Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Gamecock Diaries Part III: Details of a Deadly Degree

What a slacker. This is me relaxing with a beer in my hotel room in Charlotte, NC.  In early 1994, our USC band of players took our production of The Importance of Being Earnest to Charlotte Repertory Theatre, where we ran for two weeks and, in so doing, had a brief respite from our classes back in Columbia.
"The MFA is a terminal degree," somebody reminded me while I was neck deep in my first semester at USC. I thought, "well, it's certainly killing me." But that's not what they meant. 
I had support from old friends as
well as new. My oldest friend
Claudia flew out from LA my first
semester and took this pic. She
gave me that sweater too.
The Master of Fine Arts in Acting is the highest degree awarded in the field of performance, there is no PhD or DFA in the discipline of acting.  USC took that fact seriously, so my training there contained the best (and hardest) aspects of both an acting conservatory and an academic university. My first semester (like all of them) was a complicated mix of both. I performed in two shows in those first few months (I wrote about
The Cherry Orchard in the last installment, and I'll write about The Importance of Being Earnest shortly). Our curriculum featured the usual suspects of a conservatory: Acting, of course, as well as vocal and movement training. 
I took this picture of my fellow survivors. Elliott, Nan, Bodde (the blond head at left, pronounced Bo-Day, don't ask me why), and I were the only four actors in our class to actually make it to the finish line. Other members of our class either quit or were ejected.
Our vocal work was handled by two instructors, one who taught the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), and the other who acted as a vocal coach, of sorts. 
This is Kathryn, who was not one of our teachers but she loved displaying examples of IPA. Each symbol represents a sound used in speech. I wonder if they still teach this alphabet? The internet arrived very shortly after I was in grad school, and now we have all sorts of ways to determine how words are pronounced, so perhaps this stuff is old hat now.
Sarah spent several years on Ryan's Hope,
creating a role which was later played by
Marg Helgenberger. By the time she was
bullying students at USC, she had given up
on an acting career.
Our second voice teacher was a retired soap opera actress who had found a niche for herself as a vocal and dialect coach for the stage.  At the time, Sarah was the resident voice coach at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, where the MFA actors would be spending our third year as interns. The Powers at the Shakes were extremely particular about how their actors sound, so once a week for two years, Sarah was dispatched to USC to insure the actors headed their way sounded the way they wanted us to sound. 
I was a victim of Sarah's
abrasive style in the classroom,
which often included ridicule as
 a teaching tool.

She did not seem all that happy about taking round trip flights every week to South Carolina, I'm sure she felt she deserved something better.  When we arrived at The Shakes in DC for our internship, she was still on staff, and I shudder to recall an embarrassing moment during a put-in rehearsal for All's Well That Ends Well, during which she threw me under the bus in front of the director.  That's a story for another time...

Melody today. She left USC and now
has a private practice in PA.
I got much more out of our Movement classes. We had a mix of the Alexander Technique and Laban Movement Analysis, led by our aptly named teacher, Melody. Though young, this gal was the real deal, USC was lucky to have her.  So was I, as she sat on my advisement committee and was always enthusiastic. And she loved my chex mix.
I was happy to host informal gatherings at the swanky Shady Rest, including this one, which, as I recall, was right before the Thanksgiving break. There's a videotape of this evening out there someplace, so I know one of the topics of conversation was Melody's movement class. According to that tape, Steve and Christina were not big fans.  I still have that quilt.
Despite the fact that these courses all resembled those in an acting conservatory, we were in fact at a university, so there was a substantial academic component to our curriculum as well. USC's program was performance-heavy (it's a big reason I chose to go there), but you could not be a slouch in academics.  A year of Theatre History was required, both for our degree and to pass the comprehensive exams which would determine if the MFA would be granted.  It had been a whopping 17 years since I had taken a test, or studied for a test, or even been in a classroom.  In the time between my college graduation and my grad school introduction, computers had swept in and taken over the world. Never having operated a personal computer, I arrived at USC with this:
Yep, I thought I could survive in grad school with only a typewriter. Hilariously naive. Numerous term papers would be required in Theatre History, and of course my thesis would eventually need to be prepared.  This antique would not cut it.
Deborah and Richard helped ease my
transition into USC life. This was a party
very soon after I met them. We needed
more beer, Richard and I went down the
hill to buy some. I was carded, Richard
leaned over to read my drivers license.
"Good, you're older than me." That was
the start of a great friendship.

Noting the panic on my face, my new bestie Deborah spent some hours giving me a crash course in computers in general, and how to use Word Perfect in particular. Microsoft Word had not yet bulldozed the competition, and WP was the preferred program at USC. Not for the first time, I blessed my late mother, who had insisted I take a semester of typing while I was in high school. I didn't know how to use a computer, but I knew my way around a keyboard.
This is not me. It's the husband of one of my classmates. After the first week of class, I scrambled to purchase a second-hand PC, then Rob came over to install Wordperfect (they used to call this "shareware," now they call it theft).  Nobody had a personal printer back then, you had to save your work on a floppy disc, inaptly named since it was not floppy at all, and take it someplace to be printed.
If you take a look at the above picture, you'll see my "office," actually a corner of my bedroom. TWO desks, plus that hilariously oversized computer, my very first. You'll see from all the paraphernalia that the internet had not yet taken hold, so all the research for all the term papers required for the MFA had to be done the old fashioned way: books.  At this graduate level, term papers were assigned, but their subjects were not. We'd be told, for example, that a paper was due October 10, but the actual topic was up to us, as long as it related in some way to the current study.  I worked so hard on these papers, I have proudly saved them for 25 years.  I'll remind you I chose these topics myself:

"Lead Into Gold"
The uses of alchemy in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Robert Green's 
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

"The Antique Chorus"
The birth and development of the chorus in Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance drama

"When? Where? What?"
The unities of Time, Place and Action as discussed in John Dryden's An Essay of Dramatic Poesy and applied to John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun

The unaccomodated man in the unadorned play

and finally:
"Little Rascals"
Treatment of The Rake in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer 
as illustrated by Charles Marlow and Tony Lumpkin

Let me know if you want to read any of the above. I've got that floppy disc somewhere.  

In our spare time from all of the above, we were performing.  Or rehearsing. Or both. I did 5 shows my first year on campus, but this is the one which dominated most of the year:
Algernon Moncrief and Cecily Cardew spent many months during 1993-94 trying to determine The Importance of Being Earnest.

Our production of The Importance of Being Earnest played on campus in the fall of '93, then transferred to Charlotte Repertory Theatre in early '94.  In the next chapter of this memoir, I'll leave behind all this dull academic stuff, and regale you with lavish memories of Earnest, which was a delight, and Measure for Measure, which was not.