Saturday, January 21, 2012

"It's based on a novel by a man named Lear."

Thinking about Vaclav Havel's death on December 18th, 2011, reminded me of my first introduction to the man's work in 1968.

After being disillusioned with my senior year at John A. Rowland High School, Rowland Heights, California, this once enthusiastic, can't wait for college life misfit, arrived for duty at the humble Mount San Antonio College, in Walnut of the same state of the union, if not of the same state of mind.  It wasn't a bad campus.  It was just me.  I was tired from battles over dress code from gender confused principals and macho PE coaches.  Now in an environment that should have been nurturing, I felt numb.  I hated all the classes except English, Speech and Drama.

The Drama Department and Theatre were located in the front of the school, rather to the left (naturally), somewhat raised and landscaped.  This was my refuge. The Green Room was large (much larger than the closet that was Santa Barbara City College's).  Everyone smoked.  If you were an ACTOR, you smoked.  And the more ECCENTRIC your smoking choices, the better impression you made, darling!  French cigarettes, Egyptian cigarettes, English Ovals, coloured papers, Virginia Slims or Eves FOR THE BOYS!  Marlboro Menthols (hard to find at that time...you had to drive to a Safeway store in El Monte to get a carton), Mapletons (which had maple flavoured pipe tobacco in them--harsh, not for wimps or anyone who wished for normal breathing after consumption).

The Green Room.  A nice place to lounge and smoke and pose and probe.  A salon for suburban Gertrude Stein babies.  Not exactly the Algonquin Table.  More the Foot Stool.  But still, a bunker from the outer world.

Most of us were unaware at the time of how progressive the Mt. SAC Drama Department was.  I had fallen under the spell of the department during my senior year at high school.  Our drama department had been invited to see their production of Ondine.  I observed the various performers onstage and afterwards off.  Many of these 'older theatricals' would become dear friends the following year.  After that initial show, under the direction or production of Drama chief Carter Doran, the department would do works of Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Miller.

In high school, I foolishly thought myself the top thespian.  Always the lead, turning parts down.  But at SAC, I didn't get my pick at the parts.  I auditioned for Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, fully confident that my flawless English accent--the accent that got me a job on FM radio--would serve up either of the leads.  As Bluebottle would say, "Not a sausage."  Of course, I'm sure I was lazy, undisciplined and probably a smartass at the time, if not still...so.

My second audition for Carter Doran was more fortuitous.  He was excited to be bringing to the stage the West Coast Premiere of an obscure new Czech play called The Memorandum.

This new play was Havel's Franz Kafka meets Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows satire of a totalitarian corporate world, trying to instill a single, emotion free language, to the confusion of an Everyman employee.  It was Havel's rage against Communist interference and early Nazi echoes.

I wonder if Terry Gilliam read or saw this play before doing Brazil.

Carter Doran had decided on doing a somewhat gender bending interpretation of the work.  All the jackboot types were made to look like the current wave of dandy-clothed, neo-hipsters.  Long haired, lace wearing, lovers of lunch.  Armed with forks and knives.  The radical was the confused, drab looking common man of the Fifties variety.

The new, single language of the industrial future was called Ptydepe.  And I was it's instructor, Lear.  My Brian Jones-like haircut, John Lennon wire frame glasses and ease in a comfort for wearing lace sleeved shirts, got me the part.

Unfortunately, Carter Doran's enthusiasm for the play was considerably dampened when he discovered his West Coast premiere of the work was going to be eclipsed by a production opening sooner at LA City College.  I believe I may have discovered this information and had to break the news to him.  This also may have changed his interpretation as rehearsals continued.  Among the ironies, the LACC production was directed by Dr. Pope Freeman, the man who would later take the reins of Santa Barbara City College's drama department from Max Whittaker, and the Alhecama Players at the Lobero Theatre.

Carter Doran's production was a good one and I was happy to do a more progressive theatre work than the Kaufman & Hart plays I had done in high school and with the Diamond Bar Players.  Even though I wasn't fully aware at the time of Havel's dissident activities, the play's political tone moved me to my next involvement in Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade at Cal State Fullerton.

During this time, I got to know Carter Doran better than my first days at Mt. Anxiety College (as I called it on Space Pirate Radio, located not far from the Green Neon Motel).  He would be trumped a second time by Pope Freeman, after he applied for the position of SBCC's Drama Head.

Years after I had moved to Santa Barbara, I accidentally met him line at the Roxy Theatre where we were going to see the original Hollywood stage production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  We stayed in touch until his passing.  I liked him.  No disrespect to Pope Freeman, who I worked with quite a bit, pictured here before on Man of La Mancha and the TV show Crackers at Eight...but I wonder how the Santa Barbara Theatre scene would have been if Doran had been given the gig.

As to Vaclav Havel, I'm not sure.  A radical at the beginning.  Hated the oppressive Communist regime. Loved long haired Rock.  Hippie Radicals are loved in the West as long as they hate challengers to the free market.  Put them at Kent State or Occupy Wall Street...anarchy!  When  Havel came to the U.S. and met the Chairman of the Board: "God Bless...President Bush" or something very close, he rejoiced.  I cringed.  Trading in the KGB for the former head of the CIA.  Oh, my.

Havel smoked a lot.  Supposedly he died from this.  His hero, Frank Zappa, smoked a lot.  Supposedly he died from this also.

I quit smoking in 1974.  Don't hang around in Green Rooms anymore.  I do miss the furniture.  And quite a number of friends.

Still, just to be sure...check all credentials at the door.