Thursday, June 8, 2017
... and 50 years ago about now ... (final)
It was on June 5, 1967, that the students and parents at Aurora Middle School got a look at the first play I directed in my teaching career, which had begun barely nine months earlier. As I've recounted in the previous two posts on this subjects, it was a script I wrote with some seventh and eighth graders throughout the year in our Drama Club, a group that met a couple of days a week after regular classes during our school's hastily created "Activity Period" (a hasty arrangement occasioned by a bus-scheduling problem).
I told a bit about the plot last time--a plot that makes me cringe to this day. But--hey!--I was barely 22 (in years and, apparently, IQ), and my Heart, if not my Sense, was in the right place.
In 1967, June 5 was on a Monday. I'm not sure what that was about (why not a weekend performance?), but June 5 arrived all too swiftly. That I remember.
I don't remember a thing about tryouts for the show. I assume I held them in my classroom, Room 116 in the old middle school building (now, mostly, the administrative offices for the district). I do know that I was stunned by the ability of the kids who tried out. John Mlinek, who played the Rev. Ku Klux, was a bright talent--and has remained performing in and directing local theater productions for decades. I later got to see him play Hamlet as a student at Kent State University--and even later, at an outdoor production in Columbus, he was a great Macbeth. (Managing to ignore, by the way, a stray dog that wandered up onto the stage!)
Dave Prittie was another great one. He drew the cover of the program (which you can now barely see), performed as Laertes in same KSU Hamlet with John, and went on to have a career in commercial art in NYC.
And so many of the others just shocked me with their talent. I was lucky. They deserved a better script, a better director.
I remember a terrible--and very fundamental--error I made at the outset. We were practicing and performing in the middle school gym, and I decided that those not onstage at the time would wait out in the hallway with the doors closed. (What could go wrong?)
What an idiot.
The kids could have learned so much about performing by watching the other kids work on their parts in the gym. And I could have gotten to know them all a lot better. Instead, I created a big Discipline Problem by leaving seventh and eighth graders pretty much unattended out in the hallway. (I'm surprised the building is still standing.)
I never did that again, by the way--separate the kids from the rehearsal. And we would use that gym floor until the mid-1970s when we moved to our new building, Harmon School, which had a stage, a curtain! (And the most primitive lighting system this side of Thomas Edison.)
I see in the program another thing I'd forgotten. The scenery that we had (such as it was--and I can't picture it at all) was done by Mrs. Janet Walter and her 8th grade art class. I wish I could remember it. I wish I had taken some damn pictures! But, of course, I didn't ... I was 22 (in age and IQ, remember?) ...
We performed in the afternoon for a student assembly--and I think the show ran about 45 min-an hour?
And ... it went great. I couldn't believe it. The students loved seeing their classmates out there pouring their hearts into this dumb story I'd thought was so awesome--and I could see the cast members deeply affected by the positive responses from the crowd.. Energy flowed both ways. John Mlinek, who has remained a loyal friend ever since, told me later on that it was an experience that altered his life.
I would go on to write other scripts with the kids in the ensuing years--one about Robin Hood, another about the American Revolution, another about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and others ... Because of The Founding of Aurora I began to see myself as the "drama guy" in the middle school, and by the time I was getting ready to retire (January 1997), I was doing three shows a year, including our annual Eighth Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show, a show I wrote for the kids for, oh, ten years or so. For me, those 8th grade shows were among the highlights of my career. And life.
The kids and I both got so emotional on closing night of those 8th grade shows. They were moving on to the high school; I was watching them go--these kids I'd come to admire and love. I am now Facebook friends with many former cast members, and there remains among us, I feel, a bond of intimacy that I will forever value.
I am no longer 22. Fifty years have gone by. I am 72 (age and IQ--I got smarter as the years went along).
And yet I can still remember those kids on June 5, 1967, out on the gym floor, the bleachers packed with classmates and parents, their eyes lit with surprise (actors and audience), while I sat there and realized I'd just discovered something I really wanted to do. Something I loved.