Coop Goes to High School Part 4 – The Play’s the Thing

hairI returned from my summer in England just a week before school was to start for my junior year of high school, having missed my normal summer activities and been disconnected from my neighborhood friends for those ten weeks I had been gone, but also having undergone a personal transformation from my summer odyssey. I was still a shy kid, but I had a heightened sense of agency from partnering with my mom on our summer adventure in England. I was ready in this school year ahead to play a more active role charting my own course rather than just going with the flow of my school classes and current neighborhood social circle.

The first new opportunity presented itself Labor Day weekend. I was friends with Chris who lived across the street and his older sister Laura, who was actually a schoolmate at Pioneer High, though we had not had any classes together. Laura had invited her new friend Judy, who I had not met before, over to spend that last holiday weekend before school started and so Chris invited me as well. Doing a sort of camp out/slumber party thing we all ended up sleeping together in sleeping bags on their screened in porch. Judy and I ended up next to each other and started talking, and kept talking, late into the night about everything, finally falling asleep and waking up in the morning bleary but newly found buddies. Judy and Laura were both 16 and soon to be high school juniors like me. I was 15 (I’d skipped kindergarten so was generally a year younger than my classmates). Chris was 14, headed into ninth grade now at Pioneer High because Ann Arbor had just made the transition from grade 7 to 9 junior high to grade 6 to 8 middle school.

Judy actually lived in the neighborhood, on the other side of Burns Park from us. Shy me might not have continued the relationship beyond that magic weekend, but Chris kept suggesting that we go over to Judy’s house, which we did. I think Chris had a crush on her too, but at 14 he figured it was hopeless for him except with me as a sort of vicarious gobetween. Judy enjoyed Chris and I visiting her and, after several visits, she and I became a couple of sorts. At least we were boyfriend and girlfriend in Chris and his sister Laura’s eyes. I think that was just about all of the scrutiny of this relationship that I could bear at the time. When not hanging out with Chris and/or Laura, we spent most of our time together alone, or talking for hours on school evenings over the phone.

I was still too shy to even kiss her, and don’t know if she never tried to kiss me because she was equally shy or she just did not want to risk scaring me off. We did hold hands and hug each other, even lying on top of each other when we had some privacy, but fully clothed and never kissing, let alone any sort of making out. I still think of her when I hear her favorite song at the time, “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond, which was constantly on the AM radio that fall…

Cracklin’ Rosie, make me a smile
Girl, if it lasts for an hour, that’s all right
We got all night to set the world right
Find us a dream that don’t ask no questions yeah

I don’t recall Judy and I ever going out on what could be considered a “date” or being invited and going to other people’s parties as a couple. She and I did occasionally join that larger circle of neighborhood friends who after one year of high school were ready to plunge into that whole stereotypical high school scene. We went to the pep rallies and football games together, more like denizens of the previous 1950s decade than this current wilder one. We drove around weekend evenings in my friend’s VW bug (he was oldest of our cabal and had gotten his driver’s license) looking for opportunities when no one seemed to be home or otherwise watching to throw rolls of toilet paper into the trees of the houses of some of the other kids we had gone to school with in junior high. For no particular reason I can recall other than it seemed a shared thrill of a prank. Of course, on any given weekend “TP” cruise, we would even do one of the houses of a person in our little cabal if he or she somehow was not with us that evening. That was as good a reason as any not to miss any of these jaunts. Though when your own house finally got done you at least knew that your peers were thinking about you!

My relationship with Judy lasted through the fall but then ended badly, due to my actions, which I still to this day regret. Judy had a very cute friend Caroline who the instant I met her I had a head over heels crush on. Caroline was attracted to me too, and since I generally did not hold hands with or embrace Judy with other people around, Caroline and I started flirting with each other. All this hormonal stuff was new to me, and I got swept away by it. At a big party at Judy’s house with lots of teens, music and dancing, I ended up on the couch with Caroline kissing her. In the moment it was wonderful, but the next day I was so embarrassed that I would not interact with either Caroline or Judy, and the three of us never processed that event or the end of my relationship with Judy and failure to start a new one with Caroline. Forty-three years later I’m still uncomfortable writing about it, uncomfortable that I was so timid that I essentially cut and ran, and never properly ended my relationship with Judy or pursued one with Caroline.

My class schedule for fall semester of junior year included the standard stuff – American history, American literature, chemistry and phys ed – plus my AP (advanced placement) math analysis (pre-calculus) class and my elective driver’s education. I was a year younger than most of my grademates, so I had not taken driver’s ed my sophomore year like most of them.

The most engaging of my classes was math analysis, where I recall we learned various aspects of set and number theory. Our teacher was a woman in her sixties with the spectacled gleam in her eye of a mad scientist, who was a total zealous math uber-geek, who seemed to be interested only in doing, or having us do, proofs on the chalkboard. I recall her classroom had a full wall of chalkboards in both the front and back of the class, with room for six of us to be up scrawling proofs with squeaky chalk at the same time. After the first couple weeks of ramping up with the basics, most of class time was all of us taking turns up at the boards either scrawling or presenting our proofs to our classmates. We figured out how to prove all sorts of mathematical concepts by deduction, induction and contradiction bringing in set theory logic around unions, intersections and negations. It was all so theoretical and abstract and systems oriented and fascinating to me, given my budding love of systems from all the complex war and sports games I was playing. I particularly remember proving why the sum of the digits of a number divisible by three was also divisible by three, and nine for a number divisible by nine. It seemed wildly esoteric, with no real world application that I was familiar with at the time, but nevertheless awesome.

My most boring class was chemistry, taught, ironically, by the husband of my very engaging math teacher. He brought none of the obsessive love for the subject that his spouse brought to math, seeming to drone on about the properties of elements pointing at the atomic table over and over and over again. It was so mind-numbingly boring that I was inspired to write a dystopian Jules-Verneish sci-fi short story about the class (and the conventional education process in general by extension) for an assignment in my English class. In my story the narrator describes watching his chemistry teacher, a crudely animatronic character run by gears and travelling along a track in the floor perform the same routine over and over again like one of those big elaborate 19th century German mechanical clocks on the side of a building. When class finally ends we discover that our narrator is animatronic as well, spinning and advancing on his own track leading out of the room and on to his next class.

The other engaging class was American Literature, where my teacher was determined to make the class relevant to current culture. Besides some classic novelists and poets – like Mark Twain, Henry James, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost – we also read a lot of contemporary poetry by Langston Hughes and Gil-Scott Heron and song lyrics by Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell. As a budding activist and wannabe radical, I remember being particularly taken by Heron’s “The Revolution will not be Televised”, urging us to be participants in social change and not just passive spectators…

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

Or Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation” with self-criticism of smug intellectualism around those very same classic writers of American literature…

And you read your Emily Dickinson,
And I my Robert Frost,
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we’ve lost.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Couplets out of rhyme,
In syncopated time
Lost in the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.

In at least this classroom and various venues outside of school I was being exposed to a radical critique of American culture that I was increasingly resonating with. My politically active mom’s two new best friends were both feminists. Her friend Carol was a mother of three daughters and the pragmatic activist, working as an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), doing the interviews and other research to build cases against major companies in Michigan, including the auto industry, that were discriminating against women in hiring and on the job work practices. Her friend Mary Jane was the wildly provocative PhD academic radical intellectual turned hippy earth-mother of four kids. A good friend of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, she combined his ideas about the influence of communication technology on human development with radical feminist ideas about “patriarchy”, a term she was responsible for exposing me to for the first time.

After Carol and Mary Jane divorced their husbands, like my mom had done previously from my dad, the three women became like sisters, and all their kids (including me) like cousins. Each would invite the other two to all their various parties, all three being politically active in the progressive university community of Ann Arbor. I would often get dragged along, or even come along by choice, and end up sitting at the feet of these bigger than life “gurus” as they shared their unique visions of society and culture. As other teens might more conventionally embrace the values of their larger religious community, I was embracing the “religion” of feminism, particularly its more radical flavor that Mary Jane was dishing out.

Always the shy kid, I was trying to weave my growing counter-culture orientation into my school persona around the clothes that I was wearing. That fall semester of my junior year I finally got the nerve up to buy the iconic flared or even bell-bottomed “hippy” pants, and a week or two later the additional nerve to actually wear a pair to school. My more conventional go to the football games and TP friends’ houses neighborhood gang did not follow me in this fashion trend, but gratefully did not excommunicate me either.

Adding to this rich developmental brew, my former stagecraft teacher Michael recruited me to join his youth theater company, Junior Light Opera (“light opera” being the original name for musicals), most often referred to by its initials as “JLO”. He asked me if I would design and run lights for their fall production of Peter Pan, and I was thrilled to say yes. When I showed up at my first after-school session, the show was already a month into rehearsal, and it was like being let into a secret society functioning within some sort of inner sanctum of a larger more public world around it. Little had I known that this compelling company existed within the same “B” building wing of my school, with both its large auditorium and intimate “little theater” and their shared backstage scene shop and rehearsal rooms; space that I was familiar with from stagecraft classes, school plays and stage crew for outside rentals of the facility.

My memory of that first rehearsal was a couple dozen kids on the stage from age five to eighteen being directed by a young woman, Sue, just a couple years older than myself. Michael introduced me to Sue, who turned out to be a senior at Huron, Ann Arbor’s other public high school across town. She smiled engagingly, shook my hand and welcomed me, saying that she was pleased Michael had recruited me to join the show’s technical team. I was introduced to other key production staff – the choreographer, stage manager, producer, set designer, costumer, and prop master – all of them roughly my age (some I recognized as schoolmates or even classmates) or even younger than I. The only real adult in sight was Michael, and I felt like I had entered some sort of alternate reality where kids had mostly usurped the normal functions of grown ups. These kids didn’t seem awkward and semi-functional like me and most of my friends. They displayed great agency and focus, though still capable of being goofy and acting like “teenagers” if the moment seemed to call for that persona.

I attended all the rehearsals for the next several weeks leading up to the performances. Those rehearsals were Monday thru Friday starting after school around 4pm and usually going until 6 or 7 PM, sometimes later. Also Saturday mornings or afternoons. Over the course of that schedule I was busy doing my lighting design on paper and sharing it for approval by the director, choreographer, stage manager and Michael. Then climbing the forty feet up the backstage ladder to the lighting “bridge” in the high ceiling of the big auditorium where most of the big stage lights were hung, positioned and “gelled”. Each lit area of the stage is usually covered by at least two lights at approximate right angles to each other, one with a “warm” color gel in a pink or amber and the other with a “cool” color like blue. Different coloration of light hitting each side of an actor on stage makes their face and body look more three dimensional and stand out more from the background.

I had a “lighting crew” working with me, a kid I recall who was still in junior high. I would lower the rope from the bridge and he would tie each lighting instrument to it so I could haul it up the forty feet to be hung. Additional lights needed to be hung on the various rigging pipes directly above stage, and my crew and I would assemble the two-story metal scaffolding (a skill I had learned in my advanced stagecraft class the previous year) to do so.

Once all the lights were hung the lighting board would have to be configured. It was like those old phone switchboards with cables plugged into a two-dimensional grid of sockets. Each cable would route electricity to one or two lighting instruments. Each column the cables were plugged into could be controlled on the same dimmer handle for lowering or raising the illumination level for that grouping of lights. The whole lighting board was maybe six feet tall and equally wide, with its big handles looking like something out of Doctor Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Lights all set to go and lighting cues all marked in several copies of the script, my lighting crew member and I would be at the lighting board during the show on a headset to the stage manager who we would coordinate all the lighting cues with. Depending on the desired effect on stage, lights would be raised or lowered quickly or slowly and either illuminating the entire stage or creating small separate pools of light, depending on the scene.

The final week of the Peter Pan production, including tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals and finally performances in front of a live audience, were gruelling afternoons on into late evenings, and any homework I had to get done (much of it proofs for my math class) along with eating dinner had to be squeezed into the breaks in the rehearsal schedule. At least for the fall semester, I was able to manage both school work and theater work. There were four performances and the audiences, made up of family members of the performers and crew, along with other members of the local community who appreciated youth theater, seemed to enjoy the show. And I certainly was hooked, and thrilled to learn that JLO did plays year round, eight to ten a year, generally two in production at any given time, each production taking two to three months from first rehearsals through performances.

Unlike my school work, which was done just for me or even just for my teacher, this was work with much more at stake, done for a fairly large audience that was actually paying real money and hoping to be entertained. There was a rush that came from such a focused and intimate collaboration between a large group of performers and crew and a hopefully successful set of performances resulting to an appreciative audience. And it was not an activity where adults were really running everything behind the scenes and the kids just executing their instructions. Sure Michael had an overall control of the production with his hand in every aspect to some degree. But the bulk of what the audience saw in the performances, good or bad, was the responsibility of the young people in the company, particularly the various older youth playing all the key roles on stage or in the production staff off stage.

If my fall semester of my junior year had been a play itself, perhaps the culminating scene was a late fall excursion that was a merging of both the theater and counter-culture radical threads in my life that fall. My mom and her friend Mary Jane conspired, did research and bought tickets for themselves, Mary Jane’s four kids and her now ex-husband Ray, and my brother Peter and I for a performance of the musical Hair in Toronto Canada. The nine of us somehow squeezed into our big four-door sedan (not even a station wagon), drove from Ann Arbor 270 some miles to Toronto, checked in to two hotel rooms, took in the show that evening, and returned to Ann Arbor the next day.

I recall that my mom, Mary Jane, and Ray all sat in the bench front seat of our old early 1960s model Ford sedan, with Mary Jane and Ray’s youngest, age 8 sitting on her dad’s lap. (This of course was pre seat belts and would have been a horrendous tragedy if we had gotten in a bad accident… but nevertheless.) Their three sons, my brother, and I (five boys ages ten to sixteen) were all crammed in the back seat. Thus we set off first to Detroit, then across to Windsor Canada on the Ambassador Bridge, and finally the long straight trek across Ontario to Toronto passing a seemingly infinite number of farms on either side of Highway 401. We stopped briefly at the hotel and were late getting to the theater and were seated in our upper balcony seats midway through the first act.

To a fifteen year old kid who had never seen a professional theater production before, the show with all its rock music, wild costumes and dancing, was totally amazing. And then quickly came that magical moment which I can still recall vividly. In the final scene of the first act, the lights come up on all the lead actors standing on stage and chanting, facing the audience completely naked – breasts, penises and copious pubic hair in full display. It was a triumph of late 60’s “flower power” and “let it all hang out” (literally) and at least attempted to be some sort of celebration of human liberation from traditional sexual mores. That was the way I framed it in that moment, and I think Mary Jane, Ray, and most of the rest of us kids shared that view. My mom had a little bit more of that conventional prudishness in her, and I don’t recall if she ever shared with me her take on that publicly assertive nudity.

My written words cannot capture the full power of that moment and the impact it had on me then and going forward. As I keep reminding you, I was a shy kid, and somehow seeing this handful of young actors triumphantly standing and belting out a song on stage, proudly and fully exposed and unguarded, planted a seed in my mind suggesting a path forward for myself. From “Good Morning Starshine” later in the second act of the show…

Good morning starshine
The earth says hello
You twinkle above us
We twinkle below

I wanted to twinkle… even to shine if I could! And though subsequently in my own stage experience I never had the occasion to appear on stage completely nude (though I got close later that school year), it did turn out to inspire me to at least “let it all hang out” psychologically in some of the plays I would subsequently be involved in, and to as great a degree as I could manage in the rest of my life. Subsequent to Hair in Toronto, the stage was soon going to give me the opportunity to expose and explore aspects of my own personality that I had previously repressed.

Click here to read the next installment.

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