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Friday, September 30, 2011
The Interview, Part 2
ME: That's right.
TQ: And "home" is ... ?
ME: Crowley, a rice-farming town in Southwest Louisiana, near Lafayette. If I don't say "Lafayette," no one has any idea where it might be.
TQ: Did Crowley have a theatre scene?
ME: [Laughing] A "rice-farming town in Southwest Louisiana?" No. Not then. Not ever in my consciousness - although I do seem to remember hearing something sometime about a Little Theatre group existing there when I was a small child, but that wouldn't have meant anything to me then. I was too young. I didn't have a concept of theatre. All I did back then was play. That was all I wanted to do. I was a kid.
TQ: So what happened?
ME: Television. I must have been about five or six when my dad came home with our first television set. This would have been in the early 1950's when television and television sets were still new and uncommon; when they were pieces of furniture; substantial pieces of furniture; pieces of furniture that required a room to themselves with all the other furniture in the room arranged in such a way as to face them head-on. Proscenium family rooms. And out of that box came Howdy Doody, Mighty Mouse, I Love Lucy, and Playhouse 90. If my poor folks had only realized the power that box would have over me, they'd have burned it in the backyard; but I was the third of three sons, and by the time I came along, my parents figured the best way to raise a kid, a boy, was to let him go and figure it all out for himself. I might break a bone or two, but that was to be expected.
TQ: Television was your "Rosebud."
ME: "Rosebud." I like that. Yeah, television played a big part in my development, but so did Sunday Masses at St Michael's down on Avenue F and East 5th Street. While television may have grounded me in formalized traditions of performance and presentation ... Look at it this way. Consider the programs I just mentioned: What did they have to offer? Mighty Mouse introduced little children all across America to musical theatre as it was when it began to morph from operetta into the "musical play." I Love Lucy gave you farce and vaudeville. Playhouse 90 was an introduction to "kitchen-sink" drama. Howdy Doody could be positively Brechtian. They were secret passageways that led me into astonishing lands I'd never heard of.
TQ: And those Sunday Masses?
ME: Shakespeare and the Greeks. I'm beginning to sound punchy, and this is all getting silly. What I'm trying to say is, those things opened my eyes to something unusual and out of my "ordinary." I was in the right place at the right time and in the right frame of mind to be seduced. I was starting school. I was learning to read. I was learning to look up things I didn't understand. My turning point was when I stumbled onto an old movie called Svengali. This was an early John Barrymore talkie, a florid melodrama (I don't know if I could even watch it today) that swept me out of myself and left me hanging in the air. I decided I needed to know something - more, anything - about this Barrymore man, so on my next trip to the public library, I looked him up. Surprisingly, my little library had books about him, and I started to read them. They led me to other books about his brother Lionel and his sister Ethel. These books led to others in turn that caused the road to widen. By the time I was nine, I could have told you who Sarah Bernhardt was; by ten, Eleonora Duse; eleven, Irving and Terry and the Booths. I don't know why, but the history enchanted me. It led me deeper and deeper into the woods. And I've never found my way out since. I was an odd child in Crowley.
TQ: It seems to me then that it would be even odder to decide to be a priest.
ME: Not at all. I'd become an altar boy when the time was right, so I was on a stage by then, the only stage in Crowley that I knew of, the sanctuary at St. Michael's. Why shouldn't I audition for the lead when I figured I was ready for it? And it would be no ordinary black cassock for me. I would become a Franciscan. (How that ever got into my head is another story altogether. One, in fact, that involved another movie that was even more piss-poor than Svengali was. I must have been highly susceptible to trash.) I loved the Franciscan ideal; but I really dug the Franciscan habit, brown and wasted by a rope cincture tied with the three knots signifying poverty, chastity, and obedience. And the cowl. I'm still partial to hoodies. God bless Irving Berlin and his "costumes ... scenery ... makeup ... props." I entered the seminary for all the wrong reasons, certainly, that can't be denied; but it was there I came to comprehend my theatre dreams, what they meant, and what they'd need from me. I'd misunderstood the language of my vocation. It wasn't at the altar that I wanted to stand and kneel, it was rather at center stage, declaiming different texts than the words of the Mass. I left the seminary in my third year of high school, went back home (I'm always going home), and decided to major in theatre in college.