Thursday, February 7, 2008

Fate's Touch

I have written about the loss of my dear coach, mentor, and friend Bobbi Holtzman, who is receiving a memorial tribute this weekend from the LA theatre community. I am disappointed that I cannot attend, but I know I have already said, and will continue to say, my goodbys and my thank-yous to Bobbi. She will rest with me always.

This week, I've again been made aware of Fate's sense of irony. Along with the announcement of Bobbi's memorial has come the news that another teacher from my undergrad days has died, Maryellen Clemons. She apparently had been battling cancer for a long while (I don't know if it was lung cancer, but as she smoked like a house o'fire, I can only guess).

This news leaves me with an awkward feeling of, well, I'm not sure what. I am very sorry for her suffering, and admire the tenacity she showed by spending so many many many years on the faculty of Cal State Northridge. But the truth is that she was neither my coach, mentor, nor friend. In over four years on campus, I can't remember a single compliment I received from her, nor can I recall one given to anyone else. In fact, I don't remember an instance where she ever expressed joy, or even pleasure. I believe she had real trouble expressing true emotions (which seems problematic in a performing arts teacher and director), but I surely came away from any encounter with her feeling I was not one of her favorites.

I had Maryellen in the classroom only once, in an advanced directing class during my junior year. I can't claim to have been a brilliant director, but I was still surprised to receive such lackluster feedback from her. Two years earlier, I had received glowing response from my Directing I instructor, a far more qualified talent. Anyway, our final project in Directing II was an hour long production, and I ambitiously chose to direct an abridged version of the musical The Fantasticks. (I chatted a bit about that experience here.) I was probably in over my head, but the production was an audience favorite. Not one of Maryellen's however, who watched the final show from the booth (a notoriously poor place to effectively judge a performance). I received such a lukewarm response from Maryellen that it remains the last time I have directed anything to date.

It was during this period, when I was a student in her class, that I had a recurring dream which caused me much discomfort. In this dream, Maryellen was wearing a floor-length poncho, which she lifted to reveal male genitalia.

But I freely admit I owe Maryellen some thanks. When I was a sophomore, she cast me in L'il Abner, as Lonesome Polecat (go here for more on that experience, including a Dance Party!). Though I had appeared in two musicals before arriving at CSUN, I had never sung anything solo. This production allowed me to sing a verse of the opening number, all by myself. A pretty big deal to me back then. A bigger deal was the fact that Maryellen placed me in her dancing chorus (she was a choreographer and former dancer, so her dancers were hand-picked and special). I was surely no dancer, but she made me feel like one, and the choreography she taught remains some of the most challenging I have ever conquered. I remember a particularly gymnastic move, where I had to flip my partner Carolyn over my back and head. The move was so difficult that Carolyn and I practiced it whenever we could, and even after we opened the show, we would sometimes bump into each other in the hall between classes. "Wanna flip?" one of us would say, and the other would say "yep." We would both drop our backpacks, strip off our jacket or sweater, and execute the 16-count back-flip right there in the hallway.

Maryellen directed me one more time, and choreographed me a third. She never gave me a chance at one of her leading roles (Lonesome Polecat was at best a featured role), but anytime she directed or choreographed a musical on campus, I was in the mix. I guess she needed men who could dance.

Her production of The Robber Bridegroom was a case on point. There were two roles I could have played, or at least should have had a chance at, but she refused to allow me to read for them. This audition cycle was ridiculously overdone, but I was released early in the process, so I forgot about the whole thing. Two weeks beyond the first auditions, after countless callbacks during which she had been reading many many actors for the leading roles, the cast list went up, and I was on it. In the ensemble, which turned out to be one of the strongest ensembles with which I have ever been associated. Maryellen cast the 12 or so chorus roles with actors who had all played musical leads before (I was finishing up a run as Albert in Bye, Bye Birdie while we were in, of course. I never got a role that large on campus). The Bridegroom ensemble remained onstage the entire show, and was part of all the action at all times. The show remains one of my fondest memories of those college days (go here for a more complete reminiscence of that experience).

Maryellen choreographed me one more time, in Jesus Christ Superstar. I must have been a senior at the time, and had finally figured out that I was never going to get a substantial role in anything with which Maryellen was associated. Still, I showed up at the first audition, and sang the old Judy Garland hit, "You Made Me Love You." (As a joke, I included the preamble to the song: "Dear Mr. Gable, I am writing this to you..."etc). You might think such a flamboyant audition would lead the director to consider me for the role of Herod, but no such luck. I was never called back for the show, but landed in its large chorus anyway. My role in the show remains the smallest I have ever had: Second Leper.
(That's me kneeling between Simon and Jesus, directly center stage and above the focused action. This is called "upstaging.")

I don't know a lot about Maryellen's life before she landed at Cal State Northridge. I do know she appeared, as a very little girl, in the classic film musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. My friend Valerie showed me the scene once, in which Maryellen is in the crowd. She had to freeze the frame and point to the black haired little waif in the corner of the screen, to show me Maryellen's performance in the film. Years later, Maryellen appeared in one of the major tours of L'il Abner, I suppose as a featured dancer, and the experience led to her directing the piece as her first major musical at CSUN.

As far as I know, once Maryellen landed at Cal State, she spent the rest of her artistic life there, directing, teaching, and occasionally performing. Coincidentally, my dear Bobbi directed her on campus in The House of Bernarda Alba, and she wasn't half bad. To this day I do not know what made Maryellen so indifferent, and occasionally hostile, to me while I was a student. But any negative feelings I have held toward her have been tempered by time and distance, and I sincerely hope she had a fulfilled life.