With the basketball season hard upon us, the re-introduction of this sport back into our lives always reminds me of my introduction to theatre.
I've always loved sports, played as much of as many different sports as a kid as I could. I was pretty good at a few things – a good second baseman (good field/no hit) in baseball; a decent ballhandler and outside shooter in basketball; and in both basketball and soccer, I perfected the fast breaks and breakaways that got me downcourt before the opposition and often led to a score.
I was too small to pursue any of them too far (concentrating on tennis and fantasy baseball these days). But as I moved into college, I was very happy to land a position with our basketball team, a job I needed to help pay my way through. (This was a small Kansas school – NAIA, if that means anything to anybody.) I was the equipment/trainer-type guy my freshman year, and the sports information guy my sophomore year. Even at a very small college level, I really enjoyed working closely with the team, and watching them develop.
As to theatre, I'd always wanted to do it, had actually auditioned for something my senior year in high school, and was promptly and probably justifiably rejected (in a sports analogy, the director said he wanted to go with younger players, who had a future with him.) That rejection scared me off theatre forever. I thought.
But then in college, I was recruited and cast for a show. (Someone in the cast or the director or someone just thought I looked and acted like I could do it.) It was the role of Schroeder in YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, and it was a very good experience, with what turned out to be a good, fun cast and a very good director. (Let's call him Ricardo.)
From CHARLIE BROWN, Ricardo went on to cast me in the lead of his next production,
CHARLEY'S AUNT, the wild, classic British comedy. And then he took an assignment from a local high school to direct, and he chose A LION IN WINTER. He cast all high school students in the rest of the roles, but as a college boy with a beard, he cast me as
Henry II (one of those great, meaty roles to be able to play early in a career.)
So my break into theatre was being cast (without auditioning) in 3 very good productions. And, show by show, Ricardo taught me the stage – how to move, when to move, how to play comedy and drama, and how to reach out and reach an audience. He was an excellent director, a godsend as a director introducing someone like me to the stage.
My theatre work tightened my schedule, so I gave up my basketball job after 2 years (finding other work that didn't conflict with evening rehearsals etc.)
The lasting image that I carry from these days was a moment when I was standing on campus talking with Ricardo – who happened to be a very small, very delicate, very very flamboyantly gay Mexican – when who should pass right by us but my former boss, the basketball coach (let's call him Herman) – a big, beefy, cornfed, Kansas-bred ex-jock basketball fanatic.
I waved at Herman as he passed by, and the look of vast confusion that passed between Herman and Ricardo will forever be etched in my memory as a singular example of failed interspecies communication. (I'm sure Herman was thinking it was a shame that I'd fallen into the depths of a polymorphously perverse art world, while Ricardo was probably wondering how I'd survived in that beastly atmosphere of sweaty socks.)
But as different as Herman and Ricardo were in terms of their careers, their minds, bodies, lifestyles etc, I had been able to watch each work at very close range. And it was amazing how similar the two were in their work habits, techniques and ethics.
Both knew their crafts inside out, both were perfectionists, and both knew how to prepare a team/cast for a game or performance, and how to build that crew to peak readiness for the big night.
And both were screamers. At designated, almost predictable periods during practice or rehearsal, both could be counted on to rip into their people with extremely loud profanity-laden insults, questioning talent, commitment, desire, what-have-you. (Hence, the title of this blog, quoting Herman. Haysville was a small community in Kansas, with a small junior college basketball program, and Herman obviously didn't think much of their style of play there.) Both used these tirades as ploys that delivered the performances they were looking for.
Coming from very different worlds, both were almost exactly alike in the levels of their talent, and in the way they drove others to achieve.
Herman went on to coach the team for a several years, leading them into several post-season tourneys, before retiring from coaching and settling into the Athletic Director role.
Ricardo directed for a while longer in town (he wasn't made for Kansas), including one production which was the inaugural event in the new Civic Center in town, involving
elaborate costumes (his first love), a dire lack of rehearsals, and performances where parents of actors were running back to the box office at intermission to buy extra tickets so that the union crews would raise the curtain for the second act – a classic theatre fiasco that I escaped by the skin of my teeth. Last I heard, Ricardo moved to New Orleans where he became a dancer in a cross-dressing Trocadero troupe.
For me, it was, ah yes, yet another part of an education.