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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Theatre For Thought, September 3, 2011

joel fishbane

It’s September now and with so many returning to school, hopefully you’ll forgive me for doing the same. Today’s column marks the first in a series in which I reminisce about those days when I was young, impressionable and believed theatre school was useful in any way. 

I thought the school, like most schools, was named for someone who was dead. 

In 1996, I went to an musical theatre school in Toronto. It was on the fifth floor of a building that had an expensive bar on street level. We were students and broke and never ate there, but don’t feel bad for the owners because the teachers always went there for a drink (one did it during class). There were three dance studios, a vocal studio, dressing rooms, an office, some headless statues, a tiny lobby. There was no student lounge and we had to sprawl in the hallways during our breaks. But it was an exciting time because we were young and the school was very new and we felt an affinity to it, as if we were a steamship’s maiden crew. 

The place was founded by a man named George Randolph, a gentleman dancer who years ago performed with the Ballet Jazz de Montreal. He has choreographed numerous shows, produced numerous others and is something of a name in the world of dance. But I didn’t know any of this when I auditioned; I thought the school, like most schools, was named for someone who was dead. 

Like all theatre schools, there was a lengthy audition process. Halfway through, an enormous bear of a man walked into the room. George Randolph was – and still is – large and black and full of muscle, a superhero who doesn’t need to go through the hassle of wearing a costume. Why would he? He could destroy evil with a look or, barring that, a double pirouette. 

When he was introduced as the school’s founder, I blurted out “Why aren’t you dead?” I like to think he had some clever response – “No, no, you’re thinking of your career” – but I don’t really remember and I wouldn’t want to misquote him. But I do remember that he laughed and I think I endeared myself and that’s probably the only reason I got in. Maybe he thought I had what the Jews call chutzpah. Or maybe he just knew that I represented another year’s tuition, a valuable thing for any new school. If this sounds cynical, remember I’m actually making a judgement call on myself. I know how untalented I was. If the eighteen year old me showed up today, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t make the cut.

* * *

We went to school Monday through Friday. In the morning we had dance or dance history. Which means that we learned to dance and then we learned why other people had learned to dance. Our young egos suffered by comparison. Try tap dancing after learning about  Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and you’ll see what I mean. 

I’m not sure how I managed to always fall asleep. Try taking a Pilates class and you’ll see what I mean.

The other morning class was Pilates. Wikipedia tells me that  Pilates is a “body conditioning routine” that helps build flexibility, strength and endurance. It’s possible that’s what it was when I was in school, but for me it was time to nap. It’s a bad idea to ask me to do Pilates first thing Monday morning: if I’m going to condition my body, it needs to happen in the middle of the week when both my body and I are more receptive.

I’m not sure how I managed to always fall asleep. Try taking a Pilates class and you’ll see what I mean. Yes, you’re lying down. But it’s a very active process. Like yoga, you’re constantly forcing yourself into uncomfortable positions in the hopes that one day they’ll be less uncomfortable – this is the only way you know the process has worked. But I’m sorry to say the process never worked for me. Somehow I always managed to fall asleep. 

My records tell me I got a C in Pilates and I can only attribute this to the fact that when I slept, my breathing was perfect and my teacher thought, “Well, at least he’s learning something.” 

* * *

No matter why I got in, George Randolph recognized me as someone who was useful, if not especially talented. He used to call me out of class so I could pick the lock to his office, since he was always forgetting his keys. I revealed this skill one afternoon while I was flirting with Roxy, the school’s secretary. I wasn’t so foolish as to think I had a chance with her – she was twenty-four and her boyfriend was huge – but I was at school to learn and with Roxy I was learning how to talk to women who are out of my league. 

I used these tickets for nefarious purposes, namely to get the my pretty classmates to go on pseudo-dates...

George tried to enter his office, only to realize that the door was locked from the inside. There were no spare keys, or if there were, they weren’t in the vicinity. And so I sprang to the rescue and jimmied open the door with a credit card. The amazing thing about the moment is that I had never opened a door with a credit card before. I don’t know why I thought I could do it – chalk it up to that chutzpah, I suppose – and because God was taking care of me, the door sprang open. 

A few weeks later it happened again and then again a few weeks after that. In exchange for my assistance (and, I imagine, for not using this talent for Evil) George used to give me free theatre tickets, which he received by virtue of his position. I will fully confess that I used these tickets for nefarious purposes, namely to get  my pretty classmates to go on pseudo-dates, in which I tested the dubious techniques I had learned by talking to Roxy. This meant that the money I saved on theatre tickets was spent on seduction, or rather attempted seduction, since at no time did it ever work.

* * *

The school had three kinds of students: singers who wanted to dance and act; dancers who wanted to act and sing; and actors who wanted to – well you get the idea. The beginner classes were filled with actors and we all struggled to bend our bodies into shape, but it’s no good because dancing is something you have to start when you’re young. You have to attack your body early or it gets a mind of its own and then nothing you do will ever get it to the calibre it needs to be.

I got along well with Diane but she was frustrated with my singing, because she knew I never practiced outside of class.

I realized pretty early on that I would never be a dancer, but I had wild faith in my other abilities. I don’t have a terrible voice and at the time, thanks to the training, it was pretty strong. My problem, as my singing teacher liked to say, was that I lost confidence whenever I had to sing a high note. I worked on this problem but it never went away and to this day I get antsy whenever the notes get too high. The truth is, I’d always rather sing bass. 

My singing teacher was a woman named Diane Lewarne-Partin who was teaching as a hobby: her real job was being the understudy for Christine in the Toronto production of Phantom of the Opera. She had just had a baby she called Maggie-Doodle and I liked to joke that she was teaching her baby to cry on pitch. I got along well with Diane but she was frustrated with my singing, because she knew I never practiced outside of class. She told me to sing at home and on the street and I promised I would, but I never did. 

But like Roxy the Secretary, I wasn’t such a fool as to think I had a chance.

You can’t lie about these things: every week I’d show up and Diane would hear me sing and she’d shake her head. To distract her from my underachieving, I’d get her to talk  about Maggie-Doodle or Phantom. I probably had a crush on her because she had that irresistible combination of talent, intelligence and blond hair. But like Roxy the Secretary, I wasn’t such a fool as to think I had a chance.

Years later I emailed Diane to thank her for being a good teacher (and apologize for being a bad student). I was pleased to see she remembered me. Later I found out that she had died at a young age. A concert was done in her honour, but as I was living in Montreal I couldn’t attend. I’d love to tell you that I wandered the streets and sang in her honour, but in fact I just spent a great deal of time thinking about Maggie-Doodle. I still do. We remember people as they were and so I remember her as a screaming baby and that’s what makes me sad: this image of Maggie-Doodle, mewling and now doomed to always cry out of key.

Next week: I go head to head with my acting teacher, who tries to convince me that acting journals are a valuable part of a boy’s education. 

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