When I was a freshman in high school, I went to see our Drama Club’s production of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” by Paul Zindel. It was a strange choice for a high school since the play was a bitter, caustic tale about the toxic effects of an alcoholic mother on her two damaged daughters. Our school’s drama teacher was sort of a sardonic 60’s hippie who encouraged his students to call him “Skip” and loved nothing better than rocking the establishment’s boat. The only problem was that the “establishment” never came to any of the plays he staged. This was a small factory town that manufactured industrial kitchen equipment; their biggest seller being the jumbo meat slicers. The school’s student body was distinctly divided between the “jocks” whose fathers wore white shirts and worked in the company’s offices and the “greasers” whose dads worked in the foundry and smelled of sulfur.
I don’t remember why I went to the play. Before that night, I’d had no real interest in live theatre. All that changed about fifteen minutes into the play when Valryn Warren walked onto the stage. Despite the fact I was gay, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was jaw-droppingly beautiful with her raven-haired pageboy and voluptuous figure. At age sixteen, she was one of those unlucky girls who already looked like she was twenty-five. I distinctly remember her as being brilliant as the rebellious “Ruth” who fearlessly sassed her drunken mother and then (in Act Two) collapsed onto the floor in a very realistic-looking epileptic fit! I left the theater a changed boy. My life now had a purpose: to find out all I could about Valryn Warren. Soon I learned that she smoked, drank, read paperback books, used bad language and was frequently seen in detention. I was in love.
I literally spent an entire year working up my courage and in September of my sophomore year, I decided to audition for the Drama Club’s fall play, Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy” – an urbane British farce guaranteed (like all of Skip’s shows) to sail far over the heads of the local populace. I was terrified by the prospect of having to act, but if it meant that I might get to breathe the same air as the mysterious Valryn Warren, it was worth it. My knees were knocking together when I arrived in the classroom where the “tryouts” were being held. I looked around, but the object of my dickless desire was nowhere in sight. Suddenly, a script was thrust into my hands and I was told to read for the role of “Schupanzigh,” a character described in the play as “A German refugee, chubby, cultivated, and effervescent.” I was none of these things, but since there were only five male roles in the play (and exactly five boys auditioned), I was cast.
My fifteen years of life experience (as the child of Born Again Christian hillbillies) wasn't exactly the best preparation for the role of “Schupanzigh.” I remember sneaking into the school library to look up the meaning of the word “orgasm” which appeared in my lines. Hard to imagine in these sexually progressive times, but at age fifteen, I had never seen or heard the word before. To perfect my German accent, I started watching daily reruns of “Hogan’s Heroes”; striving to imitate Colonel Klink’s quirky speech patterns. Years later, I did a play with the actor Werner Klemperer’s girlfriend. One day (when I felt I knew him well enough) I told Werner what I thought was a highly amusing account of my desperate boyhood attempt to imitate his accent. Unfortunately, Werner failed to see any humor in the story. Looking at me rather disdainfully, he responded “I am sorry to hear that.”
After three weeks of rehearsal, “Black Comedy” opened in the high school cafeteria and much to our surprise, a few people actually came to see it; no doubt fooled by the word “comedy” in the title. Even though my mother told me I “stole the show,” I knew I was terrible. I was also terrible in the next play and the one after that. The fact that I was talentless never stopped me from auditioning and it never stopped Skip from casting me – mostly because he was always hard pressed to find boys who wanted to be in plays. I kept coming back for one simple reason: I (who had never belonged to any sort of group) had finally found a home in the drama club. We were the school’s walking wounded. Our door was open to the geekiest of the geeks, the gayest of the gays. We were the pimpled, the strange, the short, the fat, the dim and the dull. Among our ranks were the girls who would not be going to prom and the boys who could neither catch nor throw a ball.
Eventually Valryn Warren returned to Drama Club and she and I were cast as John and Elizabeth Proctor in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Valryn thought I was funny and took a liking to me. I was in Heaven. It was a ridiculous a situation. She was a year older and gorgeous. I was a year younger and a total nerd. She was dating some guy who was twenty-one years-old and had his own car. I was gay and didn’t even know it. Together, we read Ayn Rand, smoked tons of dope and pretentiously planned our escape from the land of the meat slicers. Grateful just to be near her, I accepted the most painful role a young man can cast in: my true love’s “friend.” Val never showed the slightest interest in me romantically and when she graduated a year ahead of me, disappeared, never to be heard from again. I recently Googled her and discovered that she’s now a reporter with the Dayton Daily News which makes me very happy indeed.
Even after Val’s departure, I continued to act in school plays; managing to be pretty good in “She Stoops to Conquer.” But somehow, my performance as “Willy Loman” in “Death of a Salesman” never quite gelled (I was seventeen at the time). I was just okay as “Lieutenant Harbison” in “South Pacific,” but I definitely scored some big laughs as “Rudolph,” the snooty waiter in “The Matchmaker.” Late in my senior year, when it became clear that I could not be talked out of studying Drama in college, my mother secretly went to see Skip. Even now, it blows my mind to think that my fate was probably decided by this historic summit. Apparently, my mother asked him point blank if he thought I had enough talent to make it in show business. Skip, never one to shrink from an awkward question, responded that talent really had nothing to do with it. “It could work out,” he assured her. “There are lots of terrible actors on television.”
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv