Monday, March 3, 2008

The play is the thing...

Today is the fourth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest men I have ever known. I would say that he knew me as well as only four other people on this earth, and my wife and father are two of them. I miss him.

In the winter of 1992, at the end of my first semester of college, I was preparing an audition for the plays being presented the next semester. I had no idea what I was doing and I was scared to death. It was luck that had brought me together that night with a few other students to the mainstage of the School of Theatre. Each of us had independently decided to work on our audition pieces in the space where we were to present them just a few days later. They were theatre students. I was not.

In the group that night were a woman who was to be my first real relationship (and give me my first really broken heart), the man with whom I would share most of the next 3 years as friends and roommates and a man who is still one of the weirdest, most soulful and most interesting people I've met before or since (and also has the distinction of being the only Irish Jew I've ever known). I was intimidated by these three and resisted performing in front of or criticizing them. They were theatre students and I was not.

A man came into the theatre, a man I had seen before but didn't know; a teacher. He was balding, squinting behind his glasses and had both a wheeze in his nose and a scent on his clothes that betrayed absolute eons of smoking. He sat down among us, threw some insults at the others and proceeded to critique us on our monologues. He made me get up onto that stage and perform the absolutely ridiculous piece I had chosen. I don't remember the name of the character or the name of the play. I remember that it was a gay man bitching about the origin and accuracy of stereotypes. Ah, the ridiculous rebellion of the young and stupid!

I finished the first time through and the teacher started to ask me questions. "What is your objective?" "What are your given circumstances?" And many more. I had to tell him that I had no idea what he was talking about. The terms he was using had no meaning to me. I fully expected laughter and derision, crude comments and an invitation to leave the stage to the others who had real work to do. Instead, he smiled, and asked, "Well, who are you talking to? And who is that? Where are you? Why are you there?" All the same questions he had asked before, but in words I understood. And he guided me through it again and told me what to work on and, more importantly, how to go about it. On the next few nights, we were joined by others here and there. The teacher was there every night that week.

I was cast that semester, on the Mainstage, something that rarely happened to freshmen and almost never to non-majors. All four of us who had been there that first night were cast - in the same show, no less. None were big parts, but we were freshmen on Mainstage! I was to find out later exactly how big a deal that was and how much notice and expectation it afforded us.

Christmas break was cut short because we were the first show of the semester and had to start rehearsal before school reopened. School closed = dorms closed. I was thrown into improvised living arrangements with people I barely knew or understood. Rehearsal every day and not much else but a lot of drinking and smoking and talking. It was a wonderful introduction to this new life, the first one I had ever specifically chosen for myself. I switched my major to theatre within a week of school reopening.

I had to audition again that semester for one of the few and hotly contested spots in the beginning acting class. One of the teachers in the show with me was one of my auditors and that put me at ease. That evening in the dressing room, he asked me if I was interested in being part of the BFA program, a smaller and more intense program within the SoT (though the relative talent of the participants was a very touchy subject, particularly among those who hadn't gotten accepted). I wouldn't have to audition again (at their regular "tryouts"), they would just let me in based on the strength of the audition that afternoon. I had no idea how weird this chain of events was and I wouldn't really understand that until the next year, when I was able to fully immerse myself in the program.

Success and success and success. I was as amazed as anyone. Four of the most wonderful years of my life, followed by a professional tour, then a move to New York City.

None of it would have happened had it not been for that one teacher who stopped by in the middle of the night. He gave me the tools and showed me the first few steps. I always knew where to find him, day or night, and would show up in his office when I was bored or happy or upset or just lonely. He was one of the first people to teach me that I was good by criticizing me so harshly I thought I might cry.

He wasn't even an acting teacher. He was an academic, a dramaturg, an historian. He had forgotten more about American theatre than most people will ever know, especially actors. He had an insight into the process not only of acting but of living in the theatre. As is often the case, I had no idea just how much he was teaching me until years later.

After I graduated I saw him often. Every time I was back in town I would seek him out. He would say I was ancient history and insult me in font of his new young admirers. (Was I ever really that young?) But when he came to New York he would call and we would go out for drinks at his favorite old-man bar (the Blarney Stone, ugh). It was always difficult to tell if he loved me or was just tolerating me but, as a general rule, the more annoyed he looked the happier he was.

And then he was just gone. He didn't even tell anybody he was sick. He taught every single day until he went into the hospital. He never came out. His grad students say that he was teaching even then, at his bedside, through his assistants, however he could. I will never forget that phone call. I collapsed to the floor. It was the first and only time something had truly hit me like a brick. I hadn't seen him at that point for about two years, but I always knew where to find him. He was always just around the corner.

Not anymore.

A teacher told us, once, that we should never try to use a personal traumatic experience to inform our performance until several years had gone by and we were able to assimilate and understand it. I have gradually learned the truth of that as more and more of my life becomes past-tense. It's been four years and this is the first I'm really expressing much about it. It's the first time I'm telling this story to anyone who didn't already know it, basically everyone but the other three who were with me that first night.

There was a memorial that spring, in 2004, and I went and had bittersweet reunions with teachers and old friends. I remember speaking and feeling foolish. Feeling not up to the task of expressing how much he meant to me.

I should have simply said:

John Degen gave me my life. He showed me the door, how to open it and where to go when I got through. By taking the time to teach a kid he didn't know, he changed everything. Without him, I would never have known the joy of the stage or the ecstasy of reaching that exact perfect place where you become one with words and the set and the players and art truly becomes LIFE. I wouldn't have learned that even stupid choices make us better, as actors and as people. I almost certainly wouldn't be as harsh a critic or as patient a listener. Most of all, without his guidance into that wonderful world I would never have met the woman who is now my wife. That alone is a gift for which I could never repay him.

He would probably argue to the contrary and advise me to retrieve my balls from her purse.

I love you, John. I miss you terribly.

You're gonna eat me just like the story says.

Fuck Art. Fuck Life.
Fuck Truth. Fuck Beauty.
play is the thing.
-John Degen, 1947-2004

To anyone who can read this, please forgive the google spam.
John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen John Degen John Degen John Degen John Degen


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute to an amazing man. Thanks for sharing this.

Mercurious said...

Wonderfully written profile. Thanks for posting it.

Pockets said...

And so, I have him to thank as well. But not for the door presented to Bullet, there would be no Pockets, at least not one with any stories truly worth telling to my grandchildren.