Sunday, April 12, 2009

The History of Drama (Part Seven): School Daze

One afternoon, during my senior year of high school, I spread out the collection of college brochures I’d recently received on my bed and looked them over. Although the "official story" was I was planning on a teaching career, all I really wanted to do was act. I’d become sort of obsessed with the idea and over the past four years had gradually checked out every volume of “Theatre World” available from the local library. Tucked in bed at night, I would pour over the names and cast lists of shows that had played in New York over the past 50 years. The idea of someday seeing my name in a copy of “Theatre World” seemed unbelievably glamorous. But everybody had to start somewhere.

At the time, my family was living in a factory town whose motto should have been “Abandon All Hope.” With my eighteenth birthday just a few months away, I could almost taste my approaching freedom. Since I didn’t have much money for application fees, I decided to narrow down my choices to the three schools that would catapult me as far away from this shithole as possible. I applied to one in New York. One in San Francisco. And one in Texas. As I dropped the envelopes in the mailbox, I resolved to attend the first college that would take me. Two weeks later, I received my acceptance letter from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. I was thrilled.

The drama department at St. Ed’s had been founded by a guy who’d been instrumental in creating the famed Arena Stage in Washington, DC (and he remained well-connected in New York theatre circles). The evidence of this was that the school hired prestigious “guest artists” who came and performed in the plays alongside the students. Their brochure featured photos of Tony-winning actors like Eileen Heckart and George Grizzard appearing in plays by Chekhov and Ibsen, so you got the sense it was a classy place. Unfortunately by the time I arrived, the original guy had been demoted and replaced by a fellow whose primary experience had been running dinner theaters in Oklahoma. Rumor had it that the school’s administration (who were shelling out some serious bucks for this program) wanted to see less artsy fare (and a few more paying customers in the seats). By the time my plane landed in Austin, the “Guest Artist” program was still in place, but the quality of the “Artists” had taken a bit of a dive.

Although freshmen were generally never cast in main stage shows, I managed to weasel my way into the first play of the season. They needed a kid who could sing 1st tenor and in those days I could get up to an high A without breaking a sweat. The show starred an actor from a soap opera my mom had once watched and I was nervous to even speak to him, much less appear on the same stage. Our second show featured a minor 60’s TV star, who (we discovered shortly after his arrival) had never actually been in a play before. As opposed to the students learning from him, he was the one asking us questions like what did “stage right” mean? Next was an older character actor who had won an Oscar in the 1940’s, but was now a hopeless alcoholic who arrived drunk to the theatre for every performance. One night he fell down on stage and couldn’t get up. The show was a comedy, but somehow seeing this 70 year-old lush do a half gainer over a footstool wasn’t quite as funny as it sounds. To a lot of these actors, doing a play with a bunch of college kids must have represented the end of the line. Like many of my fellow students, I got used to hanging out in bars with these folks and soon, it didn’t even seem weird to get hit-on at 4:30 in the morning when you tried to pour them out of your car. Although the theatre program at St. Ed’s didn’t teach us much about acting, it certainly taught us a lot about show business. By nineteen, I already felt jaded about my career choice.

At the end of my freshman year, I got cast in a local summer stock musical and decided not to return to St. Ed’s in the fall. It was an easy decision to make. I sort of hated most of the people I went to school with and hated the touchy-feely classes even more. After kicking around in Texas for another year, I finally applied to NYU and after a harrowing audition, was accepted into their “professional actors training program.” Although I didn’t technically have to be in New York until the fall, I opted to sell everything I owned and move to the city early. I was there by March. Although my initial landing was a little rough, I soon loved it. Every day brought some sort of adventure. I was now surrounded by real-life “characters” of every shape, size, age and ethnicity. The streets teemed with stories, many of them unfolding right in front of me. By the time September rolled around I no longer wanted to attend NYU (or any other college). After just a few months of living in New York, the idea of being in school again felt like an airless bell jar to me. Realizing I needed to pick some course of action, I talked my way into acting guru William Esper’s class and knuckled down for the long haul.

Somewhere along the line, between my experience at St. Edward’s and the two years of sweating my balls off in Bill Esper’s class, it occurred to me that you never really “get” it. Every situation is unique and there are no templates that will consistently save your ass. But I also knew I finally had a “toolbox” of skills I could now apply to any role I was lucky enough to get. Like all novices, I probably worked a little harder than I should have at first, but eventually I relaxed and learned to enjoy the opportunities when they came up. Although Bill taught me how to act, St. Edward’s taught me something equally important: that I didn’t want to end up as an old lush trying to get my hand down the pants of a college student (while tripping over an ottoman). So far, so good.

My favorite guest artist we ever had at St. Ed's was an actress named Jan Sterling. Not many people remember her now, but she’d once been a sexy Hollywood bombshell who’d been nominated for an Oscar in 1955 for “The High and The Mighty.” Now a character actress, she’d arrived on campus at the last minute (a discombobulated mess) to take on the emotionally complex role of “Amanda” in “The Glass Menagerie.” Initially, nobody believed she could pull it off, but on opening night, she blossomed. Her performance was hilarious, poignant and (with the exception of a few flubbed lines) came off as quite accomplished. I only chatted with her a couple of times, but she always seemed happy and genuinely interested in the current events of her life; as opposed to the previous “guest artists” who always seemed a bit stuck in the past. A couple of weeks into the run, she met with all the drama students to share her wisdom about the acting profession. Delivered with complete candor (and a winning smile) I still remember what she said. “Let me put it to you like this: In 1955, I was nominated for an Oscar and now I’m working here for $2,000.00 a week. And that, kids, is show business.”

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

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