I was a theater geek in high school. We didn’t call ourselves geeks. We used a homophobic slur instead. The term was offensive in retrospect, but we were teenagers and it was the 1970s. That doesn’t make it right. It just makes it a long time ago.
The word was used to establish coolness through mild self-deprecation. After all, what’s cooler than pretending you’re not cool at all? Well, not being a theater geek for one. Since we didn’t have that luxury, auto put-downs were the next best thing. If nothing else, we beat others to the punch.
The coolness we did have wasn’t recognized campus wide. There were no pep rallies when a play was about to open, no handies from the varsity cheerleaders when the standing ovation after a performance extended beyond the cast’s immediate family. All we got was a blurb in the school paper and a couple of pages in the yearbook when June rolled around. That didn’t matter to us though. We considered ourselves cool, albeit in varying degrees.
I think I was low middle in our internal pecking order. I was a better actor than I was a singer, but only because I couldn’t sing at all. Even in non-musical productions, I was usually cast in medium or small roles, more often the latter.
There was one play where I didn’t get cast at all, but made it into the rest of them. I lacked talent, but I could be relied upon to show up for rehearsals and learn my lines. My memory has always been pretty good, which helped with the latter. Not having a lot of lines to memorize didn’t hurt either.
During my junior year, we put on Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. This was the idea of our faculty head honcho, whom I’ll call Raymond Marble due to his resemblance to that character in Pink Flamingos. I’m not sure why Mr. Marble chose this play in particular. Perhaps he didn’t want to stage yet another high school production of Our Town. To this day, I have no idea what Our Town is about. I’d like to think it’s something like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in play form. That is probably wrong, but we all need our illusions and this one is mine.
If you’re unfamiliar with Pirandello’s work, it’s OK. So am I. I only know this play because I happened to be in it. The plot is play-within-a-play stuff that was groundbreaking back in Pirandello’s day, but was old hat even in the 1970s. A director and a bunch of actors are rehearsing for a play when six strangers wander onto the stage. They claim they are dramatic characters of an unfinished play who need to have their story performed to give them closure.
My character was the exception. I was cast as The Son, the only one of the six who wanted no part of having their story told. He just wanted to be left alone and spent much of the play standing off to the side looking dismissive and hostile. As I’ve said before, I was not a great actor. However, I didn’t need to be here. I spent much of my teen years feeling ill at ease an undercurrent of contempt. I just had to play myself.
As was the case with most of my roles, I didn’t have many lines. This gave me an opportunity to pay attention to what was happening on stage, and not the stuff that was in the script or added as blocking by Mr. Marble.
If you are cast in a very small role, even smaller than what I had, you still have to do more than just stand there expressionless while the drama goes on around you. You are required to react in a realistic but non-distracting way as the play unfolds. This includes contributing to background chatter when the situation calls for it.
I lost interest in drama after high school so I have no idea if my experiences have relevance anywhere else on the planet. All I know was when bit players were called upon to improvise, Mr. Marble made no effort to micromanage. The upshot was that all those people whose names were jammed together at the bottom of the theater program largely wrote their characters themselves. It was thankless work, never garnering any recognition since success meant not being noticed.
That was the idea anyway. There is something in the nature of an adolescent that simultaneously braves conformity and standing out. They want to do something to make their mark, but nothing extreme that would curry disfavor like dropping their pants and taking a shit on the stage.
Even with speaking lines, I was not always immune to such temptation. In another production where I played an amputee, I adlibbed “Break a leg!” as part of a group well-wishing the main character as she set off on some adventure. Mr. Marble put a stop to that and I had to pretend there was no intentional mischief on my part.
Six Characters had its own breakout performance by one cast member with no written lines. I’ll call him John because that was his name and I see no point in changing it for someone who has been dead for years. John died from bad luck, which never shows up on an autopsy report despite the number of people it kills. To be fair, good luck kills people as well. It is just in less of a hurry.
John, who was still very much alive, was a year younger than me and had gotten involved in the theater department through a mutual friend, whom I’ll call JR because those were his initials and I don’t know whether he’s dead or not. JR never acted and never wanted to, but rather worked on sets and lighting. He also stuck a garden hose through his bedroom window and blasted John while the unsuspecting teen was jacking off to a Playboy magazine. John bolted out of the bathroom with a hand full of dick and cold cream and ran right into JR’s mother.
I think that’s how the story went. I hope so because I repeated it a number of times to anyone who would listen. Needless to say, when John showed up and auditioned, his reputation was already in tatters.
John, as one of the bit players, was tasked with reacting to these six strangers who professed to having come from the land of make-believe. Since their story would strain credibility in real life, the murmurs and hubbub had a tone of questioning leaning toward serious doubt. John at first took a neutral position and I recall his adlib being something like “Well, it could be a trick and it could be real. Hmm.”
Then something happened and John’s position changed. I can only guess his motivation, but I think he wanted to be the guy who was right all along. In movies, particularly the crap we watched in the 70s, there was always a hero who knew what was what while those around him tripped over their collective dick. Richard Dreyfuss knew that his sculpted pile of mashed potatoes would lead him to a close encounter with space aliens. Gene Hackman knew that in order to survive, you had to head up to the engine room of the capsized ocean liner and wait for deus ex machina to arrive with a welding torch and free them.
So I’m guessing it followed that John was not content to simply be known as that kid who masturbates with cold cream. He was the one who saw the truth in the characters’ unlikely story.
“It’s not a trick. It’s real!” was his new adlib.
He said it with resolve and as rehearsals progressed, it got louder and louder. Mr. Marble either didn’t hear it or pretended not to, but the others in the cast sure did. We made fun of him behind his back, as kids tend to do, but did not confront him directly at first. As far as I was concerned, John’s being the designated whipping boy meant that I wasn’t. He was, in a sense, my Florida Man.
Eventually though, someone who took things far more seriously than I did decided that John’s adlib would negatively affect the theater department’s image. Someone finally took him aside and told him to knock it off. For the remainder of the rehearsals and the run of the show, John did not say a word. His eyes looked hurt and angry, a familiar sight for anyone who knew the truth but was not allowed to say it.