Coop Goes to High School Part 8 – Starting Senior Year

JLO's 1972 production of Oliver! on the set I designed
JLO’s 1972 production of Oliver! on the set I designed
For the past eleven years, as my summer vacation waned each August, I would avoid for as long as possible thinking about having to go back to school. When that moment finally came and I had to focus on getting ready, I would prepare my tender psyche as best I could for all the new situations I would be thrown into and all the new people I would encounter who I did not know, and did not know me. The latter had always been particularly problematic for me, because I was shy and I hated being judged by other people, particularly people who I had not had the long time I typically needed to establish “diplomatic relations” with them. Those “diplomatic relations” involved the other person accepting and respecting me for all the aspects of myself that I had revealed and my doing the same for them. The more I could reveal over time the stronger the relationship became and the more I could relax and be myself. Any person I could not establish this sort of pact with I would avoid as best I could. School seemed always to be a problematic venue for my sort of interpersonal “diplomacy”.

First of all the adult teachers were essentially my “superiors” and would generally expect me to interact with them and respect them without necessarily giving me the chance to go through my “diplomatic relations” process with them. When it came to having a formal relationship with someone, that was just something I had never gotten comfortable with, formality always feeling like distrust or even hostility to me. Adding to the problem was that a key part of our relationship was their ongoing judgement of me, that is my effort and behavior in their classroom, which made me very uncomfortable.

All my classmates that I did not already have a relationship with were a different sort of problem. There were generally just too many of them and not enough opportunities for me to take the time to develop a relationship with each one of them. Plus there would be those who would not want to engage in my “diplomatic” process, which I would generally interpret as hostility. This was problematic because though I was shy, I still wanted to be exceptional, to shine when I could, and to play an active, vocal and even play a leadership role, when my peers granted me that position. I didn’t have the concepts then, but the way I would frame it now was that I wanted to be part of a cohort of respected equals rather than a competition to establish a “top dog”, the more conventional rules of engagement, particularly between male peers.

Each new class with a new teacher and new classmates was a source of anxiety that I would have to come to grips with, mitigate and or suffer through as best I could. Of course the reality was generally not as bad as my initial fears, and after eleven years of school I had survived it all and could draw some comfort in the fact that I probably would not encounter anything worse than I had overcome before.

So given all my longtime anxiety still kicking in to some degree, I approached my last mandated school year from a very different point of view than the year before. From my previous year’s experience, particularly outside of the classroom, I had a fairly large cadre of mutually respected peers who I had had the time to reveal myself to and had accepted who I really was. They would not necessarily be in my classes, but I knew that if I continued to be very involved in the Junior Light Opera theater group, I would be seeing them and sharing in our sense of community with each other each day after school.

So I also now finally had a much better sense of my own developmental path forward, which for the moment seemed to involve continuing participation in theatrical productions, particularly as a member of JLO, the unique youth theater group I had been participating in for nearly a year. As an active member of that group, I was learning how to collaborate with my fellow thespian comrades in the mounting of productions and then performing them in front of an audience. Whether theater might be my life’s work was something still to be pondered, but it was a compelling enterprise for me and I was learning skills around, conceiving, designing, collaborating and implementing creative presentations as a real stakeholder in the process.

In my classes, I did not necessarily feel so much like a stakeholder driving the process, but more of a passive participant. So how could I apply this new orientation of engagement I was learning in JLO to this school requirement that society was putting upon me? Yes, I wanted to graduate because I understood that I needed to do so to consider going to college, which was the conventional path forward. But I really was not ready to think five years ahead like that, now finally engaged in my present life to a larger degree than ever before. So I put that real thinking about my future aside and focused mostly on the present.

Not having any clear thoughts about any alternative paths after high school, I at least went through the motions of continuing on the conventional one. I took the SAT in my junior year and got a really good score of 1340 (760 math and 580 language arts). I applied to two colleges at least, the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor, and Western Michigan University, a hundred miles to the west in Kalamazoo, where I heard they had a particularly good theater program. I was accepted at both and decided I would go to the latter, so case closed, no one would give me a hard time about what I was doing with my future, and I could go back to focusing on my life in the present.

In terms of my senior year of school, I started the fall semester signed up for five classes, two because they were next in the conventional sequence, the other three just because they seemed interesting. The “next” two on the conventional path were Calculus and Physics, which I understood actually complimented each other, calculus having been invented to mathematically model and explain the physical laws of the universe addressed in physics. The other three were classes that I really wanted to take. I had already had my requisite two years of foreign language, Russian, in ninth and tenth grade, but since I enjoyed the language and felt it was relevant in the contemporary world of brewing detente, I was up for more. A Computer Science class was offered which intrigued me (and introduced me to my future career that I would plunge into more seriously twelve years later). Finally a Creative Writing class.

Even a month before the school fall semester started, work on the fall JLO theater “season” had already begun. Rehearsals for the first show, a small musical The Roar of the Greasepaint (the Smell of the Crowd), starting in July while Oklahoma was still in production, slated for performances in mid September in Pioneer’s Little Theater. While still in the midst of preparing for my debut singing and dancing the second-lead part of Will Parker in Oklahoma, I had signed up to be the technical director for Greasepaint, with Maggie doing the set design and Alice the lights. The next JLO show, starting rehearsals in early September and scheduled for performance at the end of October, was an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with our production including an ambitious set design featuring a large dragon (Smaug) made out of soda pop cans, with me signed on to design lights, and my younger brother Peter one of two cast to play the leading role of Bilbo Baggins.

As soon as classes started there were tryouts for the first Pioneer High Theater Guild show, A Penny for a Song, an English farce, slated for performances in mid October and directed by my mentor and JLO executive director Michael Harrah. I tried out for and got one of the lead roles as the pompous and bumbling Sir Timothy Bellboys, with many of my fellow JLO comrades playing other roles in the cast or the production staff. It would be my first big comic role, after my taste of comedic theater over the summer.

So I went to Calculus class the first week of school deeply involved already in three play productions, with rehearsals, technical meetings and set construction happening virtually every school night plus weekends. By the end of that week with a sense of the work involved in this advanced placement math class, I finally hit a wall where I realized that something had to give. My traditional academic classes and my theater work were competing for a finite number of hours in the day, a limited scope of my ability to focus, and I was feeling like I could not juggle all those balls.

So it was a watershed moment in my development and path forward in life. For the first time in my twelve years of school, I took complete control of my schedule and actually dropped my Calculus class and signed up for a Dramatic Literature class to replace it. All this abstract math was interesting from a systems point of view, but I had in fact decided that my path forward this year and into college that conventionally followed, was going to be in a different direction. (I in fact did not take another math class until twelve years later when I finally took calculus!) Though I hung in there with Physics, at least for the fall semester, all my other classes and my life outside of my classes revolved around language and the arts.

In my Creative Writing class, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story “Will Come Soft Rains”, which I had seen performed as a wonderful multiple reading at the high school Forensics competition the previous spring, and recalling my mind-numbingly boring Chemistry class last school year, I wrote a short-story titled “The Keisling Clock” after the last name of my chemistry teacher. My story chronicled me as the student entering my 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 circumscribed 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 on the piece from my Creative Writing teacher, but it was emblematic of my growing dis-ease with much of my experience in my high school classrooms, particularly in the classes I was required to take but had little interest in.

My story’s dystopian critique of school was part of a growing thread in my life of challenging conventional wisdom and embracing the unorthodox. I remember resonating with the attitude of The Who’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that I would hear often that year on the radio, acknowledging a growing sophistication and development beyond naiveté…

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

Certainly at home, my mom and her feminist best friends, my so-called “Feminist Aunts”, would regale me at parties and other get togethers with a critique of conventional society and its patriarchal practices. That was reinforced by my Dramatic Literature class, where we read Ibsen’s feminist tale Hedda Gabler and Brecht’s Galileo, mixing science, politics and religion. Political activism was already a growing edge in my mom’s life, since she was already deeply involved in local Democratic party politics and beginning her dive into involvement in the National Organization for Women and their campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Beyond my own activist mother, I continued to have two compelling mentors contributing to my life at this point. One was my mom’s best friend, my “Feminist Aunt” Mary Jane Shoultz, whose radical critique of society, incorporating the unorthodox ideas of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan as well, continued to engage me philosophically. The other was Michael Harrah, the now thirty year old founder and prime-mover of Junior Light Opera, the youth theater group I was now so involved with, whose radical approach of an almost completely youth-led organization functioning at least logistically like a real full-blown theater troupe, mounting new productions each month. A trio of activism, radical ideas, and creative expression was the growing edge of my own life.

But at this point it was mainly Michael and the talented group of young people he had created a focal point for that were creating items for my continuing developmental agenda. The JLO production of The Roar of the Greasepaint went into performance the week that school started, and upstaged (as it were) the start of classes for me. As Technical Director for the show, the interesting developmental challenge had been helping my comrade Maggie implementing her beautifully simple and elegant set design, an eight foot wide staircase, with each of the steps painted in one of the seven colors of the rainbow. Greasepaint being an allegorical sort of show with archetypal characters, the staircase worked as the unchanging “unit set”, commanding the small stage of the Little Theater, for all the scenes of this intimate musical.

Michael as usual had a provocative “Production Note” for the show…

For this production, JLO has adapted the script to comment on our generation. Youth today cries out for understanding, and yet young people are unbearably cruel and callous to each other; all too often they have no feeling for the needs of their peers. In GREASEPAINT, Cocky and Sir, two youths in any secondary school, play an elaborate game of one-upmanship, feeding their egos while destroying their psyches. Kids do that today – they do it to each other – and one fears that the tolerance we cry out for will not be forthcoming until we learn to practice it ourselves.

The musical was written by performer Anthony Newley and his writing partner Leslie Bricusse as a sort of tawdry generational battle between the older Sir and the younger upstart Cocky. Our production, with Michael’s interpretation, turned it into a struggle between two young peers, and a real showcase particularly for my comrade Henry as Sir. Henry had been part of my same bed platonic sleep together foursome the previous April, plus the commanding main bad guy Jack, that I had played second-fiddle to in Lord of the Flies last May.

With the end of this show I was in rehearsals for my leading role in the English farce A Penny for a Song, my high school’s Theater Guild production but directed by Michael and featuring JLO members as most of the rest of the cast and production staff. The other lead was my fellow JLO techie Saul, playing my character’s brother Lampert, who I had mentored as a lighting designer but now was taking his first big stab at acting.

Saul was brilliant, understated and funny. I on the other hand was not so good, my first experience with a sub par performance. It was like I was trying too hard, too much bluster and volume and not enough comic insight into my buffoonish character. My developmental learning was that comedy is the most difficult type of acting, in my character’s case having to be an idiot while not thinking that you are. Still pretty much a rookie actor, I couldn’t get beyond thinking my character was an idiot and somehow unintentionally conveying that to the audience, which made the comedy fall flat. To the extent that he could, Saul’s great performance made the show passable. Failure of course is the greatest learning experience of all, and for me what was particularly important developmentally was that I was somehow able to fail and not be completely devastated and chalk it up to experience.

As we were performing together in this play, Saul and I were collaborating with others on trying to figure out how to build and animate the big dragon Smaug for The Hobbit, and cursing Alice’s big idea to make it out of soda cans. After much frustrating trial and error, we figured out an arduous process of using a pop-rivet gun to fire rivets through cardboard panels into each can and then affix those panels to the wood frame of the dragon, rigged with ropes to have its big head and long neck descend and be controlled from off stage.

After being dragooned to play a small part in Lord of the Flies, with its eighteen male parts (in a company that was two-thirds female), my brother Peter was one of two cast as the lead, Bilbo Baggins, the beginning of his own amateur theater career that would span high school and college through the next decade of his life. There is a great picture of my brother in his hobbit costume with sword in hand facing off against the giant pop can menace.“

JLO’s next two shows, Good Morning Miss Dove and the musical Oliver!, were of course already into rehearsals when The Hobbit had its performances. That was the way things were generally working now. One JLO show would be in its final run-up to production, with technical and dress rehearsals leading up to usually two to four performances. At the same time the next show, usually set for a month later would be in the middle of its rehearsals, and the set and costumes were under construction. A third show, generally two months off would be going through casting and its initial rehearsals. We would book whatever space we could at my high school, the big Auditorium or Little Theater if we could get them, music rooms or even regular classrooms, outside patios (if the weather was okay), or even perhaps the director’s house or backyard as a last resort.

I tried out for and got a supporting role in Good Morning Miss Dove, but the big new developmental experience for me was wearing the producer hat along with designing the set for JLO’s big winter musical Oliver!.

The set design for Oliver! was a challenge. The first design I sketched out involved a complicated set with lots of elements requiring construction as well as logistical challenging scene changes. My initial design didn’t do anything for Michael, who was wearing the director hat for this big musical, and he asked me to try to do something simpler and easier to work with for a musical with a large number of scenes in different exterior and internal venues. I decided to go back in the scene shop and take inventory of all the existing staircases and other platforms. I then went home and built tiny three-dimensional paper representations of all those staircases and platforms roughly to scale and then drew out the floor of the Pioneer High auditorium also roughly to that same scale. Then I spent hours obsessively arranging and rearranging the various pieces until I came up with an arrangement that allowed for all the different venues needed for the scenes of the show.

The set was stark and minimalist. On the big Pioneer High Auditorium stage, some 40 feet across I recall, center stage was an 8’ by 4’ platform with four 8’ vertical beams supporting a platform on top that could be walked on as well. The long side faced the audience but at maybe a twenty degree angle. This platform had two narrow 8’ staircases, each with a banister on just one side, attached to it at right angles, one going up the front and the other going up the back. On the left and right of the stage were additional 8’ by 4’ platforms each 3’ tall with a small set of stairs going up the front of each. The three platforms broadly formed a semicircle that framed the main open area of the stage within it. That was it, just three unadorned platforms and four bare staircases to access them, all of which the audience could see through to the plain backdrop behind that they were set against.

Like Maggie’s staircase for Greasepaint, this was a “unit set” as well, and throughout the play none of these set pieces would move, but scenes could take place in various venues relative to the platforms. Small interior scenes could be limited to the top of one of the two side platforms plus the short set of stairs in front of each. Big crowd scenes, either exterior or interior, could be done in the big central area. For crowd scenes in the pub and Fagin’s den, they could be like basement venues, with actors entering by first climbing the back staircase of the central platform and then climbing down the front stairs. Certain key small scenes, like the London Bridge Scene, could be played (carefully) on the top of the 8’ high central platform and on the adjoining staircases. Biased as I am to my own creations, it worked beautifully, and I got kudos from everyone involved in the production.

Successfully performing my Producer role for Oliver! also involved some creative thinking in the logistical department. As rehearsals got closer to production they sometime ran through dinnertime, and the 30 to 50 kids participating, ages five to eighteen, needed to be able to buy and eat dinner. Since it was easier for most kids to bring a few bucks to buy fast food rather than to bring food themselves, I figured out a system which involved organizing and making a nightly run, generally to McDonald’s, for food. The challenge was to keep the whole thing as simple as possible and under control.

So I set up a system where I took orders from people and calculated much their order would cost. Then they would pay me for their order, but I gave no change. By not giving change (keeping that extra bit from everybody) it kept the process simple and provided a sum of extra money for the inevitable kid or two who had forgotten to bring money. I used to get a kick out of showing up at the nearby McDonald’s and placing the $100 to $200 order, including many big bags full of burgers, of fries, and trays of sodas and shakes. I and a helper would return with the haul, hole up in a small room with the array of food, and distribute the meals one kid at a time at the door to that room.

Performances of Oliver! were at the end of January right around the semester break. Beside my producer and set designer roles, I took on the task of House Manager as well, which for the first time ever had me out in the audience in front of, rather than behind or on stage during the performance, coordinating the ushers and in communication with the stage manager on when to dim the house lights, start the show, and later start the second act after intermission. I got a kick out of seeing the set I designed being put through its paces, scene after scene it its various minimalist venues, though I don’t recall anyone audience members commenting about the set. Like our last big musical Oklahoma, we had a big audience and I recall actually made money on the show, where we were typically lucky with a production to break even, Michael chipping in his personal money as needed. Those big musicals with the big casts, particularly this one with such a big kids’ chorus for the workhouse scene and Fagin’s gang, inspired lots of moms, dads and other family members to buy tickets and come see the show.

I did appreciate the explanation of and nod to my minimalist “unit set” design in this paragraph from Michael’s always interesting production notes in the Oliver! program…

This JLO production of OLIVER! brings the concept of classic unit staging to the show, adding several new elements to aid in identification of settings. But the events which take place in OLIVER! are so universal that specific scenery really isn’t necessary — the action flows easily from one place to another. So we have combined the many OLIVER! scenes — The Workhouse, The Undertaker’s, Paddington Green, The Thieves’ Kitchen, The Three Cripples, The Brownstones’, and London Bridge — into one representative setting which conveys the feeling of Charles Dickens’ London of the 1840s. And with dispensing with cumbersome and costly scenery changes, we have concentrated the focus on the relationships between the characters — where it truly belongs.

There is no assignment I got in my regular classes that was anywhere near the design and logistical challenges of my various tasks creating and rendering the set and facilitating various logistical challenges for Oliver!. In my classes I learned mostly about things and how to work on my own, whereas in my theater group I learned how to get things done working with others. Developmentally speaking, much of the project type work I do today depends on skills I first learned in my theater group work as a teen.

As I was learning to apply creative solutions to logistical problems associated with the Junior Light Opera theater productions I was involved with, I began directing that same higher level of agency and outside the box thinking to the logistically challenge of making my school day with all its classroom appearances as manageable as possible. Time spent in my classes, was time taken away from what at least felt to me as more important work down in the theater wing of our school. Classwork was intended for my benefit, but my thespian comrades were definitely counting on me staying on top of all my production work, because as the saying goes, “The play must go on”. So I began to carefully analyze each class, its learning goals, what each teacher saw as critical, and from that, the absolute minimum assignments and class attendance I could get away with.

Given what I was realizing was a very relaxed attendance policy, I was starting to engage in calculated tactical skipping of classes, either letting my teacher know I had a critical “special project” or blowing off a session altogether as if absent from school entirely that day. There never seemed to be any reckoning of days missed when I finally returned to class, particularly if I was staying on top of the important assignments and doing well on quizzes and tests, which I managed to continue to do. Fittingly or ironically enough, depending on your point of view on my class-cutting strategy, I got the best grades I ever received in my secondary education that fall of my senior year, all “A”s including an “A+” in Russian.

With these beginning steps toward managing my own day my own way I was setting the stage (as it were) for a complete orchestration of each day to my liking in my second semester, which would be continuing my “deep dive” into theater but also adding in some new compelling pursuits that were now going to be doable given my completely self-directed, self-managed school days.

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2 replies on “Coop Goes to High School Part 8 – Starting Senior Year”

  1. Few of us undertake so rich and detailed a record of our ‘coming of age’ years. And what a gift your chronicle will be to future generations if your children choose to have kids of their own.

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