My first role in a straight play was Ruckley, the patient in a vegetative state “crucified” on the psych ward walls, in a summer theater camp production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Shaker High School when I was 16. You read that right.
His only line was “Fuck ‘em all” which we cleaned up to “To hell with ‘em all.”
It was high school, after all. My first role in a high school musical was Dr. Wilhelm Glass in “Carnival,” the millionaire veterinarian, sports car driver who comes to whisk away the magician’s assistant Rosalie with his whistling Viennese dialect.
I was playing a desiccated rock star I had modeled on Keith Richards who entered through the lobby in my last show at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. My parents were late to the show and waiting there when I stumbled through, slurring my words, smoking and swigging ice tea from a prop bourbon bottle.
My father, who was an Assistant Dean at Albany College of Pharmacy, used to come to my plays and one of his favorite reactions would be to say to me, “That was some character you played! Why can’t you play anybody normal? Why don’t you ever play a doctor or a lawyer?”
It always struck me as odd that he was already making the adjustment that I wanted to spend my life in the theater and yet he still wanted me to play figures of so-called respectability.
Surely, he knew that the best parts and the biggest challenges were the characters furthest away from the norm, right? The Oscar always goes to the drunk or the mentally challenged.
I think about this when I hear patrons dismiss a play as weird. Isn’t that what we’ve left the house for?
If we wanted a story that we were already familiar with and that was easily digestible, we can get all that from our television that doesn’t want to unnecessarily distract us from its commercials.
Isn’t part of the thrill of theater seeing something we have never experienced before, in a form that we have never encountered? To my ear, I always hear “weird” as pejorative. It’s very rare, especially as I get older, that you hear someone say, “That was so weird, I loved it!” I
I think of all the weird plays we’ve seen like “Is God Is” by Aleshea Harris at Soho Rep. It’s a spaghetti Western about two black sisters who are sent on a cross-country fratricidal revenge mission by their mother or “Good Men Wanted” by Kevin Armento at Powerhouse which depicts five women (black, white, rebel, Union) who cross dress to fight in the Civil War and whose transformation was accompanied by a slamming soundtrack and earth literally raining from the sky.
You leave these plays reborn. When you exit the theater, you can’t parse what the themes mean to you, you’re too overwhelmed with how the air feels electric on your neck and arm hair. Your senses are awakened and engaged with life anew. When you have these experiences, many other plays feel like “less than.”
The last play my father saw me in was “Cloud 9” by Caryl Churchill, which the Times Union correctly predicted in the headline of their review was “not for everyone.” The play is about the sexual revolution in England in the ‘70s and the collapse of the Empire through the century.
In the first act, I played the proper British matriarch having an affair in colonial Africa at the turn of the century and in the second act, I was a leather Teddy boy, cruising men in Victoria Park.
My parents left the Sunday matinee without offering their post-show congratulations. I drunkenly challenged my father on the phone to ask him what he thought of the play and he hated it.
Angered by the play, he didn’t think people should write plays like that, much less produce and perform in them. Once again, it felt like he was confusing me with my imaginative life in a character and dismissing me. I know he was proud of me. He had my headshot in his office and loved to tell people about my gigs being a day-player on soap operas.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if every time you entered a theater you learned something new about yourself, the world around you and–in what theater can do that no other art form can–how it can make you feel? That would be so weird!
Patrick White is a Capital Region actor/director/educator/reviewer whose next project is directing “An Act of God” at Curtain Call Theatre 4/2-4/25. Tickets: 518-877-7529 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org