September 18, 2016

The Wizard of Oz

If Cub Scouts skits were my first entry into theater, The Wizard of Oz was the first participatory theatrical experience to have a conscious impact on me. 

In the fourth grade I had two wonderful teachers, Margaret Anne Lozuk and Shirley Holland (now Roper). Mrs. Lozuk taught fourth grade. Ms. Holland taught fifth grade next door. They collaborated regularly. For two years I had the benefit of learning from both teachers.

They co-directed The Wizard of Oz. This meant, of course, that fourth graders and fifth graders would be involved in the production. I probably had my heart set on playing the Lion or the Tin Man or, my favorite, the Scarecrow. But those roles went to fifth grade girls, which I understood at the time to be logical even if disappointing. My down-the-street neighbor Diana Harris landed the role of the Scarecrow. I thought Diana Harris was particularly deserving of her role – she was very tall and seemed somehow as sophisticated as she was beautiful. (When walking to the bus stop I always wondered if she would be there...)

The Wizard at work
I was cast as the Wizard. Reflecting on this production, this casting seems genius. The leads we're all tall, brunette, mature (to my mind then) young women and the "man behind the curtain" was a much smaller, Southern-California blond 4th grader with a flair for the dramatic (even if he didn't yet know it himself). I don't know if there were any other options to the casting as the pool of student actors was limited, but it sure worked.

I don't remember a lot from the production, except what I "remember" from the photos – thankfully my mother took a lot of them.I do remember, however, one of the rehearsals. I believe it was my first rehearsal with my cape. (The wizard's cape, as brilliantly crafted by my mother, was made of red and gold satin-like material and had magical shapes of stars and moons on it. I loved it. I loved wearing it.) During rehearsal, even before running actual scenes from the play, I walked on stage if I was on a fashion runway, swirling my new cape as I hit the hard pivots on my comical rendition of a catwalk walk. This made Mrs. Lozuk and Ms. Holland laugh so hard.

The image of Ms. Holland laughing was particularly memorable. stayed with me for a long time. I did not yet know Ms. Holland as well as I knew Mrs. Lozuk and saw her as more reserved than Mrs. Lozuk, but there she was, in peels of laughter! She was doubling over with unadulterated guffaws.

I loved that. I loved being able to make people laugh. I still do. There's nothing quite like making people laugh, especially on the stage.

I learned a great deal from that experience and from those teachers about my love of theatre and about teaching. They were willing and able to laugh while also maintaining rigorous learning in their classrooms. I remember the assignments in their classes more than any other year. In my journey as a theater educator, I strive to create the same environment, a disciplined environment in which we all learn and laugh a lot.

The Robot Inventors

We move apartments more often than we would like. When moving, I regret that I am so sentimental, that I keep so many physical manifestations of memories. But today I am grateful for it. In one of the many boxes that my mother shipped to me years ago as she was trying to clear out the garage (she is as sentimental as I am), I discovered an artifact of my origins in theater: The script and the "production photos" of The Robot Inventors.

Most of my memories about skits are about Boy Scout and Cub Scout camp outs and sixth grade camp through school. As I remember, the camp crowd was an easier crowd to perform to. They loved these skits. Campfire skit audiences were boys drunk on s'mores and the anticipation of someone unexpectedly getting doused with water. Boy Scout camp was an environment in which the Lord of the Flies doesn't seem like a novel, it seems like a documentary.

The Robot Inventor in all his self consciousness
The Robot Inventors was a skit performed in another venue, the Cub Scout Pack Meeting. The Pack Meeting is a monthly gathering of all the Cub Scouts in the Pack (divided into Dens of 8 or so boys which have weekly meetings) and their families. A ceremony at which awards are given, each Den reports on their activities over the past month. There was also food and entertainment. They were held in the cafeteria at the junior high, a big space for an 8 year old to perform in.

One of my entries into things theatrical was performing in Cub Scout skits. I have a memory of really enjoying being in Cub Scouts skits. I even have a vague memory or sense that I was more willing to rehearse the skits than my fellow Cub Scouts. The skits were always comic sketches with a definite punchline. I think that I was pretty aware of this. I wanted to make sure that we got the maximum comic mileage from the skit. To do so meant rehearsing the timing and specificity of the set up of the punchline. I wasn't thinking of this consciously, of course, but I believe that there was some sort of intuitive understanding and interest in doing so.

The script (which felt long at the time)
This interest has only deepened and evolved. My skits just happen to be full length plays now. Rather than act in them, I am directing them (as perhaps I wanted to do with those skits). My audience has expanded from parents and peers who are obligated to watch the skit. In the best case scenario I receive something more than a "good job" after I direct one of my skits. (Something like, "David A. Miller knows what to do with wacky." as Theatre Jones wrote.)

Some people have a very specific story of one event or one experience that started their journey to become a theatre artist. For example I have heard many origin stories that begin with a trip to see a particular Broadway musical. (That's likely more specific to this region – the area surrounding in or surrounding New York City.) There's a fantastic episode on This American Life about folks who caught the drama bug. I don't know that my origin story is starts at one single moment or experience, but there are certainly some significant milestones along the way. The Robot Inventors marks a mile.