NOTE: This is not a typical post for this blog, but I share it here to archive the video footage and give thanks to someone who helped shape who I became.
The most influential teacher I ever had was Chuck Lytle. He was my drama teacher for three of my four years in high school in Garland, Texas. Even though it was more than 25 years ago, I am still shaped by things he said or did for me. Mr Lytle (it is still hard to bring myself to call him “Chuck”) was a misfit in this sleepy suburban high school, just like me and the friends I hung out with in Room 501. For one thing, he was (is) gay. I know it now, and I knew it then, but we didn’t talk about it then. Too risky. Especially with all those rehearsals going into the late evening, and Spring break trips to New York City and overnight trips in Texas to the state-wide UIL one-act play competitions. It was a time and place when a teacher could lose his job if he were found out to be gay. He was also a misfit because he was smart, talented, and actually loved to teach, unlike most of my other high school teachers.
I had a health class taught by one of the school’s football coaches. Coach was a lazy teacher, and he despised teaching. Normally he would sit in his office chair reading a magazine with his feet propped up on the desk while the students filled out activity sheets aimed at children much younger than us, mimeographed from some teacher’s book. Karl, one of the other thespians in the same class, asked the Coach one day to be excused for some reason having to do with the production Mr Lytle was directing. Karl was on the technical theatre team, and we were coming up on the spring UIL competitions, so it was probably a technical set-up or rehearsal. When the Coach asked Karl who authorized it, and Karl told him, the Coach replied “that faggot?” And that was enough for me to hate that Coach and his class for the rest of the year. I refused to take part in his class, and I dared him to flunk me (he didn’t). At the time I felt there was nothing I could do to report him (for fear of being branded as gay myself), but I secretly hated Karl too for not batting an eye at the Coach’s insensitive remark. Karl continued to participate in class, and I hated him even more on the day we were scheduled to learn CPR using the head-and-torso dummy. While the class teamed up in twos, Coach decided to put the two “drama fags” together. The thought of my lips touching the same dummy lips that Karl’s had touched (Listerine or not) sickened me, and I refused on the grounds I had already learned CPR in another class before.
The production we were working on that spring for the upcoming UIL one-act play competition was Interview, the first part of America Hurrah, by Jean Claude Van Itallie. It is an allegorical/avant-garde piece from the mid-60s where four job applicants are interviewed by four interviewers. The four interviewers and the four applicants each have their own monologues, but often speak together as one… either in chorus, or in sequence (each actor uttering one word of a sentence.) I played applicant number one, an out-of-work house painter proud of his Italian Catholic heritage. Lacking direction in his life, he talks about confessing to his priest that he once wanted to go into a monastery, but received no reply. “Can you HELP me father? I said as I usually do…” “… and then as usual, I left.”
The show was so tightly choreographed that in the middle of a chaotic scene, all eight of us could freeze in unison and switch into slow motion en masse. I remember counting the beats in my head during the entire production. During one rehearsal, Mr Lytle thought I was a bit late in my timing, and he discovered it was because I was counting “one-mississippi-two-mississippi” instead of “one-one-thousand-two-one-thousand” in my head like everybody else. THAT’s how tight our timing as an ensemble was.
I don’t remember how far we went in the UIL competition with Interview, (district, region, or state) but it was pretty successful. Chuck reminded me that it was the only time that every performer in the cast won an award at some level of competition. I still have my “Best Actor” award for my role.
Thanks to two of my former classmates (Kristi Ramos, who kept the VHS tape all this time, and D. Travers Scott, who digitized it and uploaded it to YouTube) I am now able to present the entire 40-minute performance in three chunks below. The video quality suffers from the low-tech equipment we had available at the time, but the sound is passable. Watch it all if you can, but the third one is where my monologue and the climax of the play happens. (Since I play the first applicant, a house-painter, I’m the one in the white overalls.) Although I am critical today of some of my performance choices (where did those accents come from?) I am still proud of this work for the level of precision we achieved, and the challenges it presented to us.
This past summer, I initiated what would become an all-year Thespian reunion in Garland. About 100 of us joined the group on Facebook, and I guess about 75 of us actually came to the reunion. I was deeply honored when Chuck and the teacher that succeeded him, Vicki Tapp, both came to the reunion. We finally got the chance to thank them both for the years of service they gave to the profession, and for imparting us with some of the qualities that made us who we are. Many tears were shed that night.