|Looking Back to Where I've Been|
At five, acting was already a fever in my blood, and somehow I knew, even then, that the decision was made and there would be no turning back. ... I never changed my mind.- Alan Arkin, An Improvised Life: A Memoir
No one would mistake Alan Arkin for bookseller P. J. Grath! It's pretty unlikely, too, that anyone would take me for him, coming up to me at a restaurant and asking, “Mr. Arkin, may I have your autograph?” But I’m reading his memoir, An Improvised Life, struck by his deep insights about acting, and at the same time thinking about e-mails a friend and I have been exchanging, reminiscing about our respective high school years, I can’t help comparing Arkin’s lifelong obsession with acting to my youthful performance dreams.
For me, a long life on stage and on celluloid unrolled only in imagination. Clearly, then, my ambitions did not burn as brightly or as steadily as those of Alan Arkin (or Jodi Foster, Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington), but years ago, for quite a while, I was the female, teenaged Walter Mitty star of many exciting daydreams, enjoying in advance a fantasy future that I never, as it turned out, seriously pursued much past the age of eighteen. Who now would ever guess?
Piano lessons began for me at the age of five but lasted only a year. I could handle half an hour of practice a day, but when the teacher upped the ante to an hour I dug in my heels. My parents shrugged and decided I must not want to take lessons very badly. All my life I have wished that teacher and parents might have consulted me before that decision was made. Maybe the adults would have realized that 30 minutes a day for a six-year-old was plenty, or maybe we could have compromised on three-quarters of an hour. In any case, it didn’t happen. I was clearly not destined by Fate to be a pianist.
I had, however, a completely unfettered imagination, and whether on long vacation trips or simple errands near home, the car window was my proscenium window, through which I projected myself into complicated scenes unrolling in the passing landscape (cornfields or suburbs, mostly, with occasional railroad tracks), scenes that would have astonished my parents, blissfully ignorant up there in the front seat. At home, our big old backyard apple tree was sometimes a tropical island, sometimes a spaceship. I also practiced different expressions in the bathroom mirror, imagining myself in the wildest of situations. (Doesn't everyone?) And years before the term “Drama Queen” was in common use, my mother felt its need when confronted by my histrionics.
Fortunately for my mother’s sanity, the city school instrumental music program came to her rescue. In fourth grade came try-outs for band and orchestra, and I was selected to be a violinist, a path I followed for nine years, all the way through high school graduation.
Playing in a large junior high and then high school orchestra gave me experience in rigorous practice, group discipline, and individual effort, with the heady rewards of performance success. Our junior high band and orchestra made a once-in-a-lifetime journey by train to the National Music Festival in Enid, Oklahoma, living on our chartered train during the festival and coming home to be greeted by the high school band, in uniform, playing for us at the station. In high school there were numerous contests at the district, regional, and national levels, and one year a cultural exchange with a high school orchestra from Toronto, Ontario. The orchestra room, for me, was what the locker room must have been to the school jocks. We too worked hard and traveled to compete against other schools. In addition, we had the music. We made the music. It was thrilling. I belonged to something serious that was bigger than myself, something that drew me out of my books and imagination and forced me to deal the reality of other living, breathing humans.
For the most part I had become an actor so as to hide, to find my identity through pretending to be other people.
And yet, while I prepared for and competed in solo and ensemble contests, along with all the regular rehearsals and twice-yearly concerts, I never dreamed of becoming a career violinist. Carrying my violin case to and from school, I was a secret singer and actor living in the borrowed identity of an instrumentalist!
Here’s how it went my freshman year: the one public high school for the township shared its campus with the township junior college, and we baby boomers were practically bursting the seams of the beautiful old limestone block building. The swimming pool was converted to a classroom to house three homerooms, one of which was mine, and still there was not space enough for all of us. The solution was to put freshmen on half-days. The early part of the freshman alphabet began at 7:30 a.m., and when this group was dismissed at noon – no lunch on campus for freshmen – the latter half of the alphabet started its half-day. Overlapping the early and late halves of the day was the period and a half when band, orchestra, and choir met. So my French class started at 7:30 a.m., and when the rest of my morning group left school for the day I went to orchestra.
That year I had my first date with a boy who drove a car, so that we did not have to be driven on the date by his mother or father. I think he was a junior., but it was not a long, memorable romance. The one evening stands out in my memory not for the boy but for the occasion: he took me to the senior class play, “The Curious Savage,” the first live stage play I’d ever seen. I was completely stage-struck! As the audience flowed out after the final applause, I was rooted to the spot, still staring at the now-empty stage, where a new world had opened to me. I had no desire to leave that scene of magic.
Another highlight was the annual “operetta,” as we called it. My freshman year the operetta was “Showboat,” and playing in the pit orchestra, in an old-fashioned, honest-to-God orchestra pit in front of and below the stage, added fuel to my performance dreams. Singing and acting! That was the ticket! Shows in succeeding years were exciting, but nothing surpassed or even equaled “Showboat” in the thrilling impression it left.
When our orchestra prepared for a concert, the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections were augmented by instrumentalists borrowed from the band, but the line between those who sang and those who played instruments was a border never crossed. Since all three music groups practiced during the same hour and a half, students had to choose. Choir members could not be part of band or orchestra, and students who played in one of the instrumental groups could not join the choir. As an orchestra member, therefore, I was not eligible to try out for a singing role in the annual musical stage production, but that was no barrier at all to my fantasy life.
Leaving school after orchestra, the morning students long gone and the afternoon students already deep into their second hour of class, I was not part of a rowdy mass exodus (my best friend and neighbor went to school in the afternoon) and enjoyed a solitary daily walk through what I remember as mostly a warehouse and small manufacturing district, under the railroad viaduct, and through downtown to catch the city bus that would take me out to home on the edge of town. On these long walks I would sing aloud with great dramatic abandon, falling silent only on the rare occasion that I noticed another pedestrian within hearing distance. Downtown and on the bus, I would again fall silent, but once out on the edge of town, walking from the bus stop to our house on the last street before fields of corn and alfalfa began, my voice would soar again. Hymns, popular songs, musical comedy, my own improvisations on childhood themes – I was not quietly humming to myself but giving my all to an invisible audience. How amazed and astounded my schoolmates would have been to see and hear me in what I took to be my true identity! In my memories of these musical walks, it is always spring. “It Might As Well Be Spring,” in fact, was one of my favorite songs, but there were hundreds of others. “Summertime” was another.
By my senior year, popular music on radio was well into the folk music revival. Somehow I got my hands on an inexpensive acoustic guitar and learned a few chords, and somewhere my sister and I found cheap, full-length “granny” dresses in bright cotton prints. My sister did not share my devotion to Joan Baez (“Someone dies in every one of those songs!” she pointed out with a meaningful look), but we had been singing together in the kitchen, in the car on vacations, and in church choir all our lives, and now that she was a freshman we were in high school together, so we worked up an act for the school talent show and subsequently took it “on the road” to a hootenanny at the Catholic high school in a nearby town. In the summer we hit the beaches of Lake Michigan with mournful Appalachian tunes. I dreamed of a recording career, spending unbelievable amounts of time mentally writing and rewriting liner notes for the albums of my future work.
[As a member of a group of folk singers,] in my naïveté I thought singing . . . would be an entrée into the theatre. But of course no such thing happened.
An English teacher had encouraged me to try out for one-act plays in my sophomore year, and the apex of my high school career was a role in “Camino Real,” by Tennessee Williams, a play we took up through district and regional levels to win first place at the state level. Illinois! And we were not even a Chicago school! We were crazy with disbelief and drunken joy, and nothing in my life up to then compared to the intoxication of being part of that ensemble and that triumph. It was an experience that solidified my longing for the stage.
I sent away to New York for brochures from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but when they arrived my mother put her foot down. No acting school – out of the question – I would go to university or nowhere. So I went dutifully to university, my dreams still secretly intact, where I joined the University Chorus and signed up for a class in voice and articulation. A major in “speech education” let me take classes in acting and other aspects of stagecraft.
. . . Ah, but then I married early, dropped in and out of college, had a baby, and the years began speeding by. I did a couple stints singing with bands and a little community theatre when my son was small. . . . Went back to school and studied drama for a while (my son helped me learn lines and was stage-struck in his turn by his first experience of live theatre) but then was seduced by philosophy. . . . Now, all these years later, I cannot even bring myself to commit to a community choir and never consider trying out for community plays. It is no longer part of my life.
For me, then, performance turned out to be the road not taken. So Alan Arkin and I don’t have all that much in common, do we? And here my little story sputters and coughs and loses momentum and grinds to a limping halt. . . .
And yet, and yet.... Does any passionately imagined dream ever die completely? (Ask Walter Mitty!) There is enough of mine left that I read books like Arkin’s hungrily, gleaning insights very meaningful to my undeveloped actor’s heart. “And who knows?” I say to David. “Someday I could be the Grandma Moses of American cinema!” Bless his heart, he thinks I could, too! But no, it's more likely those old melodies will find their way into my writing.
(“What are you doing?” David calls from the living room. “Reading Alan Arkin. I love Alan Arkin!” “I like him a lot, too,” David answers, adding, “We should have him over sometime.”)
It always amazes me that some people can know from childhood or even figure out in high school or by their college years what they want to do for the whole rest of their lives. I can trace easily in retrospect the path that led me to becoming a bookseller, but it isn’t a destination I saw far in advance. Writing – in my case, far less than a career but much, much more than a hobby -- is the only thing I’ve always done and still do that means the world to me.
How is it with other people? When you were five years old, what future did you imagine for yourself? Did other dream careers come along later? Are you living your dream? If not, is that all right? Maybe better than what you dreamed?