It could have been twenty-five years ago when I stood on the ground I stand today. The cynical voice in my head says it should have been twenty-five years ago; yet, a wiser voice in there says it needed to be like this, that I needed to wait until now to stand here. I choose to believe the second voice, even if it's wrong. I really think, however, it probably is the correct voice. The cynical voice, who has a right to speak even if I try hard to ignore him, tells me how the wiser voice is simply easing the pangs of regret when it assures that had I stepped to this exact spot twenty-five years ago, I'd likely be dead today. As much as I do often persuade myself it's just rationalization to justify how I did nothing, I nevertheless deeply understand the truth of it: had I achieved then what I'm going to try to achieve now, I just might not have lived through it. There's good reason for me to believe I would have come to the success that can be had from this spot on the ground, where I stand now. There's just as much reason to believe drugs and alcohol would have killed me, had I. This last point here isn't even major to this essay -- yet, it is, indeed, an unequivocal possibility. As I stand here now, though, such suicide via addiction is no longer in the equation.
On October 19, 2003, I made a decision that ought to be a foolish one. Except it won't kill me this time and I can't see how it could ever be a foolish decision. Even if I fail -- and failure is not a ridiculous notion here -- it's going to have been a good thing to have done. As it turns out, it's grown into good "things" to have done, because other actions I've flirted with taking for a while now are added into the game plan.
This decision to stand where I now stand and do what I'm going to do solidified because of the Wright State University Creative Arts Center, James Lipton and several of his guests on Inside the Actors Studio, Sheryl Crow, Steely Dan, and, finally, the actor Malcolm Gets. That I have moved into my forties is terribly involved in all this, as well.
First, history and background. If you've read some of my other essays at the site you'll know some of this already. Let's start with the reference to Inside the Actors Studio where Martin Sheen was recently the guest. Aside from the fact that Martin was born and reared in Dayton, Ohio, as I was, and aside from the fact that he was, like me, not exactly from the upper middle class, he said something that struck a strong, sharp, electrifying chord with me, while he spoke with Mr. Lipton. He said he knew when he was very young he was an actor, that that was what he wanted to, and should do, with his life. I knew it, too, about myself, from an early age. As far back as I can remember I was aware of the art and craft of acting on TV and in the movies. I knew, for instance, that on the TV show Combat, it wasn't Sgt. Saunders, a soldier fighting in WWII; it was Vic Morrow, the TV actor, playing a soldier fighting in WWII. And I wanted to do that.
From at least as young as five, when I played Cops & Robbers or Soldier, I didn't pretend to be a cop, a robber, a soldier -- I was an actor in the role of a cop, a robber, or a soldier, for a TV show or a movie. I was a screen writer, too, because I tended to drive the story line when my friends and I played Cops & Robbers, or Soldier, or Cowboys & Indians. By my early adolescence I added singer-songwriter-musician to the repertoire of hopeful futures, mostly because of the Monkees, Simon and Garfunkle, a host of other rock bands and pop singers; and then, of course, there was the upper pantheon of my pop culture (and artistic) awareness: John, Paul, George, and Ringo -- John and Paul, underscored.
By then, whenever I play-pretended, I was consciously acting, trying to employ skill, technique, though I wouldn't have used those terms. When I sang with the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" or Simon and Garfunkle's "The Boxer" or any song by The Beatles, I wasn't just singing along; I sang as a student. I studied and attempted the vocal style and phraseology of the particular singer on the record. My friends, my parents, my family, my teachers, knew I was going to become an actor, a singer, an artist.
At eleven years old, I was making up songs, melodies and lyrics, so, in the real sense, I'd become a song writer; though I wouldn't vouch for my hit-making abilities. Yet, I claim the age of fifteen as when I officially wrote a song for the first time, because that was when I made one up and put it into fixed form. It was called "Not the Way I Work." It was very certainly blues, or at least, blues-like. I recorded an a capella vocal into two portable tape recorders at the same time. Then I played those back, one a little delayed behind the other (for echo effect), then recorded that into a third recorder: also my first attempt at being a recording artist and a record producer. Soon I had created a few more songs where I at least got the lyrics on paper. I can still remember a few of the melodies, today, thirty years later.
That was when I was a freshman at Wilbur Wright High School, where I was in the chorus -- the prerequisite for the choir I would spend three years in and for which I eventually became the tenor section leader. As the fifteen-year-old freshman in the chorus, relatively equal to being in "the minor leagues," I was also the new kid in town in the theater club. Just perhaps six weeks prior to my sixteenth birthday, I stood on stage in front of an audience for the very first time in a theatrical production. It was May, 1974, my role was Jamey, a cockney drinking mate of Liza Dolittle's father in the musical, My Fair Lady. It was a small role, but it was cream for my debut. I had more than a few lines in the scene and was a principle performer in the song "With A Little Bit of Luck." Click here for a picture. Of course, I was a generic crowd member in several other scenes, but Jamey was the big deal for me. I gave it my all and did a good job.
Charles Scott was our theater director. He directed every play I was in, but one. Charles was passionate about directing the plays and was excellent at it. He pulled as professional a performance out of a cast midwestern, urban teenagers as was possible. All the productions I ever saw or participated in were done with great craft and professionalism. Those of us who had the better gift of acting often performed at the level of Equity/SAG card holders under Charles' tutelage -- and I assure you, I'm not looking back through a romantic fog. There was a good handful of actors from the Wilbur Wright High School Theater Club who achieved professional level performances on that stage. I was one of them; and I wasn't the best of the good actors who graced that stage. In fact, though he was before my time, Ken Jenkins (Dr. Kelso on the NBC sitcom Scrubs) made his own debut as an actor on that same high school stage and under the direction of the very same Charles Scott. There were others, with whom I did work, whose names you won't know, but who I guarantee you could have been highly successful on Broadway or in Hollywood. The four who come to mind the most are: Tom Andrews (now a pathologist), Lori Zakel (chair of a college Communication Arts & Journalism department), Roosevelt Jenkins (no relation to Ken), and Cindy Tucker -- who at seventeen, was a spellbinding actress, the best of several absolutely excellent young actors I was privileged to know. And, I was doing pretty well, too.
By the time I graduated from high school, no one who knew me did not know that performing arts, arts in general, were my fortes. My senior class voted me Most Talented and, after Jamey, I had a great run of performances on the stage: Peter Van Daan -- Diary of Anne Frank; Dr. Einstein -- Arsenic and Old Lace; Lazer Wolfe -- Fiddler on the Roof; Sakini -- Teahouse of the August Moon; Tony Kirby -- You Can't Take It With You; Psuedolus -- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (my senior musical).
In ...Forum..., unfortunately, I had that horrible actor's experience of going up on my lines. I lost almost the entire prologue at the start of the play on opening night. I never got the lines back, but I quickly recovered my composure and had an overall great night. But, at intermission, when I could breath out from character, the flawed beginning fell on me like a load of boulders. I was so upset with myself, and so humiliated, I sobbed. I even later made up a story that I had smoked pot before the show, so my fellow actors would think that was why I went up. Truth is, even though I got high in those days, I would have never went on a theater stage high or drunk. That wouldn't have been true a few years later, had I still been acting.
I also was privileged as a sophomore to be in a very good original musical by Charles and our choir director, Bob Johnson. It was their adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, which they titled Hester's Scarlet Letter. Charles wrote the book; Bob wrote the songs. I played elderly Rev. Wilson -- again, a supporting role, but a juicy one that I had a lot of fun with.
As an actor at Wilbur Wright I received the Best Supporting Actor Awards my sophomore and junior years and the Best Actor Award my senior year (despite my faux pas in the lead role for my senior musical). I think most people assumed acting was the career I was going to pursue. However, music, rock-and-roll to be exact, distracted me.
Another part of my high school performing arts career was a musical ensemble known as Wrighteous. Wrighteous was created by Bob Johnson and was fashioned after The Ball State Singers. Most of the time there were around six singers, a piano player, drummer, guitar player, bass player (usually Bob), and a small brass section. Most of the repertoire was made of middle-of-the-road pop songs, the sort which might be written by David and Bacharach and originally recorded by Dionne Warwick. A few show tunes made their way in, too. Often there was choreography that was just a little beyond the capabilities of some of us -- and I certainly include myself in that part of the group. I may be bold enough to tell you I could act and sing very well, without the least concern that I'm being too kind to myself; I can guarantee my dancing was merely rank amateur on good days. I was awkward, clunky, and stiff. Usually there were about two singers in the group who danced very well, a couple who were competent, then there was me and at least one other kid (usually another guy) who -- well -- "sucked," I think, is the word I need here. I can still see the kids my age roll their eyes, whenever we performed for a high school audience, while I and the other bad dancer stepped, perhaps in rhythm, but awkwardly, misshapenly, our limbs and spines a little too rigid.
So, Wrighteous had its very certain "un-cool" elements for me. Doing bad, white-teenaged-boy dance moves to disco pop like "That's the Way I Like It" wasn't the draw to my involvement. The draw was the occasional forays into hipper pop music, even rock-and-roll. I got to sing lead on pretty faithful versions of Queen's "Tie Your Mother Down" and Wings' "Let Em In" (not my favorite McCartney song, but I had fun doing it). The coupe de gras for me was my featured performance on "Hey Jude." It always went over big and the powerful feedback from the audiences (read: big applause) seduced me away from acting as my artistic focus.
For several years after my graduation from high school I was full-tilt-boogie into music. I wanted to be a rock star. I wrote a lot more songs and I became a pretty decent bass player. At twenty-four, I came to a crises with alcoholism and drug addiction. At twenty-five, the band that I and my music partner, Rich Hisey, had put together, did a gig after a year of rehearsal. The gig under-whelmed us both and we broke the band up. Rich and I gradually started laying some tracks down on a four-track recorder. Early in the project it got sidetracked by that life stuff that happens -- for Rich it was embarking on a life with a wife, for me it was continuing to grow into a stable sobriety. But I kept recording my material on the four-track recorder and by 1987 I had what amounted to a double CD of music, a couple songs co-written with Rich. It had been ten years since I had acted.
I had attempted to write fiction, as well. I had a couple novels started and many unfinished short stories. It was clear I needed a structured learning environment about the craft of fiction writing. In 1988 I started on my eventual B.A. in English and Mass Communication from Wright State University. By the end of my freshman year there, it had been eleven years since I'd acted. Truth be known, I had wanted to minor in acting, but there was no minor offered -- still isn't. This actually makes good sense to me. Those in the acting program should be committed to and focused on that craft. Meanwhile, some sort of silly anxiety kept me from admitting to myself I really wanted to be an acting major; it kept me from being an acting major. And I have almost never attended theater productions on the Wright State campus; I've always lied to myself that I didn't have time, or, more often, that they do a bad job of getting the word out. But those reasons were nonsense.
I earned my degree in 1994. My artistic focus has stayed creative writing. I've been published a few times (much fewer than I like), I started this web site in 1997, and after years of starts and restarts, I finished my first novel and started querying literary agents in late spring 2002. So far, I've received dozens of rejection slips from agents' offices, but have also taken advantage of the wait for a "yes" to tweak the manuscript, including a slight yet crucial change to the ending.
At the time of my graduation in 1994, I had applied for masters work in television production at a couple schools where competition is tight, and I'd applied for a staff job on campus. I got into neither school and got hired on campus. And so we come to the Creative Arts Center, mentioned at the beginning of this essay. That building vexes me. I've always managed to avoid entering it except when absolutely necessary, but occasionally I must. Whenever I do, I feel it. There's a feeling that taunts me whenever I am inside that building. It is this knowledge that I should be intimately familiar with the building; it is that most people in that building, especially the actors and acting instructors should know my face and my talent. But, I don't have that familiarity and no one in that building knows me or my abilities from Adam.
Now we revisit Inside the Actors Studio, of which over the last couple years I have become a big fan. It's great to see actors talk mostly of craft, with very little-to-nil P.R. gab. When the actors talk about their craft I understand them. I understand that craft and often I know their approach would not be my approach -- and that mine would work just as well as theirs. Sometimes it's painful, especially when one of them speaks of having always wanted to be an actor, or the choices they met upon at twenty (or whatever age) -- and that they went the road toward their craft.
My first novel deals with a young actor, and the sequel, which I'm writing now, deals more heavily with the young actor's acting. Along with my own instincts and knowledge on the craft I've also been doing a lot of research. All of this, this living inside the universe of my novels and the research, has kicked a hornet's nest. My restlessness has been growing larger, louder, more irritating.
It's now been more than twenty-six years since I last acted.
Enter Sheryl Crow and Steely Dan. Last summer (2003) I saw both in concert. Both were great, and both reminded me that I could've been on those stages, too, as well as the theater stage; to be more accurate, on a TV or movie set, because that's the acting that intrigues me the most. The two concerts were two more kicks of the hornets' nest.
Finally, we get to the actor Malcolm Gets. It starts out with my second novel. My main character will, in a few chapters from where I'm at, become the regular on a one-hour, one-camera, prime-time TV drama. I am not completely sure about a couple details I need concerning production schedules for such programs. And in all the wealth of research I've done, these particular facts are not mentioned -- every thing else I might ever need to know is, but not these. One of the directors from the television production department on campus, who doesn't know the answers either, told me one day in October that Malcolm Gets was on campus doing a short residency with the musical theater students; maybe I could get a hold of him and ask. Having worked several years on a TV show (Caroline in the City) he was bound to have my answers. I had little confidence I was going to be able to arrange to meet with him. I wasn't sure exactly who to contact in Theater, so I sent an email to the generic info address and was sure (and accurately so) that an appointment would not be arranged. In fact, in very unprofessional manner, no one even bothered to respond to me at all, even to say, "We're sorry, but this won't be possible," but that's another story.
Then, by happenstance, on a Thursday, perhaps two hours after I sent my ignored email, I met Mr. Gets in the Student Union. Ironically he didn't have the answers I needed -- Caroline having been a thirty-minute, four-camera, sit-com. He was however, doing a small musical performance on the coming Saturday, to finish off his stay on campus. I went. That was October 18, 2003. The day before I made the decision that ought to be a foolish one, but isn't.
I invited a friend to attend Gets' show with me, but she couldn't go. So, I stood alone in line, waiting for the doors to open. Virtually every one else in the small audience was either a drama student, drama faculty, or somehow closely related to such. These may have mostly been college students in their early to mid twenties, but there was absolutely no difference between the energy at that theater on Saturday, October 18, 2003, and the energy I experienced, time-and-time-again, between spring, 1974 and spring, 1977. Oh, there was one difference. On October 18, 2003, I was standing on the peripheral of the vortex. I was not intimately familiar with the building and those standing in line with me did not know my face nor my talent. I almost left the line and walked out of the building before the theater doors opened, I was so painfully uncomfortable.
Gets' show was very nice. He's an enjoyable entertainer and obviously loves Broadway. I was impressed. But on the way home, I was depressed. I happened to have the tape of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the car. I cranked it and belted my vocals along with all the songs. This was one of the records that taught me how to sing, so it was a rescue maneuver to sing along as I drove. And I had a restless night. I knew I had to do something.
The next day I decided -- as if this will be a surprise -- that I must act again. Really act, you know, where it may become an income, perhaps a primary income. And I can't play around. I need to be in something that showcases me. Something on film is the best. And how is a forty-five year old man who hasn't acted from a script for two-and-half decades do that? Only one way. I have to produce the thing I'm in. And I will.
This summer (2004) will be when principle photography for a thirty-minute dramatic digital video film, in which I am principle talent, happens. My goal is for the film to compete at film festivals; and I have my eyes on Sundance 2005. I give myself until next summer for principle production because, I don't even have the script yet. I will, but what script I'll write is contingent on a few things. I have a particular actress in mind to appear in it and I want to know if she's interested before I start thinking too far into the script. It also behooves me to have some good idea of locations before I have a firm script. DV technology makes it pretty easy to make a film on a shoe string budget -- location shots, however, can cost money and be difficult to secure permission for. For instance, I will not have the money for permits to shoot on a down town, city street.
Also, though I produced and directed some video for the Mass Communication half of my degree, it's been over a decade, and I was using analogue technology: I have to get re-acquainted with a few fundamentals and newly acquainted with some aspects of DV. And I have some hardware (like a high-end DV camera) and software (like DV editing programs) to get and learn.
Since I haven't formally acted for so long, I also will be auditioning for a play at a local community theater. There's one that will be running in late winter 2004 I'm much interested in -- there's a role I think is right for me in it. There are auditions very soon for another play, in which I also have some interest. I also have eyes on getting a double CD of that music I recorded in the eighties made and independently marketed. And, off in the future I have an idea for a fifteen to thirty minute, weekly public radio show that will feature work from this site. The last one is, at the moment, low priority.
I have not abandoned the search for an agent for my first novel, but I will pursue some other avenues, as well. First, I'm going to start querying book publishers myself, probably the mid-sized ones, though I may throw a coin in the big fountains every now and then. I have also been contemplating a PDF version of the novel on-line, available for a decently low price from this very web site. I have some copyright hurdles to overcome. There are some song lyrics and literary passages I use that may prohibit the PDF version -- the fees for permission may be too high to justify in relationship to self-publishing the PDF; I have no illusions that there would be overwhelming sales through this method. I am not totally discounting the idea of self-publishing paper copies through print-on-demand, though I am not completely sold on this, either.
I have what I and a nice small group of people, none who would BS me, believe is a good novel and my ultimate hope is to find an agent, an editor, and a home where the book can finally get to a wide audience. I will not give up on that.
I am also, at the writing of this essay (Oct/Nov 2003), more than thirty thousand words into that second novel. I'm in chapter eight of this twenty-chapter novel, the sequel to the first book. This takes up some portion of my day every day, and as I move into the other ventures I have no plans to significantly slow the work on novel 2 down. There may be some brief breaks from it, but I intend to keep them just that: brief.
There is this knowing in me about all this. It's going to happen. I am going to shoot this movie and I am going to be happy with what I produce. I am sure of it. I'm not going to be so arrogant as to declare it a likely winner at Sundance, or any other film fest -- but it'll be a contender.
this essay first appeared, with the title, "When a Hiatus Isn't a Hiatus,"
on the "From K.L.'s Desk" page on Monday, November 10, 2003.
-- along with the title change it has been otherwise slighty modified for this new page.
|For the index of K.L.'s creative writing and essays at this site, click here.|