Acting proved to be a means to an end.
I always thought I was an actor. From a young age, I loved to mimic voices, and was a pretty good impersonator of everyone from Bugs Bunny (“Ain’t I a stinker?”) to Humphrey Bogart (“Go Ahead Sam. Play it.”), and even Mr. Bednarski, the school caretaker (“Youse punks are ah-h-h-skin’ fer it!”)
Even better than the successful mimicry was the attention that I could get. Laughs, encouragement, a little admiration or respect. I felt like that cartoon actor Cary Granite on “The Flintstones”, who admitted that he “…Loved The Crowds. The… Ad-u-lation!” So it followed suit that I would join the drama club in high school and share my performing prowess with the waiting world.
Turned out that what played well at the supper table with my brothers or behind the garage with my buddies didn’t translate precisely to the stage. Especially since Miss Tischio, our advisor who had actually gotten a degree in theater, didn’t have much patience for grandstanding. She was serious about acting and expected us to follow suit. I still hear the clomp clomp clomp of her high heeled boots as she signaled us to pick up the pace…
So when my first stage role turned out to be as the pushy paperboy in “Picnic”, I was understandably disappointed. The seniors got the main roles, as much for their relative maturity as for their experience onstage. No one was going to buy a 14-year old as a romantic lead. Especially if he was prone to deliver his lines with the subtlety of Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy movie, and a cheesy bronx accent to boot.
As the years went on, I graduated to bigger and better parts, if only because so few boys were interested in getting on stage at all. I was excited to play (or was it OVER-play?) a death scene in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Aria de Capo”. This arty one act was split into two parts, a pastorale drama with political overtones that was bookended with a “harlequinade,” a stylized comedy. I played the scheming shepherd Corydon, who murders his pal Thyrsis before getting his just desserts.
We’d rehearsed and performed the show at our school for weeks, but I’d consistently mispronounced my scenemate’s name. Just before we went on stage for a county-wide competition, Miss T. corrected my pronunciation, which suddenly became all that I could think about. So much so, that all the judges could say about our entire ensemble performance was “Did we ever figure out whether it was ‘Th-EAR-sus or Th-RYE-sus?’” Again, not the kind of attention that I was looking for—but I soldiered on to hang out with the cute girls in the club.
Speaking of which, I enjoyed my first memorable kiss onstage with a young lady who had previously seemed out of my league. She became my romantic partner onstage though the gift of stunt casting. The Senior Play was a fundraiser which involved a lot of non-actors (primarily cheerleaders and jocks) playing walk-ons in a feeble romantic comedy… One of those ’60s confections called “Maybe Tuesday” or “Any Wednesday.” But for yours truly, the first rehearsal was more like “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”
I had to play a scene that involved my leading lady feeding bits of cheese to lure me into a kiss. I was already star-struck being inches away from a major crush. While not an actress, she was definitely comfortable toying with a boy. And when I went in for the smooch, I smashed my nose into hers, hard. Startled by the impact, she grabbed me by the chin and tipped my head 45 degrees, saying, “Don’t you know how to kiss?” My sputtering, stammering, humiliated response brought the rehearsal to a halt.
The show went on—I was the lead in a three-act play after all. But my best acting was done offstage, deflecting the pokes and prods from guys teasing me about my make-out techniques. I was sufficiently encouraged by this success to continue my acting career in college. As a freshman, I stepped up and tried out for the lead in “The Man Who Came To Dinner.” The worldly Sheridan Whiteside commanded every scene in the play, which seemed perfectly suited to my ambitions. Amazingly (to me), I was NOT cast in the lead, but in a bit part as the butler.
I turned down the role, and didn’t act again for years.
Now I understand the old adage about “There are no small parts, only small actors.” But at the time, my ego was too big for such dismissals. I wasn’t ready to learn the truth about myself until I turned 40. In a series of brilliantly unexpected, dramatic reversals, I found myself suddenly divorced, unemployed and temporarily homeless at that milestone age. Looking for a diversion (and a way to meet women), I signed up for a theater workshop.
Returning to acting as an adult was more complicated than I'd expected. My teacher Suze Allen was (and is) a delightful spirit, bright and playful one minute, focused and grounded the next. She’s a couple of years younger than me but seemed far wiser. Her acting troupe was called Iambe’s Bones, fittingly named for a Greek goddess who consoles the grieving Demeter. I was grieving myself, and play acting was a welcome tonic. At first, the old hambone reared itself, and I was doing Jack Nicholson impressions for laughs. But my teacher asked me to dig deeper.
In all of the time that I had been performing, I had never really learned what it meant to be an actor. Over the course of several semesters, I got in touch with what it really meant to tell truth on stage, to channel emotion and experience into something that could be meaningful to others. Acting was now for the benefit of the audience, not just about me.
I learned a lot about myself in those classes, most importantly that I was a storyteller, not a performer. I have a lot of gratitude for those lessons learned, which enabled me to channel my creativity more productively elsewhere.
And I can still do SpongeBob Squarepants voices for my goddaughter.
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