Friday, October 30, 2009

more about summer camp theater and school

I can't believe I didn't include this story when I was talking about plays in school and summer camp. Maybe it's because I felt super-uncomfortable about playing a male role. This was summer camp, and I was maybe 11 or 12, and we were doing Camelot. Unlike the summer before, where I had a good (female) singing part in Peter Pan, I don't think I did well in the singing auditions the Camelot summer, and they gave me the absolute best non-singing role: Merlin. This was bad in a couple of ways. There was a scene where a nymph named Nimue (played by one of the prettiest girls in our age group) had to cast a feminine spell over me -- I had to stand on stage and pretend to be falling deeply in love with this much-prettier-than-I girl. I actually had a bad crush on the (male) drama counselor and somehow could not use that experience in this scene. Did not yet know that I could admire Ann's beauty without it taking anything away from me...except that I was cast as Merlin. And somehow, they didn't get me a beard -- just sprayed my hair white -- as if to say that I looked EXACTLY like Merlin except for the color of my hair. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wasn't too confident about my looks in the first place, so this one was really rough.

But the story I wanted to tell about that play was that the kid playing Lancelot, a very big part, quit maybe a couple of weeks before the night of the performance. (I think we only put these plays on once or twice.) All of the best kids our age with the talent and desire were already cast. So what they did was this: they cast an *older* kid, maybe 16 or 17, who was a lifeguard. I think I heard at the time that he was very interested in acting and they felt he could learn the lines in time. There was a girl named Helene who played all the leads (she was also Peter Pan), and at maybe 12, she looked kind of silly playing against this 16 or 17 year old guy with bright, bright red hair. (His sister Randy was also a redhead and one of our counselors, one of the nicest and sweetest young women I met there.) Anyway, when I saw our replacement Lancelot again, it was on TV, on Happy Days: Donny Most.

Back to the Peter Pan year: Helene, who was very show-offy about her school theater experience and vocal talents, was clearly the one to beat. And I think I was the closest challenger, because I was a pretty good actress, as 11 year olds go. But there was this nasty, obese girl named Francine who seemed to think *she* was a shoo-in. In the end, Helen got Peter, Francine got Mrs. Darling, and I was cast as Toodles, one of the Lost Boys. (Once more, cast as a guy.) But there was a twist: Mrs. Darling had to kiss the kid playing Mr. Darling, and Francine would have none of it. (I think he had braces.) So she quit, and I got her part. I got to sing Tender Shepherd, which was a lovely song, and kissing brace-face was no problem.

My school, on the other hand, being all for-the-gifted and avant-garde, did not do musicals for the entire ten years I was there. (They did have a good chorus, in which I sang for years, and eventually branched out into a madrigal group and an SATB group.) Here are the plays I remember from school -- I was only in some of them. Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire in the original French. Benito Cereno, which I think was Melville. The Proposal by Gogol. The Crucible. Gigi (the straight play, not the musical). The Women (we all dressed in sheets wrapped as various kinds of togas, to impart a timelessness). A student-written theater-of-the-absurd thing called It Seems To Be Getting Much Colder Now where the characters spoke in monotones, punctuated their speeches with the word "money", and ended up throwing around shaving cream studded with play money. I think it was some sort of commentary on plastic suburbia, etc. We did Indians by Arthur Kopit. We did Twelvth Night in a circus setting (I was actually one of two banjo players providing occasional music in it, which may be the only time I've ever played in public). We did All The King's Men (the Huey Long role was played by Joe Avellar, late of WNBC-TV News in New York). Golden Boy. A straight-play version of Casablanca (I wasn't even permitted to read for Ilsa, since an extremely tall boy had already been cast as Rick).

Although some other drama teachers came and went, the important and long-lasting ones were Nancy and Maurice. Nancy never liked me, which was a real problem. I think I was way too bourgeois for her, or she was way too avant-garde for me. Maurice actually started as a history teacher, and though most of us didn't much care for him then, we liked him better as a drama teacher and director. I actually ended up adoring Maurice because I felt he somehow really got me and I wasn't sure how, maybe through some of the essays I wrote for him in History.

I once wrote an essay (I think it was actually a three- or four-part essay exam) on Civilization and Its Discontents. I got a good mark on it, or more likely, good comments, since our school usually had no use for A-B-C or 70-80-90 type grades. My mother, a serious psychoanalytic junkie, photocopied it and brought it to her analyst, who was a really big-time guy in the analytic world in New York, as well as being an author and chess grandmaster. (Many years later, I worked for him.) And I swear that every time my mother told about my "essay on Freud," the age at which I wrote it got younger and younger. I seem to remember her saying I was nine. It's not impossible, but I was more likely 10 or 11. (Wasn't that impressive enough?)

The school taught us in a lot of ways that we had no limits, which was good, but skimped on the fundamentals, which was not. Our parents got written reports twice a year and excellent/satisfactory/needs improvement check-off slips twice a year, in lieu of number and letter grades. This was good in some ways but I believe there was an unspoken understanding between the headmaster and the teachers that *all* seniors got excellent written reports. This was because the school was still pretty new and small, and had to make its bones with good college acceptances. I was in a class of 68 students and 66 went to private universities. I was admitted to three excellent private universities but went to a state school because my mother was a little freaked out about my signing myself into a ton of debt at the age of 16. My brother remembers the headmaster referring to my mother as "hysterical." I remember the headmaster didn't speak to me for months after I chose SUNY-Binghamton (now known as Binghamton University).

Oh, and the school forgot to teach me geometry. I took some really interesting advanced math classes (after having to take algebra twice): Logic, Number Theory, and so on. But no geometry. So there was a 200-point difference between my math and my verbal scores on the SAT.

Our school had a really fierce biology program, mostly due to the head of science, Mr. B (one of the few teachers who would not tolerate being called by his first name). He was one of the few teachers who was really really strict and would lose his temper. You had to show up to class and you had to do your work. You had to make a special little black binder just for Bio. Right before the Boards (the achievement tests for college), we actually had a review section at his apartment on Jane Street, which was something like being invited to Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Apparently the exam was particularly hard the year my bio class (which was a year or two older than my grade) took it; I seem to remember a lot of graphs. So, no 800's. (They scored 200-800 then -- don't know if that's still the same.) But we had a few 790s, as I recall, and I was awfully proud of my 730, being only 13. (I was *really* into Bio, and really responded to Mr. B's method of teaching.)

I've mentioned him here before -- Mr. B eventually became head of the high school, and I became one of a little gang of four who hung out there. (I'm glad to say that two of them are now my Facebook friends.) The four of us somehow ended up writing the school's daily newssheet: one page. mimeographed, called The Galley. Denis, who was good at drawing, would make a wonderful title every day, and we typed the thing on (I think) a manual typewriter. It was about half school news items -- play rehearsals, class cancellations, and the like -- and the rest with our in-jokes and a serial someone wrote called The Shadow in The School. We'd take tape and stick copies up all over the walls.

The weird thing is, newsletters seem to follow me around. I have had so many jobs and hobbies that involved working on newsletters, writing for newsletters, editing newsletters. I've also written for college papers (besides SUNY-B, I went to NYU, finally getting a BA in 1993). And in that publishing job, I wrote many really excellent press releases.

The start of all that writing, and all this writing, was a book I picked up in the school library when I was eight: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. So like every little girl who read that book, I started to keep a "secret notebook," but I never stopped. I wrote years and years and years of journals, and I think that writing about your own life and thoughts is the best practice any writer can have. When I started back at NYU in around 1985, I took a basic writing class to find out what I did and didn't know. My professor was great, the late Bill Decker, very old-school, and he filled in some gaps for me, and taught me not to be too flowery. The latter was achieved by extensive reading of E.B. White -- can't beat the guy for clarity.

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