I used to joke when people asked me how I liked directing plays: I like two things about it: thinking about doing it--and having done it. The rest was endless work and aggravation--with some moments of wonder and magic mixed in like glitter.
Before I go on ... a former student (and student actor in some of my shows)--Eric Miles--after looking at the list of shows I'd posted the other day noted that I'd left out an evening of one-acts that we did in the middle 1970s. He remembered doing a dramatized version of Shirley Jackson's story "The Summer People" and Mark Twain's "The Diary of Adam and Eve." I'd completely forgotten--and remembered instead a production of The Apple Tree, the musical that features some of Twain, a show a former student of mine--John Mlinek--directed at Aurora High School.
In my complete (hah!) files of the shows I did over the decades I cannot find a thing about those one-acts. Nothing on my shelf under Twain or Jackson. Nor in my files. So all I can do is hope that some pack-ratty former cast member has kept a copy of the program and will scan-and-send it to me?!?!
Meanwhile, I wanted to write today about some show memories--some things I loved, hated, miss.
- Many of the early shows I did were scripts I wrote with students over the course of the school year. Sometimes the kids came in early; I made hot chocolate for them, and we wrote and laughed for an hour before school started. I very much miss the intimacy of those meetings--those times with those young bright writers who gave me and the shows so many of their dark winter mornings.
- Our first few shows we performed only twice--once for the students in the afternoon, another time for parents and others in the evening. Those initial student receptions were so critical to all of us--and those Aurora Middle School kids were a great audience--never once making us feel bad about what we were doing. (Of course, they got out of class, too--so why not be happy?)
- Year after year I was startled by how often kids surprised me onstage. Sure, there were times when I knew a kid would be good--but there were other times when someone seemed ignited by stage lights--or by an audience. And there, right before me, they became someone else.
- We never had the most, uh, advanced technology in our shows--but, somehow, some of the greatest kids wanted to work backstage--or on the follow spots. Working in the most difficult conditions (they couldn't hear well, couldn't see well--enormous pressure in the performances), they delighted me, year after year.
- I was forever impressed with how willing kids were to do things I asked them to. Bill Duris ran out in a diaper, dressed like Cupid, and threw hearts into the audience. Ray Duval hid up on a cabinet and swung down onto the gym floor (our "stage" in the early years) on the climbing rope at a surprise moment. Kids dressed up like ET and Elvis, executioners and teachers, hippies and Robin Hood, King George III and Sacajawea, wizards and weirdos.
- I was disappointed in our audiences only once: Very few people showed up to see our production of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor--only about 100/night. The AHS kids did a fantastic job--and, for once, their community failed them.
- I loved all those 8th grade farewell shows. During the school year I would write the skits and the lyrics and put it all together over spring break, begin rehearsals right afterwards. One year, I remember, I was in Amsterdam over spring break doing research on Anne Frank (I was teaching the play based on her diary). There I sat in my hotel at night, writing silly skits about Harmon Middle School. On closing night, when the lights went down at the end, the kids would cheer so excitedly--then find themselves weeping. (Right along with me.)
- I had some wonderful colleagues who helped me with the productions, right from the very beginning. Donna French with costumes and moral support. Musicians Ted Clawson and Debbie Langford and Janet Nabring and David Patton and, especially, later, Gary Brookhart, a wonderful pianist who made every kid sound better.
- But virtually none of it would have happened without Andy Kmetz, artist, set designer, choreographer, teaching colleague, dear friend. The best moments in the shows were always his, no question. "The Dance Number" was always a featured scene in the 8th grade shows. In my final show--1996--Andy was unable to help, so a couple of seniors (and former 8th-grade-show dancers)--Bronagh Hollywood and Lydia Baynes--took over what he'd started and did a great job.
- I always had great support from the school administrators--especially Mike Lenzo and Jerry Brodsky (who appeared in an 8th grade show) and dear Jim Wright, the assistant principal, who let us poke fun at him, year after year--including a song ("'Sistant Principal"--to the tune of "Mother-in-Law").
- I had the wonderful experience of directing my own son, Steve, on the Harmon stage--about a half-dozen times--and I'll not forget--ever--how on the final night of his 8th grade show in 1986 he found me afterwards out in the Commons, wrapped his arms around my waist, held me close, and cried and cried. (I seem to have something wrong with my eyes right now as I type this.)
- I have stayed close with many of the kids in those shows. John Mlinek--who as a seventh grader was in the very first show I did in 1967--is still a great friend and looks me up whenever he's in the area. (John, by the way, did a cameo in the last show I did in 1996--as a favor.) I see Jeff Bissell many mornings down at Caribou; he was in the early shows, too. FB has put me back in touch with so many others. Bill "Cupid" Duris does me the honor of "liking" most of the nonsense I post. Fred Gloor and Eric Miles and so many others jerk my chain now and then on FB, too. All these contacts mean so much ...
Oddly, I have not missed doing shows. When I returned to teaching at WRA in the fall of 2001 (I had been there 1979-81), it never crossed my mind to get involved again. The school had/has some wonderful, gifted people working in the theater program--Midge Karam and Donalee Ong--and watching their productions every year made me very, very humble.
Back in 1980-81, though, I did write a script with some WRA students--a series of satricial skits and songs (and even films) about the school; we called the thing WRA and Peace. I didn't direct it, though; I instead turned it over to the school's theater person at the time, Corky Davis, who had a lot of fun with it. Her acting class performed it for an assembly--and it seemed to go over well.
But I do miss those moments, those moments when I saw up on those Aurora stages something that was even better than I'd imagined, something even better than I had any right to expect. A glance, a move, a song, a dance, a skit, a moment when some girl or boy discovered something inside that she or he didn't even know was there. And then showed us all.
One of the problems of doing a post like this--I can't mention everyone--even nearly everyone--who helped, who participated, who created all those moments I will not forget. All I can do is thank you all--profoundly thank you.