Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pictured: Rollins Theater students: JG Lantigua, Emily Killian, and Shannon Lynch

Okay, okay, I know I haven't been here for awhile. What have I been doing with my time, you might ask, since I haven't been writing? Hello! It's DECEMBER, right? As usual, I've been organizing my personal equivalent of the invasion of Normandy or Hannibal's trek over the Alps to annoy Rome. Christmas prep for me is really like a general fighting a war. Takes me a week to decorate the house including a super cleaning frenzy (I typically ignore dust during the rest of the year since it comes back, anyway). Then, I usually do a couple of big parties. Spend three days in uber-shopping. Wrap the gifts haphazardly but put them under the main tree in artistic perfection. Send cards, newsletters, and pictures to all the folks I should have kept in better touch with during the year. Then, I fight off a cold. By this time, it is, uh around December tenth...just like today. So, know you know. But, that isn't exactly the main subject of this Blog. So, here goes: the subject is the theater, my dears, and what I learned about life from being a part of it.

This week, a couple of things happened that got me thinking about the past. My past. My college past. In the theater. First, I hosted a home dinner party on December 7th for Theta Alpha Phi (National Theater Honor Society) at Rollins College. Early December is when the new inductees are, well inducted, and the Annie Russell Theatre Guild sponsors a dinner in their honor, attended by students, professors and ART staff, and Guild members. About sixty gathered around my pool. This event is always a whole lotta work but the theater and the students are close to my heart. Danny and I always attend the plays at Rollins and as each year passes are more and more impressed with the caliber of performances and production. The students are intelligent, sophisticated, and always a joy to have around. And, as a former Rollins Player, I know first hand how committed they are to the Arts and how hard they work at perfecting their craft.

I well remember taking classes all day and rehearsing pretty much every night. Then performing the play and starting the process all over again. I missed a lot of sorority meetings and beach days and got to most of the frat parties late. But, I loved pretty much every moment in the theater and wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.

I had a long ago letter (written by me to a friend) given to me early this week which was the second thing that made me reflect on my college past. The letter reminded me that I actually started my college years at Eckerd in St Petersburg, majoring in English Literature with a general idea of becoming a drama critic like one of my grandfathers. I got bitten by the theater bug the summer of my freshman year and decided pretty much on the spur of a July moment to transfer to Rollins and shift my major to Theater Arts. I ended up getting my first degree in English, but that's another dull story you are not going to have to read here.

My practical mother said, "Its nice that you are studying theater dear, but maybe you should take some education courses too, so you can actually get a job after." Turned out she was right since I didn't go off to New York post graduation to earn my Tony's and fame if not fortune. Why didn't I? I don't know. I wasn't the most or the least talented of my group but I was talented enough to make it legit and in those days good looking enough for stardom as well. The kid could sing, too. I will say, since I need to come up with some answer that is at least partially plausible, that I lacked the ambition and the compulsion. Maybe, okay, I am a little on the lazy side, too. I like short term projects as opposed to long ones which tax my concentration. I probably lacked the guts to 'starve in a garret' as well. In any case, I ended up working for a bank for awhile which was pretty boring, went to grad school, got married, and became a teacher. Used the education courses, thank you Mom. Later I was a psychometrist, a museum docent, and a volunteer and fundraiser for the arts. Finally, a writer but never an actor.

A couple of years ago now I ran into a theater professor from my Rollins days at an Art festival event and asked him if he remembered me. He did. He remembered my pre-married name and ticked off about five parts I played at the Annie in about a minute and a half. This was, I thought, pretty impressive memory skill since my college days are long long ago in a galaxy far far away. He asked me, "How have your used your theater training?" I told him I am a writer not an actor but that I have used what I learned in every single thing I have ever done since I left my student days behind.

So, here's the crux of the Blog. Wake up! Take notes. Here's what the theater gave me. First, confidence. Confidence to take on new things and risk making a total fool of myself. Confidence to laugh when I slip and fall and pick myself up and actually make it look like I meant to slip in the first place. Confidence to shrug my shoulder and go on. Confidence to go for the laugh and not get it. Confidence to look critics in the eye and smile or thumb my nose if I want. Confidence to give a speech for a hundred folks or so without reading a single note card.

Second, I learned to pretend well. Pretend I happy when I am not. Pretend to feel well with a migraine. Pretend to know what I am doing when I don't have the first clue. That happens almost daily. In my long life, I have pretended to be so many things. I learned in the theater to observe how people convey or hide things via body language, talk, use technical terminology, etc so I could pretend to be a teacher, PR person, confident hostess, or whatever was necessary. Pretend while I actually learned on the job as it were. To paraphrase Willy S, All the world's a stage and men and women merely players. Improvisation kinda goes along with this. And I actually had classes in it. When stuff goes wrong in real life and it does a lot, the ability to improvise is actually a survival skill.

I learned physical skills too. Good posture, how to move gracefully despite my really huge feet, how to speak so that my voice would bounce off the back walls of the room if necessary. I still know how to walk through a crowded room and get the attention of everyone in it without a word, time my first remark, enunciate, and take control of a meeting with eye control. Thank you, theater.These skills saved my bacon many times. What I didn't learn too well, is how to fade into the background. I just can't stay quiet long enough. (Insert laugh here) Fortunately, a career in espionage was not a desired or necessary option.

Speaking the speech as it was pronounced to me (Hamlet) taught me to appreciate the spoken language which I feel helped me write poetry. I am usually complimented on my adept use of dialogue and dialect in my short stories and novels which I think was a benefit of theater training and study. My writing is heavy on scene which is no doubt a by product of theater study as well. When I write a scene, I actually visualize the characters acting it out in my mind which helps me insert the little bits of physical business and description. And then there is plot. Ain't no story without plot, which has to have a story arc (Beginning, middle, end). Who wants what, who gets in the way, how does the hero get around the antagonist are essential elements in story craft. And, don't forget to kill some of your darlings. That's drama. That's entertainment. I studied Shakespeare, boys and girls. 'Nuff said.

So that's it for now. Some of what I learned in the theater. Mommy and Daddy didn't waste their money. These days, I watch, enjoy a good performance, and applaud. Yesterday, as a Guild member, I 'adopted' the three talented, smart, and charming students pictured above. I am not really sure what the adoption means as I haven't been given any direction on it. Will have to improvise, I guess. TTFN Live long and prosper.

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