Mister Eclectic (howeird) wrote,
Mister Eclectic

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How I Got Hooked On Theater, the sequel

scendan asked me this as part of her series of very interesting interview questions. The first part goes like this:

Q. What initially drew you to acting, and do you feel you are the sort of actor who "takes their work home with them" in the sense of characterization, or do you leave the persona totally onstage?

What started the seed was being cast in the main supporting role in a grade school choir musical. Our cantor was a famous liturgical composer, and he had written a children's musical called "What Makes Pesach Different". I played the father, the leading role was the hard-boiled egg. There are three more chapters to the drama story, but I'll save them for another time.

I don't take my character home with me, but I used to take him out on the street and practice lines while walking. When I played Bill Sykes in Oliver, people crossed to the other side of the street to get out of my way. So now I learn my lines at home.

So here's "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey would say,

The fellow who played the hard-boiled egg was this phenomenal talent named Spencer Kopff. Spencer and I were first sopranos in the temple choir. He was first chair, I was second chair. In my memory, he was light years better as a singer and actor. This was first or second grade, I think. After our choir production, Spencer was playing a leading role in his school production of Pirates of Penzance, he was the Major General. I was amazed a kid that young could sing that well. I never even dreamed of doing anything so ambitious.

I didn't even think about acting again until junior high school. My big sister was trying out for The Wizard of Oz and she got me to audition too. When I didn't hear anything, I figured I wasn't cast. Turns out I had been given the role of Ozma, but the teacher who was directing the show hadn't bothered to let me know we had to look at the cast list posted on the theater door to find out if we'd been chosen. The way I found out was when she hunted me down to tell me I was kicked out for not showing up at rehearsals.

I'm pretty sure I saw the show, and I'm pretty sure my sister played the Good Witch, but I don't really remember.

Then we moved to Seattle. High school. My sister was in the drama class, the drama club and the school play. She got me to run props for a show she was in, The Desperate Hour. Turns out they needed someone to play a tiny walk-on role, the garbageman. All he does is walk up to the front door, take off his hat, say a line, put his hat back on and walk away. Fine, okay, I'll do that. I can do that and run props too, no problem.

They put me in a very shabby costume. Actually, it was a very well-made costume which was designed to make me look like I'd been collecting the garbage all day. It included a cloth hat with a bill. I figured the garbage man needed to be dirty and dusty, so I packed the hat with Max Factor Tan #2 powder. When I took off the hat, there was a cloud of dust, and much laughter from the audience. There is not a lot of humor in The Desperate Hour, so I was kind of surprised when the director didn't kill me. In fact, he invited me to enroll in the drama class, which was taught after school but carried a whole class credit. So through high school I had major supporting roles in the rest of the plays, and was in two statewide one-act play competitions. As a senior I was chosen to be our school's entry in the all-city play.

When I went off to college, I continued playing supporting roles, and also directed two shows for the campus community theater (for non-drama majors).

Musicals. After my voice changed I had not sung in public at all, let alone on stage. I thought of myself as an instrumentalist. I play trumpet, baritone horn, french horn, basically all the brass valved instruments, and I can play piano by ear pretty well.

One of the shows I directed in college, Beyond The Fringe, called for some barroom style singing and piano playing, but nothing requiring actual talent. When I was growing up, we used to sit around the phonograph and sing along to Camelot, Sound of Music, South Pacific, and so on. the first music book I paid for myself was the score for The Fantastiks. But I'd never seen myself singing on stage. In my mind, I could carry a tune, but I'd heard tapes of myself singing, and I sure wouldn't buy that guy's records.

1973, I get my first real job after college, as the Desk Editor of The Daily Astorian in Astoria, Oregon. My duties included laying out the paper every day, doing some of the photography and darkroom work, and writing the odd human interest story. The editor knew I had been the arts & entertainment editor for my campus paper, so he decided I could do some of that there to. My first assignment was to go to the local community theater (Lewis & Clark Theater) and try out for You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, and write a story about it for the Friday TV supplement.

Sure, great, sounds like fun.

First they had us read some dialog, which I've always been very good at, so I made the first cut. Then they had us each sing a song. Turns out I was supposed to have brought some sheet music, but nobody told me that, and besides, I didn't own any. Or if I did it was still in the piano bench, which was at my parents' place back in Seattle.

So the director throws me a big thick songbook, and asks if I know anything in there. Turns out I knew almost all those songs. Not by heart, but well enough to read over the pianist's shoulder. Most of them were Frank Sinatra standards. Since I was the only one who had not come prepared, I was the last to sing.

I can't remember what I sang first, I only remember the director asking me to pick out another song. I sang that too. And another. And another. Something's very wrong, I'm thinking, because everyone else only had to sing one song. I must be doing pretty miserably for her to keep giving me second chances like this.

Auditions had started at 7 pm. It was now 10 pm, and we were being kicked out of the theater. The director grabbed the song books, and led us all down a couple of blocks to Fiddler's Green. That's a lovely Irish restaurant and piano bar. The pianist did a rendition of Rubber Duckie which had us rolling on the floor laughing. The director whispers something in her ear, points to me, and the pianist plays the intro to My Way, and the director motions for me to sing. Okay, mock the afflicted. See what I write in my article. So I sing. And I kept singing until they kicked us out of there.

The next morning I'm working on my article, and the director calls. She has cast me in the title role. She loved my singing. I tell the editor the good news, and he congratulates me, but tells me I'd better find something else to write about because it would be a conflict of interest if I wrote about trying out for the show I was starring in.

We have a good run, the audience loves the show, but I'm still not convinced about being a singer. After all, it's just Charlie Brown. The real singer in the cast was playing Schroeder - he brought his guitar to rehearsals and taught us John Prine songs. So when I try out for Lewis & Clark's next show, Camelot, I audition for one of the few non-singing roles. I have wanted to play King Pellinore forever. He comes out halfway through the show in a full suit of armor, bumbles around for the rest of the show just being a senile old fart, and has a big shaggy dog. I completely nailed the part at auditions. I am so jazzed that I can't wait for the director's call.

He calls the next morning, and tells me he has some bad news He has chosen someone else to play Pellinore. The man he chose actually is a bumbling old fart in Real Life, so it wasn't such a bad choice. Then the director said he would like me to consider playing King Arthur instead.

Could have knocked me over with a feather.

It took him maybe 10 minutes to convince me. That was the show which built up my confidence in my singing and acting abilities. That was the real beginning of my current theater career.

And the rest, as they say, is history....

For the strong of heart, Here is my theater resume and here are videos of me onstage.

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