Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Growing Up Without Theatre.

In Ken Davenport's essential (for any performer or producer) blog, he makes a list called "Five Things Theatre Can Learn From the World Cup." Here's number three:

Do you think it's a coincidence that 25 years ago there was no girls' team in my hometown, and no one gave a crap that Argentina beat Germany in a 3-2 squeaker? Soccer became a bigger part of American life just a couple of decades ago . . . and now those kids are grown up, and are loving watching what they participated in. The arts are no different. If it were mandatory that every kid out there performed in at least one play during their high school career (and I'm not saying that it should be), Broadway would have a bigger fan base. Today's participants are tomorrow's audience.

My first participation, that I remember, in theater, was in the Buna High School junior play.

Buna, being a tiny little town where we moved when I was a sophomore, had no drama department. But, every year, the English teacher would pick a play and choose a cast from the students in her class. (Yes, I said "the English teacher." My class numbered 96 that year. I think it was down slightly from the previous year because of a few extra pregnancies.

I don't remember much about it, but I got picked to play a nerd. It was a comedy called "Cracked Nuts." Or that could have been the Senior Play. I don't know.

And I know I've told this story before, but after I got to Dallas, in my mid-20s, I heard about this "dinner theatre" that needed a tenor. I was fresh off the boat from being in my Jesus rock band and had no idea what a dinner theatre was.

Honestly. I mean, I suppose I could have pictured it, logically, but I had no idea what I was stepping into when I stood up at the piano, looked down at the floor, and sang a Stevie Wonder song. (I only got hired because I could hit a decent high note, I knew how to wait tables, having just survived a run of the midnight shift at the Denton IHOP, while living in an apartment with a bunch of Iranian engineering students. But, I digress.)

The point was that when I showed up for rehearsal on the first day, everyone there was a theatre or opera major. I was this Baptist rock band guy who was dancing for the first time in his life. And by that, I mean that I never went to a high school dance and we did not have dances at Jacksonville Baptist College.

This was my first time to dance.

As they showed me "steps," realizing that I was completely hopeless, they eventually kept me out of everything but the most crucial big cast numbers. I'm sure I resembled a scarecrow being dragged around.

Then, someone mentioned an "audition." It was for a "Broadway show" called Platinum. They were looking for "alternative casting" for the lead, a rock star.

I had no idea what that meant.

Seriously. A what? A Broadway show? I thought "Broadway" meant old movies.

I think that moment is the one that has crystallized, for me, over the years, the difference between the larger culture I now find myself in, and the sealed-off protected environment of the World of the Missionary Baptist.

I started to remember things. Ah, yes. Time Magazine. It always had a section on "Stage." It featured people I never heard of doing things I couldn't see. Not from east Texas.

Also, none of it felt "real." It looked like a pretend version of the real thing. Or just something for elite kind of people.

The Booth, The Merman and the Martin.
So, I never read that section, though sometimes an image would catch my eye. I didn't have a picture of Broadway in my mind's eye. I didn't think of it as a place.

If I pictured those theaters, I only saw them in terms of old movies.

Over the years, I've felt kind of ashamed of that. But probably because my first stage appearances were totally embarrassing there at the Gran' Crystal Palace (in Dallas). Bobby Grayson, the successful Broadway hair stylist, was there at that time. He always fascinated me because he had perfect hair, a great smile, and could sing show tunes and dance.

They always used to group up and do the big final dance from "A Chorus Line." I just stood watching, mystified.

I probably didn't register much on his radar, at the time.

But it was there that I started to catch the fever of musical theater. It was there, in the culture, all that time, but it was as far away from my world as Russia, where all the commies lived.

The chasm was, and may still be, enormous. But, all I needed was that one show. That's when I became a fan. (My first Broadway musical was the original cast of "Sweeney Todd" -- Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou. I don't think I've told her about this. I did tell him, but he doesn't really know me, so I probably just sounded like a idiotic fan. When Angela came to our party, I was so dumbstruck, I sat next to her at one point, on the couch, and couldn't come up with a word. She was there because she's great friends with Bob Osborne. I felt like Alexandra Billings meeting Piper Laurie. "I'm your biggest flan.").

So, I was all the way in my mid-20s before I was even a potential audience for theatre. I didn't really know it existed.

I wonder what a drama department at Buna High would have been like? I doubt they would have done Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. Probably play it safe.

The standards. Dolly. Oklahoma. Sound of Music.

All those Baptists dressed up like nuns. I think I would have loved to have seen that.

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