when she can do the things she wants to do, but the prognosis is so much improved.  I will try to let you know, without the blog being a health record, how things go for the next few months.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I have to say at the beginning of this that I have made my living from performance almost all my life. I have acted, done a talk show on radio and TV, been a business manager of a theatre, as well as acting in, and directing a hundred or more plays at the community, summer stock, high-school, college and Festival levels. I have designed and built settings for somewhat over fifty shows, written a play that has been produced a couple of times, translated another, and written , produced, directed, and/or built puppets for, and sometimes been the only performing participant in twenty-some puppet shows produced in theatres, mall lobbies, libraries and individual birthday parties. I have done Lorca's Blood Wedding with life sized puppets and directed a cast of forty in a totally improvised production of Dracula. (Actually it was not totally improvised, we used the novel and a scenario that I wrote as a rehearsal basis.) In this process I have been the Director of Theatre in a college setting, I have been the technical director and designer in a college, and I have avoided designing and/or building costumes on all occasions but three. I have sung in choirs, quartets, and solos in venues ranging from musical theatre to churches to saloons. I have not been on Broadway or in a TV series and most of my parts in the films I have done ended on the cutting room floor. I have loved almost every minute of it-- with the exception of auditions. Auditions can be exciting, liberating and fun, but in general they are frightening, fearful, occasionally humiliating, and almost always frustrating. That applies to both the auditionees and those who must evaluate them.

The worst auditions, generally, are those referred to by the participants as a cattle call. Anyone who can demonstrate the qualifications (May be age, gender, vocal range, height or lack of it, Equity or SAG card, LACK of Equity or SAG card, or an acquaintance with someone or recommendation from someone who can get you in). For the casting director it may involve figuring out how to survive one more fat baritone singing for a romantic tenor lead (or vice versa) Listening to what seems like forty million mediocre actors speaking the same speeches, or being thrilled to the core when the right looking, right sounding, person comes in and sings five bars of a tune in a way that you had not imagined.

The cattle call audition is usually succeeded by a call back. This is an invitation-only audition for those who are considered real possibilities for finished performance. These are as tense as the cattle call, but are really more exciting because all the participants realize that there may be real effective results when the work is finished.

The format of the cattle call, the call back and the final auditions has been used for decades, and perhaps forever as the basis for plays, movies, television programs and even parties (I remember a board game called "Audition" or something like that which was popular many years ago.) Seeing the audition in a sense, fulfils the need that many of us have to see how things work. Many of us have watched Star Search, Dancing with the Stars, and even the Original Amateur Hour. and watched this process evolve (and in some cases devolve). Some shows have made fun of the fact that folks who have no talent, looks, or abilities but lots of guts are often willing to show off their lack of talent for five minutes of fame, no matter how humiating it may be. The Gong Show, Star Search. America's Got Talent and other shows use this process and we groan as the obvious failure throws down the gauntlet to the judges. We groan more when, occasionally, for whatever reason, the obvious failure is given encouragement to go on.

The results are mixed, with obvious joy and equally obvious tears, blown up on the widest possible screen for our entertainment. It is sometimes ridiculously close to the games between the Christians and the Lions in the Colosseum in Rome, complete with the occasional actual thumbs up or thumbs down gestures that were give to combatants in those games.

With the exception of Dancing with the Stars which I enjoy for no discernible reason, I am not a rabid fan of any of the reality series but am an occasional watcher, and am often rewarded. Watching the face of one judge, Sharon Osborn, as she observed a performer do a pretty dead-on imitation of her husband Ozzie was worth the time.

The "call back" for these shows is supposed to be a trip to Las Vegas where all will perform again to be evaluated for live performance in the final Los Angeles. Every winner at this point is exhilarated, calls home and tells the family, then goes home and rehearses like mad for the "call backs"

In the first program of this weeks America's Got Talent we were privileged to watch what was probably the most cynical, sadistic, and, in my opinion, evil moments on television. All those who were invited to "Vegas" were shown getting ready for the trip, saying farewell to their thrilled families and friends, then on arrival in Vegas were dressed in their costume and make up and about a third of them were informed that the whole thing was a damned lie. They were going home without any opportunity to perform, (having wept mightily and smeared their make-up on camera for the satisfaction of the producers, the judges, and whoever else was making money out of their humiliation and agony.) We were treated to an opportunity to watch the judges re-run the video tapes (which should have been done before any trips were made- - and probably were) of original performances and acknowledge that perhaps mistakes were made. We were treated to the sadism of the judges (I note particularly Mr. Morgan who is listed as the producer and therefore the promulgator of the opportunity we were given to watch these people who had come to Las Vegas in such hope and excitement fed to the lions with cynicism ) This cynicism was carefully mixed with the crocodile tears shown by the judges as they produced this spiritual and emotional rape in the same way that I envision serial rapists or child molesters apologizing in teary eyes to their victims. IIIICKK , RARELY HAS SLEASE BEEN PRESENTED TO A NATIONAL AUDIENCE WITH MORE APOLOGY AND SWEETNESS.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008



I received a phone call yesterday from a "recording" from the  "Card Service Department" offering to  reduce my interest to five or six percent if I would press "4" (or some number to talk to a live operator.  I did so and the live operator came on and asked me for my First and Last name.  I said that I would give it but that I hadn't heard  the identification of which credit card he represented.  He repeated "May I have your first and last name".  I repeated "May I have the name of the company that you represent."  He cut me off summarily.  I checked around and this is one of the newer and most successful Identity theft scams.  I just thought I would mention it.