i sat on a fire escape once and smoked a cigarette with a man i’d met earlier that evening at the saint. we weren’t particularly attracted to each other and i’m not sure why we left the bar together and walked to his apartment as if we were boyfriends—we may have held hands in the damp darkness of a new york summer early morning—but there we were, sitting on the grating, feet on the step below, shoulders touching, listening to the city sleep, exhaling marlboros and beer, scratchy eighteen-hour beards so close my lips burned in anticipation of a kiss.
m. is insisting that the one moment that changed the course of my life occurred on the empire builder between minneapolis and chicago, thanksgiving of 1972. “if you hadn’t spoken with the young man sitting across from you and the lady from kalamazoo [yes, it’s true, she was from kalamazoo], you and i would never have met,” he said. and then he sobbed a ragged breath and laughed a little gulp of truth.
this was a couple of days ago and since then i’ve been thinking a lot about happenstance and circumstance and how my life has been a series of turning points, like sol lewitt connecting all the ifs, ands, buts with green lines on a page of text. (green being a favorite color of mine…remember that for my obit, will you.)
from here, sitting here today, at this moment (6:28 am, pdt, march 8, 2015), it looks as if he may be right. in my examination of other people’s lives, their decisions, their life decision never feel as dependent upon random moments of inspiration—if that’s what i dare call it—it’s possible that instead of inspiration, these moments are more burr-like, a little sharp and uncomfortable, you know, like the truth always is. instead, they accept the course set for them. my cousin, rodney, comes to mind. and you, over there, yes, you; you, too. more of the ‘one foot in front of the other’ acceptance of what life’s given you.
i don’t reject that idea of accepting the inevitable as a part of my own life, especially as i grow older, but if i’m honest, and i should be, you are strangers, after all, and what do you know of my truth anyway? yours being as fictitious as i make mine. it’s those little lies — so easy on the internet — and kindly, some of us have grown as close as 0s and 1s will allow, but the vastness of the world interferes with our sense of order and if we passed each other on the street would it have even come to this? and i won’t deny that for many people it is their positive acceptance of their moral obligations, family, a course as true and straight, paved with all of the best intentions, pre-ordained and happily accepted. for some, then, that is it. there is no internal argument about where they are headed—of course, there might be moments of equivocation and fear, of “do i select A or B?” but even then, it’s only two choices.
but for me, since i was able to first start making my own decisions about my life—and it started earlier than you might imagine, and that freedom was given with as much love as you may or may not have experienced in your own life—it’s been quite something else for me. i dread using the metaphor of the wind blowing me here and then there, like a plastic bag. i’ve not thought of my life as rubbish to be tossed along the road side—although there was that one time in 1979 when i did think i’d come to the end of my life, but then decided “no, not yet,” and went onto something else much better because of a chance i took that it could be better.
mind you, each of these twists and turns were not accompanied by the “ah ha!” moment you would expect. now, in retrospect, yes, but not at the time. so, here i am sitting on the empire builder, having boarded at the fargo, north dakota (i am a sophomore at minnesota state university across the red river in moorhead) amtrak station in november of 1972, headed to springfield, illinois to spend the thanksgiving holiday with my paternal grandparents.
i like taking the train, or i did when it was the only option because of budget concerns and still a step up from the greyhound bus. it is an adventure that puts people together for a longer period of time than a plane ride and it offers you the opportunity to get away from them as well—dining car, observation car—riding between the cars.
yes, the lady from kalamazoo. my memory of her is shrouded in the myth and mist of the past, but i do recall a chignon, red lipstick, and a dark fur coat, whether mink or marmot, i couldn’t tell you. she was eager to talk and we circled around our lives until she said she’d been a chorine on broadway in the 50s and had danced in “________” and “_______”. i’m sorry i don’t remember her name and for this story it’s unimportant — as it was then, there no google to confirm her truth or not. what mattered was that, like her, i was an actor (the word poseur also comes to mind) and so she shared her stage life with me, and in a way, she may have known more about me then than i did, because i distinctly remember her stories about the male dancers and the fun they had after the shows, and all the ‘stage door johnnies’ that waited for the girls, and boys, after the curtain rang down at the end of the show.
then, at the station in minneapolis, a young man comes on board; he’s got beautiful long sandy blond hair (as opposed to my also long, dirty blond hair) and he’s tall like me, and lanky, and little bit aloof seeming, and he sits across the aisle from mme. kalamazoo and i — studiously ignoring the both of us — until in the empty space of a conversation between strangers, i ask him what book he’s reading. “arthur lessac’s the use and training of the human voice,” he says and shows me the cover of the book. “it’s our bible at the goodman school of drama where i go to school in chicago.”
tyler and kalamazoo get off the train in chicago in a flurry of “nice to have met yous” and “be safes” and “happy thanksgivings!” as strangers do when they part and will never meet again. i, go onto springfield, and back to moorhead after the break—also by train, but then filled with the thought of attending the goodman school.
i can’t tell you what tyler said to me about the school or how to get into it or if he even thought i had a chance. did we flirt? i can’t remember, most likely not, as my flirt-o-meter wasn’t working well then—probably still isn’t, i’m a more of ‘ask and ye shall receive’ kind-of-guy. but the idea of being a student at the goodman grew inside me and later that winter i made another trip to chicago to audition for the school and in the spring was accepted as a first year acting student. i moved to chicago in september 1973. nine years later i met m. and we’ve been together since. so yeah, tyler made a difference in my life.
photo: union station, chicago, february 1973, hasselblad viewfinder, from a proof sheet processed by me in moorhead that spring.
- rescued from the shelter
- wore a pot as a hat
- had a mom and a dad
- lived in germany
- made the ‘crossing’ on a leash
- picked tulips (not ours)
- watched my parents flirt when my dad was picking cherries from the top rung of a ladder and my mom was on the ground looking up at him wearing a dress with an apron
- suddenly no dad
- walking to indian trail elementary school in highland park by myself
- wearing corrective glasses that had one frosted lens over my good eye–ran into a lot of things, got bruised
- moving from illinois to south dakota with a basketball in a bird cage
- replacing the basketball with petey bird, one in a series of parakeets all with the same name
- getting picked on by the neighborhood boys for being a sissy
- mary moved in with us and became my ‘dad’
- straight ‘a’s for the first time
- nickname = butch, which the men in the family used, but the women all called me butchie. of course, it was what stuck.
- a crew cut
- brown as a button
- cleaning frozen dog waste in a blizzard with my mouth open
- cello, because when i asked the play the french horn, the orchestra teacher said not with braces you won’t and handed me the cello
- got beat up by a smaller boy when i was walking home carrying my cello
- got picked on by the 9th grade boys — duck tails and rolled up sleeves — for being, you guessed it, a sissy
- matriculated to high school
- starred in a play of “The Shoemaker and the Elves”
- decided i liked being on the stage
- straight a’s (i tried to make it a habit, but math and science got in the way. still managed to graduate summa cum laude from high school)
- won trophies for acting
- dated charlotte wendt until she broke up with me because i wouldn’t go any further than kissing her
- had an idyllic summer doing children’s theater in the park
- went out of state to college
- smoked weed, took drugs, drank to excess, still managed to get straight a’s
- sugar beet factory, ’nuff said
- auditioned for the goodman school of drama, got accepted
- saw mao zedong (albeit a painting by warhol)
- moved to chicago
- waited tables at arnie’s for 6 years
- partial list of celebrities i met then: ginger rogers, bette davis, princess grace, robert altman, carol burnett, christopher reeve, gloria swanson, dorothy lamour, rex reed, lauren hutton, et. al.
- served henny youngman a bowl of soup with a fly in it
- smoked weed, took drugs, drank to excess, partied all night (managed to only pass out in one bar, though, a minor miracle in-and-of-itself)
- woke one day hating myself (not the first time, but this was the turning point)
- out-of-work for a year, got by with a little help from my friends
- my mother died (bereft)
- frog-leaped into the art business
- suddenly had a career where all of my peripatetic education came together for the first time and actually made sense
- fell in love
- went to france (where they kiss on main street)
- hosted wonderful christmas eve parties
- friends died, too many funerals
- moved to hawaii (perhaps a bit of running away)
- little beach on maui, no need to say any more than that
- made more friends
- moved to california
- left one job after 12 years to work at an even better job (now for 22 + years)
- held an oscar (the award, not the gardener…although)
- drove up highway 1 to san francisco (but we left our heart in carmel-by-the-sea)
- bought a house — in california — close to the ocean — still live there (consider this a minor miracle)
- worked on a museum exhibit with the academy of motion picture arts & sciences
- worked on a museum exhibit with the smithsonian
- still in love with the same man, nearly 33 years together
- took this picture today:
Theatrical performance is a refuge for the disenfranchised, the not-quite-average (I didn’t say on what side of average, just that they’re not-quite; it’s my view that theater people are exceptional); and for the closet it provides, hung with the illusion of life, a safe haven stacked in boxes in a corner, but still illusory, cloaking as it does what you may perceive to be wrong with you, it’s like hiding in plain sight, “ah, there’s that sweater I was looking for!”
Men and women touch you in the theater, physically touch you, and it’s okay; the directors put their hands on your shoulders and turn you this way and that; they look into your eyes, they ask you to find emotions deep inside of you (ones you had no idea existed), they throw a supportive arm around your shoulder—it’s true, too, that they chide you, deride you, yell at you, and throw the script on the floor in disgust at your lack of empathy for the character, but, you know, it’s done in the name of love for what they do. Your fellow actors kiss you, hug you, hold you, laugh with you, all of you suddenly comfortable with each other, warm, fuzzy, delicious. This then, theatricality, you realize, should you be so inclined then (not me), but now, that it was instinct–survival–a reaction so basic that it should have been recognized as a necessity of life. Fight or flight or farce, which shall it be?
In this stage play, dialogue between actors will be kept to a minimum. Instead, like O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” much of the action will be internal; the narrative, oftentimes, will be delivered as monologue, an aside directed at the audience, but just as often, it may be sung as in a Brecht/Weill/Sondheim song-spiel; comedy, should it find its way to the top of the pile will be absurdist, à la Gênet, Beckett, Ionesco. There will be no Racine.
The reader is invited to imagine themselves delivering the author’s thoughts from a proscenium stage, the white plastered arch decorated with acanthus leaves intertwined with ribbons–basket-woven–until the masques of comedy and tragedy crown its apex. The stage floor, painted black, is dusty, scuffed, and marred by the acts that preceded your entrance (there have been many). You will be costumed for each of the Acts in a white shirt with black leggings or pants (gender appropriate), and barefoot.
You will find your mark center stage forward, a tape mark visible only to you–and those seated in the balcony. For some acts you will stand, for others a hard wooden chair will be provided by a stage hand dressed in black. You may choose to sit on it or circle it, lean on its back, pull it across the stage behind you, and tip it upside down so that its structure is exposed to the audience, use it as an umbrella defense against the vegetables and fruit being thrown at you by the rambunctious and not-quite-civilized audience, but you will always go back to your mark. You are encouraged to pause and breathe; silence is as important as speech. Do warm up vocally and physically; the work is strenuous. Approximate running time: 13 years.
Capezio entered my vocabulary around the age of 8. There was a dance studio on 5th street, between Main and Omaha, on the east side of the street. it was a white brick building with store front windows and inside there was a small, wooden stage, ballet barres and a mirrored wall, if you were passing by, either on foot or in a car, you would be hard-pressed not to look inside and see what was happening–the action of dancing feet and little girls in tutus is irresistible to women, girls, fathers, and future gay men. Once I realized that I could actually learn how to dance I insisted on taking tap lessons—it’s quite possible that there was a tantrum, a fit of pique or tears involved in order to get my way—there’s not much an only child of my particular temperament can’t do that doesn’t result in some form of self-gratification (somewhat tempered since then).
It may be that I had watched too much Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason or some other variety show on TV, it may be that I was having Busby Berkeley dreams, (who wouldn’t, I ask you), even though at that age I wouldn’t have known a Busby from a Berkeley, but it had to have been something like that to have spurred my interest in taking dance classes. I believe now that the adulation of adults was to me the most important form of respect (and the dearest) I could evoke during my childhood and to be on a stage, whether in a school play or dancing or reciting or debating, it didn’t matter, as long as adults were paying attention to me was the quickest road to that reward (achieving academic success an also ran in this heat). It didn’t hurt that it saved me from being bullied for my effeminacy (do you see how close to effemi ‘nancy’ that is?) I’m not girly, mind you, nor was I then, but I gesture, I pose, I am theatrical. I can’t help it (you know that old canard, “it’s like breathing itself,” well, that’s the truth and there may be those of you who know exactly what I mean.)
So, tap. Once my mother capitulated to my demands and enrolled me in beginning tap, the next item on the agenda was tap shoes. Capezio, Capezio, Capezio, I couldn’t get enough of tights and leg warmers and tap shoes. In order to get my size in boy’s tap shoes we would have had to order them which was completely unacceptable as I knew that if I had to wait the possibility of my mother changing her mind — I mean when she saw me tapping my little heart out, wouldn’t she realize how important this was to me? How proud she’d be that I was so successful and admired, twirling, a tapping (step, ball change, and turn) virtuoso, so young, so vibrant, such a star! Waiting would not do, what about those there, I cried, pointing to a pair of black patent leather women’s tap shoes with black grosgrain ribbons that tied across your instep–those would fit me. “Please, please, puh-leaze,” I may have said.
[A stage note about verb tense: this is a remembrance somewhat fictionalized due to a lack of memory-sharing that began when I moved away from home (see also: only child syndrome), so the conditional subjunctive may rule the day.]
“But they’re for women, Robert, you should wait for a pair of men’s to come in, it would be better if you did that,” she said with a hint of concern in her voice. But my need was too great and she relented and I proudly held the box with the women’s tap shoes in my lap like a favored lapdog as she drove us home. Did I tell you I was the only boy in the class? I probably should have mentioned that earlier in the story lest you think I am embellishing now; I assure you I am not. As long as we were in class, there wasn’t much fuss about the shoes and I have to say I loved everything about moving my feet to music. I would practice in the kitchen on the linoleum floor when I got home from school in the afternoon, and sometimes I would close the front drapes (is that a regionalism, drapes instead of curtains?) and twirl through the front room, from the hexagonal hallway on a diagonal through the living room and up to the full length mirror that hung on the coat closet door in the foyer—foyer does sound grander than what we really had, which was a closet on one side of the front door and a long narrow white wicker planter (the home to several chameleons over the years) filled with variegated philodendron on the other—separating the entryway from the living room.
You did note that I closed the drapes, didn’t you? It wasn’t so I could do something perverse mind you, but this dancing thing was still new to me and I didn’t want an audience outside of my classmates and my mother until I was ready for the first recital. And there was fear involved, too. On stage, it would be one thing. In my home with the drapes open and exposed to the ridicule and teasing of any who might pass by—I imagined—closed would be better. Of course, I was conscious of the fact that the tap shoes were completely inappropriate for this time and place; that they would be a source of ridicule and shame should it be discovered that I was wearing women’s tap shoes by anyone other than my mother and tap dance classmates.
This is also about the time when my mother was frantically trying to find manly role models for me. Our Prudential Life Insurance salesman, a handsome young man, newly married, became my ‘Big Brother’, but it didn’t last — “the demands of my job are such that I just don’t have the time, Mrs. Patrick,” he said (with what I noted as a distinct sigh of relief, although his backing out didn’t particularly perturb me, nor did I think it had anything to do with me, which is how children operate more often than not; their universe is parallel to that of adults and as long as there is no harm or abuse–both parties are quite happy leaving it that way.)
After the Big Brother thing fizzled out, I got enrolled in the Boys Club which was down by Rapid Creek, but still on the north side of town in a big concrete brick building with a small library (where I spent all of my time–my mother thought my character would benefit by being around older boys and the coaches that volunteered at the club—but I was afraid of them—that came out too easily—what I knew then is that I wouldn’t fit in with them—I didn’t know the secret handshakes of straight men and boys, that roughness didn’t appeal to me in the way it was intended and I often found myself on the sidelines watching, waiting I believe for a lightning bolt to spark out of the sky and strike me, transform me, into one of them, it would have been a minor miracle, a comic book superhero moment.)
As if all of this wasn’t enough, confluent with the tap dance lessons, I became a Cub Scout, which was horrible; the badges, the constant striving, the harridan who was the den “mother”, with her cigarette breath and Aqua Net-sprayed bouffant (do you remember the smell of hair spray?), cajoling, bribing, pushing, I loathed it–another opportunity to beseech my mother with a tear or two, “please don’t make me go to Cub Scouts,” I’d cry and except for the Smokey the Bear ‘play’ we put on (see photo above, inscribed on the back “I’m the tree!” in my best nine-year-old script, sent to my paternal grandmother—and sent back to me years after her death by a relative cleaning out her house.) You know, even though it was Cub Scouts, it was still being on stage and that, for the moment, trumped the anguish of not fitting in with the other boys.
Try as she might, my mother eventually gave up trying to make me something I wasn’t and accepted the fact that I didn’t fit the model, that I wasn’t going to be the boy she had thought she was raising. Did she hope for a different boy? I don’t know. (The irony, of course, is that throughout this time, my mother was in a lesbian relationship. More, later, I promise.)
“But Robert,” you may have asked yourself, “what about the tap classes, the women’s tap shoes, surely there’s more to that story?” And you would be right, but I don’t know what it is. There may have been some embarrassment, there may not have been. I believe there was a recital, but I don’t remember it at all. I do know this, after tap lessons I took ballet and modern dance. When I went to college I took more dance classes, studying with Lar Lubovitch and Yuriko Kikuchi (a Martha Graham dancer) in master classes. In Chicago, not only did I study with Estelle Spector at the Goodman School, (she of the quote, “Robert, you are the only dancer I know who has the attitude of Rudolph Nureyev, but dances like a three-legged dog.”), but she arranged to have us take classes with the newly formed Chicago Ballet led by the indomitable Ruth Page. I was never going to be a famous dancer, I knew that (one can always hope though), but stardom—whatever that is—didn’t matter as much to me, what mattered was that it made me feel like me and not someone else, or what other people were expecting me to be. It gave expression to who I was, not the boy of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails — okay, that was partly me too, but even though it may have tried their patience, the adults in my life let me explore outside of those confines, maybe even with a sigh of relief at my happiness.
“You have bedroom eyes,” she said as she leaned into me to apply eyeliner. It hurt, that pencil running under my eyelid, then pulling the upper lid taut to line it as well. She sat back in her chair and looked at her handy-work. I was still digesting ‘bedroom eyes’, trying to determine its meaning, the surprise of the comment shading the obvious from my innocence.
I think you’re good,” she stood and dusted her hands and turned away from me. That evening was our first live performance of “The Shoemaker and the Elves” and I was wondering what it was going to be like, would I remember my lines, my cues? Would the audience believe I was the shoemaker, the father, the husband? Would they think, too, that I had bedroom eyes?
I was 15 and somehow I’d landed the lead in my small town’s children’s theater. What possessed me? (The events leading up to opening night lost to time and no one to share them with any longer.) The play went on. The theater was so small you could feel the audience breathing, they were just feet away from the stage. Was there even a stage? I remember being on the same level as the audience, not standing above them and looking down, but that could as well be a remembrance of rehearsal and not the actual performance. I was conscious of the concentration required to maintain the illusion. Then there was applause. That felt good.
Later that evening as my mother was driving us home after the performance, I asked, “What are bedroom eyes?”
“Who said that?” she asked, taking a moment to look at me.
“The woman applying my make-up.”
“Oh. Well, that means that you’re a handsome young man, like I’ve always told you,” she said, now not looking at me, but more intently at the road ahead.
“Yes, but why ‘bedroom’ eyes?”
She ignored me, extra busy with driving, I turned away and saw my reflection in the window. Did I have bedroom eyes?
I don’t recall how long our run was, whether or not I was a star in my small town…I don’t believe that my friends or even other kids from school knew I was doing this. Except, of course, that my picture was in the local newspaper and that felt good too, like applause, not as immediate, but certainly brag-worthy to the neighbors, relatives, and the pleasure it provided me of irritating my cousin with this kind of success.
Stage direction: An act in five dream scenes, fog the stage and lower the scrim—all of the action should happen behind it, characters coming into and out of the light as needed.
Size worked for my nature and against my desire. I was tall and lanky and that put me in the supporting actor category—fathers, department store floor-walkers, one of Penelope’s suitor(s), Angels of Death. I was content with those roles, in fact, I excelled at them: good timing, excellent instincts, a deep listener just as you should be when play-acting, and never romantically involved—as in life. But my nature was mercurial, temperamental, emotional, en garde, en pointe, envious of the boys and girls who were the leads, angry at the confusion my yearnings were causing me, vibrating with nerves; how best, then, to direct it but through theatrical performance. Plus, I won trophies. And that was something that real boys did—competed and won trophies. Real boys. Not like me, then, but some other reality—an illusion like being in a play, but something I knew was more ‘real’ than what I was doing. The dichotomy didn’t stop me though from pursuing what I felt was my calling: star of stage and screen.
My height also gave me a confidence that might have been lacking in someone of a more average size. When you’re always the tallest person in a group of people you’re often forced into being the leader, even if you’re a supporting player, because people are looking up to you; it’s hard to hide even if you are desperate to not be noticed. It tore at me.
A dream, scene 1: [A spotlight sweeps the stage before it finds the actor.] The Angel of Death in the body of a young beach boy, clad only in a Dago-T and skin-tight swim trunks. Long arms, like wings, beating time; kneeling at the edge of “The Sandbox”—the sound of the ocean, a drum. Jumping Jacks, push-ups, deep-knee bends, all-the-while exposed in such a public manner—on stage in front of the entire high school. [The spotlight fades as the actor accepts the trophy for Best Supporting Actor at the State Regional One Act Play Contest and exits.] A dream, scene 2: [Bright lights bathe the stage.] Encouraged by the director to explore the fastidiousness and fey qualities of a big city department store manager, the actor camps his way through a scene of increasing hilarity. If you don’t believe me, just look.
This particular director (Jody—possibly spelled Jodi—Westwood? Westmore? Westmoreland?) Regardless, it was her first year as the drama coach and her last), though, how do I want to put this? She aggravated me to such a degree that in an explosion of tears and rage, vitriol spewing from my mouth, I stormed from the stage during an afternoon rehearsal, “I quit,” I screamed at her and continued up and out of the auditorium, through the front doors of the high school and onto 6th street (which terminated at the school) and walked the 3 miles home, sobbing the entire way. My mother got home that evening to me still in a state of panic, embarrassment, despair, anger, madness, and self-loathing, so grievously distraught that she could hardly get me to tell her what had happened. But I did, and she, with her plain and simple manner, called the teacher and in her magical way, waved her wand and all was forgiven (as if it hadn’t happened.) What spell did my mother cast? [Lights slowly dim as the actor receives the Blue Masque Drama Club award for best supporting actor. And fade to black.] A dream, scene 3: [The lights come up to find the actor in a make-up chair adjusting a brunet wig, a curly mop, with a look of aggravation on his face—not uncommon then as now, aggravation that is, not adjusting a brunet wig.] This year, the director is a young man fresh out of teacher’s college with a surer hand and with a spark of genius that if you’re paying attention, you notice right away and align yourself with his vision immediately as it elevates your work, you blossom, more confident, a better listener, less prone to emotional outbursts, mature in a new way. We score at Regionals and move onto the State One Act Play contest. We sweep the awards, trophies for Best Play, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. Trophies all around. Dammit, we’re good. [Light fades as the actor exits the stage.]
A dream, scene 4: [The lights come up behind the scrim to find a family in turmoil.] Captain Keller fights with his son in “The Miracle Worker”. The scene calls for the father to subdue his angry son by struggling against the son’s writhing body. The young man playing the Captain is afraid of this scene because the anger he’s channeling is the fear of being exposed as a charlatan, faking the struggle with the actor playing the son because it felt so good to feel his body rub up against the hard, solid body of the young man playing the role of the son. [Lights fade as the actor receives another Blue Masque Drama Club trophy for Best Supporting Actor.]
A Midsummer’s Night Dream (scene 5): [Lights come up on a bucolic scene. Actors and actresses in home-made costumes are singing to children and the sunlight sparkles through the green boughs of old elm trees, dappling the stage floor, a sylvan glen. All of your senses are engaged: the music, the sound of a creek gurgling, the laughter of children, the sweet voices of harmony, the smell of burlap and straw, freshly mown green grass, the sweet smell of children’s sweat, laughter like wind chimes, the wind rustling leaves, the feeling of fresh water trickling down your throat, and the taste of pure joy. (It has a taste, you know.) This perfection lasts all summer long. It trumps any and all misadventures, nagging, errors in judgment, arguments, jealousy, pride, and the distaste of people you don’t like. There are no trophies, there is press, and photos, and community acclaim. It is heaven. Lights fade to black.]
Stage Directions: A college television studio. Heavy black velvet drapery defines the stage, there is a raised platform about two feet off the floor. An empty director’s chair is parenthetically enclosed by two television cameras directed at the stage with their wires and wheels and big eyes, cameramen standing at the controls of each, staring intently at the action on the platform in front of them, their backs to the audience. The actor is standing and speaks to the cameras, not to the audience.
“I lost my way in college. I drew the enmity of the theater director, Dr. ________, who relegated me to the scene shop, the prop room, off stage and out of his sight. I’m not sure why he didn’t like me, but whatever it was no matter what I auditioned for, I failed to land a role in a main stage production. Had I had the presence of mind to accept this fact, the rest of my theatrical career may have ended there (although in a way, it did), but instead, I ignored it, ranted against it to my fellow theater students, residence hall mates, ladies, and gentlemen. To compensate for this diminution I drank copious amounts of beer and cheap wine (Mad Dog 20/20 a specialty, but I did not ignore Ripple or Thunderbird either.) Add to that a wreath of marijuana smoke that haloed my head and infused my clothing, floating out of the open dorm room windows in the morning, noon, and night.
“Instead I found some success in front of the college TV studio cameras; an interview with the Dean of Students a kick start and a lovely—he said—interpretation of Spoon River Anthology with a woman named Claire, a swan song. There was another performance professor in the theater department who took a liking to me and cast me in the children’s theater production my sophomore year, but I fell ill with pneumonia and was only able to croak my way through one of five performances before I was quarantined to my dorm room. Later that same year, I danced in a production of “The Magic Flute” with a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed soprano brought in from New York to sing the Queen of the Night role—whom I worshipped—but that, my friends, was it.
“I despaired of ever gaining any acting experience; I felt ignored and abused by the lack of respect my earlier successes had seemed to assure me as I moved forward in my career pursuit of becoming a professional actor. It appeared that I would live my life locked in the closet—filled with jerkins and hoop skirts, waistcoats and bustiers, leggings and boots—a closet frozen in the wastelands of the northern prairie.”
I came to Chicago in the late winter of 1973 and auditioned for the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago; spending 4 days in Chicago at the Sheraton hotel on N. Michigan Avenue just across from the Wrigley Building (and had my first grilled cheese sandwich with tomato in the hotel’s coffee shop where the waitress called me “doll”.) To get to Chicago, I’d taken the Empire Builder from Fargo, N.D. my sophomore year at Moorhead State College (now University) just across the Red River from Fargo in Minnesota, the smell of the sugar beet processing factory north of town wafting behind me, a stink trail of innocence and ignorance.
It had begun with a chance meeting in 1972 on this very same train when I was headed for Springfield, Illinois to visit my grandmother. The woman sitting next to me was from Kalamazoo, coming from Seattle on the Empire Builder. Probably no older than my mother at the time (late 50s), she was beautifully dressed with a fur coat thrown over her shoulders, hair in a chignon and make-up applied just so. She shared her life with me–a chorine from Broadway–married now with children. I was fascinated by her stories about dancing in Broadway shows as I had theatrical aspirations myself. At the Minneapolis station a young man took the seat across the aisle; he began reading Arthur Lessac’s The Use and Training of the Human Voice. Emboldened by anonymity, I asked him his name (Tyler) and what he was reading; he told me he was a student at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and was headed back to school. The book was the foundation on which all of the acting classes at the school stood.
He filled my head with the experience of attending a school solely devoted to the theater arts and my imagination with delicious fantasies of what freedom in a big city might mean to me. Still not able to put into words how I felt about men and love and sex, but sitting across the aisle from him with the gentle rocking of the train, well, it may have put me into a bit of hypnotic trance (alright, possibly erotic as well—but nothing like that happened, in spite of my wishful imaginings). I know when I finally came to, I was determined to be an acting student at the Goodman. And like me at the time—and sometimes even still—I didn’t think about the how as much as the why not.
The day of the audition was anxiety-ridden—not just my own, but that of the other young hopefuls there for the day; sweat stains and pacing, fake smiles and stomach growlings, auditions mumbled under their breath while facing a stone (cold) wall, staring off into space, meditating, nerves a-tingle.
With the direction and encouragement of an associate professor of acting at MSC, I’d prepared a monologue from a contemporary text, Robert Anderson’s “I Never Sang for My Father”, and one of Malvolio’s from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. And now, here I was with so many strangers all wanting the same thing. Who would be better than me? Who worse? How many openings were available? In the groups outside the performance space I hardly spoke to anyone—but once inside and on stage, I could breathe again. It is one of the joys of performing, that breath you take as you let go of you.
Before and after the audition I walked Chicago and was stunned by the muscularity of the city—the smell, the sound, and the movement—it was mesmerizing. At the same time I was there for my audition, the Art Institute was holding its Biennial exhibition. Only one artist’s work from the exhibition remains embedded in my mind–Warhol’s Mao Tse Tung, a mammoth mixed media painting that hung in the gothic exhibition hall (the hall has since been demolished) like a brilliant tapestry of exquisite beauty, anarchistic and expectorant, all come together. I don’t even need to close my eyes to see it, nor does it take much for me to conjure the sound of footfalls in the exhibition hall and the muffled sound of conversation, to smell the dry air of the air-conditioned room where it hung and the arched frame of a Gothic window framing Mao’s multi-colored head; it was that powerful a moment.
I walked into the studio where the faculty sat behind a length of folding tables. Old and young, smiling and gracious, brusque and formal, they sat there, jury and executioner. “What is your name?” Where do you go to school?” What will you perform for us?” Then, silence and the staccato scratching of pen on paper. “Please, go ahead, Robert.” And I did and then they thanked me and wished me well, “We’ll be in touch.” The heavy, carved door shut behind me and I was looking at the expectant faces of the other auditioners. I smiled and left the building.
Back in Minnesota, I waited to hear whether or not I’d been accepted at the Goodman and I argued with my mother about the possibility of my impending move further east and farther away from her plus the matter of the school loans I’d need weighed in with their own Greek chorus of doubt and ridicule for my blindness. (Forgive me if I fucked up “further” and “farther”.) Spring arrived on the northern plains early that year when I received an offer of acceptance from the Goodman or maybe it was still winter, but it only felt like spring. I wept, my mother wept, but each for different reasons.
The year I spent at the Goodman (1973-1974) was one of the most intense, demanding and emotionally draining years I’ve ever experienced. But it opened my eyes to a world that I knew existed but had not experienced (except from a remove through literature, magazines (anyone remember Dance or InTouch?) With the Art Institute as a backdrop to the Goodman’s cauldron of drama–images burned directly onto your retina–it seemed surreal, and angry, and red; but simultaneously joyous, liberating, and green. Could one year in one’s life really make that much of a difference? I say yes. It wasn’t that I was a complete rube, although in my limited exposure to the larger issues of life, perhaps I was; you know, a bit of straw stuck in the corner of a mouth naive.
Moving at full tilt toward some Titian painting reality–all big sky, roiling clouds with sunlight streaming through, passion playing out below in bolts of satin and silk. I was fully unprepared for that first year of training at the Goodman. If you’ve experienced adult total immersion baptism, you might be able to grasp the emotional, physical, intellectual cleansing that awaited first year students. The goal: to completely strip us down to our essence; scrub out any demons, notions, blockages that would inhibit our ability to draw on our life experiences however limited they may be.
The day started at 7:30 AM with a half-hour warm-up that began at the tip of your scalp and concluded at the edge of your toenail–moving every muscle; it included vocalizing (via Arthur Lessac–the School’s de facto god) and elements of Yoga, gymnastics, and dance. In less time than you’d imagine we were all supple as otters (well, most everyone–there were those that no amount of exercise were going to ‘unstiffen’.) Splits? No problem. Backbends? No problem.
If you’ve never been to the Goodman; it’s a Grecian pile of stone facing Lake Michigan (pre-extensive remodel of several years ago.) At the time I was a student there a blood red carpet lined the dramatic staircase that descended to the vaulted entry foyer–quite a sight then to see a hundred young people in various states of ‘movement clothes’ (read: less is more, it is after all the city of Mies van der Rohe) arrayed in rows–from smallest to tallest–all following the encouraging words and movements of the chosen leader, usually a third year student.
I found a studio apartment in an Art Moderne building at the northeast corner of Dearborn and Erie for $100.00 a month. It was located on the first floor at the back of the building, on the alley and next to the garbage cans for the building, it was a pit, but it was a landing place—then I found a hide-a-bed sofa (red!) and with crock pot anchoring the galley kitchen, it mildly resembled my previous dorm room. The dumpster diving was fantastic–although I never ran into them, I’m convinced there were some mad homosexuals living there, because I found lederhosen, a leather t-shirt that zipped up the sides — it fit! — and tchotchke that only a sensitive man would own, some of which I still have.
The Goodman experience: My counselor was the actor Ned Schmidtke remembered mostly for his sage advice to avoid the food at SAIC’s cafeteria–all meetings in his tiny office were witnessed by a grilled cheese sandwich on a paper plate from said cafeteria that he had had shellacked in the theater’s backstage workroom and had nailed (crucified, really) to the wall of his office.
Improvisation classes with Libby Appel were the most inspiring. She had the amazing ability to develop an atmosphere of safety and ease where an actor/student could let down their guard long enough to find the character needed for the scene. She taught listening and being in the now unlike anyone I had met before.
Dance and movement with Estelle Spector…a 4′ 11″ dictator, later on the faculty of Columbia College Chicago in the Musical Theater Department–she of the quote: “Robert, you are the only dancer I know who has the attitude of Rudolph Nureyev and dances like a three-legged dog.” Yes, it hurt then, and sometimes still does, although in the intervening years, I’ve come to view it as more of a compliment than scathing critique of my abilities. Estelle did arrange for some of us (author included) to take ballet classes with the newly founded Chicago Ballet led by the incomparable Ruth Page. And on one occasion she took a group of us to watch Nureyev dance “La Bayadère” at the Chicago Opera House—and yes, afterwards, backstage to meet him.
There was anger and disappointment here, too. I wasn’t asked back after my first year. Not that I had the money for it anyway. It left me adrift. The conflict of my nature churning around me, but I did finally come to understand something: I never wanted to be an actor, I only wanted to be myself, my gay self. And the move to Chicago, and the year at the Goodman, gave me that.
“Aneal loved the ocean, daffodils, the color blue, Frank Sinatra, the L.A. Dodgers, the USC Trojan football team, her family and God.”
I read the obituaries, what can I say? This one, though, in today’s paper really resonated with me, especially the list of things the decedent loved. It made me think that I’d liked to be remembered for loving a color so much that my friends and family felt compelled to include it in my obituary–should there ever be such a thing. Not that I won’t die, but that there’ll be an obituary. I’ve written about this topic before, you can read that here. It stumped me this morning, “blue” being such a big word, encompassing so many different blues–and so many shades of meaning, but then I decided that their love of blue was qualified by their first love–the ocean, and suddenly that included all of the blues, the hundreds of blues, the blue of a sun-filled sky, and the deep marine blue of the Mariana Trench, the sea-foam blue of a frothy afternoon walk along the beach, and the blue of midnight in the garden, the blue of wisteria and delphinium, blueberry and plum, the blue moon and l’heure bleue, the blue of a vein running on the back of an elder’s hand, the blue of a Dutch tile, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and Tiffany. Even in the best of circumstances, there will always be a tinge of melancholy attached to blue especially in song; “Am I Blue”, “Blue Velvet”, and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?” Doesn’t that qualify your love of blue then after all? A less happy life, perhaps, but more honest than another. You know, true blue.
this is a portrait of a young man coming out of his [insert your favorite analogy here: pupa, shell, closet.] he’s been working on this moment physically for at least 21 years, if not longer psychically; the dream of so many before who did not. his new life shocked no one. it caused no natural disaster. he lost some friends (which even then did not bother him.) he made a lot more. there were miscues, missteps, mistakes and other ‘mis’ses: the affianced ‘boyfriend’ whose smooth body, ruddy nose, and aggressive behavior can still be recalled as vividly as if he’d just been freshly, left alone in his bed, cold, angry, hurt(ing), and confused by what he thought it should be and what it actually was. was it rudy? alan? john? what about the blond who picked him up in the park and took him to his apartment on belmont and proceeded to — you’ll forgive the constant referencing of sex, but, really, that’s all there was, that was the identifier then, the difference on which you proclaimed your freedom, cried out in the night, early morning, late afternoon, at the lake shore, on the bus, at school, work, that creeping paranoia of otherness staring at your back as you walked home from the ‘el’ stop, the occasional catcall that made your spine stiffen and your gait stumble as the target got affixed to your back, ready, aim, fire.
but it never happened, that shot, although it was never far from his consciousness (he carried a certain amount of psychic awareness around with him like a handkerchief just in case someone sneezed or there was blood on the tracks–that may be the result of otherness, too, a little bit of the boy scouts, careful upbringing, manners instilled by grandmothers, aunts, that midwestern ‘gosh-golly-ness’.) he went about his life, a partial list would include school, work, drinking, smoking pot, cruising the park at lawrence avenue and lakeshore dr., drooling over a roommate, blind to the obvious and cognizant of the hidden, his world a negative ready to be developed. we’re unsure, at this writing, how long he may have waited for the positive, blind as he was to the chemical bath required to bring the portrait to life.
is there a lesson here? not really, he’s not exceptional, his tale has been told countless times by better wordsmiths and worse, god knows worse. each tale though has it’s merits and badges, language, arts, sports, wood shop, and friendship. and yet, each tale is worth telling, a reminder that there is common cause among us, a magical thread of hope that the negative will not have been damaged while it was in storage, that its development (however it comes to be, analog or digital) will be as it should be and that the final portrait will be beautiful.