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 two days in Chicago at the Sheraton Hotel on Michigan Avenue just across from the Wrigley Building. I had my first grilled cheese sandwich with tomato in the hotel’s coffee shop where the waitress called me “doll”. The sandwich was the best I’d ever tasted. It tasted like I was an adult, you know, it was that feeling you get when there’s a shift in the force of nature.

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 plant north of town wafting behind me, a stink trail of innocence and ignorance.

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 MSU, I’d prepared a monologue from a contemporary text, Robert Anderson’s “I Never Sang for My Father”, and one of Malvolio’s speeches 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.

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 two days I spent in Chicago for the audition changed my life dramatically (pun intended.) Before and after the audition I walked the Chicago “Loop” and up Michigan Avenue to the John Hancock Center and was stunned by the muscularity of the city–the smell, the sound, the movement–it was mesmerizing. At the same time I was there for my audition, the Art Institute was holding its Biennial. 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.

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 and 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?

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 my 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.  Regardless of the dream I was having, I was fully unprepared for that first year of training at the Goodman School of Drama.

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, arterial 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 godhead) 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    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, needless to say it was a dump, but it was a landing place after my flight from the past. I found a hide-a-bed sofa (threadbare red!) in a nearby second-hand store and with crock pot in hand it was a cheap imitation of my previous dorm room.  The dumpster diving was fantastic–although I never ran into them, I was convinced there were other men I might like living there just based on what was in the garbage. I mean, who throws out a pair of leather lederhosen, a black leather t-shirt that zipped up the sides — it fit! — tchotkes that only an artistic man would own, some of which I still have. Artistic, by the way, is the euphemism used in my house by the adults in my life to describe me – in hushed tones by relatives, neighbors, and the inconsequential – instead of queer. “No, he’s artistic.” I can still hear it.

The Goodman:  My counselor was the TV and film character 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–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 taking a group of us to watch Nureyev dance “La Bayadère” at the Chicago Opera House — and yes, took us backstage to meet him.

There were other teachers, including the hilariously over-the-top Kelly Danforth, who led my scene-study group. Who, when one of the male students went into PTSD seizures (a handsome, dark-haired Vietnam vet who got too close the bone of the moment), flew around the room like a bird freed from its cage until one of us—it may have been me—grabbed him and shook him and made him run and phone 911.

It was here, though, at the Goodman School of Drama, where I began to connect on a more mature level with other humans. That is the one great thing I learned there and for which I am eternally grateful.

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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