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
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 early 1994, but the run in Charlotte was later in March.  That transfer directly conflicted with another show running on campus at the time, a show I dearly wished to be in.  
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. 
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...

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