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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.)


At 8:24 AM, Blogger Gayle said...

Even though you haven't directed a play for a decade, Richard, I'll bet you still could. Since it seems to be something that came so naturally to you, I doubt you would ever forget how to do it. Sort of like riding a bicycle, I think.

I would have loved to have been in the audience when that boy took a swan dive without the sound of gunfire. It must have been hilarious! :)

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Norma said...

Great story. I blogged about Gary Puckett appearing at Lakeside.


At 10:15 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

You wanted to be an actor but became a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher (for as long as I can remember) but ended up doing pharmacy because of the intrusion of real life.

I remember Gary Pucket's Young Girl Get Out of My Life like it was yesterday. I was just starting to have my first teen dates - and crushes.


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