Sunday, November 17, 2019

Gamecock Diaries, Part Four: What's It All About, Algie?

(another entry in the occasional series describing my adventures pursuing the MFA...)

Steve and I played brothers in Earnest, and hopefully overcame an age difference. I was 13 years older than Steve (still am, I think), but he was playing the older brother Jack to my younger, more impetuous Algernon. Thank god for my local hair stylist, who knew how to remove the gray so it looked natural. Steve and I had a lot of stage time together and worked well as a team, according to all the critics but one, who declared we were "dreadful." Ouch!  I did three shows with Steve at USC, and after we both settled in DC after graduation,  he directed me in a couple of productions.
I was cast in The Importance of Being Earnest as soon as my first semester at USC was underway.  The director was Jim Patterson, who was the chair of my MFA advisory committee (they were tasked with guiding my collegiate career and making sure I didn't, you know, jump off the roof or something).  
Jim directed me in 3
shows on campus
and 1 show after my
graduation. He's
remained a cherished
friend.
Jim was to become a good friend and mentor during my time on campus, I'm pleased to say we have remained in touch all these years later (in fact, it was writing about a dinner with Jim in NY that inspired me to begin this series of entries. So blame him).  At the time, Jim was the head of the directing program and was in fact the department's premier director.  His resume was long and varied, and he had a lively career directing off-campus as well as on-.

The guy on the right was the artistic director of Charlotte Repertory Company, where we played for two weeks on the main stage.  I think his name was Keith.  He was to drive the company to bankruptcy a few years later, Charlotte Rep is now defunct.
Earnest was probably the highest profile show of the season at USC, due to the fact that the show was to transfer to Charlotte Repertory Theatre after its run on campus.  This was a big deal for the Department of Theatre, as it would raise the regional profile of the MFA program at USC.  
Christina played Lady Bracknell beautifully.
She told me she thought she looked like
a Muppet, but old age makeup was necessary,
as she was decades too young for the role. Oh,
and those clothes! I had two complete suits
tailor-made to fit me, I've never felt so
comfortable in costumes. 
There were a couple of casting kerfuffles surrounding the show, if I remember correctly.  The actor who was meant to be playing Rev. Chasuble withdrew before rehearsals began, though I can't remember why.  It was decided that the kid who was set to play the minor role of the butler, Lane, would bump up to the larger role of the reverend, and our director Jim would step in to play the butler.  It was a small role, only appearing in the opening scene, but it had some importance as he and I (as Algernon) were tasked with getting the audience acquainted with the heightened language Oscar Wilde provided. Having your director onstage with you was a bit unnerving, particularly when he could not remember his lines.  Well, that's a bit untrue, Jim knew all his lines, he just could never remember his entrance cues.  After being late for one too many entrances, Jim finally grabbed a paintbrush and painted his cue lines directly on the backside of the scenery flat.  That flat traveled with us to Charlotte, so we were set.
For some reason, I don't have a single group snapshot of the members of my own MFA class. Our group did not hang out much, perhaps because the class itself was so fluid.  By the time our first semester ended, our program had lost two actors and gained one.  We lost a third actor at the end of the year.  By the time our second year began, we had shrunk from seven actors to four.  The above picture is the MFA class ahead of me, with whom I bonded much more strongly than with my own class.
Christina and Deborah took me in hand immediately, and we
became very close very quickly.
The second casting snafu was much more significant.  To play the young ingenue Cecily, director Jim had cast one of my new MFA cohorts, a lovely girl named Riley.  I have a clear memory of this gal, but I have no pictures of her, as she was gone before the first month of the semester had ended.  Riley had entered USC directly after earning her undergraduate degree, with no time in between.  So, counting from first grade to this first year of her MFA, she had been in school a whopping 16 years without a break. 
Mindi was a stranger to me at our first
readthrough of Earnest. A year later,
 we were very tight.
I am a firm believer that, in order to get the most out of the MFA, it's best to get out of school after college and live life for a while before tackling graduate work.  Perhaps that's not true for more academic studies like medicine or the law, but in the arts, I think it's key.  Riley was a perfect example of my thesis;  she was a very fine actress, from what I could tell, and as she landed the leading role of Cecily as soon as she arrived, she was clearly going to be used a lot during her years at USC. (It was a surprise that she was not cast in the first show of the season, The Cherry Orchard, about which I wrote here.)  About three weeks into the semester, Riley folded up her tent and hit the road, leaving a big hole in the cast of Earnest.



This is the typical Mindi pose. Always
upbeat and positive, she was to become an
important part of my life at USC.
This was weeks before rehearsal started, and Jim used the time to cast one of his favorite actresses, Mindi.  Mindi had gone through the undergraduate program at USC, and was still living in Columbia and working at the local professional theatre, though she was not, at the time, a student on campus.  I became very very glad Jim used an actress he knew and trusted, as Mindi was terrific in the role, and she became a close friend. (She would enter the MFA acting program the following year, so I worked with her often.)
In The Importance of Being Earnest, we don't meet Cecily until after the intermission. Because of this timing, Mindi and I often did not see each other backstage until we came face to face onstage.  I'm sure it added to the spontaneity of the moment.  I believe my favorite scene in the play was this one, during which Algernon and Cecily meet and instantly fall in love. 
Steve and Mindi cashing
their first check from
Charlotte Rep. It was the
first paycheck Mindi ever
received for acting.
I had a great time playing Algie, but the opportunity to play the role again at Charlotte Rep had a downside.  Our run on campus was in November I think, but the run in Charlotte was in March.  That transfer directly conflicted with another show running on campus at the time.  
This is directing stud Richard on the left, and my replacement Will on the right. I'm being dramatic; the transfer of Earnest to Charlotte Rep meant I could not be considered for Richard's production of Equus. Will played the role which was, let's face it, written for me. But I'm not bitter.
The role of the psychiatrist Dysart in Equus had been on my wish list ever since I saw Brian Bedford, then Anthony Perkins, then Anthony Hopkins, then Richard Burton play it (in fact, it's STILL on my wish list). The show was being directed by my friend Richard, who was earning his MFA in Directing, which required his directing several shows on the USC mainstage.  I was to appear in Richard's next show the following year, stay tuned for that story, but I dearly wanted to play in Equus.  Alas, the timing would not permit doing both Earnest and Equus, so I missed my chance.
This is what Brice Stadium, home of the USC Gamecocks, looks like today.  During football season, the campus turned pretty rowdy, I was to learn.  My house was so close to the stadium, I could always hear when the crowd sent up a whoop.  I also learned to keep a sharp eye on the schedule of home games, not because I wanted to attend them (I never went to one), but because  I was likely to be trapped at home during the games. My Shady Rest was at the end of a dirt road ("right next to the crik") which could only be accessed via the same main avenue leading to the stadium. Traffic was a nightmare on that road during home games, and southern hospitality went out the window when football fans needed to get to the game. After once or twice sitting at the entrance to my road, waiting for some kind soul to let me squeeze out of my street, I posted the full schedule on my fridge. 
Mindi and the famous nipple cap.
Despite that lousy timing, I had a ball playing Algernon.  In fact, I was surprising myself by how well I was growing accustomed to this new life of a grad student. I hadn't been in school in 17 years, but I was keeping up. 


I actually liked the group mentality which formed among the MFA candidates, we were all in this together.  It was easy to touch base with my family during the long holidays, as my father and sister lived only a few hours away in Atlanta, and another sister was in Raleigh, but really, in the tradition of all theatrical experiences, my MFA cohorts were becoming family too. 
Fondue!
So I'd call my first semester a smashing success. My second semester, in which I did my first Shakespeare at USC, was less so.  More on that anon...

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Gamecock Diaries Part III: Details of a Deadly Degree

What a slacker. This is me relaxing with a beer in my hotel room in Charlotte, NC.  In early 1994, our USC band of players took our production of The Importance of Being Earnest to Charlotte Repertory Theatre, where we ran for two weeks and, in so doing, had a brief respite from our classes back in Columbia.
"The MFA is a terminal degree," somebody reminded me while I was neck deep in my first semester at USC. I thought, "well, it's certainly killing me." But that's not what they meant. 
I had support from old friends as
well as new. My oldest friend
Claudia flew out from LA my first
semester and took this pic. She
gave me that sweater too.
The Master of Fine Arts in Acting is the highest degree awarded in the field of performance, there is no PhD or DFA in the discipline of acting.  USC took that fact seriously, so my training there contained the best (and hardest) aspects of both an acting conservatory and an academic university. My first semester (like all of them) was a complicated mix of both. I performed in two shows in those first few months (I wrote about
The Cherry Orchard in the last installment, and I'll write about The Importance of Being Earnest shortly). Our curriculum featured the usual suspects of a conservatory: Acting, of course, as well as vocal and movement training. 
I took this picture of my fellow survivors. Elliott, Nan, Bodde (the blond head at left, pronounced Bo-Day, don't ask me why), and I were the only four actors in our class to actually make it to the finish line. Other members of our class either quit or were ejected.
Our vocal work was handled by two instructors, one who taught the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), and the other who acted as a vocal coach, of sorts. 
This is Kathryn, who was not one of our teachers but she loved displaying examples of IPA. Each symbol represents a sound used in speech. I wonder if they still teach this alphabet? The internet arrived very shortly after I was in grad school, and now we have all sorts of ways to determine how words are pronounced, so perhaps this stuff is old hat now.
Sarah spent several years on Ryan's Hope,
creating a role which was later played by
Marg Helgenberger. By the time she was
bullying students at USC, she had given up
on an acting career.
Our second voice teacher was a retired soap opera actress who had found a niche for herself as a vocal and dialect coach for the stage.  At the time, Sarah was the resident voice coach at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, where the MFA actors would be spending our third year as interns. The Powers at the Shakes were extremely particular about how their actors sound, so once a week for two years, Sarah was dispatched to USC to insure the actors headed their way sounded the way they wanted us to sound. 
I was a victim of Sarah's
abrasive style in the classroom,
which often included ridicule as
 a teaching tool.

She did not seem all that happy about taking round trip flights every week to South Carolina, I'm sure she felt she deserved something better.  When we arrived at The Shakes in DC for our internship, she was still on staff, and I shudder to recall an embarrassing moment during a put-in rehearsal for All's Well That Ends Well, during which she threw me under the bus in front of the director.  That's a story for another time...


Melody today. She left USC and now
has a private practice in PA.
I got much more out of our Movement classes. We had a mix of the Alexander Technique and Laban Movement Analysis, led by our aptly named teacher, Melody. Though young, this gal was the real deal, USC was lucky to have her.  So was I, as she sat on my advisement committee and was always enthusiastic. And she loved my chex mix.
I was happy to host informal gatherings at the swanky Shady Rest, including this one, which, as I recall, was right before the Thanksgiving break. There's a videotape of this evening out there someplace, so I know one of the topics of conversation was Melody's movement class. According to that tape, Steve and Christina were not big fans.  I still have that quilt.
Despite the fact that these courses all resembled those in an acting conservatory, we were in fact at a university, so there was a substantial academic component to our curriculum as well. USC's program was performance-heavy (it's a big reason I chose to go there), but you could not be a slouch in academics.  A year of Theatre History was required, both for our degree and to pass the comprehensive exams which would determine if the MFA would be granted.  It had been a whopping 17 years since I had taken a test, or studied for a test, or even been in a classroom.  In the time between my college graduation and my grad school introduction, computers had swept in and taken over the world. Never having operated a personal computer, I arrived at USC with this:
Yep, I thought I could survive in grad school with only a typewriter. Hilariously naive. Numerous term papers would be required in Theatre History, and of course my thesis would eventually need to be prepared.  This antique would not cut it.
Deborah and Richard helped ease my
transition into USC life. This was a party
very soon after I met them. We needed
more beer, Richard and I went down the
hill to buy some. I was carded, Richard
leaned over to read my drivers license.
"Good, you're older than me." That was
the start of a great friendship.

Noting the panic on my face, my new bestie Deborah spent some hours giving me a crash course in computers in general, and how to use Word Perfect in particular. Microsoft Word had not yet bulldozed the competition, and WP was the preferred program at USC. Not for the first time, I blessed my late mother, who had insisted I take a semester of typing while I was in high school. I didn't know how to use a computer, but I knew my way around a keyboard.
This is not me. It's the husband of one of my classmates. After the first week of class, I scrambled to purchase a second-hand PC, then Rob came over to install Wordperfect (they used to call this "shareware," now they call it theft).  Nobody had a personal printer back then, you had to save your work on a floppy disc, inaptly named since it was not floppy at all, and take it someplace to be printed.
If you take a look at the above picture, you'll see my "office," actually a corner of my bedroom. TWO desks, plus that hilariously oversized computer, my very first. You'll see from all the paraphernalia that the internet had not yet taken hold, so all the research for all the term papers required for the MFA had to be done the old fashioned way: books.  At this graduate level, term papers were assigned, but their subjects were not. We'd be told, for example, that a paper was due October 10, but the actual topic was up to us, as long as it related in some way to the current study.  I worked so hard on these papers, I have proudly saved them for 25 years.  I'll remind you I chose these topics myself:


"Lead Into Gold"
The uses of alchemy in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Robert Green's 
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

"The Antique Chorus"
The birth and development of the chorus in Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance drama

"When? Where? What?"
The unities of Time, Place and Action as discussed in John Dryden's An Essay of Dramatic Poesy and applied to John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun

"Woyzeck"
The unaccomodated man in the unadorned play

and finally:
"Little Rascals"
Treatment of The Rake in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer 
as illustrated by Charles Marlow and Tony Lumpkin


Let me know if you want to read any of the above. I've got that floppy disc somewhere.  

In our spare time from all of the above, we were performing.  Or rehearsing. Or both. I did 5 shows my first year on campus, but this is the one which dominated most of the year:
Algernon Moncrief and Cecily Cardew spent many months during 1993-94 trying to determine The Importance of Being Earnest.

Our production of The Importance of Being Earnest played on campus in the fall of '93, then transferred to Charlotte Repertory Theatre in early '94.  In the next chapter of this memoir, I'll leave behind all this dull academic stuff, and regale you with lavish memories of Earnest, which was a delight, and Measure for Measure, which was not.





Saturday, September 7, 2019

Gamecock Diaries: Part II: Everything In This World Comes To An End

It appears I'm writing my memoir, one episode at a time and in no particular order. This is the 3rd entry in a series I started several years ago, regarding my adventures earning my MFA in Acting at the University of South Carolina. Go here for episode one (actually a prologue), and here for episode two, confusingly titled Part 1.
This is a good representation of me, upon arrival at USC. I settled into the Shady Rest right away, and set about trying to make sense of my nonsensical decision to uproot my life in L.A., and move across the country.
I arrived at USC in the early weeks of August, 1993.  Classes were not to begin for a week or so, but the MFA candidates were required to arrive early in order to attend a week of orientation (I suppose we were called "candidates" to remind us that we had 3 years of hard work ahead of us before we would actually achieve MFA status, and that our "candidacy" could be revoked at any time).  This orientation was largely a series of lectures on how to teach underclassmen.  MFA actors, and many other grad students in other programs, earned tuition waivers and stipends by teaching the undergraduate students in "beginning" classes, while also attending our own graduate classes.  I felt a bit awkward attending these orientations, as I was not yet scheduled to actually teach anybody. Truthfully, I was feeling inferior to the other actors in my new class, as they all had been offered these full stipends, and I had not.  I was invited to USC fairly late in the recruitment process, and all the assistant-ship money was spoken for.   
This very dark picture is Richard Jennings, head of the acting program. I must have really impressed him when I auditioned for him in Los Angeles (well, natch. Who could resist my Cassius monologue?), as he worked hard to get me to USC even though he had no stipends to offer me.  He assured me that his first priority would be to find some kind of assistant-ship for me, once the semester started.
I had taken a leap of faith and moved my life to South Carolina without knowing if I could afford it.  Richard Jennings, head of the acting department and the man who recruited me, was true to his word; within a few weeks, I was working part time in the box office to earn some dough, and by the second semester, I was given the same full assistant-ship which the rest of my peers received.
It's hard for me to believe, but according to Google Earth, this is what my grad school digs look like now. The Shady Rest, in the early 90s, was an old duplex with a wooden fence and a peeling paint job. I happily settled into the roomy but ramshackled duplex. My furniture arrived several days after I did, and so did one of my classmates.
With my money problems put on the back burner, I settled into my roomy duplex, nicknamed the Shady Rest (see the previous episode of this series to find out why my place gained that moniker).  My new classmate John had stuffed all his belongings into a rental truck and had made the schlep from Oklahoma to South Carolina without a place to live once he got there. I offered him temporary digs at my place while he looked for an apartment of his own.  
That first week, as we all attended our orientation meetings,  my fellow classmate John made no effort to look for a place of his own.  He was getting pretty comfortable camping out in my living room, so I had to pointedly mention that I planned to live alone while going to school, and as school was to begin Monday, where was he planning to stay?  (John was a very fun guy to be around, and was a very strong actor too, but it would become clear that he had the wrong attitude about grad school;  he was dismissed from the program after the first semester.  His withdrawal from USC didn't seem to hurt his career, which was soon to include more than a few television gigs, as well as professional theatre work).






Anyway, while we attended daily lectures on How To Teach Underclassmen, the evenings were filled with rehearsals for the first show of the season. There were 6 actors in my incoming class (though that number was to fluctuate during the 2 years we were on campus, as we had two ladies drop out, one gal drop in, and one dude, as I mentioned, get dumped by the faculty).  
Christina and Deborah were in the MFA class ahead of me at
USC. They quickly became my close friends. Christina had
lots of professional experience and was already a member of
Equity, the stage actors union (I was too, but this was unusual
for MFA actors). Deborah taught me how to use a computer!
There were 5 MFA actors (excuse me, candidates) already on campus in the class ahead of us. If my math is correct, then, there were 11 actors in the graduate talent pool during my first year (this number does not count the MFA candidates who were in their 3rd year and were thus in DC working their internships).  
Kathryn and Steve were also in the MFA class
ahead of me. For some reason, I bonded more
quickly and more thoroughly with this class
than my own, I'm not sure why.
It was the expectation that these actors would play the leading roles in most of the shows produced by the department.  Due to time constraints, it was necessary that the first show begin rehearsal before classes even began, and in the case of the new incoming actors, we were cast by the director sight-unseen.  The show was Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, and I was pre-cast as the gregarious neighbor Pischik (there is no doubt I was given this role because I was the oldest of the incoming male actors, and the role was decidedly middle-aged).  The show was to turn out to be one of the least stressful of the eleven (yep, count 'em: 11) shows I was involved with during the two years I spent on campus. It was also to be the smallest role I had while at USC.
Deborah and I got on like a house a'fire, we've remained close to this day.
  


Our director was one of the most <ahem> colorful of the faculty members, Ann Dreher. Ann and I got along well during this period, but I'm sorry to say, our relationship soured a year later, for reasons I'm sure I'll describe in a later post. Ann was a bit of a legend on the USC campus;  she had been on the faculty forever and tenure meant she didn't give a shit who liked her or who didn't.  She led the undergraduate program, and her Introduction to Theatre class was a popular elective among the student body at large. (The class had a better name than Intro to Theatre;  I seem to remember it was called Creative Play or something like that.  It must have been easy to pass, since all the sections of it were always packed with non-theatre students, looking for an easy elective). Ann was probably the most well-known member of the theatre faculty among the larger student body, not only through the popularity of her Intro class but for the outlandish stories which circulated about her behavior.  
I heard this apocryphal story about Ann as soon as I arrived at USC:  she was late one day for her big class, finally arriving out of breath.  She turned to her students and said, "Sorry I'm late, y'all.  I was fuckin'."  I have no idea if that actually happened, but it sounds just like Ann.
Who knew David Mamet
adapted other people's
works? His version was
sleek, with none of the
huge speeches Chekhov
loved.
With Ann at the helm, rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard proceeded apace. My character of Pischik wandered in and out of the action, fairly peripherally,  and was not really integral to the plot. It wasn't until I wrote a term paper about this play (I plan to write a bit about my Theatre History class in the next installment of this series, stay tuned for that riveting entry) that I realized my minor character had been given a line of dialogue which exactly stated one of the major themes of The Cherry Orchard.  
"Everything in this world comes to an end," Pischik proclaims as he sells his indebted estate and bids farewell to his entire way of life. I could relate.  I did the same thing by deserting Los Angeles and taking this leap into graduate school.
Christina as Lyubov and Deborah as Varya
in The Cherry Orchard.
During these first few weeks of my time at USC, one event stands out in my mind.  When the new school year began, the Theatre Department held a big meeting in their main theater in which to introduce the incoming students to the faculty and to the students already on campus. I completely understand the reasoning behind this big event; the actors had, after all, been recruited by only one member of the faculty, yet everybody was expected to work with us for the next two years.  The awkward part of this meet-and-greet was that all the incoming MFA actors were expected to present their audition pieces to everybody in the hall.  One by one, the six of us traipsed onto the stage and performed the two monologues with which we had gained entrance to USC.   

God bless my cohort Elliot, who surprised the crowd when it was his turn to dazzle.  Before performing his two pieces, he sang.  Elliot was a strong singer and felt right at home belting a tune A'Capella (of course there was no accompanist, USC was a classical training program and rarely produced musicals).  Another of my new classmates, Nanette, was also a strong singer, so she, too, included an impromptu song with her presentation.  All of this happened very spontaneously, but I sure as hell wasn't going to be left out.  I was the last of the new MFA actors to perform.  I began: "Hi, I'm R. Scott Williams, and I'll be doing Cassius from Julius Caesar and Peter from It's Only a Play by Terence McNally.  But first, your worst fears are about to be realized.  I'm singing also."  And then I did.
Nan and Elliot provided impromptu musical interludes during the USC Theatre Dept. Meet and Greet, causing me to sing as well.  It turned out to be a smart move. Director Jim Patterson was in the room; he would soon schedule a production of Anything Goes for the following summer, at least partly due to the fact that he could see some of his actors could sing.
The Cherry Orchard opened, and I was pleased with my work in it. I was pleased with my living space and pleased to be making bunches of new friends; all in all, I was pleased with the decision I had made to uproot my life, move thousands of miles across the country, and to return to school. But as the semester got underway in earnest, I faced more challenges, in the Theatre History classes I was required to ace, and the fact that I had not been in an academic classroom in 17 years. And as soon as my adventure with Chekhov was over, I jumped into my first leading role at USC, and along the way, became acquainted with the gent who would become a friend and mentor, who would help guide the rest of my career at USC.  More on that in my next chapter (whenever that may be) but meanwhile, enjoy this little clip I just ran across.  It's some kind of feature about Longstreet Theatre, which housed the USC Dept of Theatre and Dance, and its reputation for being haunted. Longstreet was one of the very few buildings which predate the Civil War, most of the campus was burned to the ground by Sherman, but he left Longstreet standing.  The narration is by Ann Dreher herself.  You can get a glimpse of her eccentric personality here: