Living life on my own terms, at my own cadence, surrounded by those with whom I could share a sense of real collaboration and community, that’s what I wanted. Not some day in the future after I’d jumped through all society’s hoops and proven my worthiness to be a full-fledged adult, but now, January 1972, as I pondered what classes I would sign up for for my last semester of high school. There was so much going on, as George Harrison so elegantly called out in his song “Within You Without You”…
And the time will come when you see
we’re all one, and life flows on
within you and without you.
In the national news, President Nixon’s administration was proceeding with the “Vietnamization” of the vietnam War, that my mom was still doing everything she could as a local Democratic party activist to campaign against. Mariner 9 was the first unmanned spacecraft from Earth now orbiting around the planet Mars, as human exploration of space pushed its reach farther from our home planet. Promising negotiations continued between the United States and the Soviet Union towards the first major nuclear arms reduction treaty, Salt I, lessening the fear of global nuclear annihilation that my generation of young people had grown up with. Norman Lear’s comedy “All in the Family” was premiering on television, a harbinger of a hipper and more sophisticated Hollywood culture, and a more relaxed and progressive view of American family life. And sci-fi movies were moving beyond pulp plots with films like the sophisticated Andromeda Strain about an alien contagion infecting the Earth.
Still shy but finding ways to not be so intimidated by the more social and community venues I found myself in, I was beginning to think about higher purposes, loftier goals, and the kind of people I would want to find common purpose with to have a real impact on the world. Maybe that could be on the stage, mounting compelling artistic productions that pushed society’s conventional envelope. Maybe the mass media – television and film – were more effective platforms. Maybe politics and social action, like my mom and her close friends, my “Feminist Aunts” were into, was the way to make a real difference. I was formulating lots of burning questions but nothing even remotely near an answer to any.
Back in my junior year I had befriended one of my classmates in my American History class, Jerry. We shared an interest in history and politics, and we both had that zeal of wannabe radicals. He had that right-brained, abstract rather than concrete, artist sensibility that I had. I had encountered Jerry again last fall in our Creative Writing and Physics classes, our last two periods of the school day. Given the relaxed attendance policy at our high school, Jerry and I got in the habit of occasionally blowing off the Physics class and just roaming about the school campus talking history, politics, and per Douglas Adams, “life, the universe and everything”. Since my grandfather had given me his old car and I was now driving it to school, Jerry and I had a couple times skipped both Creative Writing and Physics and left campus completely to drive over to his house, and just hang out together. I would generally return to school after classes were over for the inevitable rehearsals for one of the several Junior Light Opera theater group productions I was involved in. Jerry’s one year younger brother Paul was actually very involved in JLO as well, as a costume designer and occasional actor as well.
It had been four years actually since I had had a male best friend. During that time I had found much more of a sense of empathy and connection with my female peers. It’s still hard even now putting into words what that difference was. Women to me seemed more thoughtful, more caring and in so many ways more “grown up” and living with less pretense than men. In that regard, I was influenced by the more peer-like relationship that was emerging between my mother and I, as she shared with me so much of her struggles along with her aspirations and fears. I was influenced by all that I was learning about the struggles of women generally from the education I was getting on feminism and “patriarchy” from my mom’s best friends. Maybe I was simply more attracted to women because of my heterosexual libido and they were happy to engage with me in a more intimate and less competitive manner. Though I was afraid to act overtly on any sexual feelings for another person, maybe I was operating at some subtle level of connection that was in a gray area between erotic and platonic that was unconventional and appealing to a number of my female peers.
So somehow within that context Jerry and I were comfortable being “mates”, even “best mates”, in that British sense of the term. Though our relationship was completely platonic in terms of our behavior towards each other, somehow we were comfortable connecting with each other at a deeper level, that straddled the perhaps arbitrary line between Eros and Agape, a line that patriarchal culture had built to compartmentalize sexuality to serve its perpetuation. Maybe there was an underlying bisexuality operating, but very implicit and never explicitly acted on.
I felt that Jerry admired and was attracted to me and wanted to be with me and share his deepest thoughts and feelings and learn mine as well. There was none of that playful toughness and competitive sparring that male “buddies” at least stereotypically had with each other. As is my way, as I got to know him I was increasingly comfortable revealing myself to him, my passions and provocative thoughts. He would listen thoughtfully and comment, but only enjoy and not judge me. He was in a way my biggest “fan”, and with a more fully realized “me” starting to emerge, that relationship was very important to me. I flash on the 1984 movie Footloose, and the relationship between its two main male characters, Ren and Willard.
As we were starting to grow our relationship by the end of fall semester, we decided to coordinate our classes for spring semester as best we could. I basically had to take something to have enough credits to graduate, but beyond that no mandated classes were left. So jettisoning the second semester of Physics was our first joint decision. It was the last of the classes I was taking because it was part of the conventional academic path, and it felt good to feel like I was proactively moving off that path. Five periods to fill but only four classes needed to graduate. Second period would continue my Russian, somehow more to me than just a foreign language requirement. Third period Jerry and I decided to take International Relations, though an intriguing course title it was chosen mostly because we had heard through the grapevine that it was an easy class. I know I took something first period, but it was so forgettable that I can find no remembrance in my mind of the class. Since that was all the credits Jerry and I needed, fourth period, we signed up for study hall, which I don’t believe either of ever attended. Fifth period we both decided to take a Modern Russian History class taught by Mr. Peacock, who Jerry had heard was an actual “card carrying” communist and by all reviews a fun teacher and major league character.
Given our intention to skip International Relations as much as we could get away with, the time period encompassing that class, study hall and the “nutrition break” in between would give us a two hour block in the middle of the school day available for all sorts of adventures off campus that either or both of us would care to undertake. We’d return for our shared fifth (last) period in Mr. Peacock’s class, and presumably JLO rehearsals for me after that.
Peacock’s class did not disappoint, the man was a natural storyteller, and his stories of the four decade run-up to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 were intoxicating to a wannabe radical like myself and my buddy Jerry. He spent weeks regaling us with stories about the group that plotted and killed the Czar in 1881, the Russian revolution of 1905 and its failure to seize power, the October Revolution of 1917 ending the Tsarist autocracy, Kerensky’s brief rise to power with his Socialist Revolutionary party, the corrosive effects of Russia’s continuing participation in World War I, and the Bolsheviks ultimate success taking over and setting up the Soviet Union.
The course included Peacock’s detailed foray into the differences between the various revolutionary ideologies in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Lenin’s Bolshevik (majority faction), that is representing a majority view within the communist movement, and Trotsky’s Menshevik (minority faction) ideology, which according to Wikipedia was…
An Orthodox Marxist view of social and economic development, believing that socialism could not be achieved in Russia due to its backwards economic conditions, and that Russia would first have to experience a bourgeoisie revolution and go through a capitalist stage of development before socialism was technically possible and before the working class was able to develop the necessary consciousness for a socialist revolution. The Mensheviks were thus opposed to the Bolshevik idea of a Vanguard party and pursuit of socialist revolution in Russia.
It also included the Russian anarchist thinkers, particularly Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. As a young person increasingly motivated by the principle of “questioning authority”, I was particularly attracted to these anarchist ideas. I think part of that interest was simply that it seemed like forbidden fruit, and I was obsessed with knowing more and at least flirting with these radical ideas if not ready to consummate any of them. And Jerry was happy to be along for that ride.
Our high school library, though pretty extensive, did not have any books on anarchist philosophy, but growing up in a college town we were blessed with other available resources (before the Internet of course) for arcane literary works. From our high school it was just a ten minute drive to the University of Michigan Graduate Library with its huge collection of books. I remember Jerry and I walking up the concrete stairs, through the big doors and through the lobby to the giant card catalog (not computerized in 1972). Fittingly enough, at least by my thinking at the time, the books on anarchism turned out to be in the second sub-basement of the library in stacks off the beaten path, with appropriately low lighting, no windows to the outside world, and that wonderful dusty sweet smell of old hardback books that get little use, that still today when I get a wiff brings back memories of this youthful pursuit.
I have a recollection of the red spine of the first book we found, with Dewey notation “BA” at the bottom and just the word “Bakunin” in gold inked letters pressed into and running vertically along the book’s spine. We probably looked around to see who else was watching (yeah, way too melodramatic) before we slid the book out of the shelf. I don’t remember if it was Statism and Anarchy, God and the State, or one of his other volumes. Since we were not university students at this point, we could not actually check the book out, but we sat on the floor, thumbed through and surveyed the various pages. I was captured at the time by these anarchist ideas of rejecting God and more earthly formal authority and governing structures, promoting the concept of natural liberty, direct control of institutions by the participants in those institutions, plus decentralized decision-making from the bottom up.
Here is the sort of Bakunin quote that would have fired my imagination at the time…
I am a fanatic lover of liberty, considering it as the unique condition under which intelligence, dignity and human happiness can develop and grow… I mean the only kind of liberty that is worthy of the name, liberty that consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers that are latent in each person; liberty that recognizes no restrictions other than those determined by the laws of our own individual nature, which cannot properly be regarded as restrictions since these laws are not imposed by any outside legislator beside or above us, but are immanent and inherent, forming the very basis of our material, intellectual and moral being — they do not limit us but are the real and immediate conditions of our freedom.
I had my own model of anarchic informal governance, being part of my Junior Light Opera theater group run (to a large degree at least) by the youth participants. I also fantasized about my fellow students and I taking over and running our high school. I imagined contentious meetings between a hastily formed student collective and a phalanx of concerned parents, discussing the future of educational practice at Pioneer High. In this vein I recall resonating with the lyrics of Detroit area rock band MC5’s 1970 song “High School”…
The kids know what the deal is
They’re getting farther out everyday
We’re gonna be takin’ over
You better get out of the way
Those ideas did not get beyond idle fantasy at that point, but they stuck with me, permanently embedded in my imagination and periodically rekindled.
My mom was still very active in local Ann Arbor politics, which in a progressive university town were getting pretty wild. The local election in the spring of 1972 featured a three-way race for mayor, including a mayoral candidate from an emerging radical student party who was an out lesbian (it had just been three years since the Stonewall Riots in New York City had catalyzed the gay rights movement). The new Human Rights Party (or HRP) was quite a phenomenon in this very political town where Democrats (including my mom) were used to being the only game in town on the left of the political spectrum. They had emerged with the passage of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving eighteen-year-olds the right to vote., plus a new preferential voting system that allowed each ballot to have a first and second choice.
Jerry and I as radical wannabes thought the HRPs emergence was very cool, though my mom, ever the pragmatic political animal with the mantra of “be effective”, thought that the radical party was foolishly splitting the progressive vote. Presumably based on this concern about a new political party to the left of the Democrats and likely to siphon off votes making local Republicans more likely to win local offices, the Democratic majority in the Ann Arbor city council had changed the local election process to allow for “preferential” or ranked voting. Your ballot for city council and mayor would allow you to make a first and second choice for these offices. If your first choice for a given office was not one of the top two vote getters on the initial count of first choices, your second choice vote would then be counted to modify those totals.
So the election turned out to be exciting and controversial. The radical HRP party elected two members to the city council representing the neighborhoods encompassing the University of Michigan campus where there was a big student vote of newly enfranchised eighteen through twenty-year-olds. On the first vote count for the mayoral race, the Republican candidate got the most votes, but just under the fifty percent needed to win. The Democratic candidate (who my mom was working for) got a bit more than forty percent of the vote, and the lesbian woman running as the HRP candidate got the remaining ten percent. So based on the new system, people who voted for her (which would have included Jerry and I if we’d been old enough), had their second votes counted, which pretty much all went to the Democratic candidate giving him a very very narrow victory margin. The local Republicans, who had opposed the change in the electoral process, filed suit in court to overturn the election result, saying it was not “one person one vote”. The court case dragged out, made continuing headlines, but eventually the court ruled against them, and the new mayor took his office.
My mom was on the inside of all the goings on, including hosting fundraisers and other gatherings where all the political ins and outs were discussed in detail. Throughout all this I was right there in the thick of things, hearing all those great conversations about strategy and tactics, many in our kitchen (why is it always the kitchen?) during my mom’s parties. I witnessed my mom and her comrades develop into pretty sophisticated political operatives, and I learned the basic ropes myself, partly by osmosis and by my own occasional assistance with her “precinct work”. This was a real world political education, visceral, and way beyond anything taught in a civics class.
As an important sidelight of all this, as my mom shared with me in her passionate way her take on these events, I could see her pride and growing self-confidence. My mom, who in her weaker moments could still be reduced to crying on her bed surrounded by all our unpaid bills, but who I was coming to know as a human being with struggles like me, rather than some iconic parental figure.
High school chugged along of course during all this. In Peacock’s class We all had to do a project, but he was open to whatever his students wanted to do. Jerry and I convinced him to let our project be leading the class through one of those international political simulations, where you break the class up into small groups each group representing the different parts of a national government – U.S., Soviet Union, China, etc. Then the group running the simulation, Jerry and I in this case, would introduce a particular problematic event, like a collision between an American and Soviet submarine, and then have each group react with what they would do politically and militarily. I’m not sure who had the original idea to do this, Jerry or I, but we really did not know what we were doing, and the whole thing turned out fairly lame. But Peacock let us burn up three or four days of class trying it, and he did whatever he could to help our limping simulation along.
After further discussion about our shared interest in simulations, turns out that Jerry had played most of the same Avalon Hill historical military simulation games I was into – D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Afrika Korps. Of great interest to me, Jerry had a whole circle of his own friends and acquaintances who were into playing these Avalon Hill games plus many other military and political simulation games that I had never heard of. I recall him inviting me over one Friday night to his friend Avi’s house where a bunch of the “game nerds” were assembled to play a board game Diplomacy, a strategic political and military simulation of World War I.
Jerry introduced me to Avi, who was only in tenth grade and one to three years younger than the rest of us in the assembled group. It is interesting the hierarchy based on grade level that develops among kids who have spent a decade or more in our rigidly age-ranked education system. Your “peers” are your grade-mates and the kids in the lower grades are viewed conventionally as inferiors in the pecking order. Though Avi suffered some of this sort of discrimination by the group, he was a shy, charming, precocious kid, immensely intelligent while not being the least bit egotistical. He more than held his own among his “elders”, and by the end of the evening, he and I had really connected, and since he and Jerry were neighbors and longtime friends, the three of us would be seeing a lot more of each other going forward.
Diplomacy was a brilliant board game, particularly when you have the full contingent of seven players to play it, which we did that night with Jerry, Avi, myself, and four others guys. I loved these games based on real historical events played on a board representing the real geography where those events took place, in this case Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The game’s particular brilliance was its very simple game system and rules of play that seemed to accurately simulate the power politics of that conflict, and allowed the seven players to use their own negotiating skills to leverage the conflict to the advantage of the country they were playing; either Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia or Turkey.
Each turn consisted of a “Negotiation Phase”, where any self-chosen subsets of players could go off in another room and conduct secret negotiations, followed by a “Movement Phase” where each player separately and secretly recorded the orders for their armies and navies, which were then all executed simultaneously. Those orders would either follow through on deals made in the Negotiation Phase or possibly not, double crossing a verbal agreement with a former ally. The game highlights the cutthroat zero-sum power politics of the period in a Europe that seemed to be run for all intents and purposes by highly civilized “warlords”, with much more dignified titles as monarchs, presidents or prime ministers.
That night I was initiated into a circle of geeky older youth pursuing their passion for history and gaming generally at the expense of a more conventional one for girls, dating and sex. Friday and/or Saturday nights, while other guys might be going out on dates, the members of this circle were most likely holed up in the basement of one of our circle’s parents’ house. In those dimly lit subterranean rooms that I was starting to visit with Jerry and Avi, spread out on the floor or a big table (ping-pong tables were particularly good), were large often complicated historical simulations, mostly of the military variety. Sharing the art of war in a “war room”, at least consecrated so for the evening’s campaign, and all the vicarious megalomania of conquering the world at the expense of the organized carnage of large military undertakings.
For me this was an alluring new developmental edge, that I mostly just flirted with that last semester of high school, to pursue more seriously, along with Jerry and Avi, several years later. My main passion was still for the stage, and during that spring and summer I was going to pound its boards as a motley array of characters as I did my deep dive into the craft of acting.
After the big musical Oliver at the end of 1971, my Junior Light Opera youth theater group continued with its ambitious repertoire of productions. February was a more intimate dramatic piece, Tea and Sympathy, performed in my high school’s Little Theater. Like many of the plays that our JLO prime-mover Michael chose to produce, this one was provocative. A private boarding school student is accused of being gay, and the wife of one of the school’s instructors befriends the student and fights him being shamed by his peers to the extreme of romantically pursuing the student so he can demonstrate his heterosexuality. My role was a smaller one as one of the naïve teenage students at the school caught up in this whole scandal.
Next up in March was Hamlet, my first and only go at Shakespeare. Michael upped the provocative ante of the show by adding an actual bed scene in the TBD act, which is only implied in the script as written. Along with our production staff roles, my comrade Saul and I had small parts as the two gravediggers, a reprise of sorts of our comedic duo that previous fall as brothers and the two leads of the British farce, Penny for a Song. In our big scene at the start of the last act, we kvetch with each other as we lug Ophelia’s heavy coffin to its final resting place, indulging in an erudite and arcane philosophical debate about whether the rules of religious law are being abrogated due to Ophelia’s family’s privilege, ironically as is typical Shakespeare, way above our lowly station.
Me: Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seek her own salvation?
Saul: Aye that she is, so make her grave straight. The crowner has sat on her and finds it Christian burial!
Me: (Totally disgusted) But how can that be, unless she drown herself in her own defense?
Besides our scene together at the beginning of the last act, we were the grips for the show, and we created a kind of between scenes comic shtick, disgruntled and bumbling, changing the set pieces in the tattered rags of our gravedigger costumes, as counterpoint to a very dark and serious play.
My classmate Priscilla directed, and she and Michael took a very unique approach to the piece, playing Hamlet and his peers much younger than they are conventionally played in most productions of Shakespeare’s off-performed classic. This of course, given our young actors playing Hamlet and his peers, made the production particularly energetic and vibrant. So here’s Michael calling out our provocative approach to the play in his note in the program…
Like most Shakespearean plays, HAMLET concerns the young. (Unfortunately, in most productions, many factors conspire to keep young actors from playing their rightful parts.) Prince Hamlet, aged 25-40, is rarely believable. Even at 20 his behavior is a bit incredible: One would expect a well-read, far-travelled young prince to be somewhat more controlled. At age 15, however, Hamlet is a believable character. The indecision which torments him, the passions which surges through him, the chameleon quality about him are all understandable (indeed, even to be anticipated) in the person of a teenager suddenly thrust into the realities of adulthood.
As always, our JLO theater group was more than just a collection of young people collaborating to mount theatrical productions. We were, at times implicitly but in this case explicitly, attempting to also represent the unique point of view of youth with regard to our culture’s great heritage of theater. We were also demonstrating to the world the ability of young people – the stereotypically dysfunctional “teenagers” disdained and written off by many adults – to successfully manage every significant aspect of a real enterprise, in this case a theater troupe, performing plays at the same regularity of many adult professional theater organizations. There was that thread of advocacy and activism woven through our efforts, that Michael often crystallized and called out in his production notes.
Moving on from Hamlet, perhaps my favorite role and best work was in JLO’s next show, the avant garde musical Celebration, written by the same team that wrote the more well known and similarly allegorical musical The Fantasticks. The former according to Wikipedia, a “musical fable, employing a nearly bare stage, exploring the contrasts between youth and old age, innocence and corruption, love and ambition, and poverty and wealth”, in the mode I would say of Bertolt Brecht. I played “Mr. Rich”, one of the four archetypal leads and the villain of the piece, representing the old age, corruption and wealth part. As I sing in the climactic coda of my first musical number, berating the audience, strutting the stage, twirling the tie of my hospital robe, dragging the pole of my intravenous line as I go…
I’m the richest man in the Western world
There is nothing I can’t afford
I’m the president of the stock exchange
I’m the chairman of every board
I’ve got everything that they say it takes
But no matter how much I hoard
I’m bored, bored, bored, bored
Poopy poopy poo
The show was a transformative odyssey for me. My last big comic role in Penny for a Song had been perhaps my worst work, unable to fully inhabit and bring to life my buffoonish character. Through months of rehearsals toward the show’s April performance dates, it was looking like my Mr. Rich character might be a similar situation. The stakes were higher than usual. Michael had booked a more high-profile venue for the show, the University of Michigan Power Center for the Performing Arts. I actually had my own dressing room, and I lay on my dressing room couch before curtain of my first performance stewing in the anxiety of not wanting to deliver a poor performance again.
But somehow, as flat as I had been in my dress rehearsals, with the energy of the big audience beyond the stage lights for the performance, I channeled my own sense of darkness with that energy into the darkness of my character, practically growling my big entrance and first number, “Bored”, to the audience, collapsing as staged on a gurney at the end of the song and being wheeled offstage to great applause. I then made it through the trickier top hat and cane soft-shoe choreography of my second number, “Where Did It Go?”, where I plaintively reminisce about my lost youth. And then my final number, “It’s You Who Makes Me Young”, where I dance with the young female lead, Angel, who is participating in an elaborate ruse to convince my character that he is young again, leading to the climactic finale where my character has his Dorian Gray moment and collapses dead on the stage. My acting career’s only death scene, and met with so welcome loud applause from the audience.
JLO was continuing its pace of pretty much doing a new production each month, and two short children’s musicals, The Snow Queen and The Reluctant Dragon, were slotted for May. Still in rehearsals as Mr. Rich in Celebration, I was recruited to try out for, and got the part of Saint George, the nnight who challenges the dragon in the latter show. Saint George was loud and proud, brash and somewhat pompous, but underneath it all a sweetie. After all the anxiety around playing Mr. Rich, but also the experience of a successful performance, I was beginning to develop a comfort level on stage, particularly playing these bigger than life over the top characters in musicals.
The main performances of the shows were staged at our high school’s big Auditorium, but we also did several scenes from the show for elementary schools. I had not set foot in an elementary school probably since I had been a student there myself six years back. It was strange seeing the kids look at me and react to me more like I was an adult than a kid, and I remembered exactly that same impression encountering high school kids when I was in sixth grade. I had turned seventeen in April, and I was a month away from my high school graduation, but I certainly did not feel anything like any bit of an adult. But I was a very transformed person from the kid in elementary school, and even the more recent me that barely survived junior high. These last three years I had had so so many experiences and done so much that I would not have even dreamed I might do back in junior high.
So what does it mean for a shy kid like me to be able to play these loud, in your face, larger than life characters? It was a revelation of another side of my personality, a way I could learn to be even playing myself someday. It was a way to channel and release a lot of angst accumulated from suffering through my parents’ divorce and my mom’s depression and suicidal moments. It was a chance to be acknowledged by others (and myself) as a capable person and to build some much needed self-esteem.
Keeping up the monthly pace, JLO’s June show was something very different, The Diary of Anne Frank, to be done in my high school’s little theater, probably my favorite venue I had performed in. I tried out for and got the part of Otto Frank, Anne’s father. This sort of a big role as an older person in a very serious drama was a completely different acting challenge for me. I had found my “legs” as a stage performer, singing and even commanding the stage, playing those over the top characters that inhabit big musical comedies. But I was still an awkward neophyte when it came to real dramatic acting, and particularly trying to play an older character with the gravitas of a man like Anne Frank’s father. So many lines to learn. So many scenes. So much of the emotional impact of the play relying on my line readings. And here I was at age 17, struggling to portray my character, while the part of Anne was superbly played by a young women who was I believe just twelve or thirteen years old.
So I played my part and remembered my lines, but there was a realization during those performances in June, as my high school career was coming to a close, that I was not yet any sort of a skilled actor, and who knows if I would or could ever master that craft. It was a seed of doubt that I would take with me into college, where I would initially be a theater major, but eventually decide to pursue other interests.
My developmental experience in my theater group was more than just participating in the play productions themselves. There was a whole community life that developed around, but beyond the actual shows and their rehearsals and work sessions. Those of us called for a particular rehearsal but not in the particular scene being rehearsed at that moment would often adjourn to somewhere adjacent to the rehearsal space out of earshot and engage in various conversations and other activities. Friendships or rivalries were cemented. Gossip was spread about who had a crush on who and who was doing what with who. Some people would sneak off to the darkest off the beaten path niches of the space surrounding the rehearsal site and make out (both hetero and same sex couples) or smoke marijuana (though not me on either count). The various work sessions – building sets, hanging lights, building costumes – plus the various venues that supported the play in production – the makeup and dressing rooms – were all places of vibrant life within the JLO community.
I was learning to be a significant part of that community, in the context of all my continuing shyness, but also my growing leadership skills, mentoring of younger company members, and my own emerging confidence that was bleeding over from some of my on-stage characters. If still not so much in the larger high school community around us, within the cloisters of the seventy plus youth members of the JLO troupe, I was learning to be a “player” of sorts, a person with an opinion and a station, an “elder” and a role-model to some of the younger company members. Leading set construction work sessions. Helping the younger kids learn their lines, or teaching them basic carpentry skills. Consoling them when the girl or guy in the company they had a crush on did not reciprocate. Giving them feedback when their behavior seemed problematic or outside the norms of the group. These were community building, leadership and mentorship skills that I was discovering that I had and would continue to use for the rest of my life.
Each JLO play would have a cast party, which would often be a community focal point for all the teen relationship behavior including flirting, gossiping, plus private and not so private romantic encounters and hookups. They would generally be at the home of one of the more well to do families with kids in the company, meaning generally a bigger house with a big backyard and often even an adjacent woods. (If my hometown of Ann Arbor has anything it has plentiful big beautiful trees.) It was 1972, a progressive time in a very progressive university town. Attitudes about sexuality were pretty relaxed, and JLO’s patron and prime-mover Michael in particular had a “young people will be young people” attitude and really did not try to explicitly enforce any rules about sexual behavior and drug use, as long as it was done with discretion and not in the face of others, particularly the parents hosting the cast parties. So their would typically be at least a couple or two among the teens in the troupe who would sneak off to some private nearby venue and “make out” or small groups of the high school youth who might similarly adjourn to smoke marijuana.
I did not participate in either of these clandestine activities, but only because of my shyness and timidity rather than any ethical problems with this sort of behavior. In fact I secretly longed and fantasized about kissing or “making out” with whatever charismatic young woman I had my crush du jour on among my thespian comrades. I certainly had plenty of opportunities should I have been brave enough to avail myself. There were probably a handful of occasions during just that spring of my senior year when one or another of female comrades would flirt with and even hit on me. Seems particularly the young women with the chutzpah to sing and dance on stage in broad musical comedy characters were not shy about making the first move toward a romantic encounter. I, unfortunately for me and them, never responded favorably to their advances, though at some level I wanted to. That said, I still loved the company of those same women, and often confounded them that my interest did not have a romantic component, or at least one that I was willing to act on. I certainly could be described as a “tease”, but that was not what I wanted to be in my heart of hearts.
As the school year and my tour of duty in high school were coming to a close, JLO was already gearing up for Michael’s vision of a very ambitious summer plan for the company, and a whole reinvention of our unique theater troupe in the fall. Change was in the wind, not just for me and my graduating class of seniors, but for JLO and the whole public high school scene in Ann Arbor. Michael’s note from JLO’s June 1972 show, The Diary of Anne Frank program highlighted new things ahead…
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK is the last production which we plan to produce under the JLO name. Beginning this summer, we will perform under the designation of THE AMERICAN STAGE FESTIVAL. In the fall of 1972, we will become an agency of Ann Arbor Community High School. We solicit your continued support and attendance as we grow and progress.
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