50 Years Later - My Life in Theatre
- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
Still shaking, internally and externally, from a near-death experience, I was escorted into the producer's office at the Weathervane Theater's cast house in Whitefield, NH. The first thing that the producer (his name was Gibbs Murray) did was to hand me a glass, with a good-sized shot of what I'm pretty sure was my first taste of unadulterated-by-so-much-as-ice Scotch whiskey, which I downed in a single gulp, and took a long breath.
I related the story of our trip to the swimming hole, which I'm pretty sure came out more than just a little disjointed and more than just a little influenced by my own attempts to process the tale myself. My recollection of the time frames of this remain a little hazy, but I remember thinking at one point that all of us, myself included, had to get ready for an opening night performance, now without a drummer. I even remember standing up, and saying something about this, at which point, Murray informed me that I wasn't going anywhere.
The thought that literally every person in that house was about to leave and head off to a performance, at which I was expected to be absent, horrified me. With so many other things roaring through my head, the idea that I was going to miss my first performance on a summer stock stage never occurred to me. What did occur to me was that I had absolutely no desire to spend the rest of the evening in a sprawling, empty cast house, alone. Murray assured me that an actress, recently arrived to rehearse for an upcoming production, would be staying with me. He refilled the glass with more Scotch, letting me know without actually saying so, that he'd entertain no arguments about his decision, and watched as I downed my second shot of Scotch.
And so, I was introduced to the actress, and left behind, my first performance on a summer stock stage delayed. Just once, as it turned out. She was older than I was, by a number of years, and I don't remember exactly how that evening proceeded for us, but she was instrumental in assisting me with the process of returning to some kind of normalcy. In the shadow of a death, she brought me out of the shock, confusion, and lingering traces of fear to a place where I was able to affirm life again. She maintains my eternal gratitude for every aspect of that single night of my life. I am convinced that without her dogged determination to help me, it would have taken me significantly longer to recover, with now, only traces of those moments sitting crystal clear in my memory.
And the summer moved on. I made that first appearance. Shortly after Camelot, I was introduced to the experience of performing in a second production of a play. Normally, that experience is about performing in a well-known play or musical for the second time, like Camelot, The Sound of Music, or Oklahoma. My second appearance was in S.J. Perelman's The Beauty Part, in which I had appeared while with the Quannapowitt Players in Reading, MA. I was struck by the stylistic differences between the two productions in which I had been involved. With the Quannapowitt Players, the director had gone for something of a straightforward production of the comedy which, when it had opened on Broadway, years before, had featured the talents of Bert Lahr, playing seven roles, including a woman. The Weathervane Theater production took more of a whimsical, wild-eyed view of things. In Reading, MA, a tennis racquet prop was just that - an actual tennis racquet. In Whitefield, NH, that tennis racket was created out of painted cardboard, with the strings represented by multiple colors. It was my first introduction to the very idea that a particular play or musical could be interpreted in any number of ways.
During a subsequent production of The Sound of Music, I was made aware of how extraordinarily transportive certain performances could be. The first time I heard the woman cast as Maria's Mother Superior sing "Climb Every Mountain," I was transported to a place in my heart and mind that thrilled me more than any performance had before, or has done since. We were in a barn, literally, and while the producers were invested in professionalism, the settings, costumes and bare bones music were a far cry from the lavish productions I would eventually see in the theatrical future ahead of me. Yet through the meager trappings, this woman belted out a song that every night, throughout the repertory weeks that it was performed, held me spellbound. It crystallized the "problem of Maria" for me in a way that the spoken words of the script did not, and made me aware, for the first time, of the inherent power of a strong musical performance, articulating the thoughts and emotions of the people on-stage, as well as those of all of who bore witness.
Prior to that summer, I'd have described my interest in theater as mild, more along the lines of "Oh boy, this is fun," than any solid commitment to pursue it long-term. I knew, all summer long, that short-term, my next step was training, and ultimately, an assignment as a soldier in the United States Army. I couldn't really envision much beyond that. But that summer stock experience, unbeknownst to me at that time, had solidified what would become a life-long interest in theater, which, thankfully, continues to this day.
They landed on the moon that summer, and I watched it on a small, black and white television, while conversing with my parents, by phone. Some members of the theater company, not involved with a production on a specific weekend, travelled to attend the Woodstock festival. At a post-performance party, held at the cast house, I watched people drift behind closed doors, and upon examination of this phenomenon, discovered marijuana, and the odd (to me) practice of sharing a joint.
In September of that year, I reported for duty with the US Army, and was bussed to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training. On leave for the first time, I boarded my first plane for the quick trip to Boston, and later, back. After basic training, I was bussed to Fort Jackson, in Columbia, SC for AIT (Advanced Individual Training), where I was trained as a Clerk Typist ("Skippy," my Mom had advised me, "Learn something you can use later in life."). AIT took a little longer than was strictly necessary, and I was back in Boston, on leave again, for Christmas, boarding my third and fourth planes in the to-and-fro process. The fifth plane I ever boarded was a huge C-130 transport plane, and on a chilly February morning in Fort Benning, GA, at about 3,000 feet, I jumped out of it, becoming, officially, an airborne Clerk Typist.
In March, I was assigned for duty at Fort Clayton in the Panama Canal Zone, where thanks to a little 'clerk-typist' gaming of the assignment system, I would spend the rest of my short Army career. I was there for exactly two years, which embraced celebration of my 22nd birthday, and later, something of a 'shotgun wedding.' It also entailed appearances in 12 theatrical productions, beginning with an audition I attended on the night I landed in Panama.