Monday, May 31, 2010

"The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair..."

" turn yourself inside out and see the whole world with fresh eyes."

Everyone should have a teacher that inspires them. Through most of my school years, I had instructors that I got along with more than others. They were usually English or Speech and Drama teachers. Those persons were the few who upon occasion you could share a bit of dialogue, some philosophy, history and information. And often share a joke or two with them.

It wasn't until I ended up at Santa Barbara City College that I met a very special person in Max Whittaker. He was head of the Drama Department and was quite a delightful person. I admit I was never a very disciplined student. Not good with the textbooks and slow with the responsibility of it all. I was more of a dreamer. I needed someone to connect the dream into a practical application. Initially, I took Mr. Whittaker's basic Drama courses and enjoyed the discussions on historical theatre from the Greeks on, etc. But I still felt detached. It was however working in his theatre production classes that I learned to appreciate the talents of the man.

Max Whittaker was a unique individual who truly loved theatre in all its variety. He had an enthusiasm about the art form which he shared among his students if they were willing to tune into his wavelength. He was there for the student, not for his own ego or sense of accomplishment. Santa Barbara, being a showbiz-y commune, was filled with Drama instructors whose eyes glittered with the twinkle of that town to the south, Hollywood. There were instructors in the high schools who were good at molding up-and-coming pretty thespians for a career on the silver screen. They were industry-types. Max was old school, in the sense that he wished to inspire the student with the love of the art of theatre rather than the product.

I guess I might as well mention here, since I called him Max in that sentence, that I actually never called him by his first name. He had all the other students call him Max, yet in a Steed/Peel Avengers-like way, because I respected the man so much, I could never call him anything but Mr. Whittaker. Yet I think as teacher-student, we were probably more in tune than any of the other first name callers.

Mr. Whittaker and his wife Lois loved theatre. Every summer they would travel to London and see a variety of the latest theatrical offerings. He had an appreciation of the classics but was always open to the most new and cutting edge of productions. It gave me real pleasure to talk about obscure works of theatre with him and see a genuine passion in his eyes for the continued possibilities of theatrical experimentation. When I had seen a recent production of "Abelard and Eloise" at the L.A. Music Center with Keith Michell and Diana Rigg, my suggestion for the work to be produced at the college was embraced by him.

The ultimate thing about Mr. Whittaker that I appreciated most was his encouragement. In a world where I have been surrounded by tin-plated authorities who loved to say the word "no," Max Whittaker, when offered a creative suggestion, would enthusiastically say "yes." I was fortunate to be directed by the man in five different productions: "Bury the Dead," "The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail," "Love Rides the Rails," "Abelard and Eloise" and "Arsenic and Old Lace." Each production better and more satisfying than the last. He also let me write and direct the first X-rated play on campus entitled "Void In Wisconsin" in 1972. Instead of censoring me, he allowed me to put on an even bigger and more outrageous play, "Nothing is Sacred" in 1973. And if that wasn't enough, he made it possible for me to return to Santa Barbara City College as an instructor and write and direct my own production of "Casanova's Lips."

"Love Rides the Rails" in 1973, an old time melodrama, liberally ingested with an anarchist's sense of psychedelia, was a comic masterpiece. It turned out to be the most successful play that had been done at SBCC's antique little theatre. Mr. Whittaker was truly delighted at the outcome of this show and everyone connected with the production had a marvelous time. He gave me complete freedom to be innovative with the sinister sidekick character, Dirk Sneath (pictured in the flyer with main villain, Simon Darkway, as portrayed by R. Leo Schreiber). I appreciated Mr. Whittaker's trust in me to be creative with the character. He had been disappointed in the past with theatre students who could not take direction. Up to this time, his greatest sorrow was directing David Crosby (yes, that David Crosby) in a Tennessee Williams play where Mr. Crosby ignored all rehearsed blocking and in true method style, reinvented the production, much to the horror of cast and crew. So I was very pleased that in "Love Rides the Rails" Mr. Whittaker let me tinker with the character in my own comic way. It was due to the success of this play that I was invited back in 1976 to direct another melodrama in honor of the bicentennial, "Casanova's Lips."

The old theatre above Santa Barbara City College's administrative department was intimate but antiquated. I liked it, but then I'm old, intimate and antiquated. The theatre critic for the Santa Barbara News-Press, Bob Barber, couldn't review a single play in the college without complaining about the seats. So it was always Mr. Whittaker 's dream that the school would get a new theatre. He lobbied for it and he lobbied for it. When it finally happened, that a new theatre complex would open on the other side of the hill, the credit would go to new theatre director, Dr. Pope Freeman, recently arrived from Tulane University.

So in 1979 the ultra-modern Garvin Theatre opens up for a summer repertoire debut. Guest Equity actors will interact with students in three plays. The beautiful new Garvin Theatre will host productions of "Romeo & Juliet" and "H.M.S. Pinafore" (both with Star Trek veteran Kay Kuter). Neither are directed by Max Whittaker. Max is assigned to do that old theatrical chestnut "Arsenic and Old Lace." This is to be in the new Studio Theatre, which, in some ways could be considered, in its basic state, an ultra-clean multipurpose room.

But thanks to the creative set designers, along with Mr. Whittaker's good karma, this production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" is simply delightful and charms the audiences away from the other two productions in that super-modern new theatre. I am pleased, very pleased, to be in that show as Dr. Einstein, the character made famous by Peter Lorre in the film version. This is my last time on the stage. It gives me joy that Max Whittaker's little play is a bigger success than the other two highly promoted shows in the new theatre. I feel it is meant to be. Mr. Whittaker will ultimately do work in the theatre that he dreamt about (like "Equus," which I will watch in the audience).

Anyway, my thanks to this dear man who regularly sacrificed his own reputation if it would be helpful to the learning experience of the student. A true patron of the arts and a man who never received the full appreciation he deserved.