Failure appears to be a component of every artistic journey.
Upon leaving the big university without a degree, I had a summer job lined up as an actor. After that? Nothing other than the rest of my life.
I had no idea as to what to do. It was too late to apply to other schools or programs. And after my experience, I was uncertain that I could even do it. I didn’t know if I had the talent or experience or whatever to manage a graduate program, and I was even more unsure that I wanted to manage the increased departmental politics of a graduate program.
In the end, friends and luck helped. At the last minute, I got hired to teach and be a technical director in a smaller college program. I didn’t get to teach acting, of course. The program wasn’t that big. But I did get to teach.
I’m not a very good technical director and not a very good designer. But the faculty indulged my inexperience and was patient with me. I worked hard with inexperienced student carpenters and got shows up. Somehow.
It was a tough year. In the spring I opened five shows in five weeks – doing different jobs in each show. I was tech director for one show, directed another show, ran sound for another, and so on. In the meantime a family member during this time was in the hospital. So I’d finish a rehearsal or a class, visit the hospital, and then go to the evening rehearsal, and work some more. Most of the work paid squat or less.
Another call came in the midst of this helter-skelter. Again, through the intervention of friends, mostly, I got a call with a job offer. Could I be lured to go on the road? Tour as an actor?
It’s possible I said “yes” before the sentence got to the question mark.
Over the next four years I gave more than 500 performances on the road across America. We toured from north of Everett, WA to SanDiego – from International Falls, MN to the tip of Texas – from the Florida keys to flinty Vermont. We played big towns and small towns and every town. It was while touring that I learned how to act.
Oh, I knew something about acting before then (I hope). I got to work with directors like Drexel Riley, Paul Pierce, and Tony Medlin. And we got to perform and perform and perform. I played the father in I Ought To Be In Pictures by Neil Simon for two of those years. It was in the performance of roles over and over again that I began to understand acting.
Acting wasn’t about adrenaline. After you’ve done a role 40-50 times, adrenaline has no part in what you do. Acting isn’t about saying the lines with intelligence (although that’s a decent start at a minimum). And acting isn’t always about telling the truth, because sometimes that truth is that you got up at 5 am that morning and drove six hours through construction and nasty weather and feel more than slightly ill. That’s the truth. But that audience doesn’t care about that truth.
You begin to learn what it means to create something, and what it means to create something enjoyable every night despite all. All tour tales are multiple stories with one basic plot – a series of impossible things happened, and then the show went on without the audience guessing. Tour tales are the travelling actor’s version of “The Aristocrats” joke – the fun is in seeing if you can top the (actual) impossible obstacles of everyone else’s stories.
Touring taught me to be a scene partner, I hope.
A brief digression . . . . My first professional job was a summer Shakespeare company, playing Gonzalo in The Tempest, Jacob in Joseph…Dreamcoat, and smaller roles, and directing a short Harlequinade. My roommate was the extremely talented William Salyers. I was in a lunch line one day with a fellow actor named Ivan. We were talking about rehearsals, as actors will do. Ivan said that Salyers was the most giving actor he had worked with. As soon as Ivan said it, I knew he was right. And I felt a little sad inside myself, because I knew also that no one would ever be likely to say that about me.
My second year of playing Herb in I Ought To Be In Pictures I got a new daughter. We got along well. But one day in the spring, on a show day, we got in a little spat. The point of the argument was not important. So many arguments in our lives weren’t about anything really important, but more about other issues in our lives that got played out as arguments. Our cast was a good one – we were always able to wish each other a good show before curtain. And so we did that night.
Toward the end of Act I, Herb had a series of longish speeches to explain to his daughter why he abandoned her and her mother years prior to the play’s action. I’d been doing the play for about a year and a half. Well, I was in midst of this, and I suddenly couldn’t think of a word of English. I dried. For a moment I couldn’t have said, “Mary had a little lamb,” let alone my line from the play. My new Libby looked at me the way an actor does, and my eye told her, “I haven’t a clue what to say next.” The actress blinked, said a few words in the form of a question that got me back on track.
During intermission I was devastated. As an arguer I’ve often given other people an idea of self-righteousness that wasn’t very pretty. I had been so confident that afternoon in my position, and now tonight I couldn’t remember my line and had to be saved by my scene partner.
In Act II, Libby has some longer speeches that lead into wanting to have a dialogue with her father about men and sex – her abandoned mother (not a surprise) had not really wanted to talk about men much with her daughter.
So we started Act II and went through the opening scenes with me still beating myself up for being so dumb. And, then, all of a sudden, my Libby gave me that look. She had no idea what the next line was. She had dried! Now it was my turn to blink and ask her a quick question that fed her the words to get her back on the track.
So over time, I learned how to be present. How to listen. I learned how to deliver a punch line so that the laugh would always be there. I learned how to commit to comic suffering. I learned how to be truly at home on any stage. Act on tables stacked on milk crates? Sure. Act on a stage with a porch railing across the front? Certainly. Act on a stage that’s eight feet above the floor and 25 feet from the nearest audience member? Of course. But I also got to walk on stages that had been trod by James O’Neill and Edwin Booth. It worked out.
While I was touring, I also read. I read about anything and everything. But I read most about theatre and acting. And I just grew up. Well, a little.
I got more savvy about higher education and theatre in America. I learned the lingo by which the person in charge of the MFA program (it matters not where) contends loudly about NOT training teachers (as if that was somehow filthy), but, “We only train professionals!” And this was said always by someone who taught in a college/university with an MFA as the terminal degree.
As I toured across the country, I kept visiting Michigan State University. I liked the town and the campus. On one swing through town, I arranged for a meeting with the person in charge of the graduate program. Luckily for everyone he was in production that week, and too busy to see me. Instead, I met Frank Rutledge. He showed me around the building and talked about the program. He would later become my mentor, the chair of my dissertation committee, my sounding board, and my friend.
I was admitted to M.S.U in the fall of 1991. I didn’t go. I needed to raise some money to make it work. I worked as an inventory specialist and as an environmental activist for some months. I was still relatively poor to the amount that I’d need to complete school, but I needed to go.
After Christmas, I packed up a tiny Ford hatch-back with my best theatre books (Rudnitsky’s study of Meyerhold, my “Riverside Shakespeare,” and the like) and drove non-stop from my folks’ house in Oklahoma to Lansing. I got a room at the Motel 6 and found an apartment in a building that no longer exists across from the Michigan Lottery Building.
On January 2, 1992 I went to meet John Baldwin, chair of the Department of Theatre. I got a job and got my first schedule of classes.
And meanwhile, half a world away people I did not know were setting up the dominoes that would eventually lead to changing my life.