Look at that little boy. Can you believe it? What a baby. It’s the Fall of 1983; I’m seventeen years old. That’s right, if I had known most of you back then, it would have only been because I was baby-sitting you. This is a detail I took (with my nascent photo editor skills) from a press photo from the first REAL play I ever did, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m playing Lysander. I cut Helena and Hermia out of the photo here not because I didn’t want to show them, but because I’m cautious of posting photos of other people without their permission, and even if I knew how to get in touch with Kristy and Laurie, it seemed a little silly. Plus I wanted to see what I could do with photo editor.
There are a couple of reasons I’ve been looking at this photo of late. One is to marvel at the fact that I once had a chin. Seriously, what the hell happened there? Well, twenty-four years and twenty pounds I guess. Apparently all twenty of it ended up on my face. Well, that’s not true, there’s a lot of it on my belly now too, though you can’t tell as easily in this photo. I was 120 pounds then. I had a twenty inch waist. Seriously. At the costume fitting for this show, the costumer told me she wished she had my measurements. Just what every (closeted) teenage boy wants to hear.
But my real reason for looking at that young, callow kid’s face is more than morose nostalgia masquerading as vanity. With just a little bit of romanticizing, I can make this photo epitomize the time when theatre, and Shakespeare first saved my life. It sounds melodramatic, I know, but seriously, look at that kid. Doesn’t it look like he’s discovering something life changing? Life affirming? Hear me out.
It’s very easy to forget, as a gay man, out for 22 years, and having met a gazillion other queers, that at one point, I really, truly thought I was the only one. Yes, I had met one or two gay people as a kid. I was vaguely aware that my folks were friends with a few lesbian couples, though since they weren’t local, I didn’t know them well. One of my sister’s friends at school was a gay man. He had gone on the England program my folks led when I was fourteen. He was all right. I knew there were whole cities FULL of gay people, marching, dancing, cruising, wearing dresses, throwing pies at Anita Bryant, and, by this point, getting AIDS. They scared me, I wanted nothing to do with them, but I knew they existed. I knew god had no problem with them, and I felt free to question anyone who claimed otherwise. I believed gay people deserved equal rights. I knew my parents, sister, and any adults I respected, all agreed. It didn’t matter. I still believed, deep in my heart, that I was the only gay guy in the world. I felt wrong, ugly, dirty. It might be all right for others to be gay, but for me it was still shameful. And I knew I would never tell another soul my horrible secret.
I had known I was ‘off’ by the time I was five. I had a name for it by age twelve. At age fourteen I had resolved firmly that I was never going to be with anyone, and I’d probably be better off not having any friends. I loved my family, and there were other people I regarded favorably, but actually connecting, building real relationships of any kind, that was not going to happen. I might look like a normal person, but my goal was to be free of emotion.
I suspect few people who knew me then would recognize this self-portrait, but at the time I would have identified that fact as a measure of my success. I had figured out early on that if I truly wanted to be left alone, then anti-social behavior was NOT the way to go. I did well in school. I pursued extra-curricular activities. I was nice to other people. I worked to look like nothing seemed wrong, so everyone would leave me alone. The family ailment of depression had probably sunk its claws deep into me by this point, I see now, but at the time social gracefulness worked well to mask the isolation I was cultivating.
But see, when I was fifteen, I saw this play. The college theatre company produced Equus (yes, Harry Potter’s show). After seeing it, I was in a daze, unable to think about anything else for days. It’s hard to say what resonated so deeply with me. Certainly the themes of seeking ecstatic experience, of living a deep, passionate life would have struck a nerve, however unconscious, given my plan to avoid both. The ritualized staging, the horse masks that did and didn’t reveal the actors’ faces, the choral hum that built tension at key moments, all of that must have captivated me; they’re elements of theatre that still do. Most of all, however, I was blown away by the actor playing Alan Strang.
No, it didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eye, and spent one scene in his underwear (college production, small conservative town, so no nudity), but even at the time I knew it was more than this. Years later when I talked with the show’s director (now my mentor and friend), he said the actor had burned in that role. There had just been an incredible alchemy, he was the right actor, at the right point in his life, for that role in that production. I’m sure if I were able to go back in time to see that same production today, I’d see flaws and amateurishness all over the place. In reading the play now, I’m not convinced it’s even that good a script, really. But it doesn’t matter. I was fundamentally changed by that production.
But how does this get me on-stage in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my first ‘real play’ you ask? Hang in there, I’m getting to that. I was fascinated by Alan Strang for some time afterwards, though I think it was more hero-worship than adolescent crush. Truth be told, I saw him in two more productions after that, and eh, he was okay. His Leontes in A Winter’s Tale didn’t impress me. The habits and mannerisms that had been so convincing for a disturbed adolescent seemed petulant and childish in a Shakespearean King. In Lady from the Sea his patriarch was better, but still didn’t have the fire that had burned in Equus. In other words, he was an undergraduate acting student learning his craft. I didn't need to put him on a pedestal, and frankly, that was a relief.
Thus two years after I had been overwhelmed by his Alan Strang, I no longer felt intimidated by this guy. I still, however, wanted to be his friend. So when the auditions for Midsummer came out, I decided to go. As a faculty brat I was actually allowed to audition for any college production, but had never been willing to brave it before. The idea of working on a Shakespeare play was both daunting and thrilling, as was the thought of working with this particular director (whose work had consistently impressed me). I swallowed my reticence, and went to the auditions.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to know I was excited to be cast, but I’m not sure you can fathom how BIG a deal it was to me at the time. My family had spent, cumulatively, almost two years living in London, where I had seen a number of plays. The vast majority of my theatre-going experience, however, had been at the college, put on by this department. So my excitement wasn’t just about the fact that I was cast in a Shakespeare play, in a substantial role with an interesting storyline, lots of lines, and some fun physical stuff to do, it wasn’t just the fact that I was getting to be with college students while still in high school, it was also the fact that I was getting to do it at what was, really, the premier theatre in my firmament. First shot out of the gate I was playing Lincoln Center, and not just as Peaseblossom or some other one-liner, but as Lysander, one of the lovers, a real role.
(Oh, in case you were wondering, my Alan Strang was not in the production. He had transferred out of the college that Fall and was attending an acting studio in London. Over the years I would see him in TV commercials, but the best part was stumbling across him unexpectedly in the original production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. I even got to see him in his underwear, albeit Victorian underwear. Even better, the character in his underwear was a rent boy whom we saw embracing and caressing another hot rent boy in his underwear. Oh how my teenaged head would have exploded, if it had seen this. I sent a note backstage telling him how Equus had led to me becoming an actor, and he later left me a gracious voicemail, especially kind given that I had probably gushed in the note like a teenager, not a man in his thirties.)
There was a long journey to take between getting cast and performing though. You see, I was really, really bad. Wooden was the nicest thing you could say at the time. I don’t for the life of me know what Sears, the director, saw at the audition, because it didn’t seem to be there at rehearsal. Remember, I had spent the last few years cultivating a persona meant to be overlooked. In addition, like most midwestern boys, I worked hard not to let any emotion, or indeed much inflection come into my voice. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say Ennis Del Mar was our role model for masculinity, at least when it came to talking. When my character got angry (that was okay), maybe a little bit of change might bleed through my voice, but that was it. And my body? Wooden doesn't begin to describe it; I was a redwood, except they must sway some in the breeze, no I wasn't a tree, I was rebar, or a steel girder. I would move as little as possible, except for my fingers which would ripple unconsciously and constantly, as if I were playing scales on a piano. I haven’t the slightest idea where that tic came from. Actually, I guess I moved like Ennis Del Mar as well, not counting the piano-playing fingers. No emotion, no vocal inflection, no movement. Suffice it to say I was NOT serving the play or the character at all well.
This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the guy playing Oberon epitomized the worst, most embarrassing excesses of over-acting I could picture. God forbid I indulge myself the way he did, as he swept grandly about the stage, making his voice BOOM most Shakespearean, biting off huge chunks of the scenery with every line, then chewing moistly while anyone else spoke. He didn’t help his case by also refusing to take direction. Any attempt by Sears to shape his performance was met with excuses, arguments, and petulance. As rehearsals progressed it became a pattern for most of us to leave the room anytime his scenes came up. I knew I wasn’t getting the job done, but I simply could NOT to turn into this guy, and the terror of that kept me from trying anything. You can't be wrong if you don't make a choice, right? Such is the logic of a teenager.
I have to give this guy some credit though, because he unintentionally did me a favor. Sears had been hammering away at me, saying ‘get the editor out of’ my head, but he also recognized that my father, as a literature professor, had probably spent some time and effort helping me develop this editor, so when next he ran into Dad, Sears mentioned this. This gave Dad the opportunity to report what I was saying at home about Oberon, and this gave Sears the insight he needed. The next time I rehearsed, he found a moment to speak to me privately about my fears of ‘going too far’. I wish I could remember what he said, because whatever it was turned the light on for me as well. I didn’t suddenly fix things that night, but I made enough of a transformation for fellow actors to compliment me on the improvement (somehow I avoided freaking out when I realized they had all been wondering what was wrong with me.) By the time we went into performance, I had gotten where Sears needed me to be, and we all knew it.
My baby steps as an actor is only part of the story though. The play also provided me with a room full of people I was desperate to befriend. What’s more, many of them were (gasp!) GUYS, guys who were open, kind, not given to ridiculing others (which was almost the only way I had witnessed male friendship before), and what’s more, because this was a touchy-feely College, they regularly HUGGED me. Just ‘cause. The men weren’t the only ones I wanted to feel close to, by the way, but I was already more comfortable with women at the time anyway; befriending guys was definitely the uncharted territory. And remember, I was in high school, and these were COLLEGE STUDENTS. It’s funny to look back and remember what a big deal that was. Many of my dad’s students, and sister’s friends had been nice to me over the years, but they still saw me as a younger brother when they saw me at all. Here were people I had met on my own, NOT through Dad or Mary, they were MY friends, and they treated me as an equal, even while I secretly thought they were all so much more sophisticated and witty and smart and beautiful.
This impulse to connect flew directly in the face of my master plan of course, and I wouldn’t say I immediately came out of my shell by any means, but seeds were definitely planted during that time that have flowered into friendships I still cherish (hi Scott! Hi Mark!).
Shakespeare’s influence can’t be ignored in all this either. This experience opened up a whole new world for me. Suddenly language took on a visceral, vibrant beauty it never had before. Poetry became a driving bodily force, not the ornamental words floating in the ether it had been. And you can’t just be good with his language, he demands big physical choices (even without fight scenes), and psychologically detailed character analysis. This play in particular, grappling as it does with frightening, violent, even bestial elements of humanity as well as the comedy, love, and beauty, also had a profound influence, accepting as it did that humanity isn't always noble or beautiful, but it's alway worth committing to. The production was probably also the first (or most fully realized) occasion I had experienced to date of a group of people coming together to tackle a significant, shared goal. I didn’t hurt that the cast included one of my high school English teachers and the father of one of my classmates. I got to watch them struggle, make mistakes, take direction, and work just like me to get to the core of their characters (Flute and Bottom respectively.) This was nothing like the half-assed larking about that had characterized most of my previous dramatic experiences. Shakespeare really is a complete workout, body, voice, imagination, but once you meet his challenge, he starts to pay back with interest. His humanity infuses this play as it does all his best work, and working on it demanded that I commit to my own humanity.
Heady stuff. I can’t claim that I completely gave up my misanthropic, shutdown ways from this point on. I was still two years away from coming out, from kissing a boy, from letting myself express a need for other people, from risking a broken heart. But a corner had been turned.
After Midsummer closed, I was devastated and lonely for months. I missed all the other actors (and was convinced they didn’t give me a second’s thought), but I also just missed the play itself. My mom said I was having ‘to come down from Shakespeare’ like he was a drug, and I think she was right. As luck would have it, I was cast in the same play, in the same role, eighteen years later, and found that I still remembered all the lines. All of them. Eighteen years, three cities, two schools, god only knows how many other plays, I still had them. That’s how much they meant to me, how deeply they had been instilled.
So, I’ve been needing to be reminded of this recently, perhaps for the last two years. Shakespeare is the original source, the font, for me, as he is for so many others. I need to be reminded, in the fullest, most visceral way possible, of why I first fell in love with theatre. I need that complete workout. Often in the last few years my work has delved into one arena, but neglected others. A play might demand detailed, sophisticated character work, but leave my body out of it. Or the piece asks for extreme physicality, gymnastics even, but little in the way of character work, and nothing of the voice. I don’t mean to suggest none of them have been rewarding, but I’ve been doing a lot of quick sketches and it’s time to work on a big painting again. It may not be Shakespeare, but it needs to challenge me on that scale. Don't worry, I know that the volcanic emotions I experienced as a teenager just stepping into the current of life cannot be replicated. I'd be worried if I needed to experience that again, frankly. But this play was merely the first, not only, time I was transformed by theatre. I think I'm due for another big challenge.
Wish me luck.