Dazed and light-headed, I kept repeating, “I can’t say that. Not over and over. Not about Moses.”
In the Spring of 1974, I was a college freshman and watched nearly twenty years of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” as a strategy for garnering support for the country’s most unpopular, deflating war EVER. The Vietnam War, a war whose draft men were cutting off toes and fingers to avoid. The press loudly, announced and DC Think Tanks, paid to support this war, finally arrived at a unanimous finding which, when indexed, summarized and correlated, matched what I and the rest of the country had already found in every bar, supermarket and union hall. Everywhere I heard, “The government has spent enough time and money and left enough of our own kids there. Let the Communists keep the damn country. Enough is enough.”
The only government helicopter not tied up ferrying Americans off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon was reserved for sweeping an evil-weasel president to an undisclosed airport for the first leg of his last-ever free ride, in the end brought down and kicked around by 1) two so-so reporters, astonished to discover that there really was a huge government conspiracy and cover-up complete with spies, covert operations, briefcases filled with cash and Cuban nationalists and 2) a new kind of political and journalistic operative whose smoke-filled rooms were cleared of discount tobacco and hard liquor to be filled anew with home-grown marijuana and non-dairy milk.
As with everything in life, the end of the war had unintended consequences. Young men, in an effort to avoid being drafted into the army without feigning schizophrenia or professing homosexuality, had been, for years, desperately applying to every university and college in the country to get a student deferment from the draft.
This surge of enrollment convinced higher education that more facilities were needed and they went on a spending spree. When the war died out and the draft ended, twenty-five percent of college students quit. And quit immediately. Skipping “Anthropology 435: Why Men Are Wrong” lectures, college men packed up their dorm rooms and split, most of them to aimlessly create the second generation of Deadheads.
This left the universities holding the bag, both over-built and over-committed to growth.
Desperately trying to fill new lecture halls, higher education dramatically lowered the requirements for acceptance, eventually reaching the point of requiring only a pulse and a good credit rating.
And so I went to college. After my first semester, as a computer science major in a local university, I finished with a grade point average of 0.83 on a four point scale.
I decided to make some changes. First I picked a university at the opposite end of the state, far enough away so I couldn’t live with my parents, which was ruining the extracurricular opportunities of college life. Then I picked a new major at the opposite end of the college catalog: to whit, theater.
And so I targeted the theater program at the University of South Alabama. Even with reduced requirements, a 0.83 GPA is not an easy thing to overcome. Therefore I chose a variety of non-traditional tactics until I’d been admitted without completing application forms or submitting any form of payment, joined the theater department without/despite/disdaining the required approval process and registered for Acting 101 without the prerequisite courses and audition. They kept me on as an example of the power of deception and desperation.
I wanted to be an actor, a brooding, smoldering presence roaming the stage, mastering the classics – Shakespeare, Neil Simon, James Bond. I longed to join a group of fearless faculty and ever-striving professionals-in-training to take the risks associated with a life in theater.
Not that it matters, but just what are the risks of a life in theater? Laryngitis? Thrown tomatoes? What, besides a disturbed actor (redundant?), what, I say, is risky about theater? I was about to find out.
But to continue with Acting 101. I was impressed by the modern, experimental techniques. Visionary stuff – spending an hour lying on the floor, laughing. Another day the same exercise but this time crying. Then two more classes with the lights on or off, whichever hadn’t been done yet. I was vague about this exercise to my parents; I’m sure they would have had something to say such as, “We’re paying how much to teach you how to lie in the dark and cry? You spent your adolescence doing that. We thought you’d already reached perfection.”
REAL education in acting required we walk down the street to the YMCA, change into swimsuits and slowly edge into water dis-spiritingly cold. The professor, from OUTside thool, said fearlessness illuminated performance. To learn fearlessness, you have to be scared to death. WHERE did this method come from? I was in a pool. We’re instructed to expel all the air in our lungs and then submerge ourselves for as long as possible. Underwater holding your breath wasn’t scary enough. Underwater, with NO AIR in your lungs is far worse. The feeling of no air spooked me. No air in your lungs sends you right to the bottom, which seems one hundred miles from the surface.
Successful students were cheered, the inadequate were commemorated with a plaque on the bottom of the pool. I was curious and confused about this exercise, but the professor said I should, “Trust the process,” and stay confident that yes, this was preparing me for productions of “My Fair Lady”. He strongly urged more time on the bottom of the pool for all of us.
Got the picture?
This professor also taught a class called “Non-Representational Theater. The class had no syllabus, no course materials, no shirt, no shoes and little, if any, education about the production, performance, ticket sales or anything related to producing “Brigadoon”.