Franciscan

Franciscan Joy: All the world's a stage

All the world’s a stage

BY FR. DAN ANDERSON, OFM

As fall brings longer nights and a brisk chill, a new theatre season typically begins. And that has almost always been exciting for me. In 1953 my family bought a television (I’ll get to theatre in just a minute), and the first TV show I remember watching was the coronation of Elizabeth II. I was just a few days shy of 6 years old, but I vividly remember the thrill of the pageantry and the costumes. I doubt I knew the definitions of those words, but I knew the impact those elements had to lift me from post WW II North College Hill in Cincinnati’s suburbs to somewhere different and exciting and special. Something in me was caught that day; I wanted to be part of making that magic.

That summer my first best friend Kathy Zimmer and I staged our first major production. She had a little record player and I had a 78 rpm recording of Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. Those, some crepe paper costumes, and a few neighbors we lured into the garage with the promise of free Kool-Aid were all we needed to produce a star-studded spectacle. I ran into Kathy at a wedding a few years ago; we still haven’t settled who was the star of that show.

Anyway, I was hooked. Every time there was an opportunity to do anything on the auditorium stage in grade school, I was the first to volunteer. When I was in the Cub Scouts and, later, Boy Scouts, I was the one who designed and performed in the skits and ceremonies that were part of that experience. One "event" involved an American flag, a strong window fan, a flashlight serving as a spotlight, and me reading the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Heady stuff!

All of this carried me into high school where I eagerly joined the Bacon Drama Guild. Yes, I was a theatre nerd. Combine that with being a band geek, and I was one of the most dramatic (if not most popular) students at Roger Bacon High School in the early 1960s. I really did love being part of the magic that was theatre. By the time I graduated, my life’s ambition was to be a Franciscan Friar teaching theatre at my alma mater. And that’s what eventually happened. The summer after graduation I had my first formal theatre training, an acting class at Xavier University with then-legendary Otto Kvapil. I began to realize that in addition to enthusiasm, there is art and craft to theatre.

As a student at Duns Scotus College seminary in Southfield, Mich., I was involved in the theatre program. Fr. Leander Blumlein directed some powerful productions of classic plays including T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. (I had two lines as "The Herald" . . . but it was a part!) Then, during my senior year, I had the opportunity to direct and perform in Edward Albee’s absurdist The Zoo Story. As a self-identified member of the Age of Aquarius, I found this look at life and relationships gripping; but I no idea of the impact the production would have on our audiences. I began to realize in a whole new way the power of theatre to not just lift audiences out of the present but to help open their minds and hearts to whole new ways of looking at life. If I had any hesitations about pursuing theatre as a ministry and life work, they quickly evaporated. I wanted to continue to have for myself and to give to my eventual students the opportunity to have that powerful interrelationship between actor and audience that only live theatre can provide.

When I entered St. Leonard College in Centerville, Ohio, I spend the regular academic year studying for an M.Div. and spent summers at St. Louis University working toward an M.A. in theatre. It was a wonderful time! I looked forward to returning to SLU each summer (many of them) to study acting, directing, set design and painting, costume design and construction, dance, voice, etc. Knowing that I was preparing for high school work, the faculty hired me to direct a summer high school theatre workshop to hone my teaching skills. Even more helpful was an invitation from Nick Rieder at Roger Bacon to direct their productions while studying at St. Leonard during the school year. My summer degree studies would have immediate testing each year as I applied them to the work with the RB students, and I began to plumb the experience of the SLU teachers for approaches to situations that arose while working with the productions at Bacon.

My degree work completed (both of them), I joined the faculty of Roger Bacon High School for some of the happiest years of my life. After a couple years of getting programs refined, I was a speech and theatre teacher and developed a theatre program of which my students and I could be justly proud. They began to experience that magic of sharing their gifts and talents with an audience, touching hearts, the unspoken but very real return the audience gives.

After about 20 years as a high school director, the itch to perform grew strong again. I began to work in Cincinnati community theatre, particularly with Cincinnati Music Theatre, which brought exciting opportunities to act, sing, dance, direct and design throughout the Greater Cincinnati area. I was lucky to get some plum roles. Particular highlights from that time were a multi-week dinner theatre run as John Adams in 1776. This "extended run" of six shows a week brought my first opportunity to really grow into a character over time and develop the discipline to bring a freshness to each performance. This certainly helped when in 1987 I was hired to play 19th Century Cincinnati industrialist Miles Greenwood as part of the Bicentennial Storytellers Project. I was one of 12 actors who traveled around Cincinnati during the bicentennial year telling the city’s history as those who helped make that history.

Another incredible experience was the chance to play the lead in the regional premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a powerful play about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York. Talk about interacting with audiences! Every night after performances audience members would approach me and other cast members to talk about family and friends they had lost to AIDS, about their own experience of living with the disease. Sometimes they couldn’t even talk and just needed to be held while they cried. Good theatre is so much more than watching actors "strut and fret their hour upon the stage."

Eventually bad knees and tight work schedules brought an end to my stage-side participation, but the magic and the power of the art form continues to draw me to share in that wonderful experience of communication that is theatre.

By the way, as I was finishing writing this, I went online to listen to The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. I still think I was the star of that 1953 garage extravaganza!

(Fr. Dan is Secretary of the Province of St. John the Baptist.)

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