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1967 — A Brief Life in the Theater

A Brief Life in the Theater


       In November of 1966, I was a was a rudderless, impressionable freshman at the SUNY college in remote Brockport — remote from New York City, that is, my hometown, and a place I had very mixed feelings about — and I happened to see a poster for the Theater Club’s fall production taped on a wall somewhere. The play was Li’l Abner, based on Al Capp’s comic strip, a fifties musical comedy that had been a little before my time when it played on Broadway. But I was strangely electrified to see the poster. In my usual globe of anxious adolescent anomie, I hadn’t even been aware of any Theater Club.
      Now, if you’ve read the earlier memoir Off to College, you know that I landed at Brockport State kind of haphazardly. That first semester I remained disoriented, and in my bewilderment I was oblivious to the things that even a third-rate state college had to offer — which were not inconsiderable. When I wasn’t in the few classes required each week, or off drinking fifteen-cent beers in the Roxbury bar on Main Street, I generally frittered away my time smoking cigarettes in the dorm rooms of the two friends I had made who both had portable hi-fi’s and some records. I was en route to become an English major, since composition was one of the few things I was any good at, but you didn’t have to declare a major until junior year, so that was moot for the moment. In reality, I was just a shiftless slacker, out of my element.
     Back in my supposed element, New York City, it happened that my stepfather was employed as publicity director for the New York League of Theaters, meaning Broadway. He could get free tickets to anything, and he and my mother went to opening nights all the time. Since I was a half-feral little monster, they only dragged me along occasionally, when the urge to improve me was irresistible to my mother. But as an older teenager I came around and developed an appreciation for the stage, as I had developed an appreciation for shrunken heads and the great paintings of the world in the city’s museums, where admission was free in those high-flying postwar years, and any child could just walk in. Anyway, by the age of eighteen I had seen many Broadway plays ranging from fluff like The Sound of Music to heavy middlebrow drama like A Man for All Seasons. So when I chanced on that poster for L’il Abner, it was like finding a touchstone in a wilderness.
     I looked forward eagerly to it all week and was not disappointed by the show. They put it on in the cavernous auditorium of Hartwell Hall, the 1912 old main administration building, hardly a glamour venue. But the singing and cavorting were more than adequate, the set of the hillbillies’ Eden, “Dogpatch,” looked just fine under the hot lights, and the tiny orchestra enlisted from the Music Ed department played pretty much on key. The whole thing was a lesson in the uses of enchantment. When it was over, well, it was over, and between Thanksgiving — when I holed up in the dorm with a bottle of gin instead of traveling all the way home — and Christmas break — when I actually did go home — college life resolved back into its dull rhythm of cigarettes, food service meals, fifteen-cent beers, and here and there a class.
     Long about February of the next semester, I had pretty much forgotten the Theater Club’s production of Li’l Abner and I was in danger of stagnating in my freshman routines. Then one day, in my adolescent boredom, I happened to be following an attractive girl around the campus when she turned up the steps of Hartwell. I tailed her inside, watched her cross the lobby, and enter the auditorium. A few minutes later I slipped in, too. The drapes were closed, and the big room was dark, except for the brightly lit stage, where a dozen kids milled around gabbing within a semicircle of steel folding chairs set against the black velvet drops. A few other people conferred in the first row of the audience seats, and then someone who looked like a faculty member called the meeting to order. I slid into a seat off to the side, in the fourth row perhaps .
     It didn’t take long to ascertain that this was not a class, but an audition for the Theater Club’s spring production. I had no idea what play it was. The kids on stage took seats and began reading scenes in a peculiar archaic English. I wondered if it was Shakespeare, while I lit a cigarette. (Hard to believe as it might be now, you could smoke virtually everywhere in those days: classes, theaters, dentist’s waiting rooms.) But striking the match gave me away. The faculty member turned and squinted at me in my pool of semi-darkness. I thought I was about to be kicked out, but I soon gathered that he was asking if I had come in to read. I said, no, I had come in to watch. And he said, no, he meant would I like to read for a part. And I said I hadn’t planned on it (I didn’t say I had been just following one of the girls on-stage around the campus). And he said, well, you’re welcome to come up and join us. And to spare everyone another moment of distraction and embarrassment, I just said sure and went up there.
     Someone handed me a booklet, a Samuel French edition of Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible.” The faculty member, a man of about fifty in a cardigan sweater, with a prominent nose rather like Sir John Geilgud’s, and a kindly manner, directed my attention to a certain page and asked me to read some lines by a character denoted as Rev Hale, while three other kids were asked to read additional parts. The action of the play was a complete mystery to me, and the meaning of the lines, too, were baffling in Miller’s 17th century colonial American lingo. I read a speech about “incubi and succubi” and “the principalities of the air,” and then the faculty member had a brief conference with his two attendants, a man and a woman who looked too old to be seniors, but not mature enough to be faculty. They seemed to be impressed that I could even pronounce these strange words, though I hadn’t the dimmest idea what it all added up to. What’s this play about, I whispered to a guy next to me. The Salem witch trials, he said.
     I got the part. They called me in my dorm room a few days later because I hadn’t reported to where they posted the cast list to find out — I assumed I’d flunked the audition — and they asked me to come pick up a copy of the script so I could begin memorizing my lines. So I joined the cast and became a thespian, as the Theater Clubbers called themselves.
     It was all a lot of fun, despite the heavy themes of Miller’s play. My character, Mr. Hale, was a congregational minister who started a lot of mischief in the Puritan town of Salem when called upon to investigate the misbehavior of some teenage girls who had fallen under the sway of a Carib slave woman and — the historical record is kind of fuzzy on this — engaged in ceremonies with sexual overtones out in the Massachusetts woods. The hero of the piece was a farmer named John Proctor who had been carrying on an illicit romance with one of the girls and got trapped in a fatal squeeze between his conscience, the colonial courts, and a community gone hysterical. Proctor was played by a deep-voiced, tall sophomore, who happened to be a townie, named Joel Loy. His dad ran a barbershop on Main Street. Joel and I became friends over the years, because we were in so many plays together, and he would go on to become a popular talking head on Rochester’s local TV news, though he died in his forties of lung cancer.
     Most of us smoked, of course. Smoking was an utterly normative feature of everyday life then, like eating toast in the morning, or never walking when you could drive. Even people who didn’t smoke had to indulge the rest of us who did. Joel smoked Lucky Strike straights, with no filters, because it made him less of a target for those looking to bum smokes. I smoked either Tarrytons, Winstons, or Kools, depending on what was left in the nearest cigarette machine at any given time. They cost 35 cents a pack then. We smoked backstage and offstage. If you came into rehearsal a little late because your scenes were scheduled last, you’d enter the dark auditorium and see a curtain of smoke curling into the powerful beams of the fresnel and leico lights above the stage.
     The director was the kindly man in the cardigan sweater with the Gielgud nose, a prof officially in the Speech Department named Lou Hetler. (He was such a nice man that nobody ever even jokingly called him “Hitler” behind his back.) He had a PhD in something-or-other, so he was addressed as “Dr. Hetler.” For years when the somnolent little college snoozed away in the backwaters of the state system, Dr. Hetler had run this tiny little sub-department of “Theater Arts” within the Speech Department. But big changes were coming on. I get a little ahead of myself, though.
       We rehearsed methodically for about six weeks. Dr. Hetler obviously knew what he was doing. We went from crude “blocking” with scripts in our hands, to working out the more refined psychology of the scenes, to run-throughs of whole acts. When our costumes arrived from the rental agency and our sets materialized on-stage, the darn thing sort of came together. Not all the cast members could put over their parts with conviction, but some of them were quite all right. Joel would forever be a rather plodding actor. Whenever he had to play “excitement” of one emotion or another, his naturally deep voice slipped into a strange whiney high register of false notes. The girl I’d followed into the audition, with the amazing name Sally Cool, had a minor roll as one of the townspeople, and nothing sparked between us after all. But I did have a romance, as long as the play ran, with the sophomore who played Proctor’s wife, a very cute girl from Long Island with a small-featured kitten-like face and a histrionic manner that we associated with good acting. We made out in the stairwell offstage whenever possible.
      It turned out that I was quite a scenery-chewer — my character went through some heavy changes in the course of the play and had a nervous breakdown at the end — and I got great reviews in the student newspaper. Before the play was finished with its two-week run of performances, a stranger turned up in the wings several times and circulated among us, chatting us up, scoping us out, it seemed. His name was David Hamilton, a 28-year-old junior faculty guy from Syracuse University’s drama department. He’d just been hired to come to Brockport starting that summer. It was a harbinger of things to come.
      I had gotten into the SUNY system just as Governor Nelson Rockefeller was pouring an immense stream of state money into upgrading it. There were construction projects all over the campus. One of them was a large new fine arts building, with more than one theater in it. Lou Hetler’s little Theater Arts backwater in the Speech Department was getting upgraded into a full-fledged department of its own, with luxury facilities in a brand-new building, and a half-dozen new faculty hires to join Dr. Hetler, who was suddenly chairman. Dave Hamilton was the first. They also hired his sidekick from Syracuse, Rick Miller, to run the scene shop and teach set design and lighting. They got a gal to teach costuming (and construct costumes for each show — no more rentals) and another to teach theater business administration (box office, etc), and another guy who was a theater historian. Then they went about recruiting students. They signed up Joel, and the kitten who’d played his wife on stage, and me, and a dozen other kids, including the techies who had worked backstage on lights and sets, and were a strange breed of their own.
      The college had an old outdoor amphitheater which they used in the summer for pageants and singalongs, and Dr. Hetler instantly geared up a summer season of plays to kick off his new department. I was shanghaied into that, too, instead of hanging out at the beach. They even got a little state money to pay us nominal summer wages. The first play was Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, by Arthur Kopit, a mordant and morbid little parlor piece with a tiny cast. I did not get a part in the play, but I had an important role as Dave Hamilton’s stage manager, a kind of combination administrative assistant / drill sergeant. It was my job to make sure that rehearsals were ready to start on time, with props in place; to record the blocking and other stage business in a loose-leaf notebook; to run the actors through their lines in Hamilton’s absence, and then to throw the light and sound cues from a booth in the rear of the amphiteater during performance. Hamilton and I became pretty tight. I was his adjutant and sometimes drinking companion (he was good at drinking and favored martinis, which the boobs in the local bars could barely make, though the recipe only called for two ingredients), and he became my mentor in the years that followed.
     The second play that summer was Little Mary Sunshine, a crowd-pleaser operetta which Dr. Hetler put on strictly to sell tickets. They brought in some community theater smoothie from Rochester to direct it, and a bunch of semi-pro singers from the Eastman School of Music, and I had as little to do with it as possible, though I was assigned to the crew hanging lights. Opening night I went on a massive bender, drinking Ripple wine, and woke up in the second floor hallway of a Victorian apartment off Main Street, with no idea how I got there.
     The big extravaganza of the summer was Marat / Sade by Peter Weiss. Or, by it’s full title: The persecution and assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. This seemingly pretentious piece was actually a very sturdy, clever, and often lyrical story of the French Revolution, with a large cast, a small orchestra, and songs. It had been famously staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Brook’s direction, with a successful run in New York City the previous year. It was very arty stuff for provincial Brockport. David Hamiliton was the director. The Marquis de Sade was played by a ringer named John Hoffman, a somewhat older (23) fellow whom Hamilton had known in an earlier gig teaching at Bennington College and recruited to finish his bachelor’s degree at Brockport. I got the central role as Marat, the spiritual leader of the early phase of the Revolution, until he was stabbed to death in his bathtub.
      I had to spend practically the whole play onstage sitting in that bathtub. (Historically, Marat had developed a skin disease from hiding in the sewers and found relief only by sitting in water all the livelong day.) The Royal Shakespeare production had featured a scandelous full frontal nude scene in the one moment where Marat climbs out of his tub during the play. In our version, I wore a skimpy loincloth so as to not inflame the locals. The play itself was hard enough on them.
     Doing that play was a stirring and enlarging experience. Just going through rehearsals for three weeks with so many people whirling around onstage was a thrill, not to mention the fact that all of us got a pretty good idea of what the French Revolution had been about. My role was great for scenery chewing, one extended political rant after another — plus this Marat in the play-within-the-play was an inmate of an insane asylum — so I really let loose with the histrionics. We’d rehearsed during the day, mostly. The performances, at night, got weird.
      The outdoor amphitheater was built right next to a little boating lake. Sitting in the bathtub, nearly naked, with several hot lights glaring off me, I became a target for every winged insect in that little corner of upstate New York. As the sun went down and we took our places on-stage, and the lights came up, the insects poured off the lake in massive swarms: moths by the thousands, mosquitos, craneflies, seventeen-year-locusts, orbiting the stage in disgusting multitudes. It was torture. The other actors at least were protected by their costumes. I was required to sit stock still in the tub in a frozen tableau when scenes I was not in played elsewhere on stage, and I struggled to sit still with the flies biting and the locusts bouncing off my head. By the time the run ended, I was almost genuinely insane.
      The following fall, we did Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, another heavy number for the upstate audience. John Hoffman played Estragon, Rick Miller, a faculty member played Vladimir, Joel Loy played Pozzo, and I played :Lucky, the pathetic slave who carries Pozzos bags and delivers only one line in the course of the play — a three-page-long stream of poetic nonsense. Hamilton directed it. We took it on a small tour around the other SUNY campuses and eventually landed at the college theater state drama festival in Corning, NY, where we won the award for best production. Unfortunately I got caught smoking a joint at a party there and fell under a cloud of opprobrium.
     My punishment was that I got banned from performing in any other departmental productions for the rest of the semester. Meanwhile, though, interesting things were happening elsewhere on the campus — and I only really discovered that after coming out of the perpetual darkness of the theater department, where we seemed to do little else but rehearse and smoke cigarettes. The hippie revolution was underway, even at sleepy little Brockport. Over the previous two years, with the big expansion, the student body swelled from about 2500 to over 6000, and would get bigger still. The Vietnam War had turned the nation really sour, even in the deep backwaters outside Rochester. But the Dionysian element of the hippie scene also caught on a Brockport. The birth control pill got popular, girls went around the campus in see-through peasant blouses, and everybody was frisky.
      By a strange sequence of small promptings, I ended up running for president of the student government in the spring of my sophomore year, 1968. Around the same time, Dr. Hetler restored my performing privileges in the Theater Department. I got a small role in his production of The Threepenny Opera by Bertold Brecht (songs by Kurt Weill). During the rehearsal period, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. A few days later, the student government election was held and I won (my year as president is a whole other story). On the night of the technical rehearsals, when light and sound cues were set in an extremely tedious process that ran until three in the morning, I got plastered backstage with the guys who played Macheath’s gang members and, of course, I was blamed for instigating it — another black mark in my record.
      The truth was, I had pretty much peaked as a thespian by then. My best scenery-chewing days were behind me. I didn’t get banned from the department for getting drunk because half the cast had gotten drunk with me, and they wouldn’t have had any actors left if they banned us all. But I was regarded afterwards as a kind of leper. A year later, after my impeachment as student government president (also another story), I got a pretty good role as Trofimov the student revolutionary in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. The play did have a wonderful aura, though, because we inaugurated the brand-new main-stage theater with it, and Rick Miller built some stunning box sets, and there was waltzing, and the whole thing came off nicely. I was a spear carrier in David Hamilton’s production of the restoration comedy, The Country Wife, by Wycherley, a fiasco when Hamilton tried to hippify the play a la Hair, with rock and roll music. The music sucked, the costumes were mortifying, and the whole thing was an embarrassment. I worked another production as stage-manager for David, and that got me out of acting and into directing.
     I was a better director than an actor. On-stage, I often did things so outrageously intuitive that I blew my own mind and broke character. I preferred being offstage, pushing people around, telling them what to do, how to act. I was good at it. For my senior project I directed Joel Oppenheimer’s off-Broadway hit, The Great American Desert, about three cowboys on the run. After I graduated, I got a job directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a summer stock theater in the Finger Lakes. The night of my tech rehearsal, the manager got us all together and said the operation had run out of money and box office receipts were not making up for the losses, and we could continue with production and put it on for the week scheduled, but they couldn’t pay us anymore. I volunteered to stick around, but the actors all voted to split, and that was that. The show did not go on.
       That was the end of my career in the theater. I spent the following fall holed up in a friend’s apartment writing short stories, trying desperately to break into the bigtime magazines, and basically failed. Just after Christmas I went off to Boston to check out a job possibility with one of the new hippie weekly newspapers there, and that is how I launched my new career in journalism.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

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