Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Mr. Fry's Opus
William G. Fry was my teacher.
Or, as he fondly referred to Kathleen Howland...
He was just plain Bill to some, Mr. Fry to others, but for most of us who studied under him from the 1970s until last week, he was simply-
We first shared the stage in Gypsy when I was five, which had a "director's nightmare" of a scene full of precocious kids, and their even more so stage moms. The cast was full of inexperienced moms and kids (like us) with only that one scene to occupy our time and energy until curtain call. My mom tells me that she and Fry often shared the honor of watching all of us kids for the majority of the show in the Green Room, a 15 x 20' space, composed of uncomfortable vinyl furniture, several plastic square tables, a large round table, and florescent green shag carpeting. Every night Fry would tell her, "I have 17 nieces and nephews! I don't need to be surrounded by kids at the theatre!"
But it was during that show that he took a shinning to me. Somewhere along the way of that production, I must have demonstrated that, despite my petite size and lack of experience I had an unusually high level of concentration. Really, I was shy in new environments and didn't like to rock the boat. I hadn't even wanted to be in the show and hadn't actually auditioned, but was there every night with the rest of my family. I was finally talked into it by the director, with the help of a costumer who produced a tiny sequined tutu and tiara, taunting me with, "If you are in the show, you get to wear this!"
I also know it certainly wasn't my talent that drew him to me, as all I did in that show was twirl across the stage following my graceful ballet-trained older sister. The audience was quite taken with my "performance" of course, but at best my delivery was "cute." Fry hated cute. He said so relentlessly during rehearsals, if he thought we were going that direction in our performance.
It was definitely the fact that I was the most quiet and focused child in the Green Room.
Or...maybe just a shy extrovert.
Whatever the reason, when Fry directed a reader's theatre production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly later that same season he cast my mom and siblings, but threw in a request for her to "Make sure and bring that littlest one along." Or as she tells it, "He only cast the rest of us so he could have you." I was pretty agreeable back then. I did what a director told me, and didn't veer from their instruction. And at the age of five, that brought me the reputation of being a "natural" who could always hit my mark.
We shared the stage again in the next play I was in- The Miracle Worker. Fry played the part of the Dr, appearing in one short opening scene. I was Sarah, "the littlest child," a student of Annie Sullivan's at Perkins School for the Blind.
I was 8.
I remember a lot about that show. I had some lines. One was, "Don't go Annie, where the sun is fierce," and the way it was grammatically constructed confused me. I remember the director, the same one who handed me a part in Gypsy, not enjoying being around the kids very much, and being sequestered once again to the Green Room. I remember George Mitchell, a wonderful, kind and generous actor, perfectly cast as the kind and generous Mr. Anagnos. I remember George carrying me on stage and staring blankly as I was instructed so I could appear to be blind. The night my mom picked me up after we blocked that scene George complimented me to her, saying how naturally I took to the part.
I also had two of my first crushes in that play. One on a little boy named Anthony who played Percy. The other came from having to audition for the first time, therefore not being asked to be in the show, and being crushed that I didn't get the part of Helen.
I cried so hard after they posted the cast list, that my mom threatened to call the director and tell him to cast "one of the other eighty girls who tried out and would give anything to have your part." She also told me if I didn't stop crying she would never let me audition again.
That was the very last time I ever let my mother see me cry over a part.
And I remember watching Helen and Annie every night without fail, while the other kids were off goofing around. I studied how fabulous they were, how they were so detailed and in character, and tucked it all away for another time and place, until as an adult I would finally realize my dream of playing the title role in the same play.
One thing I barely remember in the show, was the presence of Bill Fry. But I will say, that he must have been paying attention to us kids, and to me in particular. He must have observed all that studying I did. He likely noticed that after our scene ended, I would gather the rest of my scene mates, and find an adult free zone to act out many of Annie and Helen's scenes, so I could apply what I was learning.
Because, though he claimed not to be particularly fond of kids, I have a feeling he was fascinated by our ability to totally emerge ourselves in character, even if nobody was watching.
Just for the fun of it.
I will never know for sure, but something tickled him about us kids. Because later that year he signed on to become the Players Guild's Educational Director. It was one of the Guild's few paid staff positions at that time, and he held the title for over 30 years before retiring to the status of Director Emeritus.
His bark could sting, but he never bit. He rather liked to tease us. My friend Amber and I would give him a ride to Fisher Foods after class sometimes, and go in with him as he picked up his staples for the week. We would follow him around obnoxiously calling him "Dad" attempting to annoy him. His theatre timing would always wait to respond until there was an audience. Therefore, while he was checking out as we laid it on most thick begging for candy or gum, he would turn to the unsuspecting clerk and darkly confide to her, "I told their mother to eat her young!"
He loved us in spite of himself.
He balanced strict theatre discipline with energetic and exciting classes or rehearsals, so you always looked forward to the privilege of working with him. His devotion to the then faltering Junior Theatre program turned it into it's own independently successful company, often helping the Guild hit budget in otherwise slow seasons.
He became my teacher at the age of nine, and directed me that year in what would be our first of over thirty Junior/Youth/Family Theatre collaborations.
I was cast as "The Girl With the Doll," a generically named leading lady and ghostly waif who haunts Scrooge throughout the play for his miserly, and compassionless ways. That part typecast me for the rest of my childhood with Fry, which ironically was something he vigorously attempted to teach us to avoid. Regardless, until I turned 18 the only "sure thing" part I could snag throughout my youth was one who's main function was to appear sickly and dying.
I played Beth in Little Women who dies before the third act, under Fry's direction.
When I say "twice" I don't mean for two performances, or that she died twice before the third act. I mean I played Beth in two separate productions, both directed by Fry. The first was at age 12, and then again at 15. Her character dies before the third act, the one where the three remaining sisters get to wear the cool puffy sleeved dresses and kiss boys-every night. Beth gets to wear a nightgown, and lay around under a blanket looking pale all through act II. On the positive side, in the 12 year old version, I had a fantastic scene stealing death scene with Jo, got to make the audience cry, and then snuggle backstage every night, in my jammies and blanket, and watch everyone else squirm as they had to kiss the boys.
Though by the second time round at 15, I would have really rather been wearing the puffy sleeved dresses and kissing those boys. Oh and speaking of my waify roles, Fry cast me a second time in I Never Saw Another Butterfly when I was ten. And though that time I could have participated in the reading part of readers' theatre, I never had a line in either show.
It was part of Fry's way, to cast me in a lead one show/ a bit part the next, or not at all. And then I was so desperately eager to be involved, I would swallow my sour grapes and work the show. He was constantly telling us that there are no small parts, only small actors, and made it his life's mission to drive that message home. If ever he had favorites, he rarely let it be known, and kept us humble by not always handing us a part that someone else could handle. Many of the most profound lessons, both of craft and character, came not from the teacher, but from not being cast in the part you wanted, thereby having the time to watch and observe other students, work backstage, and totally drink in the art of theatre.
Whether on stage or off, a favorite pastime for most of us was coming up with clever titles/rebuttles for endless array of lectures Fry repeated to us in each class and every production.
Lecture number 14- "BE ON TIME."
-addendum for clarification
"ON TIME MEANS TEN MINUTES BEFORE REHEARSAL!"
And, after rehearsal, number 32- "Ok people! Your mother doesn't work here- POLICE THE AREA"
-addendum 1 for clarification- "POLICE THE AREA MEANS PICK UP YOUR TRASH AND THROW IT AWAY!"
-addendum 2 for smart assed students (ie Zen and Amber)- "Your Mother MAY work here but your trash is not her job!"
After 17 years of study, a few decent but mainly bit parts, Fry finally rewarded me with the title role in Anne of Green Gables.
And I thought I had arrived. It was official.
I was an actor.
Ironically, the last time I worked with Fry was opposite him in another version of A Christmas Carol. This time he was Scrooge, a part he was born to play, not due to his own nature but rather in his understanding of the dynamics of Character. For years the part had been played by a well known and beloved local actor named Nick Barry, who's comical performance of Scrooge entertained audiences the first 10 or so years the Player's Guild did the production. But in the 11th year, the original director and playwright left, causing Nick to decide that it was time to retire his performance as well.
I loved Nick and his hilarious Scrooge, but always dreamed of seeing Fry play it. I knew from years as his student that he would go in a much deeper direction, giving Scrooge a greater evolution from detestable Humbug to reformed faithful of Christmas and life itself.
When I joined the cast in Fry's second year in the role, I was given a generically named part as "Fred's Wife" (yes it was a trend in my career ;) Everyone in the cast liked to call her "Wilma", after another famous Fred's wife, which I found insulting to the character. I guess when most of a cast has been in the same show for 11 years, they have to find ways to entertain themselves, like the euchre tournaments in the green room, the "find the spam" hidden on stage during performances, etc. I think those are cute and clever, but as usual, I took my part too seriously. I stated to everyone that I had re-named my character Margaret after my Grandmother. The other actors in my scene, two of them Youth Theatre alum themselves, respected my wishes. But no one else in the show did, and continued to tease me as "Wilma" for my two years in the part.
Except my teacher.
Fry told me he always thought that was stupid and called me Margaret with a grin that reflected his satisfaction and hubris at having raised me up so well. And in that grin the pupil felt recognized for her years of careful study.
Still....I treasure the role of "Margaret" for one and one reason only.
She afforded me my only scene, in the 35 years I've known him, on stage with Fry.
It's the last scene in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge is transformed and begs forgiveness from his nephew's wife. And it included the privilege of laying a single kiss upon his cheek. If memory serves, I believe is the only time in my life I was able to bestow him such an honor.
It's a funny story actually, as one of his most repeated (and valuable) lectures to us as teens involved stage kisses and actor hygiene-
# 4- ALWAYS WEAR DEODORANT, NEVER WEAR PERFUME, NEVER EAT GARLIC OR ONIONS AND MAKE SURE TO USE A MINT OR MOUTHWASH BEFORE A KISSING SCENE
Well, it wasn't that kind of kiss of course, so breath wasn't a concern. But after flying with ghosts in and out of the past, present and future for several hours, while wearing a flannel nightshirt, wool pants, a scarf and hat...let's just say, that having to kiss Scrooge as though I was excited to do so, took considerable concentration. And even the most impressive method acting wouldn't have helped my performance, if I hadn't been so thrilled to be there with him that I didn't mind in the first place.
He felt terrible that there was no time or place to clean off a pristine spot for my lips to land, because he never left the stage the entire last act. So every night as I leaned in to kiss him, he would wink and over emphasize his line, "Forgive me," to which I responded with my line, "Of course," and enthusiastically took my mark, in all it's salty, sweaty, makeup smearing nastiness.
Every night after the show, if he was in his office when I walked past on my way out, he would tell me, "I can't believe you do that every night without demanding a raise!"
"It's called acting," I would tease. Then he would take the opportunity to remind me, in my then prenatal state, that he would like to have a namesake. He even went so far as to offer to cast me in every role I ever wanted, for the rest of my life.
If I even for one minute thought he meant it, Tanner would be a "Billy. "
This morning, my mother reminded me that a few years ago she tried to take a picture of Fry and me together after a performance of A Christmas Carol and her camera froze. Guess that camera never learned how to step up and perform from Bill Fry.
A photo does exist somewhere, though sadly I don't possess a copy.
It was taken several years ago, when I attended a birthday party in his honor, and I gave him a book called~The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods. Inside I wrote to him that I bought the book trying to learn all the things I might have missed along the way, since he was my only teacher for most of my childhood. Then I started reading, then skimming, then realized I didn't need to finish it. Because I couldn't find anything in it that he hadn't covered in class. The lessons were so subtle at times, that most of the time we just felt like we were playing, rather than working or learning. I never worked with a better teacher or director, a master who could heard a cast of actors from "birth to 100" as he liked to say. I had forgotten my camera that night and asked another woman to take a picture for me on hers. She never remembered to send it to me, and I forgot to ask. We always think there will be another opportunity. But like live theatre, sometimes those moments fly by and are gone forever.
He was pleased with the book and the sentiment though. He rarely betrayed his deepest feelings, but that night I almost saw him cry.
I meant what I wrote too. I never appreciated it at the time, but Fry taught his students every theory and practice, how to improvise and play theatre games, let go of inhibitions and dive deep into character. But perhaps the greatest and most valuable lesson, was his belief that fostering a good cast and crew relationship, was vital to the success of the production.
It wasn't all warm and mushy. There were tough lessons too.
Discipline People!!! Theatre takes DISCIPLINE!
Articulation people! Enunciate! Eeeelooongaaaate those vowels and hittttt those consonanttttts! It doesn't matter how wonderfully you're emoting if the audience doesn't understand you!
I feel personally his main goal was to inspire us to respect the process of performance- from first read through to final dress, from "hairy week" to "giggle rehearsal", from the drudgery of blocking rehearsals to the insecurity of the first night off book. His directorial techniques were so smooth, so well thought out, that we seemed to effortless glide through those 6 weeks every production. And though I have never met an actor who wasn't thrilled to get to opening night and finally hear the laughter, sniffles, or applause, Fry instilled in his students a love of the journey rather than the destination only.
When I have the opportunity to direct students birth to 100 myself one day, I hope his ways will live on through me. And though it saddens me more than I anticipated to know now that he won't get to be there, I will do my best to honor his lessons and delivery style, and teach the practice, the concepts,and the application of all of them.
There was no creed in Fry's theatre- you try it all, take what works and leave the rest.
Fry possessed such depth, such a vast and eclectic array of all things theatre. But perhaps his most profound lesson, came from hearing him repeatedly state over the years that the thing he loved most about theatre was that he never stopped learning more. If he ever did, he'd quit. And though he retired a few years ago, he was still there, and was due to teach a class this week. That's why I have no doubt that the teacher continued to enjoy and learn from
And them from him. One of the lectures I didn't like in particular, but he seemed hell bent on relating to us, was to major in anything in college but theatre, so we would have something to fall back on. I tried to follow that advice my first time round, but dropped out, because I couldn't find another subject I was so passionate about. When I returned to college after my divorce in 2000, I decided to go against him and get my BA in Theatre Studies. By the time I was finished, I realized that he was right about the degree, especially given all I had already absorbed, and how few new lessons my degree in theatre brought my way, as well as the burn out, loss of drive I experienced studying my passion for a grade. Even so, when I told him I had finished, and was planning on becoming a teacher using his model, he smiled some more hubris my way while complaining,
"You kids never listen! (laughter) There there there!"
Never did there exist a more contented soul. He lived his life on a diet of show tunes and More cigarettes, only leaving the Players Guild to go to dinner with his theatre family, or home to rest. To me he seemed ageless- perpetually fifty years old, though he must have been a mere 4 years older than me now when I first met him, and was in his mid seventies the last time I saw him. It had been so long he didn't recognize me instantly, and once he did, demanded, "Where the hell have you been?!?!? And when you coming back down here? We miss you!"
Where I had been was busy. Now a mother of four myself I can't imagine how my mom did it with and for us.
And regrettably, I didn't get back down there. It was the last time I saw him. We always think we have more time. But theatre people are circus types, and you would think by now I would know better. Few are content to stay put in one arena for long. Though I do still have a few contacts at the Guild, I was never sure if someone would be working there during the day, who knew me way back when.
With one exception.
Up until his last day on earth...
For the last 38 years, anyone and everyone who was ever involved at the Guild, no matter for one season or the last 38, knew there would always be one soul at work, ready to take a break and catch up over coffee or cigarettes, who would tell whoever else had wandered in the door during your absence just exactly who you were, what you did there, how wonderful it was back then...
One who knew me, who cared, who missed, and who will always be...
My mom always liked to say to him, "We raised some good kids together, didn't we Fry?"
And they did. Along with my own mom, Fry, costumer Pat Hemphill and teacher/board member Kathleen Howland raised us up well. They were a sort of surrogate parents for me, who all made sure that even when tragedy struck my family removing my mom from her presence in the theatre, that mine was able to remain.
Fry was the last of my paternal surrogates to leave my life. But his lessons, all their lessons have contributed tremendously to who I am. And though I am so incredibly fortunate to have my own parents still with me...
Today I feel an orphan of sorts. The curtain has fallen, and the stage is bare.
Call the teacher who made you the performer, the coach who made you the player, the instructor who inspired you to take up your career.
And tell them thank you for making you everything you are today.
Zen was not meditating at 3:40 PM