Sunday, August 30, 2020

Gamecock Diaries, Part Five: Groping for Trouts in a Peculiar River

 another entry in the occasional series describing my adventures pursuing the MFA 
This is Pompey in Measure for Measure, my first Shakespearean role at USC. My MFA program was considered classical training, largely due to our partnership with The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.. Actors in the third year of the program were funneled into the acting company there, spending a full season carrying torches, understudying, and playing smaller supporting roles. So there was a definite slant toward Shakespeare and other classics in the curriculum, and in the production schedule. The annual Shakespearean production was a Big Deal here, and I hoped to shine in my first visit with the Bard at USC.
The main focus of the first few months of my second semester at USC was The Importance of Being Earnest, our show which ran on campus in February, then transferred to Charlotte Repertory Theatre in North Carolina (I wrote about that show in our last episode).
A serious moment in our out of town engagement of The Importance of Being Earnest.
I spent the second part of the semester working on Measure for Measure. The piece is known as one of the Bard's problem plays, and this particular production had more problems than most.  In fact, it created controversy among the MFA actors long before I ever arrived on campus. 
Steve and Christina were in the class ahead of me, and became my good friends as soon as I arrived at USC.  They were infuriated by the casting plans for Measure for Measure. The rule regarding the MFA "talent" was very clear: we were in essence a repertory company in service of the department, and we did not have a choice of roles or shows. We were placed in shows without our input, in fact, it was rare that we even auditioned for anything.  It was insubordinate for any MFA candidate to refuse to do a show. But three of the actors in the class ahead of me, including Steve and Christina, did exactly that. I was to run afoul of this "Mandatory Participation" rule a couple of times in my second year, but for now, I was unaware any of this was happening.
When Measure for Measure was announced for the spring season, the actors in the class ahead of me were very excited, as the show contains two of Shakespeare's most complicated characters: the puritanical hypocrite Angelo, and the virginal nun Isabella, who is extorted into sleeping with Angelo in order to save her brother from death. Fun stuff, eh? Certainly fun to play; the chance to dip into these rich characters made my fellow actors giddy.  Unfortunately, the faculty also thought these characters would be fun to play, so two of them took these roles for themselves. 
This dark photo is the only one I have of our two MFA acting teachers. The gent on the right was the head of the graduate acting program, the gal on the left had the MFA actors in class. "Professional development" is an expectation for MFA faculty everywhere, which usually means the acting faculty is expected to spend some time continuing to hone their craft on the outside, with some summer stock perhaps, or working as a guest artist in another program. At USC, this expectation was fulfilled by teachers taking leading roles in campus productions. So Lisa and Richard took the plum roles of Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure
I didn't know the details of any of this until the casting for M4M was announced, and three of the five actors in the class ahead of me had not been assigned roles.
Kathryn and Jerry were also in the class ahead of me, but
they had no problem with faculty usurping the 2 leading
roles. Kathryn was sweet as Mariana, inexplicably in love
with Angelo. Jerry played the Duke, one of the thorniest
and BIGGEST roles in Shakespeare.
I suppose the director decided forcing an actor to appear in a show against his will would be more trouble than it's worth.  I had been cast in the comedic role of Pompey the Tapster (Shakespeare gave him the last name "Bum." It was that kind of role).  I don't count this performance as one of my successes. Like many of Shakespeare's comic clowns, a lot of Pompey's humor came from arcane language which was difficult for a modern audience to understand.  It was my job to interpret this language, and since our director was also the Theatre History professor, I should have had lots of help.  But Dr Hart was a pure academic with little theatrical sense, and the show reflected it. (Hart was the guy for whom I wrote many a term paper, I whined a bit about those struggles in this earlier entry.)  
Patrick played Elbow, a dim-witted constable. While I spent
the evening pretending to be funny, Patrick was
My struggle with this show was reflected in the comments of my advisory committee, who were tasked with issuing an actual grade for my performance in the show. My chair, Jim Patterson, with whom I had already worked in The Importance of Being Earnest, put it bluntly: "I don't know why Pompey wasn't funnier."  Thanks, Jim. I don't know why, either. (My committee gave me an A for effort anyway).
Longstreet Theater  featured stadium seating in the round. It was not used much during my tenure; I did eleven shows in two years at USC, but only 3 were performed in this space.
I'm sure I did more shows with Nan, here
as Mistress Overdone, than any other
actor I've ever worked with. Out of my 11
shows at USC, I think I did nine with Nan.
The show did, however, afford me with one of the best entrances of any show I did at USC.  The show was performed in Longstreet Theater, an arena style stage in the round.  The play was already well underway on the stage floor when I made my entrance, by surprise, along the upper riser at the top of the audience. It was pretty swift seeing every head in the theater suddenly turn around and look up at me as I delivered my first line to Mistress Overdone, who was down on the stage floor. The young juvenile had just been arrested for impregnating his fiancee.
Pompey: "Yonder man is carried to prison."
Overdone: "Why? What's he done?"
Pompey: "A woman." (big laugh)
Overdone: "What is his offense?
Pompey: "Groping for trouts in a peculiar river." (Another big laugh. It was all downhill from there)

As the play progresses, Pompey is sent to prison for pimping and lechery; he is given the chance to be released if he will aid in the execution of young Claudio, condemned for knocking up his girlfriend. It was decided I would carry a bag like this, filled with gruesome instruments of torture. While unpacking this thing, item by item, Pompey lists the various lowlifes and scoundrels who inhabit the underbelly of Venice. Someone decided it would be great fun to change these items every night, so I had no idea what peculiar props I would reach into the bag to pull out. I was already struggling with the text, as Shakespeare's lists are notoriously difficult (I've been saddled with more than my share over the years), and this added distraction pretty much did me in.  I would never put up with such nonsense today, but I was still trying to make a good impression in grad school and never wanted to rock the boat. This bag pretty much summed up how I felt about my performance by the time we closed: dull, listless, beat-up, and worn out.
So, the semester had a nice high, with our performances of Earnest at Charlotte Rep, and a mediocre finish with Measure for Measure. I have to mention, though, that the biggest low of the semester didn't have anything to do with grad school at all.
This is the parking structure at the Northridge Fashion Center, after the earthquake demolished it. I parked here when I worked at the Sears Complaint Department in the 1980s.
In January of 1994, a huge earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles.  This event, now known as the Northridge Earthquake, caused big damage to two places I had spent much of my young adulthood, the Northridge Fashion Center (where I worked at Sears for a whopping 15 years) and Cal State Northridge (where I spent 4 years earning my undergraduate degree). 

I was deep into my second semester at the University of South Carolina when this devastation occurred back in the place I considered to be home.  I had been busy in South Carolina, dissecting Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare, settling into a very new life of taking class, teaching class, making new friends, making a new life.  I did not think I was moving back to L.A. after earning my MFA, but I still considered it home.  These images of destruction were hard to take. While I was building a new life, the structure of my old life was being dismantled.

Next up: the summer season of 1994, the busiest of my two years on campus. If you care to read the previous entries in this series, you can find them here, in reverse chronology