50 Years Later - My Life In Theatre
I don't know what got into me.
I didn't grow up idolizing any particular movie stars of my day; the tail end of John Wayne's career, Clint Eastwood coming up and a bunch of former stage personalities graduated to film - Karl Malden, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Paul Newman. Shirley Maclaine, Debbie Reynolds, and Doris Day were among the most popular women, although later reflection would lead me to Ingrid Bergman, and Joanne Woodward. And I can't say I was captivated by any particular stage performances, although there are dim memories of a sort of magic about puppet shows my mother took me to see.
'Why?' I ask myself 50 years later.
'Whatever possessed you to try out for the senior class play?' especially since it was entitled Our Hearts were Young and Gay (although 'gay' had nowhere near the sexual identity character it bears today).
What was I going to tell my parents? My father wanted a clarinetist, not an actor. Kept prodding me towards the first clarinet chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which, at the time, was occupied by my private teacher. I was pretty sure my Mom was going to be okay with it, but in something of a general reverse of common wisdom, when Daddy wasn't happy in the house, weren't nobody happy. Still, they adapted well, I thought.
The director was an English teacher, whose name I have forgotten. We called him Froggy. He had a bulbous face that seemed to sit atop a very fleshy neck, and a low, sort of vibrating baritone of voice. And to the best of my recollection, he turned out to be a good director.
He cast me in the role of Tom, I believe it was; one of a pair of ocean travelers, who run into Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough on a cross-Atlantic voyage aboard the good ship Montcalm. It was originally a book by the two women (Skinner, an actress and Kimbrough, a journalist), who avowed that the stories were not fiction. So, as adapted to the stage by Jean Kerr a few years later, two boys meet two girls on a cruise. Complications ensue, guaranteed to resolve by the end of Act Two.
I don't retain a lot of memories regarding the specifics of plot about this experience, but I do remember the sense of camaraderie, the shared purpose of a crowd of people, rather than one's every day circle of friends with whom you just . . hung out. And I remember, too, how the individual personalities of the four of us in the roles of the young lovers matched perfectly.
Two of us were a little staid and shy, while the other two were more openly boisterous and fun-loving. The couples were a mixed bag. Wild and crazy (in real life) Sheila got paired with bookish, spectacled, school scientist Craig, while I ended up with Deidre Tinker, a rather angular, bony sort of girl, who had a reputation for being what we didn't know at the time, was a geek. She'd have been bullied if she'd gone to high school in the 21st century. As it was, and for specific reasons I don't recall and am not necessarily proud of, I was horrified, especially when I learned that in the last moments of our mutual time on stage, we were supposed to kiss.
Well, that wasn't going to happen.
Through the entire rehearsal schedule, whenever we got to that final scene, we'd just skip right over it. I said my goodbyes, grabbed two suitcases and walked off the stage. Nobody said a word. Not me, not Deidre, not Froggy, not anybody. We all decided without a word spoken, that Deidre and I were not going to kiss.
So, opening night.
Early on, I repeated a line I'd said a hundred times in rehearsals and private line memorization, but this time, it got a laugh that just for a moment, halted me in my tracks. It was like a jolt of electricity in me; a sense of surging power, discovered in the written words and their articulation in front of an audience.
So I found ways, with the author assistance of Skinner and Kimbrough, to do it again, and again, and again, and by the end of Act Two, I was having such a great time that I didn't want to leave the stage.
Along comes the final scene and I'm thinking 'Oh no, I can't make 'em laugh any more.' The thought that I'd be doing it again the next night never occurred to me. We were into the play's final moments. I said my goodbyes, grabbed the two suitcases and headed for the door.
And then stopped.
I dropped the two suitcases, simultaneously and forcefully, facing away from the others, and took just a second or two before I turned. When I did, every one of my fellow performers had their mouth open. Only Deidre was terrified.
I stepped past the dropped bags, and took about six steps to reach her. I grabbed her by the arms, dipped her almost to the floor and kissed the girl. I returned her to her feet, smiled at the evidence of astonishment and made my first, final exit before an audience.
I would like to have seen the look on Froggy's face.
Oddly enough, I don't remember if we did it again in any subsequent performances. I think that by (again) mutual, silent consent, we returned to the way it had been done in rehearsals. It wouldn't have been the same anyway. If anything, it would have been more awkward. I'm relatively certain that neither Sheila, Craig nor (especially) Deidre was ever quite sure, though. That scene rolled around and while I was grabbing the suitcases to leave, they were wondering.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is how it all got started.