Archive for the tag 'Piet Knetsch'

My Life As An Actor (?!?!!)

December 1st, 2015

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.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary…

September 14th, 2011

Through the years, I’ve had a strange love/hate relationship with Mary Doveton, the Founding Mother and Executive Director of Theatre Lawrence, formerly the Lawrence Community Theatre.  Mary directed the world premiere of my play Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris (1984); and encouraged me to direct three others of my own at LCT—Hatchet Club (1983), Chambers (1985), Lee and the Boys in the Back Room (1987).

Additionally, through the years, I’ve directed many other plays at LCT, frequently as co-productions with English Alternative Theatre (EAT), my own theatre-producing organization within the English Department at the University of Kansas.  Among these productions are Master Class by David Pownall (1986), Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard (1989), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1998), A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (2000).

Many stories can be told about each one of these productions, some funny, some not so funny, but nothing to seriously damage my friendship and working relationship with Mary Doveton.  And then something happened during the production of Whiteout, a new play by my student Alan Newton which Piet Knetsch was directing for EAT in the LCT space in October of 2000.  I am not yet ready to share with everyone the awful details of what happened at that time. But then, in 2007, along came someone out of the blue who inadvertently “buried the hatchet” once and for all, although not in the usual sense one uses this phrase, as to where the hatchet is buried.

In June and July of 2007, Zack Mannheimer, an enterprising young director who had grown weary of the theatre scene in New York, decided to undertake “A Survey of the American Theatre Landscape” by embarking on a remarkable journey which takes him from Pittsburgh, PA to Raleigh, NC, with 25 stops in between, to see if there is a hospitable city where he can locate his own theatre company.  He started a daily blog (http://www.zacksblog.subjectivetheatre.org) which you can read in its entirety, or you can skip ahead to what he says about Day 49 of his odyssey, in Lawrence.  I’m reproducing below, the more salient passages of his account of the separate interviews he had with Mary Doveton and myself, in our respective offices.

Post 49—Day 49: Thr 7/19/2007—Lawrence

After a shower at…Jay Hawk Motel…I leave to attend my first appointment with Mary Doveton, the Executive Director of The Lawrence Community Theatre (www.theatrelawrence.com). Housed in an old church, the theatre is one block out of the heart of downtown on New Hampshire Street….

I am led downstairs to the offices by the receptionist who brings me into the green room.  Mary is busy speaking to another employee. Behind me sits a large-scale model for a new theatre, and I find out later that this larger space will be opening in 2009.

….Mary brings me into her book-lined office and we sit down. “I’m sorry, we only have a few minutes, I do have another appointment coming shortly.”  Mary sits before me, a strong-willed woman of about 55 who, despite her stern look, is as sweet as Moscato….We begin with the usual round of questions, and Mary answers: “This is our 31st season. We bought this space in 1984. Before that we were operating out of community centers or wherever we could find space.”

LCT has an operating budget of $325,000 of which 65% is earned through ticket prices of $14-$20. They do receive some assistance from granting organizations, but the other 35% is made up mostly through private donations and corporate sponsorship. “There isn’t much, we get about $8,000 from the Kansas Arts Commission,” Mary tells me after I ask her about state/city funding. “There isn’t a lot of public funding in Kansas.”

LCT produces 6 shows per year, recently closing Thoroughly Modern Millie to sold out houses….Mary explains that they try to produce cutting edge work, but the same people always come to that; there does not tend to be an overlap of those who come for campy musicals to something like the latest Shanley play. “Mysteries and musicals bring in the money, and that’s what we need right now.”

…..Her next appointment, who was running late, has now arrived. Before I leave I tell her about my quest to find a new city (to settle in). “Do not come here,” she warns me pointedly. “There’s just not enough room for another group.”

Mary asks me where I’m headed next. “Off to English Alternative Theatre to meet with Paul Lim,” I say.  She makes a face. Not a pleasant one.  “What?”  “O, nothing. Enjoy your talk with Paul.”

And with that, I’m on the road across town to the University where Paul is a professor. It seems, as I am gauging from Mary’s comment, that the theatre community here knows each other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they like each other.

I’m on the phone with Paul as I cannot seem to find the building he is talking about. “I’m in a black shirt standing in a spot for you as there isn’t a lot of parking,” he says.  I arrive almost 30 minutes late to meet him, after driving repeatedly in the wrong direction down dead end streets….

“Hello!” Paul greets me as I finally pull into my reserved spot.  “I’m so sorry, I got lost.”  “Don’t worry. Come, let’s go to my office.”  I follow Paul into Wescoe Hall for the Humanities. Paul is a lively, happy man of about 60.  Originally from the Philippines, he wound up in Lawrence at KU for college, receiving his BA in 1969, his MA and becoming a GTA in 1972, a lecturer in 1978 and was granted full professorship in 1989. He is the Chancellor’s Club Teaching Professor of Playwriting in the English Department. Not the Theatre Department. Don’t mess that up.

Paul brings me into his small office jampacked with books, posters of old productions, and endless knick-knacks. I sit down beside his desk and we begin. I have so many questions for him about his company, English Alternative Theatre (www.eat.ku.edu), and its affiliation with the university. “EAT is the only theatre company in the country run through the English department,” he tells me….

“Since you’ve been in Lawrence for quite some time, how has it changed?”  “People used to be more adventurous,” he begins, “but that time seems to have passed. There is not a great deal of risk-taking now when it comes to theatre. Lawrence Community Theatre used to take a lot of risks, but that’s not what pays the bills anymore. Still, there is a small handful of people in the community who actually miss what they used to do.”

EAT has an annual budget of $15,000 – $20,000. Most artists are not paid, as it is almost uniformly student driven, though the designers, technicians and stage managers he brings in are given a stipend. “I don’t like them to do work for free,” Paul says.  “Does the university provide the funding?” He laughs. “We have one angel who gives us money—it’s been the same person since our inception; we founded the group together.””Who is this?” I ask curiously. Paul hands me a copy of Angels in the American Theater.  Apparently, Southern Illinois University Press, who tends to publish all the important theatrical essay books, has just put out a book about theatrical donors in America, and there is an entire article devoted to EAT’s one Angel, Grant K. Goodman. Goodman has an amazing story…there’s not enough room here to go into it, but the long and short of it is that he has always had a lifetime devotion to and love of theatre. Each year he gives EAT the full budget for the season. Paul has never run a fundraiser and has never received a grant, though they are a not-for-profit.

Angels in American Theater is an important book. Never, to my knowledge, has a book been written about the donors of American theatre. This is vital as there would be no theatre without these generous folk. For better or worse, these are the first line of defense when it comes to creating theatre in this country. While I typically abhor the wealthy paying for the art that they want, this book does not only profile the typical Broadway donors. There’s a whole chapter on EAT in Lawrence, Kansas, for god sakes. Robert A. Schanke is the editor and the brainchild behind this operation. He has edited and/or written a virtual catalog of books on American Theatre, this one being part of the Theater in the Americas series that he edits….

But back to Paul, talking about who performs in his shows “The actors come from the community and the student body. I get a lot of the disenchanted theatre students, the ones who just fall through the cracks but are talented and want to perform.”  He says this rather jollily, his round face bobbing along with his words, kindness and warmth emanating from the wide hands he speaks with. “We’ve sent about 20 students to various regional festivals of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival…and we’ve had 5 or 6 go on to win on the national level.”

“It’s all about the students,” Paul reflects.

This was such a wonderful meeting, and it was warming to be back inside a university.  For all of my dislike of what some of them do, I do miss the feeling of being inside academia. I bid farewell to Paul, and am off to The Pig downtown to continue on with my writing.

I don’t know what’s happened to Zack Mannheimer, and whether he ever actually relocated to any of the cities he visited and wrote about back in 2007.  But, it has now been nearly twelve years since I’ve stepped foot inside 1501 New Hampshire.

And now, of course, Mary Doveton is in the final stages of raising $6.2 million to build a new home for her newly-named Theatre Lawrence at 6th and Wakarusa, at the western edge of Lawrence, far away from the heart of the community.  Last I heard, as of a couple of weeks ago, she was still around $600,000 short of her goal. She needs to raise the amount before the end of September, or she’ll lose a $1.2 million out-of-state challenge grant, and that will be the end of that.

Thankfully, on September 6, Lawrence city commissioners approved giving Theatre Lawrence $100,000 ($20,000 a year for the next five years). A week later, on September 13, representatives from Theatre Lawrence asked Douglas County commissioners to do the same, to give the organization another $100,000 (also $20,000 a year for the next five years).

In its editorial on September 14, The Lawrence Journal-World wrote:

“After making a successful funding pitch to the Lawrence City Commission last week, representatives of Theatre Lawrence, the former Lawrence Community Theatre, have decided to extend their tour with a stop at the Douglas County Commission…to ask county officials to make a similar commitment….To many local taxpayers, this seems like a double-dip….The theater received a generous contribution last week in the form of $100,000 in city taxpayer money. The decision now to ask the county to match that amount may be over-reaching. A large majority of county residents already will be contributing to the fund through the city’s contribution.  Should they be asked to give again through the county?

“Theatre Lawrence says it needs the money to reach its $6.2 million fundraising goal by the end of this month and collect a $1 million out-of-state challenge grant.  We hope they are successful in meeting their goal, but, especially at a time when local government dollars are in such high demand to fund essential services, the city’s contribution of local tax dollars may be enough.”

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about Mary Doveton a great deal these past couple of weeks.  And I’ve just reread what Zack Mannheimer had to say about Mary when he mentioned my name.  What I’m wondering now, of course, is whether or not to bury the hatchet, this time in the usual sense of the phrase, by giving Theatre Lawrence a bunch of money before the end of September.  If I do so, maybe Mary will no longer make a face, an unpleasant one, the next time my name is brought up in casual conversation.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle-shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.