Saturday, January 22, 2005

Writing on Writing - Part 3

Originally published on March 10, 2004:

I wanted to be an actor. It was fun, I could be someone else, and there wasn’t a lot of math involved. So when I started looking for colleges, I wanted to find once with a good drama department. I knew I didn’t have the grades to make it into some place like Yale, so I looked at a couple of large places – Northwestern and the University of Miami – and small – Lake Forest and Fort Lewis. (Fort Lewis is a small college in Durango, Colorado, and a couple of my friends were also applying.) Northwestern and Lake Forest took one look at my GPA and said No, and Fort Lewis didn’t have a separate drama program; they said I could major in English with an emphasis in drama. They also suggested I go to summer school before enrolling.

That left the University of Miami. I had been to Florida once before but never to Miami, even though my grandmother lived there. I came down during the spring break of my junior year to look at the school and was immediately impressed by two things – they had a real drama department, and it was 80 degrees. I had spent the first week of spring break skiing with my family, and the bright tropical sun and warm breezes sold me on it. Remember, I had grown up in the cold grey twilight of northern Ohio winters, where cars rusted out in months and spring had to claw its way north, arriving barely breathing by May. But strolling across a campus where students were walking around in shorts and the university’s sales pitch - “Every Semester is Spring Semester” - got to me. I didn’t even look inside the university’s theatre, The Ring. I know right then was going to go to UM. And a year later, I was accepted.

When I arrived in September 1971, four days before my nineteenth birthday, I moved into Mahoney Hall, a large six-story structure on the northeast edge of the campus that looked like an overgrown Howard Johnson’s. It had no air conditioning, the aluminum jalousie windows providing the only ventilation, and it was teeming with freshmen from all over the world – but mostly, it seemed, from New York City. (My roommate, also a drama major, was from Great Neck.) It was quite a change from a small town and private school in Ohio, but it was also exhilarating – I was on my own, I was off on a career in the theatre, and it was going to be fun.

I immediately declared my major in drama, got signed up for my classes, and auditioned for every play that was available. To my enormous surprise, I was cast in the very first show I tried out for – a small character part, but still, it was a part. (As the late Avery Schreiber once noted, “There are no small parts…just short pay.”) The play, The Beaux’ Stratagem by George Farquhar, was my first foray into a period comedy and the director took great pains to teach us exactly how to play the parts. He was also the designer of the set and lighting and had spent the summer reworking Farquhar’s cumbersome Restoration script into something that could work with a modern audience and college actors. At the time I didn’t realize what a tremendous effort it was to mount such a production, but I soon learned. I was soon immersed in every aspect of theatre and production, from building scenery, studying acting, theatre history, even taking voice and dance classes. I loved every moment of it. I had found a home.

But the writer in me started to grow impatient. One night I sat down at my typewriter to crank out a report on Stanislavski when my roommate complained that he couldn’t find a suitable monologue for acting class. In about fifteen minutes I batted out something – no more than a page – and handed it to him. He read it, liked it, and in an hour he had it memorized. He did it in the next class and got an A. The teacher didn’t ask him where it had come from, but word soon got around that I could write, and several other students asked me to provide them with material. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t like it was something I thought could be as fun as being an actor – I was cast in three more shows that year, spending more time on stage than many of my classmates. Writing was something that could wait.

Later that year I wrote a letter to the editor of the college paper about some issue now long forgotten. He printed it and the next day called me up and offered me a job as a columnist with the paper. They would pay me ten dollars a column. Wow! Getting paid to write! I accepted immediately and began writing about anything that struck my fancy – kind of like blogging. It went over pretty well, I guess, because the next year they brought me back and gave me an op-ed position. It was easy to do – I could crank out a column in an hour and rarely had to re-write – and people liked what I wrote. But I was still a drama major, and when I graduated in May 1974, my degree was in acting.

But there were two little things bugging me. First, what exactly do you do with a degree in acting? Go to New York? Hollywood? Star Search? I had no idea. And second, the day after graduation, I had lunch with my parents and the man who had first directed me in The Beaux’ Stratagem and who has remained a very close friend and mentor to this day. I remember him looking at me and shaking his head sadly; “You wasted your time getting a degree in acting. You’re a writer. Do that.” I have never forgotten those words, and I’m very glad he said them.



Blogger Weary Hag said...

I'm enjoying your posts so much that I wish dinnertime wasn't approaching. I can identify with this particular entry as a college professor/mentor of mine suggested the same to me. He told me people are either born with the knack or not, and only in extremely rare cases can it be somewhat acquired.
Best of luck with your ventures, and thank you for the great blog.
I'll be back for more ~ I'm certain.

6:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home