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
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: