Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Wink and A Nod from Fry

So no sh#t there I was, checking my email last week. One of my old theatre friends, one of my last, close friends on staff at the Players Guild, sent me a message with the subject:

"Pics of you with Bill Fry."

My heart skipped a beat. I thought perhaps she found some old pictures of us from rehearsals or classes, or in costume. I hoped she found the picture of us from his birthday party, but I really thought that was a long shot. I wrote back to say I'd stop by the next day to check them out.

I took Anna with me to the theatre on Wed afternoon. We entered the stage door, as I have a million times since I was 5, only now I can almost easily reach the buzzer to be let in (it's still a stretch, but I remember a time before I could hit it myself.) We heard pounding from the main stage to our right, and I took Anna in to say hi to Craig (the current tech director.) Craig is another old theatre friend, though for me he represents Kent Stark rather than the Guild, as the Stark stage is where we met and did most of our shows together. He also was one of my young guy friends who helped me tremendously while I was a single mom, mowing my lawn for me several times a summer so I wouldn't have to kill myself trying to keep up.

Then Anna and I headed down the perilous stairs that kids have been tripping down for generations, though a few decades ago the Guild did invest in some stair grips to help (but I still held onto Anna and the railing tightly.)

We went into the secretary's area. This used to be a very posh little office for Gretchen Kloes, the PG's secretary throughout most of my youth. Gretchen was very organized and had beautiful shelves full of interesting objects, as well as a sliding dividing panel that locked the office up completely when she left. I believe the panel fell by the wayside years ago, and now the office area is overstuffed with cubicles, shoving two other desks for other staff members in there. Sad to see it now all crowded and unkempt.

Gretchen was quite fond of me (like I said I USED to be this tiny shy and polite little waif once upon a time.) She would always let me (but not the other more precocious kids) look at her fascinating collection of large geodes that she had on the shelves. I thought they were magical with all their light refracting facets-surely more precious than diamonds, and I handled them with the utmost care and respect.

Gretchen retired when she became ill with cancer. She bravely fought it many years and passed away a long time ago.

I sometimes think the Guild's Golden Age walked out the door with Gretchen. She was a force to be reckoned with, ran a tight ship, took crap from no one, and oversaw the care of that facility, brand new when she started there, as if it was her own home.

I didn't see my friend Carrie behind her cubicle, just an older woman (secretary?) who I believe was Janet Barry, the wife of Nick, the actor formerly known as Scrooge throughout the 1980's.

Then Carrie popped out from her desk, and handed me an envelope. Most were pictures of me and castmates from Anne of Green Gables (1991) that I had taken on my own camera and given the doubles to Fry.

But the last pic...

Was taken 5 years ago at his 70th b-day party. There I am, very thin, full of single mom/working full time/theatre BA pursuit, with a very proud looking teacher.

It is a fabulous picture, isn't it?

I don't always believe in everything about that "Secret" stuff- you know, put your request out to the universe and it will happen sorta thing. But, my friend found this picture, and hadn't even read my blog to know I had been looking for it.


All I have to say is...

Thanks Fry. And just so you know it will be on my desk, when I have my own cubicle somewhere in the depths of theatre catacombs while I'm teaching kids the lessons learned from years of careful and accidental study with you. ;)

Carrie and Josh, the Managing Director there, have allowed me another honor. I will be taking my scanner down there next week and scanning all the other pictures Fry left in his office so I can send many of them off to any of my former Junior/Youth theatre classmates I can find. The past few years I've attempted to get in contact with my former Players Guild Youth Theatre alumni, hoping to host a reunion while Fry was still around to take part in and enjoy it. Regrettably, I was busy, disorganized, with other projects always landing in the way of that one.

I had located one man, Dallas Hardcastle, on, but hadn't heard back from him or his older brother Terry. I only knew Dallas briefly, from a few plays and classes he took part in, but was much closer to Terry.

We met in one of Fry's classes when we were around nine years old. The last time I saw or spoke with Terry we were in high school. Then he moved on to professional theatre throughout the US, where he's had a lovely career. I got married, had kids, got divorced, went back to school, got remarried, had a has changed a lot since we last spoke. So has Terry's voice, which is why when I received a voice mail from him on my way into the theatre, I had to listen to the message twice to really believe it was him.

My mom, my brother and myself all have contact with several of my Youth Theatre friends or their parents, and I started a Yahoo Group a while back hoping others would search us out. It fizzled, and I never got back on task. But I think of all of them often, as we really were such an extended family all those seasons. To me those people represent my childhood, my adolescence, my therapists, my gurus, my mentors, my friends. And even though I am still determined to host such a reunion...the loss of Fry's presence will make for a heavier night than it could have been.

Life does always find a way to intervene those best intentions, doesn't it?
And when it does, we wait for death and loss to inspire.

I haven't talked to Terry yet, as we have played phone tag all week. As soon as I post the final draft of this, I will be trying his number again, and this time won't let anything deter me from speaking with him.

I had fully intended to call Terry back while I was reminiscing in Fry's office, so I could start our conversation with, "You'll never guess where I Fry's office looking at a picture of you from Butterfinger's Angel..."

But, I underestimated the effect of the theatre, the office, the pictures, the scripts, and Anna's patience level for being in the "bowels of the theatre" as Fry like to call them.

Fry's office was formerly a tiny storage room called the Triangle Room, for it's shape and lack of any foreseeable function in it's design. We used it for props that belonged to or were currently in use for youth theatre my brothers and their friends likely used it for other more secretive purposes (damn teenagers!)

It became his office around the time I became a teenager, so I am not privy to any other "functions" it served, with the exception of being the only approved designated smoking room after the Guild became a smoke free building in the 90's. I have a feeling that was quite a heated campaign between the pro smokers Fry and Pat Hemphill (the then costumer) and the pro- smoke free facility since it was years before state law would mandate it anyway. In the end they compromised on two unlikely designated smoking areas- the wardrobe room and Fry's office, with only paid staff allowed to smoke in them. Now having your only designated smoking areas be a room filled with costumes to be damaged or ignited, and another about 3 x 5 feet, with no ventilation leads me to believe the board knew it had some good people it couldn't afford to lose over cigarettes. And though smoking rights were to be for staff only, fry gave sanctuary to other smokers, especially in the dead of winter. A few times I tried to hang out in there myself, but the smoke was so thick you didn't need one of your own to be smoking.

And now, as Anna immediately pointed out to me when we went in there...

"Mommy this room smells funny!"

She didn't like it in there. There wasn't much to do, just old nicotine filled scripts and ghostly black and white photos of students gone by.

It was a convenient and private office for Fry, not just for smoking as he was still able to do that anywhere in the theatre when the office was Christened his domain. He had formerly been upstairs where at least a little natural light coming in the first floor entry door and two story windows, could bounce it's way down those treacherous stairs and into the office hallway. In contrast, Fry's triangle room office was devoid of ANY light save the incandescent one, or a lamp he put in there so it could be darker and less distracting during performances. Before his office moved down there, he could only watch from the audience (helpless in a crisis) or in an uncomfortable metal chair backstage of the alcove entrance. Most directors leave the show to the stage manager after it opens, which a good thing sometimes, as I have worked with those who can't handle the mishaps without blowing a gasket. And several miserable times I have worked backstage with a few directors who have shown me my share of glares or lectures for fubars that inevitably accompany live theatre performances. But...

I never remember once in thirty plus times of working with him, a similar experience from Fry. Even though he was there every night just in case, he always let the stage manager/cast/crew handle any unexpected "drama" calmly waiting to discuss what happened if necessary before the next show in an attempt to avoid an undesired repeat performance.

I have seen him annoyed, perplexed, impassioned, disgusted...

But never angry. And now that I have teens and am around teens and am in my 40's I must say for that alone that Bill Fry may have been the greatest actor of all time.

He taught many, turned off some, but in the end affected most of us more than any other teacher we ever will have.

There was a lot of closure in that office last Wed. There will be even more at the memorial service next Sunday I'm sure.

We all need that when we lose someone, especially those who's meaning in our lives we can never grasp until they aren't around anymore to share it with them.

After the picture I had never seen surfaced, Terry left me a message, and then I spent an afternoon re-living my amazing childhood onstage...

I feel like I'm entering the III Act of my Players Guild career. The stage was set in Act I, the plot was furthered in Act II, and now the purpose comes with Act III. Ok that's a bit cheesy I know...

It would have made Fry roll eyes, say "Oh GOD don't be CUTE Jennifer. (Laughing) There! There! There!"

It's time for me to make good on a promise I made to Fry the last few times I saw him - one of those times right before that picture was taken. I am finding my way back home, to teach kids theatre, the way Bill Fry taught me. Now that he's gone, I feel the baton must truly be passed. I could get in a few other smaller theatres I'm sure, who due to their overhead have much less pressure for the Youth Theatre programs to perform. Unfortunately, the Guild is no where near the facility it was, back when government supported arts, and businesses endorsed the rest.

Decades of neglect from lack of funding have made large community theatres lose ground and become in danger of folding or turning professional. And that would be a terrible loss for Canton, for theatre, for all of us.

And since I'm still around, the only one really left from those days that still goes anywhere near the Guild, I feel a responsibility and a calling...

Back to my home, my sanctuary, my stage...the place where dreams begin.


Design Goddess said...

That is a lovely picture.

Man I miss those days of the divorce/break-up diet!

heather said...

Jennifer, your calling is at the Guild! My mother always believed that the theater was a powerful place of God, you know. She was certain that people experienced grace and forgiveness, rapture and wonder, great sorrow and joy - all for the sake of celebrating their human right to feel alive- and you know wherever two or three are gathered together for the sake of love, God is there. That's what she believed. I believe that you will find much satisfaction in serving children at the Guild. This has the ring of truth!

Zen Davis Richkowski said...

My dear DG,

Sorry I'm just getting around to acknowledging your comments here. It's been a whirlwind month. I was thinking you had the chance to meet him, but probably because you hung out at Stark so much.

He and Phil are similar in their devotion to quality and their trusting of actors' instincts, yet very different philosophically in their personal lives. Also, Fry was a natural working with children, odd for a man who never had his own. And Phil became so in his later years (we were mighty scared of him when we were youngsters!) Thanks for your caring thoughts,

Zen Davis Richkowski said...

And Heather-

I'm going to be teaching our all time favorite class- Improv/theatre games-ages 13-17. (Or as I called it "Essentials of Acting" since MaryLou teaches a similar class to the 12 and under group called "Focus on Fundamentals".