Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Some Adventures In College Theatre (Plus Leonard Nimoy!)

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.  (Well, not really; I never can keep any kind of a schedule with this blog, but this is the sequel to the earlier post "My Story, FWIW.")  Have fun.

In college I abandoned any ideas that I or my family had about me practicing law and began thinking in earnest of a career in the theatre.  I took my first acting class under an amazing teacher named Robert "Buzz" McLaughlin and actually began to feel like this could be a thing for me.  I auditioned for everything, from major productions down to workshops but never got a nibble.  The reason most often given to me was that I was too damned tall.  I am 6'5" (or was; I've shrunk some as I've gotten older) and at the time the Drama building (Minor Hall!  Appropriately named!) was one of the shabbiest buildings on campus.  The theater was a converted lecture hall and it was essentially a shoebox on its side.  If you were over six feet tall, you looked like you were hitting your head on the lights.  And it was a damned shame, because that school put on some amazing productions in that tiny space.  But I plugged away, and kept taking classes.  The voice and rhetoric teacher, Art Greene -- who is the voice of William T. Sherman in Ken Burns' "Civil War" documentary -- helped me get rid of my New Joisey accent, Lois Garren taught me how to move, and LaVahn Hoh taught me how to build props and scenery.

And then we got a new building.

And when I say a new building, it was a brand spanking new building, with two state of the art theaters -- one traditional proscenium stage, and one big experimental black box with flexible seating.  A lot of thought and planning went into how best to open the building.  The Powers That Be decided that the first play would be presented in the big black box theater and that it would be "Of Mice And Men" by John Steinbeck.  A play with a role in it that nobody could tell me I was too tall or too big to play: the huge (and hugely tragic) Lennie.  I auditioned, and it was the most agonizing process I ever experienced; nothing I went through professionally ever even came close.  There were more callbacks for this show than ever before in the history of the department.  There are eight male roles in the play, and the director kept calling back nine actors, including me and one other big guy.  It didn't take a genius to figure out where he was having trouble making a decision.

The director was a guy who went on to become a great mentor and friend to me, but at the time he didn't know me from Adam.  At the third or fourth callback, he had with him as advisors the two acting teachers, Buzz McLaughlin and another professor who never seemed to have much use for me.  He never cast me in anything, and was never warm or even civil in my years at U.Va.  Again, I didn't need to be an Einstein to figure out that Buzz was rooting for me and the other prof was rooting for the other big guy, and the poor director just couldn't figure out what would work best.

The day they posted the final cast list I remember just standing there looking at my name in complete disbelief, for a really, really long time.  I thought it had to be some kind of mistake.  I had been cast as Lennie.

I nearly did not make it onto the stage.  About halfway through the rehearsal process I had my first major attack of Crohn's Disease and had to be hospitalized.  Luckily I did NOT need surgery, that time anyway, and was able to get back to the show.  It went very well.  The play was staged sort of in the round, with audience on either side.  (The technical description is "alley" staging.)  People were inches away from the actors and the immediacy was very powerful for those of us on stage.  The show ended in a standing ovation after every performance, which I never got to hear, because I was temporarily deafened by the gunshot that kills Lennie at the ending.  We had borrowed the Colt six shooter from the local county sheriff (even though the script calls for a Luger) and an unwadded blank was shot off a couple of inches from the back of my head each night -- so close that I could see the flame from the barrel shoot past both my ears.  I look back on it and shudder, because if we had ever slipped up and used anything other than unwadded blanks, I would have been killed.  But people loved the show, I survived, and the new drama building was off to a great start.

I went on to do several more major productions, including one of my favorites, the Gestapo Major in Kurt Vonnegut's "Happy Birthday, Wanda June!"  That show was U.Va.'s entry in the Kennedy Center national college drama competition.  I was starting to build my resum√©.

And like the other drama majors, when I wasn't in a show, I worked on it, learning to build props, paint, make scenery, and so forth.  Meanwhile, I was doing other things, like working as a disk jockey at the college FM station, and also working on getting guest lecturers with the Speakers' Union.  Now, I had been involved in Star Trek fandom since the show ended in 1969.  I was one of the Trekkies who helped organize the first Star Trek con in New York City in 1972.  My dream was to bring in a cast member for our speaker's program.  We found out that Leonard Nimoy was available and somehow we made it happen.  He came and addressed a crowd of thousands in our basketball arena, showed the Spock's Wedding episode ("Amok Time") and fielded questions for over an hour.  I made my first prop for this, a phaser.  I remember that it was fairly screen accurate, it did light up, and it did feebly make a sort of phaser-ish sound with the cheapo sound board that I had cannibalized from some kid's toy.  I actually got to use it during Nimoy's presentation when some guy cosplaying as a Klingon stood up.  Nimoy laughed his butt off.  Afterwards some of the speaker's committee went out for a beer with Leonard, me included.  I was on cloud 9.  Or at least Omicron Ceti Alpha 3.

Those were fun times.  But before I knew it, though, it was time for graduation and the dreaded Real World....

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