I chose my drama school for two reasons. One: they offered an Actor’s Equity Card. Two: I read about the program in “American Theater” magazine and really liked the pictures. It’s true: I am a mental giant. So stand back – don’t get hurt while I drop the rest of this.
The program head taught the infamous Group 1 at Juilliard. (Things to know, shouted at random moments in class: William Hurt was dumb as a stump, Robin Williams left because of his fondness for cocaine, Patti LuPone slept with everyone, Kevin Kline is GAY. Christopher Reeve based his ”Clark Kent” walk and mannerisms on this teacher. This last bit is true.) Notice, he didn’t stay at Juilliard. He didn’t stay at the American Conservatory Theater (things to know: Annette Bening has NO SOUL!) he didn’t stay at Yale. He was here, in Chapel Hill, NC. Why? Because he was one crazy motherfucker, America. That’s why.
How crazy? Mean crazy. Low crazy. Crazy like only a closeted-sleeping-with-the-stage-manager-make-workplace-a-living-hell-crazy-and-get-excused-for-it-because-you’re-a genius-crazy. How genius? A sometime genius. Sometimes a moment would break through in his directing or teaching and we’d be sure we were in the right place.
Crazy Can Be Best Expressed in Bullet Points:
- called out the costume designer (during a final rehearsal – people present in theater: about 70) about the star’s leggings: “They’re not tight enough! I want to be able to see the veins in his DICK!”
- Apoplectic thrashing in chair during scenework would end with the shouted question to students: “Why are you so BAD?” (admittedly I often had this same question ) followed by stomping out of classroom for prolonged periods, sometimes followed by a tearful return. We were ruining his teaching, and he waited for us to console him. We did.
- screaming for rehearsal to stop as he scolded lead actress and called for her props and her wig to be taken away because she did not deserve them. In front of about 70 people. Then he told her rehearsal would not continue until she stood onstage and apologized to everyone.
Maybe this doesn’t sound crazy enough. It doesn’t. I know. But my darlings, multiply it by 100 and add it into every day for 3 years. Intimidation, humiliation, everything justified under the umbrella of his brilliance. Don’t cry, don’t complain, don’t argue. He’ll call all his friends and make sure you never work once you leave school. It seemed true. It wasn’t.
He told us never to doubt his word, that even students who failed him always wrote or called years later with what he called “Old Man River” confessions. They wanted another chance. They’d seen the error of their ways. He couldn’t help them anymore. They were lost. Failure and shame rained upon them forever.
In our third year, he became ill with congestive heart failure. He was dying. We all made the trip to the Duke cardiac center, to pay a visit. A classmate and I went together and found him terribly ill. We talked and visited, we loved him in a strange way, after all.
He told us about how the doctors had been stopping and re-starting his heart. He told us that he’d been thinking a lot about death. Then he told us this: “I’ve been thinking a lot today, about the people I’ve hurt, the people I’m angry with, and what I’d do differently. But no, then I thought FUCK THEM. They’re all bastards. Fuck them all.”
He’s still alive to this day.
It’s Independence Day. For nearly 20 years I’ve been loathe to talk about him, fearing he’d come swirling out of the faucet in a cloud of instant ruination.
I don’t see you anywhere sir, though you are still out there. Old Man River. You’ve got nothing. Old Man River. I let you go. It just keeps rolling along.