Down At The Playhouse

Guy’s a terrible actor, but somehow he gets cast as Hamlet at his local community theater. Opening night, he finally arrives at the big speech: “To be or not to be…” He’s sliding up and down the scale. “…THAT is the question!” Sawing the air with his hands. “Whether ‘tis NOBLER in the mind…” A couple in the audience has had enough and walks out. “…to suffer the SLINGS and ARROWS…” He’s rolling the Rs mercilessly. A few more people decide to leave. “…of OUTRRRAGEOUS fortune…” Nearly half the audience is trudging out now. Finally he looks up at them and yells, Hey! I didn’t write this shit!

One of my Millsaps College fraternity brothers was taking a directing class – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a theatre curriculum. As one of the requirements, he decided to direct the coin-tossing scene from Tom Stoppard’s ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, and cast me and another stage newbie. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing: the memorization, the rehearsals, then the illusion of spontanaeity in our one and only performance, which would actually count against his grade! Another directing student liked it too, and cast me as Felix in a scene from THE ODD COUPLE. Same experience. Twice, I’d been up there on the Christian Center Auditorium stage, looking down on the class-taking “audience.” A great new perspective, and fun!

Watching all this from his trademark rocking chair was Lance Goss, instructor of this directing class and, moreover, longtime head of the college’s theatre department. In this capacity, he had bravely introduced Jackson, Mississippi to Tennessee Williams – despite his nickname, a Mississippi native himself — in the Fifties; Lance’s production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF was almost shut down by the City Council – after all, this was a private school associated with the Methodist Church! He’d proudly saved the copy of the local daily with a screaming headline: ‘CAT’ TOO HOT, SAYS LOCAL COUNCILMAN. (Of course, even back then, the wannabe censors were shooting themselves in the foot: you couldn’t get a ticket shortly after that piece ran.)

Lance Goss. The perfect nine letters for a marquee, he once told me. Just like

Lance Goss. The perfect nine letters for a marquee, he once told me. Just like “Tom Dupree.”

Lance walked up and suggested that I audition for the college theatre group, the Millsaps Players. That was very nice to hear, but how could I compete with people who were studying the craft? My next few attempts at getting on stage kind of proved the point: for almost a year, whenever I did audition my services were declined, but when I didn’t audition I got cast anyhow. It’s not just “are you any good?” Just as important, “is there the right part here for you?” Somebody had to drop out of Jean Giraudoux’s TIGER AT THE GATES, so Lance gave me a cameo, my first appearance with the Players. I was a beanpole in college and in college, where everybody is, after all, college-age, “beanpole” equals “old man.” They grayed my late-Sixties-long hair and teased it out into a billowing white Afro, painted age lines on my face, slapped a robe on me and shoved me out onto the stage, where I tried to stoop over and pretend to be crabby. Now the auditorium was full of people, but the only sound I heard on my Millsaps Players debut was my own mother’s involuntary shout of surprise: “Oh, NO!” I remember I had to call a guy a “piece of piecrust,” which killed.

Next, yet another directing student was prepping his major project, a one-act before a real audience, performed in the round. He was doing Tennessee Williams’s seldom-seen-for-good-reason THE PURIFICATION, and it needed a guitar player, which I semi-was. I borrowed a classical guitar (nylon strings, like Segovia’s, to sound more Latin) from my girlfriend, and improvised a minor-key, vaguely south-of-the-border medley. No lines, and only one piece of business: tossing my hat into the center of the stage at the play’s inscrutable end. But hey: I got mentioned favorably in the school paper’s review, the critic correctly noting that I’d cleverly, um, aah, imported some riffs from the Doors’ “Spanish Caravan.” Muchas gracias, amiga!

When I say I was a beanpole in college, I am NOT KIDDING. (That's me at the top.)

When I say I was a beanpole in college, I am NOT KIDDING. (That’s me at the top.)

I got a much bigger role in the first-ever non-professional production of MARAT/SADE (Lance was still on the cutting edge), and had very nice parts in OKLAHOMA!, AFTER THE RAIN, and CAMELOT, plus lots of smaller ones. I played Sir Thomas More! – but in ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS, where the part’s a cameo, not A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, where he’s the lead. Right role, wrong show. Lance was particularly amused that I went from a saint in that show directly to the Devil in the next, DAMN YANKEES. I looked up one day and found I had so many credits in theatre classes, I might as well seek a double major – a couple summer sessions would do the trick. I always expected my political science degree would be more important later in life. But I didn’t become a lawyer, and what I’ve actually used far more frequently is my training in theatre. We all perform every day, don’t we? Dealing with stage fright is quite useful, as well as learning how to accept a compliment gracefully. (I still haven’t figured out the proper response to, “Boy, did you suck!”)

Just *try* and tell me you don’t want to see this dadburn show.

We all knew we were collegiate amateurs, there were no false illusions like in WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (which is my favorite of all the Christopher Guest movies, because I’ve been there!). I’ll never forget Lance’s sober advice, delivered in a sonorous tone which both awakened and informed us: “Adopt acting as a career ONLY…if you can’t imagine doing anything else!” Still, the dilettante pro-wannabes properly dissuaded, Lance demanded that we take our productions seriously. For example, no Millsaps Player seen outside the theater in stage costume or makeup would ever appear again – a chilling but effective way to say, this isn’t high school, don’t play games at Denny’s. Missing an entrance past tech rehearsal had better be accompanied by a damn good reason, or you’re an ex-Player. Rehearsals were as punctual and intense as they would be for a pro. And the college troupe did have a local reputation for excellence; our productions were credible enough to be reviewed in the daily papers. Despite his dire warnings, Lance even sent several Players into the wider entertainment world. In my group alone, one Player had a big part in Robert Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US, and another starred in THE WARRIORS and XANADU and was the audio reader for most of John Grisham’s books. A lighting genius went on to win Emmys, and another Player became one of the original five “veejays” on MTV. But pro or no, working in theatre at Millsaps was a wonderful experience, and Lance was a great teacher and inspiration. My grandmother was quite supportive too: she told my mom, “He can’t get into any trouble when he’s spending his time down at the playhouse.”

At intermission, two little old ladies head for the theater door. The house manager steps up and says, “Aren’t you enjoying the play, ladies?” “Yes, young man, we LOVE it!” “But don’t you want to see the second act?” “We can’t WAIT to see the second act!” The house manager frowns. “Then why are you leaving?” “You can’t fool us, young man. It says right here in the program: ‘Act II — Two Weeks Later’!” 

Jackson actually had quite a robust theatre community at the time. When I graduated from Millsaps in 1971, there were four troupes presenting full seasons: us, Jackson Little Theatre, a fringe outfit called Theater Center of Mississippi, and the big kahuna, New Stage Theatre. For some reason, Jacksonians had caught the live-theatre bug – and though they couldn’t possibly fill all four sets of seats, there were tons of perfectly fine actors and stage crew hanging around, so nobody embarrassed anybody on stage, and guys like actor/director James Best (all over Fifties/Sixties television, including two TWILIGHT ZONEs!) and director Don Toner were down checking out the talent.

But New Stage was one step beyond. I went several times down to its home, a converted church in a dodgy part of town where the audience sat in pews on pillows, and the level of theatricality was far beyond anything I’d ever encountered. Lance had mastered the art of casting performers from 17 to 21 or so, a rigid age range from which to find every part in the script (or, less frequently, he’d thrown up his hands and decided a college production was impossible). But at New Stage, if the character was forty, then by God, the actor was too! There were great early middle- and middle-aged actors up on stage: Bill Hill, John Maxwell, Dick Brown, Tom Spengler, Jane Petty, and many others. It was a whole new dimension: adults! The artistic director was Ivan Rider, who had sorta been Baylor’s Lance, but now he was personally lifting the level of live in Jackson. New Stage was founded in 1965 – a very volatile time in Mississippi — by a few Little Theatre denizens who were tired of the fiftieth production of OUR TOWN or ridiculous Southerners attempting FLOWER DRUM SONG. Their first production was WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, and they did for Albee what Lance had done for Williams a decade earlier. Their productions were miraculous.

Ivan saw me at Millsaps in DAMN YANKEES, clowning as the devilish Mr. Applegate. There was an unwritten rule that Ivan wouldn’t poach Lance’s players before graduation, but I had a whole summer before moving on to Georgia, graduate school, and marriage. So he asked me if I’d like to appear in New Stage’s summer show, a Neil Simon three-hander called THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL. Huh? New Stage? And only three in the cast? Lemme think. Um, yeah? So I did the Neil Simon and had a ball. I was the goofy best friend while one of my acting idols, a Redford lookalike named Carl Davis, played one half of a romantic pairing which included…guest star…Nancy Barrett! DARK SHADOWS had been must-watch after classes at my frat house, and now here was the luscious ingénue with the straight blonde hair, actually in my arms! (The goofy best friend falls for her first, then things get straightened out over the next hour and a half and the two gorgeosities ride off together.) “Nanny” had been a student of Ivan’s at Baylor, and now here she was in the flesh! My brother Rick saw the show six, seven times, and not because I was in it, if you get what I’m saying.

OMG. Nancy Barrett!

OMG. Nancy Barrett!

I’d heard that his nickname was “Ivan the Terrible,” but I didn’t get that at all. Not in the (non-consecutive) five years or so that I knew Ivan closely, over about ten shows, did I ever hear a cruel word spoken against a local actor (over Cutty, pros were all fair game), and there was no temper at all, except at those occasional frustrating, patience-sapping moments that every other director also encounters. He was no more terrible than the next guy. Now I wonder who exactly I heard that from. Anyhow, as everybody knew I would, I said goodbye, got married, and went off to Georgia for four years. Here’s part of what I was doing there.

Guy’s been star-struck all his life, finally gets a spear-carrier cameo in his local theatre company. He has one line: “Hark, the cannon roars!” He tries it out a thousand ways: “Hark, the cannon roars!” Practices it at work: “Hark, the cannon roars!” At night: “Hark, the cannon roars!” On the bus, very softly: “Hark, the cannon roars!” Opening night: he’s dressed, he’s ready. Under his breath: “Hark, the cannon roars!” He walks on stage and his cue comes up. Suddenly a giant flash pot explodes and there’s an earthshaking BOOOOOOOM!!!!!! He ducks to the ground and yells, “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?

Sporting, sadly, my original marital status, I returned in 1975 to find a different New Stage “gang” when Ivan invited me back to do the Jimmy Cagney part in the Thirties comedy BOY MEETS GIRL. After four years, it still felt great to be up there in that little church, and I did one thing or another for Ivan over the next few years. He told me once that I was the only actor he could call on the phone and say, “I have a part for you in my next show. Wanna?” and I’d say “Sure!” It never occurred to me to ask, “What show? What part?” like I guess others must have done. All I needed to know, besides what block of time to carve out, was that Ivan thought it would be fun for me, and it always, always was, because my director was also my casting director, whose job it is to know what you can and can’t do. He needed me for only a five-minute cameo in Preston Jones’s LU ANN HAMPTON LAVERTY OBERLANDER, but Jones and I stopped the show with it every night. (That means you have to wait for the applause to die down before going on with the next line; for a moment, the show has literally stopped. If you yourself have caused this tumult, it’s one of the best feelings there is. I remembered it from my solo number in DAMN YANKEES.)

An interesting thing happens when you perform a lot in a tiny theater in a small metropolitan area, a measure of sub-celebrity. Real celebrity in such a town is the local news anchor: s/he can headline any store opening you like. But when you’re performing in a theater, guys – especially guys, since everywhere there is a theater, guys are dragged there by their wives and they’re rarely paying attention – will stop you on the street or in a store and say, “Do you remember me?” The first few times it happened, I stood there and pondered with the guy. Wow, I do not remember him at all. See, all the guy knows for sure is that he’s been in the same room with me (he may even have seen me more than once). We must have gone to school together. Maybe church. After a few such occasions, I knew to ask, “Have you ever gone to New Stage?” These encounters are as close as I ever came to meeting a groupie, and they were all guys, or women much older than I. Pathetic.

Ivan Rider (far left) and me (to his immediate left) in an undated New Stage cast photo. Former Gov. Ross Barnett is seated next to starlet Julie Carr.

Ivan Rider (far left) and me (to his immediate left) in an undated New Stage cast photo. Former Gov. Ross Barnett is seated next to starlet Julie Carr.

By now, the outlying theatre companies had by and large dissolved away, and maybe it was just my imagination, but the talent pool in Jackson also seemed to be diminishing. There was film work now, both on and off camera. Talented people like Carl Davis, and Ivan himself, moved on to larger cities. I did a couple pieces – including a lifelong desire, Tom in THE GLASS MENAGERIE – for a tiny company. Then I got caught up in my advertising work, and when I went independent as a copywriter and producer in 1982, my free time evaporated. I’d already long had the pleasure, early on after my return from Georgia, of watching my future wife perform for Lance in Millsaps’s production of OTHELLO. She’s a much better actor than I am, and although our romantic relationship was still far in the future, I remember saying to myself at the time, damn, that chick’s good! I’ll never forget all the people I got to know, at Millsaps and later, sitting in a greenroom, waiting for a cue to emanate from tinny speakers mounted high on the wall. Or the Italian-restaurant feasts we’d call in early from New Stage at intermission, so they’d be waiting for us when we finished, an hour or so later. A life in the theater? Not really. But a big toe stuck into some warm, sweet water? Oh, man, was it ever bliss.

 “A successful performance? We did Act I, and Act II, in that order, and nobody spat on us.” Lance Goss


10 Responses to Down At The Playhouse

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I didn’t realize you’d been an actor in a previous life. A very amusing post, especially the ‘Act II is two weeks later’ gag. Made me laugh out loud at the office.

  2. Stanley Graham says:

    Thanks, Tom! I wish I read more slowly… I wanted Down at the Playhouse to go on and on.

  3. Bill Fisher says:

    Thanks again Tom. As a guy on the periphery it was a pleasure watching you work and make us smile, occasionally frown, and even less frequently wince. I think I always wanted to be Tom Dupree but there already was one.

  4. brenda says:

    Sweet indeed. Made me rather sad to read, though, as I miss being in plays SO much! I only worked with Ivan Rider one time, in “Peg O’My Heart”, with Jack Stevenson, Ward Emling, and that short little so-and-so that I never liked who shall remain nameless here! Let’s just say there was a live Scottish terrier in the show, and it was a better actor than the one in the title role!

    Elizabeth and I did several things together—“Sound of Music,” “Camelot” (Frank Hains came over to Vicksburg to do a guest-directing season,) “Little Mary Sunshine” (aaaaagh was ever there a worse musical?) and we took our high-school drama-department one-acts all the way to state championship two years running: “Feiffer’s People” and “The Sandbox.”

    Then all the Millsaps stuff—including the unforgettable “A Cry of Players” with me as Anne Hathaway, Alan Hunter as Shakespeare, and the SCENE-STEALING DEE DEE as a ragged black-toothed poacher! And when we did “Crown Matrimonial,” I could hardly say my lines as Elizabeth, Duchess of York, for watching in goggle-eyed admiration while DD BECAME Queen Mary! No lie, your lady wife could have out-Meryled Streep if she’d gone professional. (But you know that!)

    Before Lizzy was hatched, I did two plays at the Vicksburg Guild—Anne Boleyn in “Anne of the Thousand Days” and Nancy in “Oliver.”

    Fast-forward a couple of decades, and there was my last role…Mrs, Gilbreth in “Cheaper By the Dozen” 5 years ago.

    Your tales are much more interesting, but it was fun to recall those days…maybe one day we can all romp onstage together? C’mon back down for a few weeks and let’s mount our own show! We’ll round up the usual suspects—John Maxwell, Ward, etc. Any ideas what we could do?

  5. brenda says:

    Meant to say, Jack Stevens… *molto tempo fa* !!!

  6. Tom Dupree says:

    I have to note the funniest book I’ve ever read about amateur theater: THE ART OF COARSE ACTING by Michael Green. It’s hard to find these days, but it’s hilarious from start to finish. If you don’t recognize yourself in it, you are indeed a coarse actor.

  7. brenda says:

    I’d have sworn that very book was in our shelves (I’ve been a rabid hunter-gatherer at used-book sales since I could walk, almost) but it turned out to be *To the Actor* by Michael Chekhov. I’d be scared to read the one you reference! You must remember that my early theater training was in ENDLESS performances of the melodrama “Gold in the Hills” in my hometown—first as the little sister, later as heroine Little Nell—yep, full-frontal hand-clasping-to bosom, giant gestures, major eye-rolls, gasps, sighs, collapsing in a faint—real subtle stuff, you betcha. No wonder the Yankee tourists threw peanuts at us. Luckily our directors were lenient and allowed direct-address to the crowd—many’s the time I paused mid-sigh and pointed my finger into the dark of the audience, and cried, “That HURT, you mother-fucker!” (Okay, I made the epithet up…but believe me, it crossed my mind.) What fun that all was, before the Steamboat Sprague burned (I’d played the night before, so missed that drama.)

  8. Tom Dupree says:

    No, this is the pre-Python Brit who also wrote THE ART OF COARSE DRINKING and, I believe, THE HIGH SPOTTY BOOK, which shows you how to act at a country “house party.” Check Amazon for used copies: you’ll thank me!

  9. brenda says:

    I’m so there! You bet I’ll order ’em all. Sounds right up my alley.

  10. Art Dyess says:

    Dup-ee!! I am so glad you shared this with me. It brought back many long-forgotten memories of Lance and The Players. I, like you, got involved and made theatre a double-major almost by accident. When I was doing the sports thing, Lance needed a few guys who were in good shape to do some stunts and lifting. Since I was already a speech major and Orvel Hooker’s office was in the CC, Lance jumped me and I was hooked. And that is one “draft” that worked out well for me!! I had forgotten just how many performances we shared while at ‘Saps. Some damned good memories, my brother. Again, thanks for sharing your website. I’m getting ready to favorite it and start reading some of your other musings. But, for now, “Back to ‘da harba’?”

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