For some unfathomable reason, in the summer of 1969, when I was a new student at the University of Kansas, I decided to audition for a couple of Shakespeare plays being presented on the main stage at Murphy Hall. On the form that I filled out at the audition, I indicated that I did not want any major speaking parts, that even just a walk-on would be fine, because I merely wanted to see what it was like to be “an actor.” To my surprise, I was called back and cast in not one but both of the Shakespeare plays.
The first production was Julius Caesar, directed by Jack Brooking, who was reputed to be the best director in the theatre department at that time. I did triple duty—as a revolting peasant (along with Ric Averill and many others) in the crowd scene cheering Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome at the top of the play; then as a soldier fighting bravely alongside Marc Antony; after which us soldiers flipped the front panels on our shields and we suddenly became soldiers fighting alongside Brutus. Late in the play, I was a sentry overlooking Brutus’ camp. It was my job to climb a tall scaffold, to stand guard and alert everyone about approaching strangers. Whenever this happened, I was to shout out the one and only line I had in the play, “What, ho!” I practiced the line endlessly, trying out many variations. Only trouble was, I discovered during rehearsals that I suffered from a severe case of vertigo. It was impossible for me to stand still on top of that tall scaffold, trying not to look down, sweat streaming down my forehead, into my eyes, which I could not wipe because I was supposed to be standing at attention, ever ready to shout “What, ho!” I had visions of me plunging from that scaffold, breaking every bone in my body. To this day, I don’t know how I survived the ordeal. The only note I got from the director after each rehearsal was that my “What, ho!” needed to be more vigorously forceful, with an exclamation point, rather than timidly uncertain, with a question mark. (When I shared this story years later in one of my classes in the English department at KU, an innocent sophomore asked if all my warning shouts of “What, ho!” meant there were prostitutes offering their services to soldiers on the battlefield at that time, and whether this contributed to The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.)
The second production I was in that theatrical summer of 1969 was The Taming of the Shrew, directed by guest director Jerome Kilty. In this one, I was a cowering servant in the household of Petruccio, suffering all the physical abuses he heaped upon us. It was a fun production, and there were great parties after many of the rehearsals, one of which I hosted at 1108 Avalon Road, the house near campus I was living in at the time. I had such a good experience with this production, I tried out the following year for my third and final appearance as an actor.
This time, it was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the novel by Ken Kesey, to be presented in the tiny black box at Murphy Hall. The director was Piet Knetsch, an amiable graduate student originally from the Netherlands. I told Piet the same thing, that I wanted only a small part, preferably with no lines to learn. He was most accommodating, and cast me as Ellis, a catatonic inmate who identified with the crucified Christ, arms forever outstretched. Ellis also happens to be incontinent, and the other inmates make fun of him mercilessly whenever they catch him wetting himself on the cross. I asked Piet how we were going to achieve this rite of passage, and he said nonchalantly, “Drink lots of water before the show, but wait till final dress.” When final dress finally arrived, I did indeed drink lots of water, and I did indeed pee on cue, warm streams marking their progress down my green pajama bottoms. The lights in the small space we were performing in were really hot, and soon you could see the steam rising from where I stood. Piet quickly called for a break, and the costume designer was asked to hook up a clever device which would allow me to “relieve” myself more hygienically. Thus, all ten performances of the play went well, even though I thought it was rather sacrilegious for people to laugh at the crucified Christ wetting Himself. Six hours on that cross, from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon. Surely, He had to go. He was human, after all. The Redemption would have been meaningless had He not really died on a Friday, and then really resurrected on Sunday.
As for me, I never appeared as an actor on stage again, after that. But my admiration for what actors do continues unabated, especially these past couple of days, when I have been in rehearsal with a very talented cast of 13 actors, directing them for a free staged reading of my play Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris at 7 PM on Thursday, December 3rd, at the Lawrence Public Library. Come, and be amazed. No one pees on stage, but Old Frank does give a vivid description at one point of how he uses a special enema of his own invention.