Friday, February 11, 2011

Honoring My Mother and Overcoming My Fears

My mother always maintained that I should be an actor. She and I bonded as movie lovers, when I would stay up late watching Creature Features and Chiller Theatre with her, and she would often encourage me to imitate the characters we'd just seen -- Dracula, the Wolfman -- my impersonations gave her a chuckle. She urged me to overcome my shyness and get on stage, which I never did. Not in her lifetime, anyway.

Well, that's not entirely true. I had a brief cameo in a sketch we performed in the Harrison High School Gong Show my senior year. Harlan Zimmerman was playing the principal of the school, Dr. Goodhart, and I was his loyal henchman, the assistant principal, Mr. Hunter. I portrayed him as a Secret Service agent, complete with dark glasses and a lapel pin. I didn't say a word, but I managed to bring the house down, when I pointed to a particularly rowdy segment of the audience, in exactly the way I'd seen Hunter point at a group of my more detention-prone friends. I don't think my mother was in the audience that day, but my sister Jessica was, and she, like my mother, pushed me to try my hand at acting.

As an underclassman at Syracuse, I appeared in a handful of student films, giving performances of which I was generally less than proud. I remember Gordon Antell, one of the student filmmakers, saying, "I like working with Dan because if you put a fireman's helmet on him, he looks like a fireman, if you put a cowboy hat on him, he looks like a cowboy." I think he meant this as a compliment, but it made me wonder whether I was more of a prop than an actor in those short films.

I did take a significant step when I decided to enroll in a class during my junior year called "Acting for Non-Majors." It was basically a Scene Study class. I can't remember whether we discussed doing it together or not, but one of my best friends, Ruben Howard, also signed up for the course. Coincidentally, a good friend from my childhood, Barry Brown, was also in the class, as was Darryl Bell, who went on to be a successful actor, appearing in Spike Lee's "School Daze" and as one of the stars of the Cosby spinoff, "A Different World". Our teacher, Larry Tackett, was a lovably prickly man who I always thought of as a mix of Burl Ives and Garfield the Cat. After one of us would give a long-winded, convoluted bit of feedback to a fellow student, Larry was fond of taking a breath and saying, "Be that as it may, Sally Brown," before giving his own, more concise response. I also recall that he'd get us to be quiet by saying, "Okay, people, cool your jets. Let's bring it down to a dull roar." And he used to require us to keep a journal for the class, in which he would interact with each of us privately, writing his appreciations of our comments, and asking us thought-provoking questions.

A turning point came when I decided to perform a monologue that I found in a compilation of high school playwrights. The one I chose was from the point of view of a teenage boy who had just attended his mother's funeral. This would have been about 1984; I had no way of knowing, of course, that I would have this very experience about four years later. I allowed myself to get caught up in the honesty of the words and did my best to deliver them as frankly as I could. When I looked up, signifying that I had come to the endpoint of my scene, I sensed that the room was somehow different. My classmates appeared reluctant to look directly at me. There was some sniffling and wiping of eyes. One girl excused herself, made her way down from her place on the risers that served as our seats, and left the theatre. Larry mentioned a detail, the way I hugged myself at one point, holding onto my sweater as though it were my mother; "What a wonderfully vivid choice," he said, amid much nodding. I didn't have the nerve to say that I didn't think it was a "choice" at all, as I hadn't planned for it to happen.

There was talk after that performance of my possibly changing majors. Larry introduced me to the head of the drama program, Arthur Storch, best known for his portrayal of the psychiatrist in The Exorcist. The one who gets his balls crushed by Linda Blair. "I heard about your monologue," he told me. "Sorry I missed it. Sounds electrifying." I didn't know how to respond to that, so I muttered a thank you. The three of us discussed the notion of switching into the drama program as a junior. By the end of the discussion, we all agreed that there was too much ground to be made up and that it would mean a year and a half's worth of coursework. And tuition. "I hope you'll continue to study acting, just the same, even as an English major," Mr. Storch said. I told him I hoped so too.

My mother was, of course, excited by my interest in theatre and one Christmas she gave me Uta Hagen's book, "Respect For Acting." She didn't say anything, just that she hoped I'd enjoy it. In it, she had also inserted a newspaper clipping, a story profiling HB Studio, the acting school that Ms. Hagen and her husband, the late Herbert Berghof founded in the aftermath of the McCarthy years.

I enjoyed the book, and it did make me want to continue acting. I was caught up in the idea of going off to Europe with my girlfriend at the time, so much of my energy went into making that happen. Then my mother got ill. And by the time she died, on November 18, 1988, I still hadn't appeared in a play. I was 25 years old.

When I got up the emotional strength to return to Madrid, I vowed to honor my mother's wish. I sought out and found English-language theatre groups, auditioned for them and got in. The first one I worked with was called Teatro Tespis and was an educational theatre company that did simplified versions of Shakespeare plays for Spanish middle school students learning English. My first live performance in a play was in "The Merchant of Venice" as Bassanio, the ingenue. (I was often cast as the ingenue in those days, when I was young and pretty.) Still, I had a good time with it and, with my mother very much present in my heart, I had a successful debut, in a middle school auditorium in Madrid, packed with 2,000 students. Heidi, our director, told me afterwards, "It's official. You're an actor, and if you can make it with this audience, you can make it anywhere."

I also worked with a group called the Madrid Players -- a band consisting mostly of expatriate Brits and Americans who put together pretty respectable productions. I played Lysander, another ingenue, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and was proud of both my performance and the production, directed by a talented Englishwoman named Janet Gordon.

Eventually, I became too homesick for New York, and for my family there, and I said goodbye to Madrid and to my theatre friends. One of my first acts when I returned was to go to HB Studio and sign up for classes, and I had the great fortune to study with William Hickey, perhaps best known for his portrayal of the aging Don in "Prizzi's Honor." But I didn't just want to study; I wanted to act, as well. Luckily, my friend from Syracuse, James Savoca, was doing interesting things off-off Broadway and was open to me coming along for the ride. We wrote and performed sketch comedy in a really fun group called "City Soup" and did a night of one-act plays that we wrote and acted in with a separate group called "Crowded Theatre." (See photo, above.) I've since had the pleasure of helping James with early drafts of the films he has gone on to make, and I got to do table readings with Drea de Matteo and Chris Messina among other very talented actors, in participating in the casting process.

Of course, my life has little to do with acting and the theatre these days. I'm so grateful to people like Larry and Heidi and Janet and James and even Gordon, way back when, for giving me the opportunity to honor my mother's wish, and to tap into an aspect of myself that I needed to explore. I've moved on to other things (education reform, fatherhood, etc.), but I do sometimes wonder to myself whether there might still be a few roles out there still waiting for me to play them...


  1. man, your monologue in Larry Tackett's blew a hole right through me and everyone else in that studio that day, including Larry i'm sure. so you went on to become an actor, huh? no surprise there, except that you, no doubt, got detoured by life & whatnot along the way; but what a fine "indie darling" you might have made, all "nonchalant comic anti-hero"-type i imagine ...

    anyway, thanks for bringing me back to that class; it was quite the special time for us, that same semester, i think it was, we also took a writing class together with Tobias Wolff. only i "remember" it was spring '83 ... but too many of those day, man, went up in smoke (for me at least) so you may be right. gonna have to fish out my journals one of these days i guess.

  2. Yeah that was a great class, and you're probably right about the year. I haven't been paying my fact-checker much due to budget cuts, so he's been missing stuff like that...

    How do you like the Larry description? I had a good laugh when I came up with that one!

  3. hilariously on the money: "a lovably prickly man who I always thought of as a mix of Burl Ives and Garfield the Cat" ... i imagine Larry's reply'd be "that's a hoot!" ;)

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  5. Hi Dan. I came about your post because, over the weekend, the phrase "be that as it may, Sally Brown" came to mind and I was searching for some etymology (more about that in a moment). You see, I was also a student of Larry Tackett at a Central Florida high-school a few years before you studied with him at SU. Larry was extremely influential in sparking and nurturing my love, devotion and participation in acting and theatre. He was part of a dynamic teaching/directing team for young actors, along with Lynn Melton, at the local community theater when I first met them. My high-school had the great foresight to then hire them both to teach together. Larry was actually the choral music teacher while Lynn carried the theater dept. They even sponsored a trip to New York for our theater group, my first time there, where we saw 8 shows in 6 days. A heady trip for an impressionable Florida lad of 16 in the spring of 1978.

    After one year of teaching, in the fall of 1978, he was simply “no longer there,” with no explanation. Even Lynn was flummoxed. I think he was a bit too "prickly" and out-spoken for Florida public schools and I later found out that an old friend suggested he come up to Syracuse where he began to teach. But it is lovely to hear how his teaching affected you and your choices as well. Acting and singing are still a big part of my life today, thanks to Larry and Lynn. And the oft-used phrases that you and Ruben noted, what I would call “Larry-isms,” bring back such fond memories of my time with Larry and the launching of my love of theatre. Larry returned to Orlando in the mid 90's, to care for his mother, where I ran into him on occasion (still as prickly as ever and even a bit more cantankerous). He passed away in 2008 or 2009 from complications with diabetes.

    As his student, I had pressed Tackett on the story behind the phrase, “be that as it may, Sally Brown,” for he used it quite often. He finally told me this tale: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was hosting an afternoon performance at the White House, where a noted singer, a Miss Sally Brown, was to perform along with others. When Mrs. Roosevelt began to introduce Miss Brown, she said, “And now, we will hear a song from the wonderful Miss Sally Brown.” But then a voice was heard from the back of the crowded room saying, “Sally Brown is a BITCH!” Without a moments pause, Eleanor Roosevelt smiled warmly and said, “Be that as it may, Sally Brown.”

    An internet search of that phrase had only two listing, both leading to your blog. It would seem that Larry had spun a tale of Eleanor Roosevelt to appease my curiosity. But that just makes me more curious about how he came to use it for so many years. Thank you for preserving his words and sharing your memory of him and the situation where his influence led you to new experiences. BenT