“Open the box, tear off the lid”.
Three Girl Rhumba by Wire, from 1977.
“Open the box, tear off the lid”.
Three Girl Rhumba by Wire, from 1977.
One of the first foods I ever learned to make for myself (guided by my mother), when I was a teenager, was Dippy Eggs. I guess outside of Pennsylvania they’re better known as “over medium” eggs. Hard whites, gooey yolks! My mother would make them for us regularly, and it was, and probably still is, my favorite way of preparing eggs for breakfast.
In fact, I just had them for brunch. I’m home, alone, and it’s a beautiful spring day, and all the windows are open. And, for some reason, a memory just popped into my head.
Twenty some years ago my mother left my father.
In retrospect, I know why she did. And I know she had to. But at the time it created a nightmare (as these things do) for our family, and close family friends. I should say, I don’t blame my mother…it had to be the hardest thing she ever did in her life. But my father was never an emotionally stable fellow to begin with, and this, what I at the time perceived as abrupt, but seemingly long premeditated departure, sent him into a dark, spiraling descent into depression and emotional breakdown. Over weeks and months, he tried to get us, his two sons, to help him bring my mother back. Sometimes he’d wake us in the middle of the night, pleading. He didn’t understand we were powerless in that regard. There was nothing we could do about it. My brother and I were in our early twenties at the time, and this was about them and their failing marriage, not our family foursome.
During my parents’ marriage, my mother cooked all the meals. ALL of them. I have absolutely no recollection of my father ever cooking anything. Okay, maybe burgers on the grill, but even that I’m not sure is a real memory or a fake, everyone’s-dad-cooks-burgers-on-the-grill memory (for the record, my wife is the griller in our family). My father did make sandwiches for himself…bowls of cereal…toast…
Anyway, I don’t remember how long my mother had been gone at this point, but I was in the kitchen, about to make eggs, and my father came in and asked what I was doing. I told him I was making Dippy Eggs. He got so excited, because I’m pretty sure Dippy Eggs were his favorite too. “Ooh, can you make some for me?” he said. I remember being taken aback by this. Here was a grown man, I guess in his forties at that time (which is weird, because I’m now older than he was then), who did not know how to cook Dippy Eggs on the stove. He couldn’t melt butter in a pan, carefully crack eggs into said pan, gently flip them over when they were ready and then slide them onto a plate. He couldn’t do that. So I made them for him. And he ate them, and was so grateful, and amazed and impressed that I could make them, like I was some kind of goddamned kitchen wizard. Then, I asked if he wanted me to show him how to make the magical Dippy Eggs, and he said no. He didn’t want me to show him how. I didn’t say “magical” back then. I just added that now for some comedic effect.
After my father and mother divorced, and after our home was sold, and my father was living in a small apartment of his own, I would visit him. In his kitchen cupboards he had soup. Neatly stacked cans of soup. Cans and cans and cans of Campbell’s soup. That was about it. There was a decent variety…but it was all Campbell’s soup. And I wondered if he ever tried to cook anything, ever tried to learn.
I still wonder.
I don’t talk to my father at all these days. It’s unfortunate, and a little sad, but it is what it is. I don’t know whose fault it is ultimately, but I do know he still has serious emotional issues, and perhaps even undiagnosed, and subsequently untreated, mental illness. Every couple of years a crisis will come up in his life, and I’ll step in and “help” to resolve it, and then we go back to not speaking.
I saw him at McDonald’s the other morning. I had stopped to get a coffee before a meeting I had scheduled, and he was in line for breakfast. I don’t know if he saw me or not. I diverted straight to the bathroom. I wondered if he was in that line every morning for breakfast. I wondered if he ordered the same thing every day. I know they don’t make Dippy Eggs there. I left without saying anything to him and went to Sheetz to get my coffee. I just didn’t want to have, what I knew would be a strange, strained interaction there, at McDonald’s; at perhaps what is one of his happy places.
I really do hope he has happy places, and that every now and then he still gets Dippy Eggs. Maybe from a diner, or from a friend…or maybe he learned to make them himself.
Wouldn’t that be something.
My daughter and I went to church on Sunday. Not really a big deal…but…
It’s been years since our family attended the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg (UCH) regularly. We’re still considered members, I think. When we started going to the church, our daughter was still a baby, and today she is 14 years old. That tells you how long we’ve been affiliated with the church. But when we were attending regularly, and considered vital, contributing members, the pastor and the people of the congregation were nothing short of inspiring. Nearly every Sunday morning I’d sit in the sanctuary and be challenged and or comforted and or moved by the words coming from the pulpit.
At some point that changed.
I won’t go into all the specifics. In fact, I don’t know if I even know most of the specifics. However, I do know that the church changed. The pastor, at the time, and many of the people of the congregation wanted to expand the church and its mission to an inner-city church building that was for sale. Rigorous debate ensued. Feelings were hurt. A schism developed. The building was purchased. The congregation was split. The pastor left the church. Before he left, however, many of the Sunday morning services became admonishments of the congregation for not doing enough, not giving enough money. My wife and I became weary of what appeared to us to be regular brow-beating. So we stopped going. I’m not even sure it was a fully conscious decision. We just drifted away. I don’t blame that pastor for us leaving, by the way. To be fair, I’m sure there was a lot going on behind the scenes we weren’t privy to. But we weren’t interested in the politics.
That was years ago. Since then, my wife and I have stayed connected to the church via a small group we call COUCH. Originally it was a program, started by the church, to have its members get to know one another better. It stood for, Connecting Our Unitarian Church of Harrisburg. Most of the original members of our group are still in the group, some 12 years later. We get together about once a month, eat snacks, check in with one another, and talk about important topics (sometimes religious, sometimes not), viewing them ostensibly through the lens of Unitarian Universalism. About half the group still attends UCH on a regular basis. The group is made up of 9 or 10 wonderful, smart, thoughtful human beings, all with fairly different spiritual journeys. And my wife and I consider them good friends.
Right, so my daughter and I went to church on Sunday. My wife and son had plans with friends (one of our COUCH friends and her niece, actually) for the day, so it was just the two of us.
We went because, lately, I’ve been feeling drawn to it again. With all the unrest in the country and the world, I’ve been craving a community of like-minded people to commiserate with, to grieve with, and maybe even to get inspired with again. I don’t know if the church has healed yet. I don’t know if the church is thriving or dying, but I do know it felt really good to be there. A few of our COUCH members were there, and excited to see us. Folks who I’d seen for years, back when we were going every week, introduced themselves to me as though I was a visitor. But I wasn’t upset by it. I thought it was sweet, in a way. Truth be told, I always knew we’d go back…someday. Maybe that someday has come. Who knows?
The sermon was delivered by the interim minister, Rev. Michael Walker. From what I could gather, he’s been there about a year. He was well-spoken and affable. His sermon was titled, “Future, Dawning Bright and Clear.” He started out by saying he’d begun writing the sermon, and I’m assuming titled the sermon before the most recent terrorist attacks. Before Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Before Dallas and Baton Rouge. He seemed to be speaking from the hip and the heart when he said he wasn’t sure how he could continue writing a sermon with the title “Future, Dawning Bright and Clear”. But he kept the title, and he went on to speak about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of our church over the previous year. He spoke about why our church is important. But the thing he said that stayed with me was, he believed our church to be a place for us to come heal, so we can go out into the world and help it heal.
Wow. So simple.
I never really thought about it like that. But it made, and makes a helluva lot of sense to me. I sometimes feel beaten down by the world, and I feel sometimes I’ve become numb to it. Like there’s nothing I can do but change my Facebook cover photo to show support. All the violence and ridiculousness seems too much. But to have a place to heal…a place to rejuvenate…in order to have the wherewithal to be a healing force out in the world…that is important. After the service, on the way home, my daughter said she’s not sure our church is really a church in the more traditional sense of the word. In a way, she’s right. Most of us aren’t there to worship a god or be promised a happy afterlife. But maybe this is what church should be. Heck, maybe it is for most folks, and I’m only now just realizing it, for myself. It’s a place to heal and regain your strength, not only to deal with all the nastiness, but to help heal it.
Huh…how ’bout that.
At the risk of ending on a commercial for Unitarian Universalism, I leave you with the 7 principles of the church:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
Isn’t that awesome? How could you not want to be a part of an organization with those principles?
Especially now. Especially today.
What I find most interesting about this presidential campaign, is the shock and surprise by many of my NPR loving, climate change trumpeting, mostly secular, well-read and educated, left wing friends regarding Trump’s popularity.
I think you don’t keep up with popular culture. Have you seen any of the extremely popular, yet abhorrent reality TV shows? Have you actually listened to any of the right wing shock jocks? Have you ever watched a WWE professional wrestling show? Have you watched or listened to any Christian TV Evangelists? Trump is all those things wrapped up in one shiny, orange package.
Not to mention, practically 50% of the country believes nearly the exact opposite of what you believe; socially, economically, religiously. And some (perhaps many) of those people celebrate ignorance. Not condone or accept or ignore it…they CELEBRATE it. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, we’re currently in the middle of a Cold Civil War. We fight for Gay rights. We fight to reverse climate change. We fight for gun control. And the “other side” fights just as passionately to suppress Gay rights, to deny climate change, to keep any and all guns and ammunition freely available to any and all people. And on, and on.
So, keep cheering for Bernie/Hillary and fight like hell to get him/her elected. I’m right there with you!! But stop acting like it’s so surprising that Trump (or Cruz, for that matter) is as popular as he is. He is feeding his supporters EXACTLY what they want to hear (to be fair, all the candidates are). Trump supporters are absolutely primed and ready for a candidate like Trump. This same cadre of Americans elected George W. Bush, even now considered one of the worst presidents in our history, TWICE, not that long ago!
If Trump wins the presidency this fall, I’ll not be moving to Canada. I won’t cry or scream or gnash my teeth. I’ll simply suck it up and get ready for 2020. The truth is, I’m not saying anyone’s wrong or right here, either. I mean, is there such a thing as “right” and “wrong”? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and vote. I do believe that. This country is, after all, a democracy. I’m just saying, I’m not at all surprised by Trump’s rise.
And neither should you be.
This theme has been rattling around in my head for the past week or so. So I thought it might be time to start writing again.
Here goes nothing.
The first thing back from the dead, then, would be my blog.
I’ve taken quite a long break from writing. For several years I was writing regularly, then the ideas started drying up, and I felt like every time I sat down to write, I was forcing it. So she went into hibernation (I guess my blog is female, for some reason).
Stwaz’s Perspicacity has always been a place for me to open up…to spill my guts…to share my stories and history…and at times she’s been very therapeutic. I already feel myself loosening up, for writing this. A while back I had started a series of My Life In Theatre, and stalled while gathering pictures for the next installment. I’ll return to finish it someday, for sure. Not that anyone’s waiting with bated breath, but I need to finish it, for me.
Welcome back, blog!
The second thing back from the dead, is our dog, Ruby.
Back in the middle of August, we came home from an overnight trip to find Ruby lying on her side, on the floor. She usually gets right up to greet us, enthusiastically, but this time she seemed almost unable to get up. The service that took care of her while we were gone made no mention of an incident, or unusual behavior from Ruby, so we were perplexed. After some prodding, she did eventually get up, but we then noticed she was not putting pressure on one of her back legs. This, on the other hand, was not unusual, as she had suffered, off and on over the years, with some arthritis. So, we dismissed it.
However, when she didn’t show signs of bouncing back over the next few days, we thought we should take her to the vet. And so we did.
The vet dismissed it, as well, and said, something to the effect of, “Your dog’s getting old.[She’s 10, btw] We’ll put her on some supplements for her joints, and a mild painkiller.” The vet said we might not see a significant change for as many as 5 or 6 weeks, but that eventually, she’d be like a puppy again. We started her on the meds and watched and waited.
During the 6 weeks that followed, Ruby would have good days and bad days, but we noticed she started getting thinner, AND she wasn’t able to open her mouth as wide as she used to. I have to be honest here, we really thought Ruby’s life was coming to an end. My daughter was getting increasingly emotional, and didn’t want us to take her to the vet, for fear the recommendation would be euthanasia. But when Ruby finally couldn’t open her mouth at all, and the muscles in her head seemed to be wasting away, we did a little research on the internet, and decided we should get her to a vet. We also decided to get recommendations from friends for a new vet.
Through friends, we found a new vet, and took Ruby to see him. He knew immediately what the problem was: Masticatory Myositis (a muscular degenerative disease). And he said it looked like she was in the advanced stages. In fact, he seemed to not want to give us any false hope of recovery. But, he said if we wanted to try, he would try. We weren’t ready to give up on Ruby, and so the vet prescribed a stronger painkiller, and a steroid.
My wife bought Ruby a big, new cushy bed. We bought her new, raised food and water dishes, and started feeding her wet food (she’s able to push that mushy food through her somewhat clenched teeth!).
We watched her, day by day, miraculously, come back to life. The muscles in her head won’t grow back, but her jaw has loosened quite a bit, and her energy has returned (with a vengeance). She can’t bark like she used to, but if I’m being completely honest, I’m not at all upset about that. Of course, without the dry food and biscuits to clean her teeth, her breath has become unbearable. She could stop a charging rhino with one blow. And because the muscles in her head have wasted away, and her inner, lower, whitish eyelid keeps sliding up on her eye, she looks a little like a zombie dog!
Welcome back, Ruby!
The third thing back from the dead, is Star Wars.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or two, you know this already! As soon as George Lucas sold Lucasfilm (including Star Wars AND Indiana Jones) to Disney, it was announced that new Star Wars films were on the horizon. This was unbelievable, in the truest sense of the word, to us life-long Star Wars fans. I know I, for one, thought that the Star Wars cinematic universe would go to its far, far away grave with Lucas. I know I wasn’t alone.
But now, as if in a dream, we are a mere 6 weeks away from opening night for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A direct sequel to the original trilogy! Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie are back!
Anyone who knows me, even a little, knows I’ve been a big fan of Star Wars since childhood. I loved the story and the characters…and the toys! I collected Star Wars toys in the early 80’s and then, again, from about 1998 to about 2008. I shan’t be resurrecting that hobby for the new movies, but I’ve definitely ogled (and coveted) the new toys from afar.
My son has, unsurprisingly, become a Star Wars fan, as well. He’s much more connected to the prequel trilogy and the Clone Wars cartoon series, than the original trilogy, I think. But, I do believe there’ll be plenty of nods, in this new film series, to his generation of Star Wars fans, as well!
It seems everyone (including the usually cool, Harrison Ford) is optimistic and excited about the new films. I’ll be there, opening weekend, with my family. And then I’ll see it again. And probably again. And then maybe one more time. And then, perhaps, another time after that.
Welcome back, Star Wars!
And the final thing back from the grave, my favorite band, Squeeze!
Way back in the year 1998, Squeeze released an album called Domino. While I very much enjoy this album, it is not a favorite, even among hard-core Squeeze fans. In fact, it’s known more as the death knell of Squeeze as anything else. The two creative forces behind Squeeze, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, officially called it quits after this album was released. The two set out on separate paths, recording and releasing solo albums and writing songs with new and different collaborators. Squeeze had broken up before, but not like this. Glenn and Chris, as a team, seemed truly done. And Squeeze could never be Squeeze without the two of them, together.
I don’t know how or why, but about 10 years later, we heard whispers of a reunion, a reconciliation, and <gasp> even a whiff of a possibility of new music from the duo, as Squeeze. Spotty reports followed, but eventually, Squeeze was reformed and started touring and recording again. In 2015 From the Cradle to the Grave was released, Squeeze’s 14th studio album, its first in 17 years! And, the icing on the cake…the album is fantastic! Squeeze fans all over the world rejoiced! Squeeze was back, and as great as ever.
This tour and album have been so successful, there’s even talk of more recording and more future Squeeze albums! It’s too early to predict if that will come to pass, but for now we are enjoying a new album and renewed enthusiasm for Squeeze!
Welcome back Squeeze!
So that’s it. Lots of things back from the dead for me right now. Miracles, each and every one. On December 18th I’ll pat Ruby on her bony, zombie head as my family and I leave for the movie theater…we’ll listen to From the Cradle to the Grave on the way. I’ll sit in the darkened theater, as the Lucasfilm logo shimmers across the screen again, for the first time in a decade, and all will be right in my little world.
And then I’ll probably write about it in my blog.
Again, just a place holder, until I’m ready to finish this.
Sorry…just a place holder. Nothing to see here. Yet.
The summer after I graduated from high school, through a series of shared acquaintances, I got a call from a local dinner theater director. They needed a couple of local actors to fill out the cast of their production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or Joseph as we call it in the biz. I jumped at the chance to be in my first professional production. I was one of the ensemble brothers…Issachar!
What a blast that was. The rehearsals were fast and furious. The cast was made up mostly of regional theater regulars, and we put the thing up in a few short weeks. Many interesting things happened during the run that have stayed with me all these years:
That fall I entered Indiana University of Pennsylvania as an “undeclared” in the college of Humanities and Social Sciences. My parents, while very supportive of my theatre “hobby”, wanted me to have a more “practical” major in college. By the end of the my first semester, after having already been involved with 3 productions, I declared myself, and officially with the university and the world, a Theatre Major! And that…was that.
Let me back up a bit.
Shortly after setting foot on campus, I found out the Theatre Department auditions for the Fall semester were happening. I found my way to Waller Hall and auditioned. Not only was I cast in the main stage, french farce, A Flea in Her Ear as Homenedies De Histangua, a fiery, jealous Spaniard with a lisp, but I was also cast in the student directed, Tribes. A Flea in Her Ear was directed by Ed Simpson, who would direct me in the majority of the shows I was in during my 4 1/2 years at IUP. Ed is also a published playwright.
Here’s his Samuel French profile! http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/2032/ed-simpson
Tribes was up first, in which I performed one of several monologues that made up the show. The one thing that sticks out for me, in that monologue, was a line in which I was talking about showering, I think, and I said, something to the effect of, “just don’t get too enthusiastic with the lathering”. I was directed to make a gesture with my hand indicating masturbation, and when I performed the show in front of an audience, it got a huge laugh. I remember having a hard time keeping a straight face. Ian( which is pronounced with a long “I” as opposed to a long “E”, by the way) who was a senior and directed (and I think wrote) the show, is currently the Artistic Director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. in Baltimore.
He even has his own Wikipedia page! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Gallanar
Even though I wasn’t involved with The Birthday Party, it’s important for me to mention it, mainly because I was so blown away by this, the first mainstage show I saw at IUP. This opened the 1986-87 season. That’s my friend, Bill Martinak, sipping his coffee there at the table!
And then came A Flea in Her Ear. I just remember how much fun that show was. My character was so over-the-top, and I had so many great and funny lines. The one that got the biggest laugh every night, was “Open the door so I can kill you”. Of course I said it with a ridiculous Spanish accent AND a lisp. And I’m pretty sure I said, “you” as “jew”. So it was more like, “Open de door, tho I can kill jew”. Huh. It’s still kinda funny. As I said, this was the first of many shows I was in, directed by Ed Simpson. I learned a lot from Ed, and I’m certain that much of my directing style came directly from being directed by him so many times. Ed is stage right, with the beard in the picture below, and I’m the one with the funny Spanish hat.
Towards the end of that first semester, auditions were announced for another student directed show, Sam Shepard’s True West, directed by Kevin Renshaw. During “Flea” I got to know Bob Carbonetti pretty well, and after I auditioned for the play, he overheard Kevin casting me as Lee. Bob ran to my dorm room to tell me. I was floored. If you don’t know the show, there are 4 characters. The two main characters are Austin and Lee. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the experience of True West changed my life forever. Because the show was to go up at the beginning of the 2nd semester, we actually rehearsed over Christmas break. I got to spend a lot of time around the elder statesmen of the theatre folk during that break. We rehearsed together, ate together, partied together, played Mille Bornes (practically a religion in our theatre department) together. I listened to music I never knew existed. I listened to wonderful stories of shows gone by. And, frankly, became humbled by this crazy, talented, intense group of people. I was a big fish in a little pond in high school. And now there were lots of other fishes, more talented than me, more driven than me, more inspired and inspiring than me.
“Waller Rat” was a term, affectionately given to the theatre folk that made Waller, the theater building, our second home. Most of us were involved, in one way or another in nearly every show that went up. Most of us smoked…a lot. And while we were learning the text book side of theatre during the day from our professors, at night we were exploring and experimenting with what the art of theatre meant to us. We were exploring and experimenting in other ways as well. But this is not the time, nor the place, to open that can of worms.
It was during that show I became friends with a guy who would become like an older brother to me during those college years. And I’m happy to say he still is, nearly 30 years later. The picture below, on the left is the earliest picture of us, and it’s from True West. Bill’s the one with the suit. He played Saul in the show. I’m on the right, scratching my beard. The picture on the right is us, quite a few years later!
The next semester I was the Assistant Carpenter for the musical Dames at Sea. One of the best things that happened to me at IUP, was that my work-study job was in the shop of the theater building. Working with Patrick McCreary, the technical director of the Theatre Dept., gave me an appreciation and a love for building sets that I hadn’t had in high school. Until Patrick, I had strictly been an actor…I’d never given the technical side of theatre a second thought. Working with Patrick, along with working at Fisher Auditorium, loading in and out rock shows and national tours of Broadway shows, being on the running crews, loading weights onto the arbor for the fly system…was invaluable for me as a thespian and a person, and has stayed with me to this very day. The work ethic, the skill, the camaraderie of the backstage is different than onstage, and equally satisfying to me.
You can read more about that here: https://stwaz.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/the-mccrearys/
I finished up my first year at IUP as a Nazi doctor in the play Good.
A few interesting things about Good:
1. It was directed by a guy named John Camera, a guest director that semester. John is in the lower right picture, between Ian and Natalie. Years later, when I was living in Los Angeles and working for a television show called Shades of LA as the 2nd asst props, John came walking around the corner talking with the Director of Photography, Brianne Murphy. Turns out they were close friends. Strangest coincidence in the world.
2. We had to smoke unfiltered cigarettes during that show. I was smoking Camel Lights at the time, and the unfiltered cigarettes made me a little light-headed. So each night I did my “smoking warm-ups” and would smoke a Camel Filter right before showtime, instead of a Camel Light.
3. I got in trouble with the woman, Deb, who was the costume designer/professor at the time. I went out and got a “buzz” cut shortly before the show. I figured, I was playing a Nazi, so it would work. It did not, and she read me the riot act. I’m glad I learned that so early in my career, because I never did it again.
4. There’s a line in this play, “Fucking Nazi cunt!” that got the department in a little trouble with some of its more conservative subscribers. I, on the other hand, was thrilled to be in a show with such raw, unadulterated language.
5. I had a little crush on Rochelle Good during that show, (yeah her last name was the same as the name of the show!) but she had a serious boyfriend at the time. We ended up just being friends. She’s the one hugging me in the first picture.
And finally, a year or so before I started at IUP, a group of theatre folk put together a night of short, original theatre pieces called 30,000 Words, spearheaded, at least in part, by our old friend Dave Surtasky. We continued that tradition for several years after that. Return of 30,000 Words, Son of 30,000 Words & Death of 30,000 Words are the ones I remember. It was always really, really fun and probably really, really bad. But we didn’t care. Again, we were trying new things and testing the waters, on our own. The picture on the left is from Death of 30,000 Words. That’s me on the floor with my friend Bill, again, wearing the crown and sword. He’d be able to tell you what it was about…for the life of me I can’t remember. The one on the right is us performing a couple of Zappa songs during one of the shows. I’m stage left with the guitar. Bill’s center. I sang Suicide Chump, I believe, and afterwards I asked Dave, who was practically a rock star at the time, in a band called Learn How with another Waller Rat, Chip Salerno, what he thought of my performance.
Dave said, “Don’t quit your day job.”
Keith Edwards, who’d played opposite me in True West, would stage an historic tableu during the 30,000 Words performances. The pic below is The Last Supper. I’m the one to the left (stage right) of Bill’s Naval Jesus, looking like I’m blowing him a kiss.
It was during one of the final 30,000 Words shows I created a piece called Silence. I had a friend, Faith Farrell, playing a homeless woman. The lights faded up slowly with sounds of the city. Chip Salerno helped me create the sound design for the piece. I then had a bunch of folks from the department come into the scene and interact with Faith. No one spoke. I especially enjoyed Bill Yanity putting a cigarette out on his tongue, and Pete Miltz riding a tandem bike with the devil. Or maybe he was the devil…I don’t remember now.
My first year as a Theatre Major had been a busy one, and I’m not sure what that cadre of elder theater folk saw in me, but I really felt as though they were taking me under their wings…almost like I was being groomed for something. I’m certain it’s not true, but it’s how I felt at the time. Pat Adams, Janet Bayne, Greg Prioleau, Amy George, Michelle Biddle, Ian Gallanar, Bob Carbonetti, Ann Labar, Bill Martinak, Dave Surtasky, Chip Salerno, Kevin Renshaw, Keith Edwards et al…names of folks that will forever be a part of my theatre history. I remember feeling fortunate that I’d come into the department when I had. I’d caught the tail-end of a pretty amazing era. But there was a lot of theatre to come, and then a long break in La-La Land.
Thanks to Bill Martinak, Kevin Renshaw, Mike Marra, Ann Labar Russek and Lisa Campbell for the pics I swiped from your Facebook pages…without asking.
The masks at the top are from the wall of our green room/student lounge in Waller Hall. They were huge, and took up an entire wall! And while they may look like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, I was always told they were, in reality, the masks of Grief and Cynicism…
“The word ‘theatre’,” the great actress and acting teacher Stella Adler said, “comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place.”
Wikipedia says, “The word comes originally from the Greek Theatron, meaning roughly, ‘a place to behold’.”
I prefer Adler’s description. It holds much more meaning. Much more potential. Sure, you can see people acting and singing and pretending to be someone else in a theatER building of brick and mortar. But with the art of theatRE, if it’s done well, if it’s done right, you can see so much more. You can see true love and sheer joy and the most crushing sorrow and history & historical figures brought back to life and gods & monsters. You can see the plight and triumph of African Americans and Jews and Women and Homosexuals. You can see the human condition right before your eyes. Flesh and blood actors digging into the depths of their experience and psyches to bring all this to you live. So close in some theaters, you could reach out and touch them.
Of course you wouldn’t. That’d be weird and disruptive. And you’d be thrown out of the theater.
But that’s the difference between going to see a movie and going to see live theatre, isn’t it. I love movies, let me get that out of the way now. But, it’s not the same experience. Movies are distant. Theatre is immediate.
Nearly every year of my life, as far back as I can clearly remember, I’ve been involved with at least one play or musical. Some years there were multiple. Over those years, I’ve served as an actor, director, playwright, technical director, scenic designer, teacher and carpenter. I have even worked (and had a little fun with my good buddy, and fellow thespian, Bill Martinak) as a spotlight operator…or “spot op”, as we call it in the biz. There isn’t much about theatre I don’t love. I enjoy the load in and the load out. I usually even enjoy strike, or as my wife calls it, “strike out”(when we take down the set). I’ve worked semi-professionally, in academia and in community theatre. I enjoy the acting and directing, but also love designing and building sets. I can’t say I ever got very good at designing or running lights or sound, but because of my schooling and some guidance from people like Dave Surtasky, I could work a light or sound board adequately. I have truly enjoyed every aspect of theatre equally.
By the way, as you saw in the first paragraph, I tend to use “theatre” when talking about the art or the craft or the theatre world as a whole, and “theater” when talking about the building. Other than my own homes, and my church growing up, I’ve never felt I belonged somewhere more than in a theater. I love the feel and smell and vibe of a theater. In fact, one of my most favorite places to be is an empty, quiet theater, darkened but for the dim glow of the ghost light. It is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.
My earliest memory of being in any kind of theatrical production was in elementary school, 3rd grade I think, when I played…a character…a prince I think, in an elementary school version of The Nutcracker. My recollections of this experience are so vague and faded, I hesitate to even say it was the first play I was in.
But I guess it was.
The first “proper” play I was in was called No Time for Skirts. It was 1979, I was in the 7th grade, and my English teacher, Nancy Hicks, directed the play. I remember virtually nothing about this play, but I think my character’s name may have been Bert Horst. I found a cast list on-line and this name is the only one that rings a bell. That same year, the director of the high school musical, Judith Witmer, was looking for extra guys to be in Annie Get Your Gun, and I was friends with her son, so I got to be in the show, as a 7th grader! My first line, the first line in the show actually, was “Indians! Indians! The Indians are coming!”
I’m pretty sure I was hooked at this point.
The next year I was in The Haunted Bookshop, directed by my Latin teacher, Shirley Houseal. I played Archibald…and I found a description of him online…and it’s hilarious, mainly because it really described me in 8th grade! Talk about type-casting!
A studious young chap, haunts the bookstore. He considers himself very intelligent and tries hard to impress others with his intelligence. He wears glasses and rather plain clothing.
According to the cast list I found, I had 62 lines!
The high school musical that year was Guys and Dolls, and again, even though I was only in 8th grade, I got to be in the show, because they were short on guys. I’ve always said my name in the show was Liver Lips Louie…although in the program, I’m listed merely as one of the crapshooters!
That’s me in the black and white picture, 2nd row, 1st guy seated on the left.
In 9th grade, I didn’t audition for the Fall Play, for some reason. Perhaps at the time it was only for 10-12 graders, who knows. But as fate or luck or whatever would have it, someone dropped out of Cheaper By the Dozen (directed by David Gates), and I was asked to take over the role of Fred. I remember this play, primarily because I had to speak several lines in German. The next spring I got to play Stewpot in South Pacific. That’s me with the guy who played Billis, Mark Stare, who was a senior at the time.
The following year’s play was The Curious Savage, in which I played Jeffrey, a resident of a sanatorium, who believed he had a scar on his face, although he did not. I spent the whole play with my hand on my face, covering a non-existent scar. And then got to play Available Jones in the musical Lil’ Abner! I’m the one with the bow-tie.
It was either this year, or the next, I was involved with an evening of student-directed plays. I played Adam in The Diary of Adam and Eve. Notable, because I had to kiss the girl who played Eve. She was a year or two older than me, and she wore some kind of lip balm that made my lips burn and tingle.
In 11th grade I played Roderick Usher in the play, The Fall of the House of Usher, and had my first leading role in a musical. We did Bye, Bye Birdie and I played Albert Peterson, the Dick Van Dyke role in the movie. Two things I remember from this show. One, when I watched the video, I noticed that I had adjusted my knit, square-bottom tie about 637 times. Also, during a matinée performance for the senior citizens of the community, I totally messed up the beginning of Put on a Happy Face, and we actually stopped and started it over. That was mortifying.
My senior year I was in 3 productions. The fall play in 1985 was Harvey, and I played Elwood P. Dowd, the role Jimmy Stewart made famous in the film. I wore my fedora like I was in Duran Duran. Early in the rehearsal process, the director David Gates, thought it might be more authentic if I smoked in the play. I’m assuming I wouldn’t have actually lit the cigarette, but my parents wouldn’t even allow me to have it in my mouth. Funny thing was, unbeknownst to them, I’d already started smoking occasionally by that point.
And, I also played King Arthur in Camelot…my crowning high school achievement, so to speak! My close childhood friends, Debbie Gable and Ross Ball (the director’s son)played Guenevere and Lancelot respectively. They’d also played Rosie and Birdie opposite me in Bye, Bye Birdie. We were the holy trinity of the Lower Dauphin spring musical in 1985 and 86. And my best friend, Chris Sicher, played Mordred, Arthur’s bastard son in Camelot! As you might imagine, we had some fun with that.
After the musical, our thespian troupe took a play to a competition at the Buck’s County Playhouse. I think the play was called A Homecoming, and Debbie and I both took home Honorable Mention or Runner Up Awards for our performances…I don’t remember what the award was called exactly.
So…I was in 6 musicals and 8 plays from 1980 to 1986. I had made the stage my home, and had made a name for myself amongst my friends and classmates as “the actor” of the class, for sure. Judith Witmer had directed all the high school musicals I’d been in, and David Gates had directed all the high school plays I’d been in. They both helped to foster my love of theatre that had grown and grown over those early years.
It was also during this time that I got involved with an ill-fated community theater in my hometown of Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. The director, John Mandes, was directing shows like Crimes of the Heart and Bent and Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare. The funny thing is, I think I was in The Actor’s Nightmare, but I’m not entirely sure. Maybe I dreamt it. Anyway, John had taught me in my first acting class in Harrisburg a year or so before that, and when he opened this theater, I was first in line to get involved. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. He was producing some edgier stuff, and I think he may have had some financial difficulties, so the good people of Hummelstown kicked him to the curb, so to speak. But for a brief shining moment, through that little theater, I was getting a glimpse of a wider theatre world.
Of course, it wasn’t until I got to college that I really started to learn what theatre was all about. And, boy, did I have a lot to learn.
To be continued…
Three things happened to me recently that prompted me to write this post. I’ll get to those a little later…first, some background.
I sometimes have trouble with balance in my life. There are times when I’ve got so much on my mind, my head is spinning. I also, I know, have some problem focusing on many tasks at once. Truth is, I have trouble focusing on more than one task in any given moment.
I am not a good multi-tasker.
My wife Amy thinks I may have a mild case of ADD. I’m not sure she’s wrong. It’s certainly not acute, but there are definitely signs. This has, I believe, caused me to be unable to “be in the moment” as they say. My mind wanders and it appears as though I am not fully engaged. Although this isn’t always the case, I know it happens a lot. And I know it has stunted my ability to connect with people on a deeper level.
One thing that helped was starting this blog. I can really get into the Zen and focus of writing. I think it helps me to sort out my feelings when I write. I was also seeing a counselor for a few months last year. She was great, and hugely helpful.
But for years, when someone would bring up meditation, I thought to myself, and sometimes said aloud, “I think that’s something that would probably benefit me.” Still, I never tried it…never sought it out. Then, last spring, my kids started performing in a show at a local theater, and I, at the same time, somehow, became aware of the Mindfulness Meditation group that meets at our local Unitarian church on Tuesday nights. So, one Tuesday night while my wife was otherwise occupied and, after I dropped the kids at rehearsal, I decided to check out the group. This was a giant step for me.
I immediately found the group welcoming and warm and a bit foreign. The leader, Chuck, gave me some materials that explained Mindfulness Meditation and how to do it. Here is the Wikipedia description:
Mindfulness meditation is often practiced sitting with eyes closed, cross-legged on a cushion or a chair, with the back straight. Attention may be put on the movement of the abdomen when breathing in and out, or on the awareness of the breath as it goes in and out the nostrils. As thoughts come up, one returns to focusing on the object of meditation, such as the breathing. One passively notices one’s mind has wandered, but in an accepting, non-judgmental way. Meditators often start with short periods of 10 minutes or so a day. As one practices regularly, it becomes easier to keep the attention focused on breathing. With practice, awareness of the breath can be extended into mindful awareness of thoughts, feelings, and actions.
My first go at it went pretty well, I’d say. Once the gong was…gonged…I attempted to focus on nothing but my breath. Of course I was completely unable to do it. Tons of thoughts flooded my brain. Literally, it was like a floodgate had been opened. But one by one, I acknowledged each thought and then released it. I was really starting to do it and it was an incredible feeling. I’m pretty sure I had never, IN MY LIFE, sat for 20 minutes and not done something or thought about something. And here I was, intentionally, NOT thinking or doing anything.
The group does two 20 minute silent meditations, with a short break in between. The leader of the group reads a passage from a book, usually having something to do with meditation, during the break. A lot of people leave after the first meditation. I never do. It usually takes me the entire first 20 minutes to get into the meditation groove. I usually have to bat away thought after thought in that first 20 minutes. I sometimes start blog posts in my head, I wonder why the guy next to me breathes so loudly, I think about tasks I have to do at work or at home, I imagine what I’d do if I won the lottery…that sort of thing. And that first 20 minutes really feels like an hour. It takes forever. But, by the time the second 20 minute meditation starts, I’m relaxed and ready and it usually goes pretty quickly.
That was last spring. I went, pretty religiously, throughout the summer, and was really feeling part of the group. I could feel the Mindfulness spilling over into my everyday life and even my wife commented that she thought I seemed calmer, more focused. But then I was cast in a show at Open Stage of Harrisburg and I had rehearsals on Tuesday nights, so I stopped going. When the show was over, the holidays came. Then the musical I direct at Lower Dauphin High School started up and, again, I had rehearsals, you guessed it, on Tuesday nights.
A whole 6 months passed with no Mindfulness.
So, back to the reasons I’m writing this now.
One…I’ve become increasingly agitated and stressed lately. I don’t even know why. Nothing more stressful than normal is happening to me right now. But, my wife and I went out the other night, and it ended with an argument. She said I was too uptight. It stung, and even though I knew she was right, I stubbornly denied it and said it was her problem, not mine. I regret the argument, but I think we’ve made up. I’m pretty sure we’ve made up. Maybe I should check with her before she reads this.
Two…My very good friend Aaron died yesterday. He’d been living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for 4 years and he and I had forged a friendship during that time. We’d go to sci-fi or action movies and, in the early days of the illness, have a bite to eat and a beer. In the latter days of the illness, when Aaron could no longer go to the movies, I’d visit and just sit with him and talk. And when he was no longer able to talk, we’d communicate via the computer…I with my keyboard and he with his amazing Eye Gaze speech device (which I saw him use lots of times, but still don’t understand how the hell it works. I think it’s magic!). We had a lot in common, so the talks were always enjoyable. I don’t think I’ve truly allowed myself to fully feel his loss yet.
And three…Yesterday, I spent 5 hours in the ER, for what was likely an anxiety attack. I, of course, thought I was having a god-damned heart attack and thought I was going to surely die. I’d never experienced anything like it. I’ve experienced heart palpitations, and those can be a little scary sometimes, but this was end-of-the-world scary. All the tests came back negative for a heart attack. In fact, they said I’m, like, text book healthy. Good blood pressure, good EKG, good chest x-ray (I was a smoker for many years, so I’d always worried about that). Nope, it was just a good old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill panic attack.
As I write this it’s Wednesday night, by the way. Yesterday was Tuesday.
Guess where I went last night.
Mindfulness Meditation…and it was glorious. And I’ll be back next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. Because I know I need it. It’s my ADD medication. It’s my stress reliever. It’s my time for reflection and release.
I somehow always knew it’d be good for me. And I was absolutely right.