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:
- I met, for the first time in my life, openly gay men. I know…gay men in regional musical theatre!? Crazy right? Having grown up in a pretty conservative small town in Pennsylvania, this was a new thing for me. I found out, way back in 1986, they were just people. People with whom I had a lot in common, actually! Except, well, I liked women and they liked men. No big deal.
- One of the guys in the cast smoked Parliament cigarettes (with the recessed filter). I thought they were unique and kinda cool, so I started smoking them as well. That same guy had a cassette of Squeeze’s greatest hits. He used to play it all the time and I caught Squeeze fever, from which I have never recovered.
- One night, during a performance, while a fierce thunderstorm raged outside, we lost power. Our director came out on stage and addressed the audience, saying something like, “We’ll continue the show, with emergency lighting and me playing the piano [we usually performed to pre-recorded music]. If you would like to get a refund or tickets to another night, you can do that, but if you want to stay…we’ll keep going.” Not a single person left the theater. It was the most surreal, magical night of the run.
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.
I entered the rehearsal process for True West a spunky showkid, and came out the other side a Waller Rat.
“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.
I was also one of the fortunate Waller Rats to become friends with Patrick and his family.
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…