On the heels of the discovery that my old college chum Jenny, about whom I have already written, passed away over a year ago, comes more crummy news. My old high school drama teacher, Joan Peterson, died back in February, and the news is only now being circulated.
I imagine every single stage actor in the country owes at least part of their ambition to a high school drama teacher. I owe "Pete" a good deal more. She transformed what could have been a monstrous year into one of the best of my life.
I arrived at Kennedy High School in suburban Los Angeles the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. A more disastrous time to move a teen-ager couldn't be found, but my father received a big promotion which required that our family relocate from Atlanta to California.
I was a misery. Forced to leave the friends I had gained in 17 years in GA, right before we all graduated, in order to attend a brand new school for one year, I was determined to get out of high school as soon as possible. I arranged my schedule so that I could graduate early, in December, as I was sure I would be miserable at this new school. And I was, for about a week.
Even with the accelerated schedule, I had room in my school day for an elective, so the councillor handling my woeful case placed me in "Drama B," which was the second semester drama class. I sat in the back of the theatre, in the corner, in the dark, and sulked, while the class spent the first week doing improvisations. I received many many looks from the other students, who wondered who the hell that long-haired, sullen sourpuss sitting back there was.
Friday arrived, and I could delay my participation in the class no longer. I got up on stage with the other slackers who had ducked performing until the final moment, and was assigned the following scenario: "you are stuck in an elevator."
I hate that kind of improv, where the funny quip trumps any truth, but the fact is I can usually come up with the Funny Quip, and I had a good scene. Joan Peterson approached me after class, clearly stunned that the sullen weirdo who had been sitting in the back for four days was in fact able to speak in complete sentences. She encouraged me to audition for her Play Production class, the advanced drama class which produced all the school's plays, the next semester. I informed her, with an air of insufferable superiority, that I was graduating early and would not be available to be in her advanced class in the spring.
I returned to school the following Monday to discover that Pete had arranged some voodoo with my schedule, and I was in her Play Production class, without an audition. Once again, I endured strange looks from students wondering who this wacko in the back of the class was.
Pete was casting the first show of the season, Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," and I auditioned for the villainous Judge Wargrave. I was disappointed that I was instead given the role of the drunken Dr. Armstrong, but Pete, who had known me less than a week, already knew that I would give the neurotic doctor a much needed comic edge.
I was on my way, and the year at Kennedy turned into a terrific time. I had such fun with "Ten Little Indians," and more importantly, the students working on it, that I changed my mind about graduating early, and hung around for the entire year.
That second semester cemented my close relationship with Pete, as I spent most of every day with her. Since I had already fulfilled all of the requirements to graduate, I became Pete's assistant for two classes, as well as attending both Play Production and the newly created Musical Theatre Class, which was producing Kennedy's first full-scale musical, "Hello Dolly."
In fact, I was only away from the theatre twice a day, to attend my PE class (BOWLING, how can that could be a PE class?), and Typing, a concession to my mother who moaned that I would be wasting a whole semester of my life if I didn't learn something useful.
(I certainly don't consider that semester a waste, though I did need to learn to type, so thanks Mom.)
Performance-wise, I had a great season. "Ten Little Indians" was followed by an evening of one-acts, then the title role in "The Miser," and my first appearance in a musical, playing Rudolph in "Hello, Dolly!" Interspersed, Pete allowed me to experiment with directing, including a Brecht one-act called "The Elephant Calf," and my senior project, which was a revamped revival of a soap opera spoof I had participated in at my previous high school, called "The Stagnant Storm."
Pete also encouraged me to attempt my first Shakespeare, and, under her tutelage, I entered the regional Shakespeare competition, in which my Malvolio monologue took fourth place.
Joan Peterson did more for me than put me in plays, and encourage my artistic expression. She made it possible for me to forge strong friendships during a year in which I was desperately in need of them. Our relationship lasted far beyond the single year I attended Kennedy High, as I returned to direct one of her Fall Festival entries (Elaine May's "Adaptation," which was a finalist), and she allowed me to rehearse my final college directing project at Kennedy, Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano."
I lost touch with Pete once my college career heated up, but I returned to Kennedy several years later, when, quite out of the blue, my younger sister Joan landed in Pete's production of "The Boyfriend." My sister was not at all part of the drama crowd, she'd never even taken a class. But during the senior year of what was a pretty "normal" high school career (precision pep squad, Homecoming Queen, that sort of thing), Joan decided to take a chance and do something she had never done before. She auditioned for the musical.
Pete snapped her up to play the comic role in The Boyfriend (the role which made Sandy Duncan's name), and Joan delivered a knock-out performance in the scene-stealing part, which included the biggest hit from the show, "Won't you Charleston with Me." Pete had no idea Joan and I were related, though once she found out, she demanded to know where the hell my sister had been for the last three years, as she could have cast her in just about everything.
Many years after my last visit to Kennedy, I was surprised to find Pete and her husband Don in the audience at Granada Theatre, where I was appearing in a musical review called "Perfectly Frank." Pete, as always, was hugely enthusiastic about my work, and it was a joy to see her one last time.
In that first year in LA, Joan Peterson's encouragement allowed me to consider that I might actually be able to forge a career in the theatre. I doubt my parents would thank her for that, but I certainly do.
Her students, at Kennedy and earlier at Monroe High, called her Joan, Joanie, Pete, Mrs. Pete, even Mrs. Peterson, but they all meant the same thing. She was a friend and mentor in the very best sense. Most of her students went into other professions, but I am sure that all of us hold our memories of her very dear.
Thank you, Pete. I'll never forget you.