“The transformative power of live theatre” has arguably become a cliché, co-opted by the marketing and development departments of large regional theatres to convince the locals of their cultural obligation to spend hundreds of dollars a year on subscriptions, or thousands of dollars to get their names engraved on a patio brick or lobby wall.
But for at least one fourteen-year-old boy in a sub-suburban town in southern Maine in the spring of 1986, it rang very true indeed, and set him on an exhilarating, maddening, challenging, and eye-opening path that he’s still on, more-or-less, today. My theatrical aesthetic was shaped by a single theatrical experience 34 years ago. An emphasis on storytelling and the simple power of words with just the right amount of stagecraft to support it. No small parts. Above all, tell the story.
I joined the Traip Academy drama club as a freshman, and that fall I performed in a show called And Stuff, a collection of short scenes dealing with heavy “teen issues”: suicide, sexual abuse, racism, drug use, peer pressure, and so on. It was hardly great drama, but for me it was steps above my previous school play experiences. Traip’s drama club, despite our cramped facilities, was one of the region’s finer high school theatre programs. Our “theatre” was a cramped stage in an undersized gym. Our hand-me-down lights hung from holes in the gym ceiling. Each year we would do a full production in the fall, and in the spring we’d work on our thirty-five minute competition piece in the Maine State High School Drama Festival.
Mr. Simmel, the English teacher who doubled as drama coach, took great pride in doing what he considered “real” theatre: serious dramas, no musicals. (“If you want to do West Side Story,” he said, “go to Portsmouth”—referring to our neighboring town’s vast auditorium and full-time theatre faculty.) A few years earlier, Traip’s one-act competition piece was Flowers from Lidice, a Holocaust drama that was selected as one of Maine’s two entries in that year’s New England Drama Festival. Its legend loomed large: one girl won an all-state acting award for playing a corpse for the entire duration of the performance.
This was the standard we were held up to: no small parts. Everyone is important. Mr. Simmel’s advice to his charges was a beautifully simple statement: Tell the story. Three little words that contained an infinity of profundity. Don’t seek the limelight, don’t be shticky, don’t steal focus—do your job to support the play. Oh, and project. And en-un-ci-ate.
Alas, I only got one year with him, as he was leaving at years’ end to go to grad school. He had a trio of talented senior actresses. Apparently wanting to go out with a bang, he decided that year’s spring one-act competition entry would be a cutting of John Pielmeier’s drama Agnes of God. There were no roles for the boys; if seniors Ed and Mike S were disappointed, they didn’t let it show. Angie played Agnes, Susan was Mother Superior, and Anna was Dr. Livingston.
For a minimal budget, they went all out. The chorus director, Mr. Rutherford, inserted arrangements of the various movements of the Requiem into the script, performed by an offstage quartet (Tim, Veronica, Anne, and Lisa). I was part of the set crew with seniors Ed and Mike S, plus Mike G, Teresa, and Michelle, with Dave pulling the various levers of our antiquated lighting system.
The first rehearsal I attended was midway through the rehearsal process. I sat down with my geometry homework on the gym floor. And as soon as the offstage chorus started in on the Kyrie Eleison, my mind was blown. Angie, Sue, and Anna had a raw intensity, openness and vulnerability that was riveting, and they weren’t even at performance level yet.
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Over the next weeks I saw Mr. Simmel rework some scenes and work one-on-one with the three actresses, bringing them to new levels. Maybe he saw that I was so absorbed that he didn’t mind that, as a stagehand, I really had no reason to be there.
We went to the regional drama festival at Cape Elizabeth High School outside Portland, and the various productions were, on the whole, no match for us. When Angie poked the blood pack concealed in her palm, the front of her white habit becoming drenched with crimson as the cyclorama went from blue to deep red, the audience gasped. The adjudicators were amazed that this was the work of high school students. We were one of two productions, the other being Cape Elizabeth’s staging of Woody Allen’s God, that were selected to the Maine State Festival, and all three actresses were named to the All-Festival cast.
Two weeks later we boarded a minibus for the eight-hour trek up to Presque Isle, on the Canadian border, for the State Finals. The competition was much more varied and talented. I recall a cutting from Amadeus and a collection of avant-garde pieces by an artsy school in Portland, among others. Our performance wasn’t smooth; there was a major line fluff at the climax that instantly plunged my heart to my feet. Nonetheless, we were one of the two productions selected for the New England Drama Festival (the other was a lovely production of Spoon River Anthology). Angie and Sue were named to the all-state cast. On our return to Kittery, we were greeted with a police and fire truck escort and a celebration in the gym—we felt like champions!
The trek to the New England Drama Festival at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, CT was plagued by near disaster: our minibus broke down somewhere on the Massachusetts Turnpike, Mr. Simmel nobly battling a smoking engine. We were stranded on the side of the highway for a couple of hours before a replacement bus was dispatched. We were blown away by the theatre—an enormous edifice seating some 1,500 people, designed by I. M. Pei. Our set, which took up most of our own stage, was dwarfed. The head of the festival made it clear that this was indeed a showcase of New England’s finest high school theatre by declaring “The competition is over!” to a vast round of cheers. Jason Robards, Jr made an appearance at the opening ceremony to a standing ovation.
The selections were indeed an eye-opening showcase of styles and genres. A Vermont school did an avant-garde version of the Billy Goats Gruff, another did a cutting of Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, and another did a cutting of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. It was all new to me, and I soaked it up. Our production went smoothly, but it wasn’t as warmly received by the adjudicators as the previous rounds had. Angie was selected to the all-festival cast.
For a shy, awkward only child, I felt part of a large family. The cast and crew were my siblings. This was a true ensemble. We worked together for a common cause, supporting and uplifting each other. Maybe it was this more than anything else that hooked me on theatre for life. I definitely have some introverted personality traits, don’t do well in social situations, and occasionally have wondered if I’m on the spectrum. Theatre gave me a peer group, provided social skills, and was the best therapy I could’ve asked for.
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