I get home late in in the day, the August sun just starting to set. My 20-year-old body hits the bed in a pile of fatigue and unfathomable happiness. Suddenly, my mood changes as I remember the events of the best summer weekend of my life. I start to weep bitter tears, like a man who just lost his spouse to a heart attack.
The previous semester in college was hectic, but joyous. Not only had I been chosen to receive the John Belushi Memorial College Scholarship, but I had performed in a recital of the music of Aaron Copland with the two other scholarship winners. That was just the harbinger of good things to come, it turned out. I was cast as Figaro in my college's Mozart Opera Workshop showcase, but I had been cast in my first lead role in a straight, legitimate play. At the end of the semester, in one day, I had the performance for the opera workshop group, my voice jury (where I had to sing for the entire voice faculty of the school, as they picked randomly from the 7 pieces I had prepared with my voice lesson teacher throughout the semester), and rehearsal for the play. It was rough on the voice, it was hell on the nerves, but it was so worth it.
With school done, I was finally able to focus on the genius that is Woody Allen. The play I was cast in was one of Woody's lesser-known masterworks, Don't Drink the Water. I won't bother you with the plot, but there was a movie with Dom DeLuise and it was shit, so you're better off reading the play. I played the lead and it was one of the greatest educations of my life. Our director, Tom, became a mentor to me and someone whose presence in my life is like a balm for my soul. It was a grueling rehearsal period, but we performed the play without a hitch, and it was brilliant. Every night I would walk out onto the stage and feel exalted, my heart soaring into the clouds. The nervous, gawky teenager I had been in high school had turned into the nervous, gawky 20-year-old, but at least I was finally the center of attention.
After the play closed, we found out the stage we had performed on was going to be demolished because the music school is was subsidized by was moving and was giving that space back to the landlord. It was to be turned into a convenience store. Also after the play ended, those of us who were in it decided to be a part of an acting class Tom was giving. It was a masterclass in the specifics of serious acting, and it was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. I performed one of the most difficult pieces of my life, George's Monologue from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In it, he describes in vague detail how he accidentally killed his mother with a shotgun and was ridiculed for it. (You can watch the movie version with Elizabeth Taylor, performed by Richard Burton, here.) I struggled for weeks and weeks, until one night Tom decided to take me aside and try to put me in the right mood of the piece. He took me outside, just as the sun was about to set, and sat me on the floor. He told me to take that image, of the impending gloom of night and the lazy melange of emotion of the end of the day, and use it as a backdrop in my mind. Forget the audience is there, just transport yourself into this exact moment and speak your peace. The night of the performance I can say, with all modesty, that I took the best, killed it, cooked it, roasted it, and served it, and everyone wanted seconds.
My friend Jackson and I did a scene from Mel Brook' The Producers, where Bialystock is trying to convince Bloom to take part in his insane scheme to fraud the theatre-going public. Usually, Bloom is played by a small, timid, slip of a man, but my friend Jackson is anything but. He's well over 6-feet tall and is as broad as a linebacker. I thought, as Tom handed us the script, that I would be cast as Bloom but, to my amazement, I was chosen to play Bialystock. Tom said he needed someone who could sound like a crooked used car salesman and mean it, which took innocent, baby-faced Jackson out of the picture. At one point, Bialystock steals Bloom's little square of his precious baby blanket, and Bloom goes berserk. We were so intense the night of the performance that I ended up pressed against the two big box props against the back of the stage, and managed somehow to scurry on top of them. It was surely a sight to behold.
Halfway through the class, we were informed that this would be the last performance on that stage. To cap off the evening, Tom asked me to prepare a fitting song for the occasion to close out the evening. I chose "I'm Still Here" from Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies. The song is a celebration of survival during a tough life, an anthem to the survivor's soul. It was also a defiant statement of my anger that this place, which nurtured my creative life and fed my very being, was being torn asunder in a matter of days. I sang knowing that the building might not survive, but the stage would always be there in our hearts.
I returned home that night with a happy song in my heart. Our goal had been accomplished: we had given our beloved stage the best send-off it could ever have had. We came, we saw, we conquered, to quote some famous Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, I think it was. (I'm starting to sound like Grampa from The Simpsons: "Then after World War Two, it got kinda quiet, 'til Superman challenged FDR to a race around the world. FDR beat him by a furlong, or so the comic books would have you believe. The truth lies somewhere in between." Oy vey.)
All of a sudden, tears started to well in my eyes. My body was rejecting the idea that this summer now had officially ended. I had been so busy for months and months, that I had forgotten to mark the passage of time. All of the triumph, hard work, and drama was at an end and I was left to pick up the pieces of my sanity. I rebelled against this idea that the fun was over, like a small child refusing to take a bath. In my room, I had my own little Lucia di Lammermoor-style mad scene, complete with tears, throwing objects, and listening to bad music (which I believe consisted of ABBA's "Our Last Summer" and things of that ilk. You can't fault me for not being original, I was grieving for God sake!) The entire summer flashed through my eyes and the tears just kept flowing.
All of a sudden, the ridiculousness of what I was experiencing hit me. I shouldn't be sad that it's over, I should be glad that it happened at all! Very few people get to experience the unique thrills I experienced that summer. I had packed a lifetime off happiness into a few short months, and I should be proud of myself. I'd bested Figaro, Mel Brooks, and Elizabeth bloody Taylor and lived to tell the tale! I suddenly felt that surge of triumph, the air of inspiration and fire returning to my heart. In that moment, I remember the final words I had sung that night, which summarizes how incredible my life was that summer and, thankfully, still is:
Tags: aaron copland, abba, acting, ChicagoNow's Morning Blogapalooz-Hour: Volume II, edward albee, elizabeth taylor, figaro, follies, grampa, john belushi, mel brooks, memoir, mozart, opera, richard burton, sondheim, stephen sondheim, the producers, the simpsons, who's afraid of virginia woolf, woody allen