Coop Goes to High School Part 6 – In Front of the Lights

Me on the right in Lord of the Flies

Me on the right in Lord of the Flies

Returning from a week of something completely different, my junior year spring break trip with my school Russian club to the Soviet Union, I was about to plunge into a new developmental phase after a recent twelve months filled with one developmental experience after another.  I was already in many ways transformed from the person I’d been that previous April.  Still shy and intimidated by most adults, and filled with a fair amount of general anxiety, but beginning to be able to define and establish myself as a unique person playing a significant role in a larger community of people.

At the moment, Junior Light Opera, the unique youth theater group I had plunged into the midst of, was my main developmental “growing edge”, along with the feminist ideologies I was being exposed to in my extended “family” of my mom’s close female friends (what I now dub my “Feminist Aunts”).  In JLO I had become a respected member and part of the leadership circle of the company and had developed and demonstrated my technical skills backstage, behind the lights.  I was now about to take the leap of going out on stage, in front of those lights and in front of an audience, waiting for me and my fellow actors to entertain and otherwise engage them.

Again, as in the previous segment of this story, I have changed the names of my friends for their privacy.

Just to be clear here, though JLO was housed mostly in my high school and led by a person who was a public school teacher, the group was not part of our high school’s program or some school related club.  It was a separate entity, a non-profit group dedicated to providing a unique youth theater program to young people from age five on up.  It had an official adult board of directors (mostly parents of some of the kids who had been participating in the group for several years) and a set of “officers” of sorts made up of young people within the company themselves.  I am not aware of any youth program since, that was as youth-led as JLO was.  The closest thing I’ve encountered is the Unitarian-Universalist YRUU older youth organization and their yearly camps and weekend conferences, which are also almost completely youth-led.

Before traveling to Russia, I had completed the hundred hours of work at my portable electric typewriter pounding out my adaptation of the dystopian novel, Lord of the Flies, to the stage and handed my script draft over to Michael and my schoolmate Kate, who had been given the job of directing the JLO show scheduled for production in May.  Upon my return casting for the show was beginning, and Kate and Michael had the challenge of casting a play with 19 male characters and not a single female character, this in a company of maybe 60 or 70 active youth participants, two thirds of them female.  So pretty much every male in the company who wasn’t deathly afraid of going on stage was recruited, even dragooned to be in the cast.

Including of course me.  How could I resist the pitch of my charismatic peer Kate not to agree to help make the show I had adapted a reality!  I had actually already been on stage as an extra in a crowd scene in the recent JLO production of To Kill a Mockingbird. I was about to do a cameo with no lines as the male half of the “Saengerbund of Herwegen”, coming out on stage hand in hand with Kate’s sister Priscilla to wave to the crowd as the second place contestants in the climactic music festival scene from JLO’s spring musical The Sound of Music.  But Lord of the Flies would be the first time with a speaking part, real lines to memorize and deliver in costume and character.

The part I tried out for and got (no surprise since it was all males on deck) was Maurice.  He is one of two of the older youth characters who become lieutenants of Jack, the main bad guy of the piece who leads the contingent of the plane-wrecked boys who go over to the dark side, bully and torment the other kids, and eventually ritualistically kill Simon and then the kid they derisively call “Piggy”.  Golding’s book is about a plane full of boarding school boys that crash on an inhabited island while being evacuated during the beginning of a nuclear war, and is an allegory looking at themes of civilization, power, morality, rationality versus irrationality, and groupthink versus individuality.

Fresh off his directorial debut on the JLO kids’ shows in February, Henry got the part of Jack and inhabited every inch of the role as the big bad.  The other lieutenant, the sadistic Roger, was played by Calvin, just a bit younger than Henry and I, who would later emerge as one of the most talented young playwrights I have had the pleasure to know, but tragically died a decade later from AIDS, robbing the world of a lifetime of his unique creativity and talent.

My character Maurice was a kid who is all about his status in the pecking order, not terribly nasty or bright, but knows who his superiors and inferiors are, and fights to keep his place near the top of the heap.  I really got into the character of this conformist follower of the big bully, a sort of kid I had run afoul of several times in my previous junior high and high school experience.  Motivated, at least initially, more by a fear of doing a bad job of playing my part rather than longing to express myself on stage, I worked hard at the difficult task of learning my lines.  I threw myself into my character’s voice and physicality with the great help of insightful direction by my schoolmate Kate, who was turning out to be every bit as comfortable and skilled wearing the director’s hat as she was as an actor on stage.

Rehearsals I recall started in earnest for Lord of the Flies in early April based on my script, including the deliciously notorious “F-word”, with 18 boys ages five to 16, me one of the oldest. Somehow word got out about our use of the expletive (I believe a kid in the cast telling their parents) and there was actually a hearing about it including parents, a school board member, and an Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation department representative (since JLO was affiliated with that organization). Artistic freedom versus the appropriateness of the material for school age youth was discussed. In the end we came to a compromise and agreed to leave the various uses of “fuck” in the evening performances, but change them to “screw” in the school an Sunday matinées. Michael, going to bat for my script with its expletives, violence and general mayhem, wrote in the “Production Note” for the Lord of the Flies program…

During our rehearsal period, an individual who is critical of this production of Lord of the Flies pointed out that “the whole play is a profanity.” Of course, that is really true, and while he meant it as a negative reaction, it is, in fact, a positive one!

Lord of the Flies is not a nice play – it is an ugly one. And while the patent obscenity is not verbalized too often, the acceptance of it exists – it has to. Young boys, thrown together in a homogenous atmosphere, will reinforce each other’s inadequacies. That’s what Lord of the Flies is all about. To try to ignore the blatantly obscene, to try to cover up their necessarily near-naked bodies, to try to blunt their savage violence, would be to compromise the statement of the play, and it would also ignore the primitive and barbaric nature of people thrown together in a situation stripped of all civilized restraints. That is the real heart of the play, and it is not nice at all – it is very ugly.

Lord of the Flies is not intended to be offensive, however – repelling, yes; shocking, yes; even disgusting; but not offensive, because offended people will not listen – and above all, Lord of the Flies must be heard – and heeded. It tells us a lot about what we are doing to ourselves and where that will lead us. We must listen to that.

Then Michael goes on to write in that program note a short manifesto of sorts, spoken from the speaking position of a young person rather than an adult, based on my passion and that of my fellow youth cast and production staff for this sort of play…

This production represents a major departure from the established norm for JLO. It does not mean we endorse the propriety of what we have produced; it does mean we have the right and responsibility to comment upon the nature of the world about us, and to do so without fearing hysteria or prejudice. We will inherit this world – such as it is, and our reactions are important. But too much time is spent shielding us from ugliness, letting us think that if we ignore it, one day it will go away. And increasingly we are all paying for this neglect – the rising crime rate, the lack of respect for our laws, the increased incidence of drug, liquor and sexual abuses, the lack of self-respect, all are manifestations of the failure to face the realities in our world. The longer we hide from ugliness, the uglier it gets.

We live in a fool’s paradise – at once we try to surround ourselves with an antiseptic world and then we send our young off to die in Vietnam – a veritable sewer. No wonder young people treat Lord of the Flies seriously – it is a statement about the hypocrisy that is all around us. To react hysterically to youth’s realization of the truth is pure folly, and we will rue it.

Lord of the Flies grapples with several truths; it does so calmly and without embarrassment. Anyone who cannot accept Lord of the Flies in that light has no business dealing with life.

Another exciting and provocative element of the production was the costumes and all the stage blood needed for the later scenes. The characters start out in the white shirts and dark slacks of their school uniforms but soon resort to a new uniform more befitting their descent into savagery, animal skin loin clothes – very brief and rather risqué.  And for the scenes where there was blood, particularly when Piggy is killed in a ritualistic frenzy, the young women in the stage crew, all wearing black pants, black turtleneck tops and caps (like a bunch of catburglars) hid in various places under and around the set with turkey basters full of the stage blood mixture, which they would squirt on our near-naked bodies at the appropriate moments in the scene.  You can probably imagine our performances – kids on stage from five to sixteen in the skimpiest costumes carrying spears smeared with blood and occasionally shouting “fuck the rules” (or “screw the rules” during matinees).  What more could a 16-year-old playwright dream of in a provocative theater experience.  Not quite the full frontal nudity of Hair, but as close as we could get away with.

Since the costumes weren’t ready until right before our performances, Kate proactively addressed any discomfort we might have in our brief costumes by having us rehearse the second half of the show during our final rehearsals in our underwear without tee-shirts on.  The other thing to note is that since so many of us male types were in the cast, the shows stage crew was almost exclusively young women.   Imagine the scene of a seventeen year old young woman directing 18 male youth in their underwear while a stage crew of young women watch from backstage, many probably enjoying these nearly naked male peers.  It was all very heady stuff for me, actually being part of the cast instead of a “techie” backstage.

It rained and then it poured.  My comrades, sisters Kate and Priscilla decided to perform the climactic final scene of The Innocence, that they had performed that past December as part of our JLO production of the play, as a multiple reading for our high school’s forensics team in the spring district competition.  This activity involves presenting a written piece involving more than one reader, all at podiums with no staging.  That final scene they wanted to do required three readers, the housekeeper, the governess, and the young boy, Miles, who is essentially exorcised of a demon thru a gut wrenching confession which leads to his death.  In our theatrical performance, Miles was played by a very talented actor in our group who was in middle school, but for this multiple reading they needed someone from our high school to play the part.  So Kate and Priscilla buttonholed me one night at Lord of the Flies rehearsal to play the part of Miles in the multiple reading.  Facing my two charming female comrades there was no way I could say no.

We rehearsed after school during breaks in other rehearsals, and with their constant encouragement I got into my part and was able to vocally portray a young boy fearfully coming to grips with his demonic possession, ending the dramatic final scene raising my voice and screaming out the name of my possessor before dying.  It was an exciting piece, the kind of angsty and overwrought stuff that appealed to my teenage self.  When we performed it in front of the forensic tournament audiences it was well received and I enjoyed the rush of putting on a show for the audience of this very disturbed young man losing it completely.  After we came in second place in the district competition and then again in the regional one, I was hooked.

While at the competition, we had the opportunity to watch the other multiple reading groups we were competing against.  The best, and ultimately the first place to our second at both district and regional was an imaginative reading of a Ray Bradbury short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains”, from his book The Martian Chronicles.  The story is about a “smart house” in the year 2026 that continues to go through its programmed tasks even as the reader comes to realize that all its inhabitants have been killed in a nuclear war.  One reader read the narrator part while the others were the various household devices activating in their daily programmed sequence.  Where our piece was Gothic horror, this one was apocalyptic sci-fi, and it made a big impression on me, and having a creative writing assignment for my English class, I was inspired to write my own such piece.

High school English also exposed me to the dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World and their rail against future totalitarian societies bereft of human liberty. Though at much lower levels of magnitude, I was beginning to feel that sense of externally programmed life as I would often sleep-walk through my high school class day, particularly through some of my classes where it seemed we talked about the same boring thing every day. The pinnacle of this zombie thrall was my eleventh grade chemistry class taught by Mr. Keisling. He was a tired old man with a slow deadpan delivery trying to teach us the periodic table of elements in the most uninvolving, uninteresting instructional way, employing the strategy of repetition to try and burn the key chemical properties represented in the chart’s columns into his students’ brains, given that ninety percent of us did not give a crap about it. Fodder for drama indeed.

So in one of my more irreverent moods, inspired by Bradbury’s “Will Come Soft Rains”, and to satisfy a composition assignment in my English class, Keisling’s chemistry class inspired me to write a short-story titled “The Keisling Clock”. My story chronicled me as the student entering my chemistry class, sitting down and preparing to witness the teacher once again lecture on the periodic table of elements. I portrayed Keisling as the human-like prop of a mechanized clock, like those complex animated clocks on the sides of Bavarian buildings or one of those old animatronic displays at Disneyland.

He would move into class along his guide rail, spin to briefly acknowledge the students and chide them to quiet down, turn 180 degrees to face the blackboard and proceed to reproduce key aspects of the periodic chart on the blackboard while verbally emanating his inane deadpan patter. I went into great detail of the mechanisms of gears and rails that guided and circumcised his every action, with the implication that we the audience for this clock chiming the hour saw the same show every day.

Trying to emulate Bradbury, my story’s final ironic kicker was that, as class ended, I revealed that I was also a mechanism attached to my rail with my gears causing me to rise, rotate and glide out of Keisling’s clock/class to my next period’s venue for what was now revealed to be a much larger “clock”. Yeah a teenager’s heavy handed ironic literary sledge hammer perhaps, but at the time I thought I was very clever. I don’t recall what grade I got from my English teacher on the piece, but it was emblematic of my growing dis-ease with much of my experience in my high school classrooms. Some were better than others, but if I was really honest with myself, I would not choose to be in any of them, choosing to focus all my time on my deep dive into theater and my JLO community instead.

JLO for me was not just the compelling experiences mounting and presenting plays, but also participation in a community with other older youth peers where we were building very strong personal connections with each other, including a significant amount of intimacy. This even involved sexual intimacy for some of my peers, going off to some dark corner of the auditorium to make out (both straight and gay encounters I believe occurred), which was way beyond anything that I would be comfortable with. I don’t recall Michael, as the only adult usually present for our many rehearsals, attempting to police our behavior off stage or set, being generally accepting that this was natural behavior for older youth.

I was still such a bundle of conflicting fears and longings. I continued to be intimidated by most adults, particularly those a generation older than Michael and including most of my other teachers. I was becoming much more comfortable with my peers, particularly in the safe space of my JLO group, which was like a friendly and loving intentional community nestled within a larger high school milieu of adults and student peers that felt neither intentional, friendly or loving, more institution than community. Though continuing to wrestle with my general anxiety and timid in the area of girlfriends, boyfriends and romantic relationships, I was still affected by my libido, and longed for more closeness and intimacy with several of my female comrades in the group, while not comfortable partnering with one as an identified “girlfriend”.

Given that, JLO still presented me with some profound developmental experiences (a big part of my “growing edge”) in this area of intimacy with my peers. A particularly memorable and significant event for me was a weekend trip Michael decided to make to a theatrical supply company in Chicago, to see if we could sell some of the school’s old stage lights for a few newer more effective ones.  Four of us ended up going with him.  I had just turned 16 and Henry was a year younger than I.  Natasha was a classmate of mine and Maggie maybe a year older.  We had all had the opportunity to work with each other on at least two of the recent JLO shows, so we all already had that growing sense of camaraderie and bonding with each other.  This was going to be an overnight trip so we all must have gotten okays from our parents.  My mom was good about this sort of stuff, always trusting me and judging me mature enough to do things on my own.

The five of us met Friday immediately after school, loaded the big clunky lights into the back of Michael’s station wagon and headed off on our adventure.  The plan was for Michael to drive two hours to Niles Michigan, spend the night at his mother’s house there, and then head the final couple hours to Chicago Saturday morning, get our business done and then drive all the way back home Saturday night.  The whole way to Niles, Henry, the youngest but an actor and the most gregarious and extroverted of our foursome, led us in singing songs, Michael driving and approvingly joining in.  Henry was riding “shotgun” in the front seat, with me between Natasha (who I had a mad crush on) and Maggie, two vivacious and striking young women.  It was that sort of early spring day after a long cold winter when everything was in bloom and there was a sensual, even erotic, electricity in the air.  By the time we got to Niles, the bond among the four of us had only intensified and any shyness between us (including shy me) had been sung away.  We were thespian brothers and sisters, flower children on a shared quest and feeling a deep spiritual connection to each other, though really only four teenagers and a not quite thirty-year-old man.

Michael’s mom lived in a big old house on a large piece of property.  She was a larger than life eccentric character like her son, put out fixings for sandwiches for dinner, and regaled us while we ate with stories from her past, including how she saw the 1929 stock market crash coming and pulled all her money out of the bank just in time.  Throughout the evening Michael would make the occasional attempt to “fact check” some of her most extravagant claims and the rest of us ate contentedly and enjoyed her stories, real or fabricated.

I recall her big house had at least four bedrooms.  Michael was in one, his mom in hers and two more available to the four of us, presumably one for the boys and one for the girls.  But that was not to be.  One of the remaining rooms had a big king sized bed and the four of us, perhaps initially at Henry’s suggestion decided we were all going to sleep in it.  Stripped down to tee shirts and underwear we all climbed under the covers – boy girl boy girl – in very close quarters, body touching body.  It was a platonic but physical intimacy, hugs and cuddling but no making out.  Certainly the conventional excursion with older youth would have had some fairly tight chaperoning, particularly with both teen boys and girls participating.  But Michael was anything but conventional and neither was 1971 for us denizens from a progressive college town like Ann Arbor in the midsts of the sexual revolution and before AIDS.

The next morning we were up, bowls of cereal for breakfast, and the four of us out for a walk in the woods and meadow adjacent to the big property.  We walked four abreast holding hands on a second juicy spring morning, Henry leading us in several songs as the mood struck him.  Then we said our goodbyes to our host and piled back into Michael’s car and finished our journey to Chicago.  Long story short, our effort to sell the clunky old stage lights was unsuccessful.  But the other bit of business was more so, we hooked up with a JLO alumnae, going to art school in Chicago, who had done a set design, including all the blueprints to build it, for our upcoming production of Lord of the Flies.  After dinner at a fast food restaurant, it was a long four hour drive back to Ann Arbor, with more singing and tired heads in the back seat getting their neighbor’s willing shoulder to rest on.

The weekend was hugely developmental for me, having now “slept with” three of my comrades and processing that very intimate, though mostly platonic experience, like the traditional courtship practice of “bundling”, as described in Wikipedia…

By word of mouth from Victorian times: In Buckinghamshire (England) it is understood the practice involved each of the young people being put into a sack, or bag, which was tied closed at their neck. They were then allowed to sleep together, each in their own sack. They could cuddle one another, but that was as far as they could go. The practice was not limited to the time of the year and was not uncommon during the 19th century. No doubt this was also practiced in other counties in England.

Just turned sixteen and still seven years away from losing my virginity, this was enough, at least for the moment, to ease if not fully satisfy my libido. Though it was Maggie, Natasha and Henry that I had had this intimate experience with, it could have happened with any number of my JLO peers at the time given similar shared circumstance; that was how close, connected and comfortable we all felt toward each other. And I recall other “field trips” and cast/crew parties after shows where to a lesser degree the same sort of intimacy was shared.

So much had happened to me that April of 1971. My sixteenth birthday. Getting my driver’s license. Going to the Soviet Union. Reading a part (a dramatic death scene even) in front of an audience for the first time. Sleeping the night cuddled in the same bed with three of my comrades. Rehearsing my first big stage experience, often in my underwear. It all opened so many new possibilities for my life ahead, some of which I was not yet ready for, but would be in time.

JLO’s production of Lord of the Flies finally had its four performances in May. Two evening performances including “fuck the rules” and two high school student matinées substituting “screw” instead, but all four laced with the show’s violence, bloodshed and near nudity. I remember that in each performance, at that point in the middle of show when the lights came up on our first scene in our loin cloths, spears and painted faces, a hush came over the audience, and I imagined people saying to themselves “oh my god!”, and me loving that moment.

I was out there on stage in the hot lights, nearly naked, growling my lines in character, standing proud and fierce, finally in front of the world, at least for those moments. It was intoxicating, addicting, and though I could not be my full self yet in the regular world, here on stage maybe I could.

Back in March, the older youth in our show’s production team responsible for publicity had got in touch with the theater critic of the Ann Arbor News who had done an article on me, the 15 year old who wrote the script for the play. That same critic came to the show and wrote a review, calling the play “flawed but suspenseful”, which was probably a pretty accurate three-word summary, but good enough for me.

The whole thing was an incredible experience for me, taking an idea from conception through script writing and language controversy, and then participating in the production in front of an audience as a real actor for the first time. Heady stuff for a teenager with low self esteem but delusions of grandeur.

And somehow, though I had gotten a number of “C”s as midterm grades in my high school classes, I managed to salvage “B”s for all my semester grades. That including a “B-” in my math analysis class, where my maniacal math teacher must have been disappointed by my waning engagement and performance during that second semester, when I lost my interest in math and science in favor of the arts.

Click here to read the next installment.

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