Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Gamecock Diaries, Part Six: My Summer of Silly Accents

another entry in the occasional series describing my adventures pursuing my MFA
During my years in Los Angeles, my college crowd always gathered for Easter Brunch, a tradition we continued for many years after graduation. When I got to South Carolina, I continued the tradition by suggesting to my new bestie Deborah that she host this Easter Brunch at her house. It was one of many social events, large and small, which added meaning and resonance to my time at USC.  That's me in the purple silk shirt behind the camera. And that hat?  I was too precious for words.
Deborah, the redhead, hosted many social
events, including this Easter Brunch. Kim
was soon to wow audiences as our Reno
The MFA program at USC was designed to encompass three years, two spent on campus in Columbia, and the third spent in DC on internship.  The summers between those years were not technically included in our curriculum, but the Powers That Be had come up with a plan which allowed the graduate students to remain on campus during the summer, continuing to earn the assistantship money provided by the school, and at the same time, providing the labor for USC's summer programming.  That programming included several full scale productions and a lavish children's show.  In addition, the university offered a theatre camp for kids, from which, like all theaters everywhere, they made a buttload of money. Grad students were the faculty. 

what is this
Kim and Richard were to play the leading roles in Anything Goes. Take a look at our swanky "Grad Student Office", complete with up-to-date computer.

So the summer of 1994 was going to be jam-packed, in fact it would prove to be the busiest time of my MFA career. 
A Walk in the Woods, Strange Snow,
Anything Goes, The Emperor's New
Clothes, The Search for Signs of
Intelligent Life in the Universe

The Summer Rep that year included five full productions, I was cast in the two largest.  As I mentioned in a previous entry in this series, Anything Goes was placed in the season after several grad students displayed some musical talent.  USC was a classical program and did not, as a rule, produce musicals, but the late great Jim Patterson felt confident that this was the time for a full scale crowd-pleasing extravaganza.
Strange Snow ran in roughly the same period as Anything Goes. It's a small, 3-character piece full of what I think of as "truth and beauty" acting. My grad school chums Steve and Deborah were terrific playing opposite recent grad Steve Harley, who had become the leading man at the local professional theater. Like all the other shows in the '94 season, it may have been slightly overlooked as Anything Goes, with its lavish costumes, turntable set, and large cast, sucked up all the energy of the theatre department.
I've written about Jim Patterson throughout this series; when he was directing me in
The Importance of Being Earnest, he was already planning for Anything Goes.  He gave me a huge compliment, in retrospect.  He asked me which role I would like to play. 
The cast was so large it had to be
augmented by several local actors
of note. Jonathan, only in his teens,
was already a stage vet, and he was
an audience favorite in the big 
numbers. He is now a cabaret
artist and arts administrator in NY.

There are two comic roles in
Anything Goes which were appropriate for me, and though I only knew the show from the famous Patti Lupone revival cast album, I knew either one would be fun to play.  There was a British twit who has a comic song in act two which some consider to be the show's 11:00 number, and the larger role of the comic villain, Moonface Martin, a hapless gangster on the run. 

An old friend of the show's leading lady, Reno Sweeney, Moonface had two songs (plus inclusion in some group numbers) and lots of room for comedy. I told myself I had already played a British twit this year (Algernon in Earnest), what would I learn from playing another one? So I chose to play Moonface, but let's face it.  I picked it because it was bigger.
I don't have any production shots from Anything Goes, but here's Joel Grey playing my role in the most recent Broadway revival. (Joel and I are practically twins, which I wrote about here.) Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13, spends most of the show disguised as a priest, which causes a problem for anyone playing him.  It is difficult to be funny dressed in black. (There's another problem, too. Priests aren't funny.  Nuns are funny, priests are not.)  You can see here that Grey mitigated the problem of being in black by adding a jacket. Cheater.
I got great response to my performance, including from the USC faculty.  Our opening night ran like a dream, with the duet between Moonface and Reno, "Friendship," one of Cole Porter's best known songs, bringing down the house.  The day after that first performance, I received a handwritten note in my office mailbox from Ann Dreher, who had directed me in my first show at USC, The Cherry Orchard.  (I wrote about that show, and Ann, here.) 
Ann's note to me was so flattering that I kept it. I should have reread it a month later, when she asked me who I'd like to play in her next show. My answer was not very judicious. 
Ann claimed I had stolen the show (and who am I to quibble with a faculty member?);  I was super flattered to hear this, but a little later in the summer, I should have remembered that note more clearly, as it would affect a decision both Ann and I had to make. (More on that in a mo'.) 
Kim (on the left) was actually studying for her M.A. when director Jim cast her as Reno Sweeney. She tore the roof off the joint, but the show ruined her relationship with Jim. As I understand it, she had asked Jim's permission to hire her friends to tape the show, and Jim agreed. He later claimed he thought Kim had meant to tape only a few songs, but the filmmakers arrived that night with the intention of taping from Overture to Curtain Call. Jim raised a stink (as only Jim could) and ejected the cameras, literally seconds before the overture began, in front of a full house. Kim almost quit, she was so angry, and the incident soured her enjoyment of the show from then on. The legality of this situation is clear: taping the show, even in an academic setting, is against the rules (everybody in academia breaks those rules, but they are the rules).  Still, I wouldn't mind having a copy of our Anything Goes, even if it was a bootleg.
The second show I appeared in that summer was an original adaptation of The Emperor's New Clothes, written and directed by USC's resident provider of children's programming, Jayce Tromsness.
Jayce wrote and directed large scale kids' shows for the Summer Rep, I worked on his shows both summers I was at USC. They were lively and fun, full of energy.
In this one, I was slated to play one of the Emperor's servants named Mop:  
When I first spoke Mop's lines aloud, I realized Jayce had subconsciously written the dialogue in a Cockney rhythm, so that's how I presented him at our first read. It worked well. I was already using  an over-the-top New York Brooklynese accent to play Moonface Martin in Anything Goes every night, and now I was using a British Cockney brogue during the day. I was to add one more silly accent before I was done.
Nan was in my MFA class, here she played Mop's
wife (I'm not sure she had a name). I did 11
shows while in SC, and Nan was in most of them.
Adding 5 more shows we did together during our
internship, and I'm sure I've worked with her
more often than any other actor, or indeed any
other person, in my career.

During our first read-through of The Emperor's New Clothes, there were a couple of very small roles which Jayce had not yet assigned to his company.  I had my eye on one, a single page scene in which the goofy Emperor, hilariously played by Steve Harley, took a dance lesson from a pompous instructor. 
Steve and Monica Wyche were
hysterical as the Emperor and

Here again, Jayce had written a character's dialogue in a certain rhythm without really realizing it.  I, however, could see right away that this Dance Instructor was French. I volunteered to read the scene aloud, and went over-the-top Pepe Lepew with it. I now had two roles in the show (requiring an extremely tight quick change), a Cockney servant and French dance instructor. 
Theatre For Young Audiences and Classic Musical Comedy are not all that different from each other.  I spent the summer of '94 going over the top with both.
Steve was in the class ahead of
me. I don't remember his role
here, though I'm sure it was the
villain. We've remained friends
and colleagues; he has directed
me several times in professional
shows in DC.

I had a full schedule with the Summer Rep and with teaching teens all day, but I also made a decision which I thought was smart but others thought was nuts.  The MFA program at USC was performance heavy but was also an academic degree.  As such, the degree required passing a grueling comprehensive exam as well as writing a thesis.  Usually, grad students postponed dealing with those academic requirements until their second or third year, but I decided to tackle them both that first summer. 
The comps were offered twice a year, but MFA actors usually took them the summer after their second year. I was determined to get them out of the way, so I spent many late nights with members of the class ahead of me (including Deborah, above), studying the complete history of theatre from Thespis through Stoppard.
The test itself took four hours and included not only a resuscitation of facts but also a section of essay questions which were to be written on the spot. You couldn't graduate without passing this monster, so I was glad I did so early.  
Richard was in the MFA directing program, but was also an actor with musical theatre cred. He was great fun to hang out with.  He played leading man Billy Crocker, who sings "You're The Top" with Reno Sweeney (among other Cole Porter standards). Anything Goes is a bit odd, in that the leading man and the leading lady do not end up together, they aren't even interested in each other, they are best friends who help each other end up with somebody else. 

That's director/writer Jayce trying
to avoid my antics. He gave me
juicy roles in two splashy kids'
shows and an off-campus
Shakespeare, plus we acted
together in Mother Courage on
campus the next year. I think
those stories are coming...

That summer, I also wrote a complete first draft of my thesis, which was to be comprised of dissections in depth of four performances I gave during my time on campus.  My advisor Jim Patterson encouraged me to take the first four shows I did at USC and write this thing immediately, polishing it later.  I was smart enough to take this advice, so in addition to everything else going on that summer, I wrote in depth examinations of my performances in The Cherry Orchard, The Importance of Being Earnest, Measure for Measure, and Anything Goes. Though my thesis wasn't actually due for two more years, I was relieved to have written the lion's share of it so early. Here is the final title page as it was published by the University Press two years later (the format dictated by the university):

R. Scott Williams
Bachelor of Arts
California State University, Northridge, 1979

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts
in the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance
University of South Carolina

What a summer it was, I don't regret a single moment of it.  Well, except one.  Remember that swell note of congratulations I received from Ann Dreher regarding my performance in Anything Goes?  I didn't recognize its significance.  A month or so after writing that note, Ann dropped another note in my mailbox.  She was to direct the first show of the following season, Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore, beginning rehearsal in mid-August. 
She wanted to know which role I was interested in playing?  I was flattered that, for the second time since arriving at USC, I was being offered my choice of roles, rather than simply being assigned a part, but I was fried.  Since arriving at USC the previous August, during the school year I had rehearsed and performed in three mainstage productions (taking one of them to Charlotte for a professional run), taken two semesters of upper level Theatre History (in which I had written five term papers), taught two sections of Speech classes for underclassmen, as well as attended a full caseload of MFA performance classes (acting, movement, speech and vocal technique). During the summer, I had simultaneously rehearsed and performed two more large scale productions, taught teenagers in the USC summer camp, studied for and passed my comp exams, and written a full first draft of my MFA thesis. Cue the violins.
I didn't particularly like Hot L
, and I saw no problem
with at least asking to be excused.
Boy, was I stupid.

I dropped Ann a note in response.  I wrote that I was exhausted and, as I was already slated for large roles in Othello and Eastern Standard in the fall, to add a third show in the same semester seemed unwise.  I hoped to be excused from her show, but if that was not possible, I guess I could play either X or Y (I don't remember which characters those were).  I didn't hear back from Ann, but when the cast was announced a few days later, I was not included. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I shouldn't have.  I did not know at the time that Ann had taken my reluctance to do her show as a huge insult, particularly after she had praised my work so lavishly only a month earlier.  I also didn't know that she could hold a grudge, and nine months later, that grudge would surface to cause me some real trouble during the following summer's season. 
The summer of '94 ended, and I was exorbitantly pleased with myself.  I had had significant success in my roles for the summer, plus my teaching of kids had gone well. More importantly, I had studied for and passed my comps, a year or more early, and had written the major portion of my thesis. I was pooped but proud.
My first year at USC had proven to me that my decision to uproot my life to pursue the MFA had been a good one.  I flew back to Los Angeles for a week or so to visit my old life, and was back in South Carolina before August ended, ready to hit the ground running for my second year of graduate work.  Oh yes, there's more.  
One of the requirements of doing the kids' show was meeting the kids out in the lobby. Well, I considered it a requirement. Others, like Richard, considered it a perk. 

Backstage camaraderie. 
This was indeed a summer of silly accents for me, but by no means did I consider myself an expert with dialects.  All three accents I used were lifted directly from TV. Moonface Martin was a male Rhoda Morgenstern.  The Dance Instructor, as mentioned, was Pepe LePew, before he was cancelled. And Mop's Cockney accent? That was Richard Dawson from Hogan's Heroes.  I am no expert with dialects.  But I am a cunning linguist. 

(You can read other entries in this series, in reverse chronology, here)