Junior High offered exposure to the organized arts including theatre and musical groups. In seventh grade, I had my first experience with Student Theater. The whole school attended performances of plays produced by actors from the eighth and ninth grades. I loved the plays and admired the older students on stage. They memorized their lines and then so confidently and convincingly became the characters they portrayed. I was more than happy to suspend belief and become absorbed. In the safety of the darkened auditorium, I would sneak out my monocular to watch the players on stage. It was an opera glass with a screw-on handle, half of a binocular which allowed me to see the actors clearly. I felt so different and so conspicuous using it that in classrooms I would flush with shame when I had to take it out to see the board, but here I was safe. The male lead, two years my senior, was one of the serious actors. He was confident on stage and self-directed in other regards, and I looked up to him. I silently wondered if I could ever be like him. I wanted to join the ranks of those performing actors, striding under the stage lights. Eighth grade began with the predictable routines that had been laid down in seventh, but I was a year older and new opportunities began to develop. A couple of weeks after the beginning of eighth grade, it was announced that anyone wanting to audition for a part in the fall play should report to the auditorium after school. I gathered my books and jacket from my locker and found a seat in the auditorium, with a few dozen other hopefuls, waiting to audition. The high arched windows were open to the football practice field. I could hear the yelling of coaches over the grunts and crack of shoulder pads and helmets, as the football team practiced their punishing plays. Just before sixth grade my vision had stopped deteriorating, but my pediatric ophthalmologist sternly warned that a blow to the head could cause blindness. All at once football, diving, bike riding and wrestling were disallowed and my world became much smaller.
The previous year, I had walked past football practice every afternoon and felt emptiness about not being allowed to engage in that rough and tumble tumult. That afternoon, with the quiet expectation of the audition at hand, I hoped that I was opening the door to a new kind of identity, as a performing member of the stage community. Mr. Martin, the direct and thoughtful drama teacher, walked to the center of the wooden stage, stopped, and spoke to us in a strong voice, telling us how auditions would work. In small groups, we would be given scripts, assigned parts, and then be directed to read a scene from the play on the spot. There was not much to it- only reading out loud with ease, comfort, believability, and poise. My heart thudded heavily, and my hopes sank. I could not read out loud fluently, or even at a normal rate. My limited vision had made reading out loud one of my greatest fears and embarrassments since early elementary school. Now, my lack of that very visual ability was going to exclude me from a thing I really wanted and believed I could do. Reading aloud was an exercise in both futility and misery.
Mr. Martin had instructed us to put our names on his clipboard. In small groups, he called the names of those who had signed in. I had not, being too ashamed to demonstrate my limited vision so publicly. I would have had to find the clipboard, get out my magnifier, press my face to the clipboard, figure out where to write and write my name, knowing I would not be able to stay on the line. I would then have to try nonchalantly to find my seat.
Auditions began. Mr. Martin read the lines of any missing character. Absorbed and nervous, I observed a whole range of theater craft displayed by the student actors, some with obvious experience, some newbies. I waited. Finally, hours after the auditions had begun, I sat alone in the darkening auditorium as the last students left the stage. Mr. Martin glanced at the lipboard and then at me. He asked if I had signed in. I said no. I asked to talk to him. I walked down the center aisle and approached the stage. I wasn’t sure we were alone, so I spoke in a quiet voice, not wanting to be overheard. With the old familiar shame rising within me, but driven by burning desire, I told him that I really wanted a chance but had low vision and couldn’t read out loud very well. I promised that if I got a part, I would be much better after I learned my lines. Mr. Martin told me to walk up onto the stage. He handed me a script and said to do the best I could. My cheeks burned.
Certain that failure would follow, I pulled the thick magnifier out of my back pocket and lowered my face to the page. I haltingly stammered and slowly and poorly read the part I was given, as Mr. Martin filled in all of the other characters’ lines. After a few excruciating exchanges, he asked if there was any way to make the print bigger. I told him that I had a large print typewriter, but that Mrs. Delaney, my French teacher, was using it. He said he would talk to her. He spoke to me in a relaxed manner, like a kindly uncle. Mr. Martin said that he would consider my audition, based on factors other than my sight-reading ability and that I should come back in a few days when the cast would be announced. He put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me for coming to the audition. I left feeling the warmth of renewed hope.
On the prescribed afternoon, everyone who had auditioned gathered in the auditorium after school. With background thumps and cracks of football practice, Mr. Martin read the new cast of the play: Mrs. McThing. I had been given the part of Poison Eddie Shellenbach, the lead comic villain. It was a wonderful part. Mr. Martin handed out the dog-eared scripts to the cast, handing me a Mrs. Delaney-esque, thick crisp stack of white typing paper, containing my large print script. The script was generated from the mechanical large print typewriter that he must have borrowed from Mrs. Delaney. Just like Mrs. DeLaney, he had, no doubt, spent numerous long hours pounding on the stiffly sprung machine to create my accessible script. Like Mrs. Delaney, Mr. Martin understood my extraordinary needs and he was not afraid of the mountain of humble extra work necessary to meet them. Although I barely knew him, I saw a teacher worthy of admiration. Mr. Martin had lost several fingers and parts of fingers on both hands in a WWII explosion. I learned his story five decades later when I conducted his oral history. Mr. Martin had learned to type in high school. After college he entered the Army as a lieutenant. After the grenade had gone off in his hands, he had lost the ability to type. Mr. Martin told me, as I pursued the question, that he had typed my script with one finger. One finger! The gratitude I felt, magnified by the years, still has no way of full expression. Naturally, when Mr. Martin told me of his over-the-top work, I expressed my most sincere appreciation. But like many such matters, saying thank you cannot begin to express one’s heartfelt sentiment. Perhaps by talking about it now, my gratitude will touch others who deserve humble thanks for their selfless work.
Play practice was part study hall, when one was not required on stage, and part social hall as we whispered to others in the auditorium. Under Mr. Martin’s direction, the purposeful time was intense interaction with the other actors as we learned our lines, our blocking, and how to react to the other characters in the play. New friendships developed and old ones deepened as we slowly became unified. We melded into one cohesive group: actors, stage crew, prompters, prop handlers – all those who would make the magic of the play come alive for the audience. After play practice, I would walk home with other cast members. We tended to be the oddballs and lone rangers that did not have a broad circle of friends. One lonely boy was gay, (I had always thought); two girls were overweight, one lived with her widowed mother, one had gaps in her teeth and then there was me. But we had become a group unto ourselves. I recall walking past football practice one evening and thinking that I no longer felt the longing I had to belong to the team. I now belonged to a different team.
I spent hours at home memorizing my lines, with help from Connie, my student reader, Bonnie, my older sister and Mom. The goal was not only to master my own lines but also to know the other characters’ lines. We were responsible for our own costumes, and I managed a rough approximation of a gangster’s outfit. My dad lent me a fine white silk tie, for my navy-blue shirt. I added my striped sports coat and my narrow-brimmed alpine hat.
The resulting ensemble gave me the look of a teenage mobster with sketchy taste on a budget. The play was performed for the school after lunch and for the community the following evening. The afternoon that I first stood on stage, under the lights, in costume, with a live audience of silent students sitting in the dark beyond the stage lights-I felt a sense of wonder and belonging. My limited vision was invisible, and I was participating in a group activity that took courage, concentration, teamwork and long weeks of focus. I was succeeding. I felt a sense of freedom and happiness that I had never known.
Mr. Martin was 95 when we reconnected. I conducted his oral history as a gift to him and learned about his own life in the theater. I learned that he was an acting student at Ohio State and rode a white horse across campus advertising a show. He had written his own life story and produced several Xerox copies which he passed around for friends to read. The typewritten manuscript had one photograph. It was a scene from Meet Corless Archer. I played Dexter the male lead. The image captured me standing beneath the impressive stage set’s second-story window within which sat Corless herself, the female lead, Becky Donnelly. However, what impressed me was that of all his life’s theater productions the one image in his life story showed ME on stage. How nlikely. Mr. Martin was the drama teacher at both my junior high and then my high school. Those schools were in a community which changed in a few decades from all white to all black. After he retired, he continued to volunteer at the community library directing a theater program for African American kids. In the last two decades, both of those schools were torn down and rebuilt, however, neither new school has auditorium nor stage. Rather, there is a multipurpose vast room called a cafetorium-a combined cafeteria and basketball court. If there are plays put
on, there is an entirely different experience for the actor and audience alike. Certainly, there was no Mr. Martin on the planning committee.
Mr. Martin loved and lived the theater. My own daughter Laura, who was on stage crew for her own high school theater group in California, visited Mr. Martin with me one Saturday when she was back in Cleveland as a young woman. He was very pleased to be in her company, as if just being around a young person lit him up. To have a girl with theater experience want to talk with him, it was as if the rope for the big velvet curtain was in his hands once again and the house lights were going down. Mr. Martin’s wife, who was also in the theater, had died some time before, and they had had no children.
I acted at every grade level, even though in tenth grade I had non-speaking parts as a member of crowd scenes. We moved to a new school district after tenth grade, and I lost contact with Mr. Martin. I just loved acting, even without Mr Martin’s skill and personal touch. Then, during the fall of my senior year, I learned about an adult theater company which acted in a barn converted into a theater at a dude ranch between Cleveland and Kent, Ohio. I acted in plays there two seasons, until I packed my backpack, grabbed my guitar and hitchhiked to California. I realized, during that time in community theater, that I was a lousy actor. Two other actors told me so and they were right. But what was it that I loved so much about the theater? It was being on stage, being listened to. As a freshman in college I majored in Speech. However, I thought I would graduate with my degree and have nothing to say. How wrong I was. I found my voice giving speeches about matters of consequence such as disability rights and the treatment of people like my brother. My brother Mark had a severe cognitive disability and spent 33 years in wretched institutions until I established a supported living home for him. During high school I also began singing in coffee houses protest songs written by others and my own about civil rights, against war and about public indifference towards others. Performing my songs became part of my unique voice. I combined my songs with passionate public speaking thus creating my unique style. I found audiences at conferences on disability, inclusion in schools and communities, world peace, cross disciplinary human rights, siblings and many other topics.
However, it was the theater which opened the door to the stage for me. Once on the stage, I found the lectern-not the boards, as actors call the acting stage. However, I stayed involved
with theater as well. I wrote songs for shows, wrote a show with songs, and worked with groups of young people with and without disabilities, giving them opportunities to take the stage. Every one of those young actors found the same confidence and self-esteem there which I did. It is part of the magic. Today, in my eighth decade, I am still involved with the theater. I just wrote a new song for Along The Graveyard Path, a new show put up by Theater on the Spectrum, a theater company with which I am now collaborating. The show, opening November 1st on the virtual stage, includes nine of my songs. For another show, two of my songs from an historic disability rights demonstration were used. My disability rights songs are rewrites of civil rights songs and were part of the soundtrack for the 504 Demonstration in 1977. Wry Crips, the disabled women’s theater collective in Berkeley wrote and put up the show, Occupy! in April 2021. It was great to see their historic portrayal of the 504 demonstration which truly changed the world and which is now commemorated through theater. Today, on the YouTube stage, we spread the word about disability and all aspects of inclusion. We address all matters of consequence of which the theater is certainly one. COVID has re-shaped theater directors, actors and audience members alike. Being forced into the virtual experience, all are finding a more easily accessible stage, although without the camaraderie and joy of being with other actors and other audience members.
What did theater teach me? Confidence, self-esteem, community belonging and expressing myself – oddly through expressing characters who were not me. Or did I find that piece of me which lived in those roles; Dexter in Meet Corless Archer, Jack Turmoil in that junior high melodrama or the father of the dying girl in that futuristic original script. I think that was the last part I took on in the early summer of 1968. Good grief. My acting life was only five years long. But writing music for plays beginning in 1968 and periodically through 2021, that is a more ubstantial run.
Theater, live theater, is just plain wonderful. Here is to all of the theater directors who have moved through my world: Wendy Duke, Mickey Goldhaber, Marcia Berger, Mr. Martin, Evelyn Martin (not related) and the high school director whose name I’m forgetting. They gave all of us that doorway into other worlds and most importantly that portal into ourselves.