At the end of each previous school year, I was jubilant to have survived another “tour of duty” and be liberated, at least for the summer, from society’s schooling requirement imposed on my developmental path. Finally finishing my senior year, there was a measure of that usual relief, along with a sense that somehow the ball was now finally in my court. What to do next was no longer mandated, but up to me. As I walked that big impersonal marble hallway of Pioneer High School for my last time as a student, the nihilism (an ideology that I had learned in my Modern Russian History Class was very different than anarchism) of Alice Cooper’s hit song, “School’s Out”, resonated with every fibre of my being…
Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys
Makin all that noise
Cuz they found new toys
Well we can’t salute ya
Can’t find a flag
If that don’t suit ya
That’s a drag
School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces
No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher’s dirty looks
Well we got no class
And we got no principles
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes
Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not go back at all
School’s out forever
School’s out for summer
School’s out with fever
School’s out completely
Completely! But no actually! I was planning to go off to college in the fall. Yet another year of pencils, books and teachers evaluating me and my work. That’s what everyone did who was smart and got sufficient grades and college entrance test scores, right? With my grades and test scores, not to go off to college would be an indication that I had some fallen off the human development wagon, missed the last train out of Berlin. Particularly in a university town, college is seen as the next inevitable step in the development of a “bright” kid, and because all the academics associated with the university were the intellectual elite, all their sons and daughters were certainly “bright”.
During my junior year it was my mom who had made sure I signed up for and took the SAT and the ACT college entrance exams. I recall being ambivalent about the tests, and almost missing the sign-up date for the SAT, drawing an angry lecture from my mom about keeping my options open to have the opportunity to go to a good school. My mom and dad had been the first children in both their families to go to college, my dad doing so after serving in World War II and qualifying for the GI Bill, my mom at my dad’s urging. I had scored well on the tests, particularly on the math sections, which was ironic because by the time I started thinking about which colleges to apply for I was pretty much done with pursuing math or science.
So given my ambivalence, along with all the societal pressure to stay on that academic train to success, I half-heartedly applied to two schools, my hometown University of Michigan, and Western Michigan University a hundred miles west in Kalamazoo. The former was the absolute path of least resistance for a kid whose parents were alums, who had gone to and rooted for the football and basketball team all his life, had haunted the university’s Graduate Library during high school, and had a number of friends who were planning to attend, including a number of my Junior Light Opera theater group comrades and my new best friend Jerry. But the latter because I had heard that they had a very good theater program, and better than the one at UofM. I was of course pleased to get accepted at both, and probably would have been crushed to be spurned by either.
I had decided against that path of least resistance and to go off to college at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where I knew noone. I was certainly attracted by their reputation for having a good theater program, but more important I think, I believed at some level that I had to throw myself in the deep end to continue with my development. Hadn’t I done that when I had volunteered to write the script for Lord of the Flies? When I had tried out for and got the part of Will Parker in Oklahoma, throwing myself out in front of the stage lights to sing and dance, two skills I did not think I had? This is just how a shy, even timid kid who had great ambitions could make himself move beyond his limitations! Society’s conventional expectation addressed, irritant removed, it was back to the here and now.
And though I was not really comfortable spending a lot of focused thought and effort planning my future, I did take action to hitch a ride on another future plan. My JLO buddies Lane and Angie, who were best friends and had both become close friends of mine as well, had made a plan to go to Europe together after graduating from high school. I told them that I’d love to join them, and though in retrospect I may have been a third wheel crashing their party, they said I could join their adventure. Well now graduation was past. The three of us were all very involved in JLOs ambitious “American Stage Festival”, staging four big musicals in repertory over the summer. We all had enrolled in college for the fall, the two of them at the UofM locally, and me at Western in Kalamazoo. So we agreed to put it off a year and look to go next fall.
I seemed to have an attraction for people who were best friends with each other. In this case female friends Lane and Angie, but also my male friend Jerry and his longtime neighbor and best friend Avi. I liked that deep level of connection longtime best friends had with each other, and it was a level that I strived for in my own relationships with people. Just give me a few people I can be really really close with, people who knew me inside and out and still appreciated the whole package, quirks, warts and all. Once I got to that point in a relationship I could move beyond my natural reserved nature and be my unique, often tending toward the flamboyant and unorthodox, self.
With summertime and no school or summer job to suck up my time, I was devoting almost all of those long free days to my theater work with Junior Light Opera. JLO had launched on a very ambitious summer “American Stage Festival” of four major musicals – 110 in the Shade, The King & I, The Fantasticks, and Your Own Thing – done in repertory from July 5th through the 23rd, and I was involved in three of the four productions. Work on the shows had begun in May, while school was still in session, but now that school was out, rehearsals and work sessions for these simultaneous big shows filled my day morning to night. Twelve hour days were common, a rehearsal on one show followed by a work session on the lights or set for another and so on.
Michael, JLO’s adult executive director, benefactor and majordomo was attempting to reinvent his unique mostly youth-led theater troupe with a broader scope, including soon to be incorporating it as the performing arts department of the new Ann Arbor Community High School being launched in the fall. Here’s how he described his vision for the company going forward in the program for the summer shows…
THE AMERICAN STAGE FESTIVAL is the new performing name for ANN ARBOR JUNIOR LIGHT OPERA, a unique theatrical venture which is five years old this year. JLO has traditionally provided a professionally-oriented opportunity for the young artist to learn his craft in an atmosphere which fosters and encourages his talent. In that pursuit, JLO has been unique. But our name has worked against us lately: What started out to be a group of junior high school kids producing musicals turned into a far more wide-ranging activity. We are no longer “junior” — we serve actors, artists and technicians from the ages of four through 70. We also are no longer exclusively “light opera.” We produce all kinds of theater — straight plays, musicals, reader’s theater, concert dance pieces, symphonies, children’s shows. road shows, television productions, you name it. Our performers work all over the country with amateur and professional productions, and we are endorsed by professionals in all aspects of the theatrical field. We are a member of the American Theater Association and the American National Theater & Academy. We are the only co-operative youth theater organization in the world. Our old name served us well; but it hardly fits anymore.
That single program for the four shows was impressive in itself, listing over a hundred youth and a handful of adults involved in the cast, crew, production staff, and as musicians. Many of us were in the cast for one or two shows and crewing or in the orchestra for the others. It looked for all intents and purposes like a professional repertory theater company, but more than ninety percent of the people listed on the program were eighteen or under.
As we had done for the musical Celebration back in April, Michael had booked a major University of Michigan theater venue, in this case the Lydia Mendelssohn theater, located in the old brick Michigan League building right in the middle of campus. We had the theater for almost the entire month of July, and it became an anthill of activity seven days a week and twelve to sixteen hours a day, with youth from age five on up streaming in and out, attending final rehearsals and performances, building sets, organizing costumes and props, doing makeup, setting lights, scarfing down brown bag and take-out meals, and having various impromptu meetings to keep all this activity coordinated.
My comrade Priscilla, now eighteen, who along with her sister Kate had convinced me to do my first acting gig fifteen months earlier, directed and did the choreography for 110 in the Shade, which included the always formidable task of getting two-left-feet me to passably dance in my musical numbers. I had a second-lead part as Noah, the misanthropic older brother of the female lead Lizzie, played by my stage romantic partner Molly from last summer’s Oklahoma! Now playing siblings, we still had that chemistry between us, and I suspect another potential real-life romance opportunity that went right over my head. I also had a couple scenes where I spar and tussle with the male lead Starbuck, played by the imposing and charismatic Leo who, even though he was just acting, could be so intimidating that it took all my concentration not to wilt in front of him when our characters went mano y mano during a scene. Molly and Leo were the stars, though I think I did a reasonable job playing the heavy of the show, including a line I still remember delivering to Molly, “Face it Lizzie, you’re going to be an old maid!” A real sweet guy!
My other role was another second-lead in the musical Your Own Thing, a rock musical from the 1960s loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, though not in the same league as Hair. My character Orson (Orsonio in Twelfth Night), was the bumbling but lovable father-figure of sorts of the piece, the manager of a pop-rock boy band. I seemed to have an affinity for these types of parts, good hearted but naive. The show was ably directed by Leo, one of the elders of our company at nineteen to my seventeen, who I was also working with in 110 in the Shade. And again like in 110, I felt I did a reasonably good job with my character and my one big musical number, “When You’re Young and in Love”.
My comrade Max, now at the august age of seventeen like me and whose charisma and talent I envied, directed The King & I. Of the four show directors, his was perhaps the most difficult, because of the logistics of coordinating such a big cast with twelve principals, more than fifty kids in the chorus, including some seventeen key “Temple Dancers”, and sixteen scenes featuring over twenty musical numbers. My friend Saul, who I had recently paired with as gravediggers in Hamlet and I had mentored in lighting design, designed the lights for the show, with me as his lighting crew. It was quite an experience for me to work in the well-equipped lighting booth of a “real theater” that had hosted many professional productions.
The remaining show was The Fantasticks, the most well known show of the creative team that wrote 110 in the Shade and Celebration. Since our company had nearly two females for every male youth, while most plays had more male than female characters, Michael and Amy the director introduced the clever twist of casting three of the male leads as females. So the show’s two parentally-challenged dads were played as moms to great humorous effect by Angie and Kate. And Alice, usually a designer and techie, lovingly played “The Actor” character as an aging diva of an actress. I with my growing feminist pedigree and wannabe radicalism and unorthodoxy of course loved the gender bending, plus it gave the show a freshness and life outside the patriarchal stereotypes about dads as semi-functional parents. It was the rare JLO show in the past fifteen months where I actually got to sit out in the audience during performances.
My brother Peter, now finished doing his time at my dreaded Tappan Junior High, was involved in three of the four productions as well. He was in the chorus for 110 in the Shade and The King & I, and designed the set for The Fantasticks. Now nearly a year since his first big role as Bilbo Baggins in the JLO production of The Hobbit, he had gotten the theater bug as well, and was planning his own deep dive into the stage world in the fall. Rather than going to my big institutional Pioneer High, he was going to be in the inaugural freshman class at the new Community High School, which would be JLO’s new home, and a more loose and liberated learning environment where he hoped to continue to develop his considerable talents for theater and the visual arts.
Over the past three years since I left junior high battered and bruised, my former sibling rivalry with my younger brother had subsided, as we shared the continuing difficult experience of our parents’ divorce and found a number of common interests. First had been our shared love of sports – playing, watching, and playing board game simulations including tabletop hockey and Big League Manager Baseball. Second was sharing the rich music of our generation, for the two of us in particular it was the thoughtful and provocative songs of Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles. Third was our shared passion for comic books and the narratives of superheroes and the super villains that challenged them. Now theater was added to the list, drawing in ways from all the other three.
The bond we had forged over these past three eventful and turbulent years was my safe anchorage that I could journey from and always knew it was there to return to even if all else failed. The depth of our connection was the closeness and intimacy that I longed for in all my relationships but could seldom achieve. How many long hours we had spent together, usually in his room, out in our yard, across the street in the park, or down in the basement, playing together or just listening to music and talking about life, our friends, culture and fantasy. We were becoming astute students of our culture from the point of view of two young people who were preparing ourselves to join it as fully vested adults.
We shared a rich fantasy life that extended and amplified every aspect of our lives. We played real sports, mostly baseball, basketball and tennis, but also made up our own baseball and hockey leagues. Our leagues included a complete array of teams and players, along with our hometown Cooperstown and Petersburg franchises. Our players had their unique styles and abilities and back stories. Even my hockey team’s coach, Kitty McBee, and owner, Manfred W. Sedgewicks, and all the issues and politics of running a sports franchise were part of the fantasy narratives we invented.
We were both avid readers of DC and Marvel superhero comics. I had a particular fascination with Batman, Flash and Doctor Strange. I particularly liked Batman’s noire world and gray-area ethical dilemmas and his nemeses Catman and later Catwoman (We had our own cats and were very into and even enamored of their quirky feline personalities). I thought Flash had particularly imaginative villains, including Mirror Master, Mr. Element and Bizzaro-Flash. Doctor Strange had the interesting cerebral combo of being both neuro-surgeon and sorcerer, protecting the earth from all sorts of mystical and magical invaders, and his comics were beutifully drawn and inked creating a wonderful visually surreal and even psychedelic world.
Our mom had been another anchor, particularly for me, as her relationship with me continued to transition from iconic parental figure to more of a fellow-traveller and peer-mentor. But her continuing difficulties and resulting frustration with her life as a divorced woman and single parent, plus her own still tenuous self esteem made her an ongoing loose cannon at times in my brother and my life. She continued to occasionally fall into bouts of depression and despair, sharing with us the anxiety of just barely paying the bills and her own loneliness for a life-partner that our dad had failed to be for her. She had come to depend on me as a confidant and a convenient vent for her angst, but now I was soon to be shipping off to college in another town a hundred miles to the west.
She was pushing forward as best she could with her own development, making the arrangements to go back to college herself and try to get her masters degree in art. She was also broadening her political activism into the feminist arena, spurred by her growing relationship with her two best friends, Mary Jane and Carol, who for me had become mentors as well as my two “Feminist Aunts”. These developments made it easier for me to consider leaving the nest, knowing that she had a growing support network beyond me.
In late July, finally at the end of the JLO American Stage Festival, with plans to leave town for college in late August, for the first time in nearly two years I had no “next play” that I was still participating in or even planning to participate in. In the past twenty-two months I had been involved in twenty-some theatrical productions either on stage or behind, at times working on as many as three at the same time.
At the end of most of those productions I had experienced a sense of loss and grieving, even though I was usually already involved in another production with the same larger group of people. But each show involved a unique set of relationships and rules of engagement that, once the show was over, would never be quite the same again. If I had collaborated with one of my comrades playing romantic partners, siblings or best friends in a particular play, then our relationship beyond the characters would develop in a similar direction with a heightened sense of closeness and sharing between us. Or if I collaborated closely with someone else or a small team on a particular technical aspect of a show, then a similar growing camaraderie even intimacy would have grown between us. But once the show was over, that dynamic that was bringing us together was no longer available, and I would invariably drift away from them and lose elements of that special connection.
It’s like I was good at having and being “comrades” (a word I use a lot) but not good at “friends”. The “comrades” relationship depends on an ongoing shared project, whereas “friends” should transcend any particular project. Having some greater effort to share work on helped me overcome my timidness and within that greater context I would forge connections, even strong connections, with others. But after completion of the project, back to just being myself, I struggled to find ways to maintain that level of connection.
So at the end of July in 1972, at the conclusion of the American Stage Festival and my day to day involvement in JLO, I recall that the sense of loss I felt was huge. Sure I was planning to be involved in theatrical productions at college, but it would be a completely new milieu with a completely new community of “comrades”. And as an introvert, new milieus usually feel more like problems than opportunities. Still I had made my choice several months earlier to leave Ann Arbor to go to college a hundred miles west in Kalamazoo. It was my budding developmental approach of throwing myself in the deepend to overcome my reluctance to enter the pool at all. But not so far away that I would not come back for some weekends and holidays and visit my “friends”, but far enough away to not be able to collaborate on any projects with my current still in town “comrades”.
Suddenly adrift from my theater community, I was drawn into my other new circle of camaraderie and even friendship with my wargaming friends Jerry and Avi and that larger circle of game nerds they were connected with. I recall that last August before I left town for college, I plunged myself into that very different world, that I found compelling. Unlike my world of youth theater, which was full of and even dominated by charismatic female peers, the world of game nerds was an almost solely male preserve, and not particularly charismatic ones for the most part. The “pack” mentality including the “alpha” competition I had experienced with groups of male acquaintances was not a dynamic where I was comfortable or cared to spend time in.
But I had found in my grade-mate Jerry another kind, caring and even sweet soul that treated me with none of that conventional jockularity and martial sparring, that I was comfortable revealing myself to, even outside of the context of a compelling project that we shared as “comrades”. Jerry was introducing me to that larger circle of game nerds at the wargaming sessions that he was bringing me into. That was where that spring I had met his neighbor and longtime close friend Avi, who I also found the same sort of connection with, almost like a younger brother. They were both abstract thinkers like me who preferred to talk about ideas than more concrete stuff like cars, sports, stereos, gossip and girls.
Probably back in that first session with the larger gamer circle back in the spring I had met Clark. He was a just graduated senior like Jerry and I who had attended our same high school but in its beyond human level of institutional bigness, I had never met. He was a very smart, nerdy, but sweet caring guy and he and I had taken an immediate liking to each other. I think it was that August when I finally saw Clark again, when he joined Jerry, Avi and I for a Friday night of gaming in the rec room basement of Avi’s parents’ house. Our agreed on agenda was to play a game called Stalingrad III, which was a variant of the Avalon Hill game Stalingrad, which I owned and had played for years.
The game was enticing to all four of us, a harbinger of things to come, because of the complexity and associated realism that it added to the simulation of the World War II German invasion of Russia. The original Avalon Hill game was a so so simulation that did not really capture the seasonal ebb and flow of the real campaign. This game, played on the same 24 by 20 inch Stalingrad board with its hexagonal grid imprinted over the geography of Eastern Europe and western Russia, had more than twice as many units (probably over a hundred for each side of the ubiquitous half-inch cardboard square pieces printed with military formation designation and factors governing movement and combat ability). It also had pages and pages of much more extensive rules than the original game, adding that complexity and realism to govern land combat, air combat, supply, weather and the special characteristics of different sorts of military units, particularly the tank and other mechanized formations. We played the game with two of us partnering to play each side, usually Jerry and Clark played the invading Germans and Avi and I the Russians desperately trying to defend their homeland until the passage of the seasons and Russia’s marshalling of their human and material resources turned the tide.
These games featured a heavy cardboard game board with a grid of five-eighth-inch “hexes” (rather than squares) superimposed over the map that the battle or larger campaign was fought on. The half-inch square cardboard units were then placed in and moved between specific hexes, sometimes even two or three units stacked in the same hex. When a lot of units were crowded together next to each other on the gameboard, it took nimble fingers to delicately stack and unstack them and move them about so as not to disturb the other units (even other stacks of units they were next to). Stalingrad III upped the ante in necessary dexterity, with so many units that the little squares of cardboard were sometimes stacked four or five high, and closely packed together, making them extra vulnerable to toppling over, particularly when the board, or the table it was on, invariably got bumped. Such a calamity would send closely packed stacks tumbling and crashing into adjacent stacks, causing great consternation to players trying to hyper focus on these four square feet of simulated countryside.
The whole experience of the four of us playing the game on a card table in Avi’s windowless basement rec room was quite claustrophobic, but we loved it, and played for hours and hours sometimes into the early hours of the next morning, sucking down sodas and snacks to keep our blood sugar up. We would discuss the dramatic events of the game as they unfolded as if they were really happening, a particular climactic battle, the fall of a major city, the onset of winter (always a big advantage to the Russians). We were all students of the history that was the larger context of the game and that a fortuitous roll of the die (which added a degree of randomness to the outcome of battles or the onset of the dreaded Russian winter) could alter irrevocably. We were gentile megalomaniacs, delighted and awed by rewriting human history, at least in our own overactive imaginations.
After hours of focus someone would finally check a clock and it would be three in the morning! And all bleary with fatigue and strained eyes we would reluctantly relent and call it a night, maybe convince Avi to leave the game up so we could reconvene the next evening for another marathon session. I would drive home and as I tried to get to sleep and the next morning (or afternoon) after I woke up, my mind would be filled with thoughts of the game, the disposition of the armies and thoughts on strategy for the next season of campaigning. These big complicated games were firing my imagination, my analytical skills, and were frankly addicting.
The last week of summer finally arrived as it always did, and with some reluctance but also some excitement I packed my clothes and other personal stuff in my grandfather George’s old Buick and got on I-94 west for the hundred mile straight shot to Kalamazoo to check in at my dorm and sign up for fall classes at Western Michigan University. I felt a discomforting sense of aloneness, but also a more positive sense that I was somehow doing at least something (if not perhaps the best thing) to push forward developmentally with my life.
In three years since I left junior high psychologically beaten and bruised, I had begun to recover my self-esteem and the sense of being the architect of my own destiny. I had surely lost the former specifically in my three years doing my time in that Tappan Junior High institution. My sense is that the loss of the latter had been happening bit by bit since I first reported to elementary school at age five to submit much of my developmental direction to the conventional expertise (for better or worse) of my teachers and the imperatives of the institutionalized education of young people that those teachers were agents of.
As I had learned, through witnessing her struggles, to see my own mother as a fellow developing soul like myself rather than an iconic parental authority figure, I was learning to see the larger community of adults I interacted with – my teachers, mentors, parents of my friends, and acquaintances of my mom’s – in a similar light. It was certainly a community that I and my peers were attempting to prepare ourselves to enter. And the adultist conceits that many (but not all) of those community members practiced to manage their interaction with and circumscribe the development of us young pretenders were becoming transparent to me, as I was learning the mantra of “question authority”, and I vowed in my own counsel to never succumb to those aspects of adult privilege once I achieved it.
But I was far from being a fully realized incarnate soul, particularly due to my repeated discomfort and inability to have any sort of a functional romantic and sexual relationship with any of my peers who had expressed an eagerness to engage in one with me. I was now headed off to the more young adult world of college where there would be increasing opportunities and even perhaps more peer pressure to engage in these sort of relationships. I still did not feel I had the confidence or the experience to do so. (And in retrospect it was a full six years later before I was able to do so!)
But positively and perhaps most importantly, I had discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) and developed my “agency”. That is, the ability to see something, even something difficult and imposing, that I wanted to do and figure out how to make it happen, even despite a number of obstacles. The summer after my sophomore year I had led my mother and brother out of a travel meltdown in Brussels Belgium. My transformative junior year of high school I had adapted a book to be performed as a stage play. I had also ventured in front of an audience to perform and even sing and dance, two things I would have previously denied the ability to do. My senior year I had taken the reins of my own school curriculum and had shaped it much more to my own liking. Given sufficient motivation, I could overcome my shyness and timidity and make things happen.
Going back to the musical Hair, which had set the tone for my whole high school experience, and the song “Good Morning Starshine”…
Good morning starshine
The Earth says hello
You twinkle above us
We twinkle below
I had learned how to twinkle, at least occasionally, from my unique point in the larger cosmos. So so much work still to be done, so much rehabilitation still ahead to again bring forth the exuberant but still tenuous soul that had been born into this body. As I headed down that westward road to Kalamazoo, and a westward orientation that would six years later take me to Los Angeles to throw myself in one of the world’s very biggest pools.