“You know who you are by what you do, and also by what you don’t do.”
I thought I wanted to be an actor because I behaved like I wanted to be an actor.
(Note: The idea took hold because I enjoyed acting at camp, or, more importantly perhaps, people enjoyed me, acting in camp.)
During my graduating year at the University of Toronto, I would invade the school library and hungrily pore over the crumbling catalogues from American universities – Northwestern and what was then called Carnegie Tech – boasting recognized theater departments, searching for my immediate future. (One that did not involve law school.)
My dogged research in that regard was utterly irrational, as there was no way I could afford the tuition at any of those places. Even with our surging dollar yielding a dollar-three American. Truth be told, I could barely afford Canadian tuition.
Yet there I was, trolling for acting schools, a telltale “Exhibit A” for “It would appear that I want to be an actor.”
“Graduation Summer” finds a less dreamy “Exhibit B”, meaning I did more than read outdated catalogues for unreachable universities.
In the summer of 1966 – as has been regularly mentioned – I attended UCLA’s “Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop”, where, after auditioning with a kick-ass speech from Inherit the Wind – getting the only applause of all the auditioners – I went on to noteworthy success – an L.A. Times review “positive mention” – in the Brechtian “rep” company. I even met with the acting department’s Dean, seeking a scholarship for post-graduate training. (The Dean, however, kiboshed my plan, saying, “You have ‘a certain quality’ but I would not call it ‘acting.’”)
Despite the setback, the idea of being an actor remained percolating. Less than a year later, now living in London (having escaped law school after five weeks of fretful participation), I found myself – “Exhibit C” – a three-class-a-week student at The Actor’s Workshop, a “Method Acting” school in England, which is like attending a Norwegian cooking school in Paris. Again, delivering one line in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, I won selective acknowledgement in a London newspaper.
Another encouraging signal. It was not just “unfounded aspiration.” Disinterested strangers were saying, “It’s there.”
A good friend of my uncle’s was living in London, transplanted with his actress wife, and happily producing for the theater. After revealing my hopes to him about becoming an actor, he said he’d see what he could do. In the meantime, I stayed afloat substitute teaching at St. John’s Church of England Infants and Juniors School, and, for a time, wrapping toys at Harrods Department Store. My harbored dream, however, was not teaching or toy wrapping. I was just biding my time, and “paying my dues.”
Then, finally, it happened.
Billy, the producer – a lot of show biz executives are called kids’ names – announced that, through his “back channel” connections, he had procured me a job as an “Assistant Stage Manager” at The Hampstead Theatre Club, est. 1959, (now, simply The Hampstead Theatre), a prestigious “tryout” venue for promising playwrights. (Including, subsequently, Harold Pinter, Brian Friel, and Michael Frayn.)
This entry-level position involved long hours, working primarily as a “Tea Boy”, or more colorfully, a “Dog’s Body.” Still, I’d be legitimately “in the theatre”, an “in-line” candidate for “Walk-on’s”, and beyond that, who knows?
Billy’s voice was genuinely excited. He had come through gloriously for his good friend’s Canadian nephew.
Surprising both Billy and myself, I politely rejected the offer.
Ostensibly because it paid a salary I’d be unable to live on, because I’d have to give up my acting class, and because, by then, after fifteen-plus months living in England, I was seriously thinking of going back home. (Contributing Factor: A discouraging Youth Hostel bath had recently given me a rash.)
Why did I reject the job really?
It turns out I did not really want to be an actor.
How do I know that?
Because “opportunity” knocked and I didn’t go in.
A year later, living in Toronto, somebody asked me to write something and I did.
You see the difference?
“Exhibit D” – or “Exhibit A” in a separate file – I said “Yes.”
You just look at your behavior,
And you know who you are.
And, despite the preliminary indicators,
You know also who you aren’t.