Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Gamecock Diaries, Part One: Goodbye. And Hello.

This is the beginning of an occasional series of entries in which I recall my grad school experience of two decades ago. The idea for the sequence came from this recent entry, which I guess was a prologue of sorts, though I didn't mean it to be.  Why should you care about any of this?  Well, you probably don't, but I have been persuaded by my readers (both of them) that these stories may be entertaining to others.  I am, it seems, writing a memoir, one chapter at a time... 

Car travel is not my favorite, but I drove across the country TWICE in 1986.  So when it was time to move to South Carolina 7 years later, I was ready for the massive tedium of a cross-country trip. Thankfully, somebody cared enough to welcome me, even if it was the Ramada Inn.
By the early 1990s, my life in Los Angeles was both settled and unsettling.  I was pretty settled in my day to day life:  I supported myself quite well as a waiter, a job I actually enjoyed. 
The entrance to my last home in L.A.; I loved
my Silverlake apt. If I had remained in CA,
I'm sure I'd still be living there.

I was living in a huge apartment nestled in the hills of Silverlake.  I had a large circle of close friends, some of whom dated back to my high school and college days, who kept my social life humming.  And I was more than occasionally appearing onstage.  But my life felt unsettled, too.  The last three or so years of my life in L.A. had brought some soul searching, regarding both my living logistics, and the larger question of MY LIFE. 
From my deck in Silverlake, I watched smoke rise on downtown L.A., as the Rodney King riots erupted. I wrote about that night here.
It was becoming devilishly aggravating to live in the City of Angels.  In addition to the crowds everywhere and the inescapable traffic, the weather became increasingly chaotic, with large stretches of unbearable heat followed by huge downpours and resulting mudslides. 
My family home in the San Fernando Valley, which was hit with a freak snow storm a few years before I left. Snow covered cactus was just one indication of the mood swings Mother Nature was inflicting on Southern California.
I was used to the earthquakes, of course, but I started to question my circumstances the day I drove past a street corner in the San Fernando Valley.  It was pouring rain, and my car plowed through a huge drainage puddle which was simultaneously flooded and on fire.  In addition, the family with whom I had moved to CA 20 years earlier was now all gone. 
I lived in our family home, at the north end of the San Fernando Valley, for most of my time in CA.  The "sold" sign out front ignited lots of emotion.  A decade earlier, my mother had died here, and in 1990, my father retired and moved back to my hometown of Atlanta.  My sister also relocated to the east coast, so all my relatives were now thousands of miles away.
Though I could see 40 coming down the pike at me, the career which I had hoped to have was not getting much closer.  I did a bit of self-questioning.  It appeared that my current life, that of a waiter who did shows at night, had turned my vocation into my hobby.  I had always seen myself as an actor on regional theater stages, but I was not going to achieve that goal keeping to my current track.  I realized I needed more intensive training, which meant a Master of Fine Arts in Acting. 
I earned my BA in Theatre from Cal State University, Northridge,  It was a generalized program which did not prepare me for a professional career.  The school did do some things very well, including this statue with the college's initials.  No matter from which angle you viewed it, it still read CSUN.
I started to look at graduate programs around the country, but with very specific criteria.  I was not going to uproot my very fine life unless I found a program which had certain things.  First and foremost, I wanted a program which had strong ties to a professional regional theatre.  That's an aspect of MFAs which is pretty common these days, but 20 years ago, those programs were relatively rare. 
USC's relationship with The Shakespeare Theatre in DC
was the primary reason I pursued a degree there.

Secondly, I wanted a program which afforded me the chance to actually teach on campus while I was studying.  Thirdly, I wanted a program which was production-heavy.  There are a lot of three-year MFA degrees out there where, in the first year, you don't go near a stage;  you spend your time only in the classroom.  Even in your second year, you may perform in laboratory productions directed by fellow students, but it's only in your third year of study that you actually set foot on a main stage.  That kind of program was not for me;  I knew I would get much more out of an advanced degree if I was to be applying my classroom work onstage immediately.

The University of South Carolina fit all my criteria, but by the time I had hunted them down (remember, this was before the Internet made it easy to research such things), I had missed the deadline to apply for the University Resident Theatre Auditions (commonly known as the URTAs) which the gang from USC would be attending in CA. 

My Silverlake kitchen was abuzz, as old friends prepped
our last dinner together before my departure.
I left town a week later. This was the last,
and most emotional, of a whole series of
farewell events. I spent the summer of '93
saying goodbye to my life in LA.

I wrote a personal letter to the theatre dept at USC, wondering if it was possible to be seen after hours while they were in LA, and they agreed.  So, I auditioned for the USC MFA program in the hotel room of their representative, the head of their graduate acting program.  The experience of performing my two very theatrical audition pieces in such close quarters was not one I'd like to repeat.  I think I pinned the guy's ears against the wall.  To his credit, he gave me a chance to redeem myself.  "Do you have"  Thankfully, I understood exactly what he meant: he wanted to know how I handled Truth And Beauty (you know, that weepy stuff).  I pulled out a monologue I had worked on years earlier, in my acting workshop.
I studied privately with Bobbi Holtzman for a decade, give or take, after graduation from CSUN. I wrote about her influence on me here. The workshop gang surprised me with a farewell party, which turned out to be only one in a wonderful string of such events during the summer of '93.
After learning that I had indeed been accepted into USC's MFA program, I arranged a summer visit to my father in Atlanta.  During that visit, I borrowed his car and drove to Columbia for the weekend, on the hunt for the accommodations which would house me for the next two years.  I also did some exploring of the USC campus.  
In my determination to attend grad school, I drove to
San Francisco to audition for several schools.
I totalled my car on the way. My friend Judy was with me;
we both could have died as my car jumped the median and
careened across oncoming traffic on Interstate 5. I was fiddling with the radio.
The summer season of plays was underway, and I snagged a ticket to their evening offering, which I barely remember.  I was to become friends with most of the cast of the show, though I did not know it then, so I am embarrassed to admit I don't even recall which play it was.  I think it had a nun in it.  Anyway, I bought my ticket in the afternoon, and struck up a conversation with the box office gal, who became the first person I met at USC (her name was Carol, and she turned out to be a roommate of one of my future classmates). 

The first person I met at USC, before classes even began, was
Carol (center). She remained an acquaintance, but the gals
flanking her became my very close friends. Stay tuned for
When I mentioned that I was one of the new MFA acting students joining the program next month, Carol grabbed me by the arm and immediately ushered me over to the costume shop.  This was my first indication that each class of graduate actors was eagerly anticipated, as they were to be performing leading roles on campus for the next two years. 
Lisa was also to sit on my MFA
advisory committee. I wrote a bit
about that in the prologue to this
series of entries.

Carol, who worked part time in the costume shop, knew that the designer there would be anxious to snag my measurements for their files.  I did not know at the time that I had already been cast in the first show of the season, which was to begin rehearsal before classes started.  All I knew was that I was holding up my arms and spreading my legs for costumer Lisa and her measuring tape.
Another farewell event, this one in a restaurant in Studio City.  There are several college buddies here, plus a couple of guys I had done shows with in L.A., and of course, my good friend Judy, on the far right.
Yet another "Farewell Evening" was engineered by a mere acquaintance. Lan and his partner (I don't remember the partner's name, but that's him above, looking appropriately manic) were regular customers at my restaurant, and we struck up a casual friendship.  He owned several cocktail lounges in L.A., and was the only person I ever knew who actually owned a limo  (as well as a house in the Hollywood Hills and a condo at the beach).  He insisted on taking me out on the town for a farewell, and I was not going to turn down such an offer. We cris-crossed Hollywood and the Valley, traveling from one hotspot to the next in luxurious style.
A month or so later, in August of 1993, I packed up my Honda hatchback and said goodbye to Los Angeles. 
Though not visible in this pic, you could see the famous Hollywood sign from my deck.  I loved being so close to the center of things, but also felt taunted a bit, by this  symbol of Fame and Fortune. Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is The Movies.  And TV. Neither of which seemed to have a place for me.
I drove cross country in four and a half days (it was my third such cross country drive, so I knew the terrain), and pulled into the dirt road which led to my new home around midday on the fifth day. 
Richard was in USC's directing program, and
became a good friend. It was he who nicknamed
my Columbia digs, pictured below.

I had barely emerged from my car before a 10 year old boy approached me, holding a cat.  "Are you Scott?", he asked in a thick southern accent.  "Um...yes," I answered, unsure where this was going.  He excitedly reported "we've been waitin' fer you furever!  This is yur cat!"  This kid, I was soon to learn, lived up the road, in the rundown house with the abandoned toilet in the front yard.  I didn't see him much during my two years living in Columbia, SC;  my refusal to take ownership of the cat may have had something to do with that.
I lived for two years on the right side of this duplex;  according to Google Earth, this is what it currently looks like.  Don't be fooled by the pristine look of the place these days.  When I lived here, it defined the term "ramshackle."  But I loved sitting on the front porch, which is where I was seated the first time I had guests over to visit.  My new buddy Richard remarked I looked like Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction.  The name stuck: my digs became known as the Shady Rest.
I had arrived several days before my furniture, so I set up my camping chair in the empty living room, unrolled my sleeping bag in the empty bedroom, and wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. This new chapter of my life was no longer hypothetical, I had really upended my entire life.  I was anxious and nervous about it all.  I hadn't been in a classroom in 17 years, I had never used a computer, and I had left behind everything and everyone I knew and loved, only to enter this world where I knew only three people: the faculty member who recruited me, the box office gal who sold me a ticket to a summer show with a nun, and the pre-teen cracker from up the street who tried to give me a stray cat.  Was it any wonder I spent that first night nursing a migraine?

Go here for Part 2 of my Gamecock Diaries, in which I meet some great comrades, endure some Chekhovian distress with my first show, and face the challenge of graduate school academics with only a typewriter.