Thursday, February 25, 2010

Me and Vinnie Murphy

(The following essay is an exclusive exerpt from Andy Nowicki's upcoming juicy tell-all memoir, MEIN KAMPF, BOOK TWO: A NOBODY GOES NAVEL-GAZING, which should be completed sometime before his death. Nowicki is a startling, if now relatively unknown talent in the literary world. He composes regular columns for the thought-criminalistic site THE LAST DITCH (www.thornwalker.com/ditch) and has published the novel CONSIDERING SUICIDE with Nine-Banded Books (which can be purchased at http://ninebandedbooks.com/?p=50 or www.amazon.com/considering-suicide-andy-nowicki/dp/0615263321 )


VINNY MURPHY AND ME: REFLECTIONS ON SOME COLLEGE DRAMA

How do we begin to understand the very existence of the arts? Theater, music, dance, drawing, and literature (be it written or oral) have been around seemingly as long as man has walked the earth. The ubiquity of these institutions can, I think, be chalked up to the fact that man has always needed a kind of mirror to look at himself, to study his own condition, to examine the full extent of the perplexing, if not horrifying, predicament of being.

Given this truth, it is astonishing just how seldom one truly sees himself in any profound sense in a book, play, movie, painting, or sculpture. Alienation and indifference are much more common responses than identification, recognition, and engagement for the typical art-purveyor; he emerges from the experience thinking not "wow!" but "eh." He might not admit to his lack of enthusiasm, particularly if the art in question is widely thought of as great by those considered "in the know" about such matters; if such a one cares about his reputation, he will outwardly accede to this consensus, proclaiming his solidarity with the best and the brightest's shared adulation of a particular work, even if inwardly he must admit that it leaves him cold and uninspired.

Sometimes this honest reaction is the result of mere ignorance on his part; philistinism today, as ever, reigns supreme among much of the population who simply don't have any worthwhile aesthetic sense to speak of, and who will never care about gay, girly crap like "art appreciation" anyway. But at least as often, the problem is that the consensus among "right-thinking" critics and intellectuals is simply wrong. Intellectuals, after all, can be swindled and bamboozled just like everyone else-- they are particularly vulnerable to the "flattering unction" that accompanies the sense of feeling oneself to be among the cultural elite. If they hear their friends lavishly praise a particular "art" film, let us say, then they will not want to seem like they are one of those ignoramuses with no sense of aesthetics; they will then declare loudly and forcefully that they agree with their friends, unaware that these friends, in their heart of hearts, probably dislike the movie in question as much as they do, that their friends are just as caught up in the fraud, provoked by a desire to conform to the dictates of the "smart set," a group which, ironically enough, prides itself on not being mere slaves to public opinion.

Personally, I find that the intellectuals and the philistines both leave much to be desired; I have never especially cared for the company of either camp. At the same time, I have long looked to the arts for a sense of being and belonging with my fellow man, in no small part because of my exile (in part self-imposed) from the mass of humanity. Movies have a particular appeal to me, in that they provide a temporary relief from the the day to day ordeal of living inside my head, a unique affliction of the lonely exile who finds people trying yet craves human interaction, the simultaneous misanthrope and romantic, who is perenially disappointed with humanity (including himself), yet indefatigably hopeful about forging meaningful connections with the miniscule number of like-minded souls he cannot stop himself from believing are truly out there somewhere.

As an English teacher and literature afficiando, of course, I swear by the written word, but I must admit that no book has the same immediate power of a movie: the power, that is, really to take you on an intensely visceral journey that truly rockets you out of yourself, makes you forget your life for a short amount of time. While reading a book, no matter how fascinated you are with the material, you are never really wrestled out of your skin; you are ever aware that you sit in your comfortable chair, turning the pages. When at a movie, however, you can actually forget both where and who you are for a time. This isn't to say that movie-watching is superior to book-reading --God forbid!-- only that it is, by nature, a more intimate and hypnotic experience. Words signify things, but images are those things; a movie gives you a short cut to an artificial reality that seems quite actual, while a book only suggests such a place; it is up to the reader to use his own ingenuity and imagination to create its look and feel in his mind's eye.

Put another way, reading is harder work. Movie-viewing is in its very essence a more passive experience. It is only when one is totally passive that one can be most thrillingly ravaged, of course, which is why great movies make for such an immediate and enthralling experience, like a wild roller coaster ride or really good sex.

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I see a lot of movies, occasionally accompanied by others but mostly by myself, and most of the time I leave the theater disappointed. I go seeking a lot of things: an interesting story, pithy and witty dialogue, compelling acting and direction, cool visual effects. Sometimes I am impressed in certain ways, and let down in others. I acknowledge where it is good, and lament what it lacks, make a note in my movie log, and move on to the next feature.

But.. I also go to the movies for the same reason I read books-- to seek myself in others, to know that I'm not truly alone in this world, that people out there know the things I know, endure the things I endure, share the same hopes, fears, dreams and passions as me. It is a tall order, I know. Going in with such lofty expectations, with the bar set so high, one cannot help but frequently be crushed with disappointment bordering on despair. So it is. Yet I find that I cannot alter or modify my ideals any more than I could stop breathing. And in the rare cases where my ideals are actually met, it is a joyous and exhilerating occasion.

In the waning months of the 1990s, I saw "Fight Club" and felt shaken to my core; here was a film that, in many crucial ways, spoke to me. I saw myself, not so much in the actual details of the plot, but in the themes it relentlessly pounded home: alienation, discontent, the desire for a more authentic, fulfilled, meaningful life, the pleasures and pitfalls of surrendering to your dark side. It was a rare moment of feeling not-alone, of knowing a connection... seeing it made me feel like more of a person and less of a phantom. Ten years later, in the waning days of the "naughty oughts," in the midst of that dead week between Christmas and New Year's Day, I went to see a movie likely to keep a much lower profile in our popular culture: Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles." Once again, I was rocked, rolled, shaken, and stirred. Only this time, I didn't just feel a thematic affinity; this time, my own memory was roused. I recalled certain events in my life during the waning months of the 80s, twenty years prior. Specifically, I remembered my own youthful experience with a talented and difficult theater director, an experience which in certain ways uncannily mirrored the storyline of the film.

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The hero of "Me and Orson Welles" is Richard Samuels (Zac Effron), a teenage boy who dreams of making it big in the theater world. He doesn't exactly know what he wants to do (act? write? direct?), but he knows he "wants to be a part of it." Richard, we see very early, has a talent for scamming his way into an operation. Handsome, witty, charming, and well aware of being these things, he radiates a confidence that impresses up-and-coming director Orson Welles, with whom he is brought together one day by fate, chance, or luck. Welles immediately casts Richard in a small role in his ambitious Broadway production of "Julius Caesar," which has been in rehearsal for ages and is running dangerously overbudget.

Once he joins this theater troupe, this daydream-addled kid from the suburbs finds himself in way over his head. Movie critics have largely focused on Christian McKay's virtuoso rendering of Welles, but it is Effron's performance that forms the true emotional core of the movie. Effron is asked both to show the confidence and swagger of one wise beyond his years, and the angst and vulnerability of youth. It's a difficult tightrope to walk, but Effron pulls it off beautifully; the viewer at first admires his gumption, envies his luck, then grows to sympathize and even ache for him as the film races towards its exciting and bittersweet conclusion.

The pivot point of the conflict in the film is the complicated relationship between Richard and Orson. We see the latter primarily through the eyes of the former; he is at once a mentor and an antagonist, a source of admiration and reverence, as well as an object of fear and loathing. As played by McKay, Welles is many things: a brilliant, artistic innovator; a charismatic leader and manipulator; a blustering, temperamental, and irresponsible clown; and a ruthless, egotistical monster. Richard is at first entranced by the ballsy exploits of the larger-than-life director, who dares to improvise dialogue in the middle of a scripted radio play, and who had the effrontery to omit the "to be or not to be" soliloquy from a prior staging of "Hamlet," because he found it irrelevant to the plot. But the boy in time comes to see the black heart of this would-be father-figure; he grows to fear the older man's tyrannical orientation, and eventually comes to despise his total absence of moral scruples. Soon he faces a stark choice: should he countenance the legendary director's behavior in order to further his budding career, or ought he stand up to this sleazy, bullying asshole?

It's a question that many of us have faced at one time or another in our lives. Do we "go along to get along," and tolerate ill-treatment from those with power over us? Or do we confront our oppressors and tell them off, perhaps in so doing putting our careers and livelihoods in danger? It's a shame that this theme is such a perennial one in history; one wishes that power weren't so seductive, that there didn't exist so many authority figures who got off on it, and who so treasured their ability to lord it over their inferiors. But such is life, I suppose, and such is human nature. It would also be neat if pain, despair, and death weren't real, but for whatever reason that isn't the case either. That bullies exist-- and moreover often thrive-- in this world may be something additonal to hold against the world as it is constituted, but anger with the world does nothing to ameliorate the sufferings it afflicts upon us. Life doen't conform to our notion of justice; evil often wins, and good often loses. And a flawed but generally decent person, like Richard, often finds himself ruled by a hateful and despicable jerk like Orson Welles.

"Me and Orson Welles," it so happens, yanked my memory forcibly back to a time when I was close to Richard's age, and found myself in a very similar situation. Of course, in many ways I did not resemble Zac Effron's character; I didn't have half of his charm, and I wasn't a tenth as cute.

I was, however, young, cocky, insecure, and naive. If it sounds contradictory to describe myself as both "cocky" and "insecure" at the same time, remember again the enigma of youth. A young man can be sure of himself in a way no older man could (unless he were the sort who never grew up), yet his ego, swelled as it may seem, is filled mostly with hot air; like an overinflated balloon, it will burst with the merest prick from the tiniest of pins. As it happens, I was about to run into a rather large prick. His name was Vincent Murphy, and in 1989 he had just become the artistic director of the theater department of the college I was attending as a freshman. More on him in a moment.

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Now that I am nearly 40 years old, how do I begin to comprehend myself at age 18? How does one process the tumult and roiling confusion of that era of his life? The gulf separating the 18 year old boy and the same boy five years prior is unfathomably great. I am now, at the age of 39, pretty much the same man that I was five years ago at age 34, eventful as the last five years have been for me. But between ages 13 and 18 were events that seemed almost catacylsmic in scope, miniscule though they were from anyone's point of view besides my own. I will treat of the specifics of this era in my personal history elsewhere in this account; for now, allow me to introduce myself-- my younger self, that is-- to you.

But prior to any introduction must come a disclaimer of sorts. I have always had a difficult time seeing myself, as it were, due I think in part to having been the sole member of my mother's brood, an "only child," as we have grown accustomed to calling such people. Most children, growing up, are able to obtain some type of understanding of their identities-- however true or false, and for good or for ill-- from their siblings. It is from his brothers and/or sisters that the typical boy is enabled to form an impression of himself, because at some point in his boyhood a boy's peers become the ones to whom he looks for assistance in self-knowledge. His parents, he comes to realize, are hopelessly biased and out of touch; of course they think he's the greatest kid on earth, but his peers, so he thinks, can give him a more realistic picture. (In reality, of course, his peers are just as deceived as his parents, just in a different way and for different reasons.)


For the only child, it is much harder to obtain this peer-driven insight. If he is naturally gregarious, the only child might be able to make a lot of friends, and draw out from them how he ought to see himself, but even in such a case the friends he makes aren't his brothers or sisters; they don't stand in the same relation to his own parents as he does. In any event, since I have always been temperamentally reserved, I was never able, nor especially inclined, to find any substitute brothers or sisters, even though a part of me truly wished to do so. The sure sense of being alone came early and often. It wasn't always an unpleasant feeling-- sometimes it felt quite satisfying, in fact, but it was a fact, just the same: I stood apart; I was on my own. Often I rather liked being alone and apart, and at other times I badly wanted to be "with" others, but regardless of what I wanted, facts were facts. I was different, and I soon found that the perils of seeking company very much outweighed the potential benefits in most cases. (I focus on this period of my life in a separate part of this memoir.)

By the time I hit age 18, however, my perception of myself and the reality of myself were often miles apart. In some sense, I knew this very fact, and it caused me a feeling of dislocation. That is to say, I had a faint impression that my perception of myself was faulty; I perceived the inadequacy of my self-perception. For instance, I liked to see myself as a rebel's rebel, as someone who did his own thing, who wasn't at all intimidated by authority or the tyranny of conventional wisdom. I'd cultivated and nourished this self-image during my senior year of high school, when I'd written a number of scorchingly-opinionated editorial columns for The Forum, the Paideia High School newspaper. Though very much a liberal at the time, I relished the notion of being a gadfly who occasionally took a radically conservative position just to shake up the complacent establishment. I argued that sex education ought to stress abstinence, and that alcohol ought to be made illegal again, as it was in the days of prohibition. On the subject of abortion, a veritable sacred cow at this most progressive of private high schools (a place where the custom was to call your teacher by his or her first name), I was evenhanded, proclaiming myself "bewildered" as to the ultimate question of permissibility; I conducted an impartial interview with both a staunch pro-lifer from Operation Rescue and an adamant pro-choicer from NARAL. My proclaimed agnosticism on this issue contrasted sharply with the orthodox liberal alarmist rhetoric about a slippery slope towards back alleys, coat-hangers, and women being kept down if the composition of the Supreme Court were to change.

On these matters, and others, I flattered myself on flaunting my independent spirit. But in my self-flattery I was wide of the mark, and partly well-aware of this fact, as I have tried to explain here. I must have appeared arrogant, cocky, and self-possessed to some, but anyone who truly saw me knew that I was actually beneath it all a bundle of quivering insecurities. I had intimately come to know humiliation and shame (these events recounted in juicy purple prose elsewhere), and I quaked before such memories in my not-too-distant past. I desperately hoped that such events and experiences would dissolve from my mind, and that similar ones would never occur in the future. And I had-- as I will likewise tell-- in my own naive way grappled vigorously with the riddle of mortality; in the words of J. Alfred Prufrock, I had "seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker/ And in short, I was afraid."

While I knew that I was hardly the person I pretended to be, I still pretended to believe that I was the person I wished I were. But in fall of 1989, during my first experience with "big time" stage acting, I endured a painful reminder of just how pitiful I remained at my core, all fiercely-worded editorials and occasional performance art antics aside.

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It was a momentous time when it came to world happenings. Astonishing events greeted us on the news every night. The global paradigm we'd grown accustomed to thinking would last forever-- that of the USA and its allies facing off against the USSR and its vassal-states-- suddenly and forcefully shifted when the Communist bloc abruptly imploded under the pent-up pressure of seven decades of repression. Germans jubilantly danced on top of the Berlin Wall and tore out chunks of that long-hated symbol of tyranny; statues of Lenin and Stalin, casting long shadows, were likewise torn asunder.

Yet all of this hubbub, and all of these earth-shaking, history-making, unprecedented events taking place across the globe had but little effect on me at the time; it was all background noise. I was now a college freshman, and consumed with the implications of my new circumstances. The transition had been fairly easy; I hadn't spent much time laboring over college applications, fretting about SAT scores, wondering where I was headed. I knew early that I'd been accepted early to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia-- a stone's throw from my house-- where my father was a faculty member in the Psychology department. No... I knew where I was going, but what was I going to do with myself when I got there? Like Zac Effron's character in "Me and Orson Welles," I knew I wanted to "be a part" of the artistic scene, but I didn't as yet have a beat on where I wanted to pour my energy. Did I want to act? Write? Direct? Compose music? I enjoyed the notion of doing all of these things, but I felt no urgency as yet to focus on one thing at the expense of any of the others.

I'd received some amount of recognition for my stage performances of late, having managed to land the lead role in the school play my senior year of high school. The summer between graduating high school and starting college, I'd enrolled in a Shakespearian acting workshop with a dozen or so young aspiring thespians of metro Atlanta. I enjoyed acting, and respected the craft of it, but I held back from the notion of totally embracing it as a career, because I found myself put off by the flightiness, flakiness, and self-absorption so frequently displayed by "actor types"; something in the behavior of "theater people" tended to irritate me; there was a pretentiousness, a phoniness, a forced and mannered giddiness and gaiety of spirit that grated on the nerves. The theater profession, I found, largely consisted of uptight and rigidly controlling personalities who tried to pawn themselves off as charmingly quirky and free-spirited; they tried too hard, and protested too much; they felt themselves to be remarkable, special people who wanted the spotlight at all times. True generosity was rare; ego abounded, ran amok, leading to personality clashes and abundant "drama" even behind the scenes.


Still, annoying as they could be, many actors were genuinely dedicated to their craft, and I found the notion of dissolving one's personality into nothingness and taking on the bodily mannerisms, manner of speech, and personality of a entirely different person to be a wonderfully thrilling challenge. While I never had the nerve to gain weight or do otherwise unhealthy things to my body in order to inhabit a role, I greatly admired a "method" man like Robert DeNiro,who wasn't afraid to put his physical well-being on the line for his art, as when he famously packed on layers of fat to play a middle-aged, washed-up Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull."

I wanted to "be a part of" things, so upon the start of my freshman year, I tried out for a role in the new Theater Emory production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It so happened that there was a new artistic director that year, who was planning a rather unique presentation of Shakespeare's famous magical-realist romantic comedy, a fantastic yet modern production to be staged on a tilted, oval-shaped platform before a surrealistic backdrop of Dali-melted clocks, a production which would feature characters transforming into animals, groping and pawing one another when they weren't twining together and orgasmically moaning beneath a thin, cotton blanket, the entire lurid procedings set to a 60s rock soundtrack. It was Shakespeare filtered through warmed-over baby-boomer era sexual libertinism, and in in the final analysis quite silly, but visually and conceptually arresting just the same.

I, of course, had no idea what I was stepping into when I entered Studio Annex B, the "black box" theater practice room on campus at the time, with an assigned monologue from Puck, the mischievous sprite of the forest fairies. My lines, I recall, were the ones Puck speaks to Oberon upon finding that Titania has been tricked into falling in love with the hapless Bottom, the pompous would-be leader of the play's working-class acting troupe. I knew next to nothing about the play at that time, but I remember playing up Puck's impishness, making him laugh hysterically at the line, "Titania waked, and straightway loved an ass," like it was all a terrific joke, one that he'd enjoyed immensely.

Vincent Murphy, newly-minted head honcho of Theater Emory, sat behind a table. It was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on "Vinny," as he preferred to be addressed. A roguishly handsome fortyish man of Boston Irish descent, Vinny apparently had a sterling background in the theater industry. With his full head of touseled hair and trademark scarf thrown round his neck, he cut a dashing, dandyish figure; it was easy to see why he was such a hit with the ladies, his crooked teeth and relentless coffee-and-cigarette breath notwithstanding. Vinny had, I was soon to learn, two very divergent personalities: the one he commonly shared with the outside world was charming, humorous, and self-effacing; the other, which he mostly showed in his capacity as a director, was intense, critical, hectoring, and cruel.

On this occasion, Vinny seemed mortally offended by my impromptu interpretation of the Puck speech. He told me to do it again, only this time with the awareness that it was an evil, atrocious thing for Titania to be abused in such a manner. He acted like I should really have known better, like my hysterically chortling version of Puck was an affront to all things decent. I found his self-righteousness on this point somewhat grating and obnoxious, but kept my indignation to myself, and duly delivered the speech in a chastened, mournful tone. Next, I was asked to read as Demetrius, a young man who had fallen in love with a girl named Hermia, but whose love was unrequited. In the process of reading, I was asked to transform into an animal. Not sure what to think of this bizarre task, but not questioning it, I became a howling wolf, braying "HEEERRMMIA! OOOOOOOOOWWWWW!" until I was red in the face.

Vinny seemed much more pleased this time, and sent me on my way with a faint smile. Later, I found that my wolf had landed its prey: I got the part of Demetrius.

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So there I was: a gawky, frizzy-haired freshman, carrying his long, lanky self with a heaping helping of faux-confidence; a fragile little 18-year old boy with big dreams, truckloads of energy and imagination, but no particular focus, waiting for life to give him a cue... And now I had a large role in a big-time Shakespeare play on a major college campus. It was all a bit much to handle. The stress that accumulated over the next few weeks was so dizzyingly intense, I'm not sure how I emerged from the experience without developing an ulcer.

First of all, as I soon found, Vinny Murphy's vision of Shakespeare was, you could say, SUBAR; that is, sexed-up beyond all recognition. As one of the play's young lovers, I was asked to fondle my stage-girlfriend Helena, and to groan and grunt sensually while under a blanket-like scrim atop the weird, disorienting tilted oval stage. Later, during the middle part of the play, when the two young tumultous couples run into the woods and come under the spell of the forest fairies, who cause untold havoc with their misplaced sprinklings of "love juice" upon the heads of dozing, interloping humans, we all were to end up rolling on the floor in a kind of orgiastic group-grope, during which it wasn't at all clear who was "with" whom. As an 18-year old male, at the mercy, not of fantasy-world love potions but of real-world hormones; and being at the time relatively, nay thoroughly sexually inexperienced, this circumstance was incredibly bizarre and uncomfortable. There was a thrill to it as well, of course-- I'd be lying if I claimed otherwise-- but mostly it was embarrassing; it made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

My stage "girlfriend" Helena, in real-life an odd but not unshapely senior girl, would insist on playing backstage improv games to get into character, which consisted of flirty interplay just before a scene, and then (even more so), just before the lights were dimmed before an actual performance. I will leave it to the reader's imagination to conclude how being in close proximity to moaning, undulating, wriggling females on stage can be a perilous situation indeed for a young man; thankfully, my costume was loose and baggy-- a lot of excitement could safely be hidden therein...

As though being thrust into the position of soft-porn Shakespearian thespian weren't enough, I also had to deal with being directed by Vinny, the pompous perv who'd dreamed all this crazy shit up to begin with. It is fair to say that I disliked Vinny from the very start, but this memoir isn't so much about Vinny's character flaws as it is about my quivering youthful cowardice, my failure to stand up to him. I, a fellow who'd long prided himself on doing his own thing, being his own man, taking crap from no one, standing firm on his principles and refusing to conform to social pressure or cave to authority-- I, of all people, allowed myself to be bossed and bullied by this effete, insufferable, scarf-modeling, self-important baby boomer. Why?

There is something in the very act of acting that entails a willingness to put oneself at the mercy of others. It follows that when one is vulnerable, he is also highly suggestible. Thus a director-- being, as he is, in charge of people who at times must empty themselves and tear away their own defenses for the sake of performance --has enormous power. It is power that, in the wrong hands, can be mightily abused, and unfortunately it often is, since those who seek positions of control often do so precisely because they enjoy lording their authority over others. This applies as much in the realm of the arts as it does anywhere else, and it's foolishly naive to believe otherwise; those drawn to the performing arts might think that they're somehow immune to these base motivations, since "art" itself is such an inherently noble and elevated endeavor, but any real experience working with "artsy" people will disabuse one of this at once pollyannish and snobbish notion. The truth is, the theater industry attracts as many scoundrels, charlatans, and manipulative, self-aggrandizing creeps as any other industry-- perhaps more.

However, my suggestibility is only a part of the explanation for my weakness back in the fall of 1989, while rehearsing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as reimaged by Vinny Murphy at Theater Emory. I was young, new to the college setting, and eager to make a good impression. I wanted to "be a part of things" in the arts world, and I felt privileged and slightly bewildered at having been cast in a major role, having to memorize Elizabethan English I barely understood. Take all of these things together and stir: my tender age, my youthful insecurity (in plain sight under an unconvincing veneer of cockiness), the ordeal of performing in a large role in a high-stakes staging of a classic play, filled with sex, sex, and more sex, at a time when sexuality was still a vast and dangerous mystery; throw in an imperious and belittling director, and it's easy to see how I was helpless before a devastating "perfect storm."

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Vinny, as I mentioned earlier, had two very different personalites. This Jekell and Hyde syndrome is, I think, a common trait among driven, savvy, and successful people. There was the "good" Vinny, which he showed the world--aimiable, affable, easygoing-- and the one he more often displayed to his underlings-- harsh, demanding, and abrasive. At public functions where he was the face of Theater Emory, Vinny smiled, joked, cajoled, and did the "nice guy" routine, taking humility at times to a striking if contrived extreme, as during his first ever appearance as Emory, when he laid on the floor and invited students and staff to "walk all over" him.

But during rehearsals, a very different V-man made himself known. One refrain I particularly remember from Vinny the director was when he would snap "DON'T LOOK AT ME! I'M NOT HERE!"We would be in the middle of working on a scene, usually involving some heavy petting and fondling, with me there in the middle of the mess, terrified of sprouting an erection and feeling sure that I was a fraud with no real skill among numerous paid actors with years of experience. Then it would get worse.

"Hold!" Vinny would shout. "Demetrius (he called us by our character name), what are you doing?" I would instinctively look up and be instantly, scornfully rebuked-- "DON'T LOOK AT ME! I'M NOT HERE!"-- and would duly look back down at the actress with her hand on my thigh. "Demetrius... you've GOT to use your stage savvy here! You've got to make an acting CHOICE! Right now, I'm looking at you, and I'm seeing NOTHING!" He spoke in a nagging, condescending tone, critical in the extreme, without giving much specific guidance, and certainly with no hint of reassurance. The point always seemed to be that you were wasting his and your fellow actors' time, that you were insulting Shakespeare, a great man who really deserved better, that your incompetence was galling, and that he (Vinny) was a prince for putting up with someone who knew so little about acting, but that his patience was wearing thin, and with good reason... after all, just look at you! You suck!

The worst thing was how he would call you out and expose what he felt were your faults in front of everyone else. You'd be in the middle of a scene with other actors, and you'd hear him shout "Hold!"... and your heart would sink. If you dared not freeze and stay "in the moment," facing your fellow cast members-- if, that is, you dared look up, even for a split second.. you'd be thundered upon again: "DON'T LOOK AT ME! I'M NOT HERE!" Then he would tell you just how poorly you were doing, how you clearly didn't get it, how you ought to know better and it was really inconsiderate of you to take up precious rehearsal time with your lack of preparedness...

I wasn't the only actor that Vinny picked on. I'm not claiming he had any personal vendetta against me. And I'm certainly not saying that my acting was anything close to perfection. I was largely a Shakespeare novice (my summer at the Oglethorpe workshop notwithstanding), and could indeed have used some useful direction, some constructive criticism on how best to recite lines in Elizabethan iambic pentameter while girls are grinding their crotches at you and sticking their tongues in your mouth. And I'm sure that my performance could stand to be vastly improved even if I weren't being forced to do "sensual Shakespeare for dummies."

Still, the manner with which Vinny delievered his critiques didn't invite reflection, only fear. The best directors, after all, challenge their actors without deprecating and humiliating them in front of their peers. Let's even say that the worst were true, that I (and the others whom Vinny made an effort to single out for barbaric ridicule) really did suck. If this were true, then 1) why did he cast me in this role?, and 2) how did I stand to improve if all I heard, in a general way, was that I sucked?

Looking back now, it becomes clear that Vinny's harsh words were obviously not meant to be instructive. Instead, his behavior was all about asserting power and dominance. Vinny was simply a bully who got off on making those beneath him feel lousy. Like all bullies, he never picked on those his own size. Indeed, I began to notice that union politics, of all things, played a role in the pecking order of which Vinny was the Alpha dog. One actor who continually got pummelled with invective, a very nice, stocky, balding guy who played Egeus, and whose name I don't recall, was a non-Equity actor. Students with little clout, freshmen like myself and some others, got lashed hard, while others who were juniors and seniors and who were officers in student theater groups on campus, were left alone. Meantime, professional Equity (that is, union) actors, were coddled, if anything. I do not recall Vinny ever daring to utter a single critical or discouraging word to Atlanta acting fixtures like Brenda Bynum (who played Hippolita/Titania) or Jeffrey Watkins (who played Thesus/Oberon). Of course, the experienced actors were probably less likely to need correction or criticism, but still, the inequality of abuse was nothing if not savage. Yet we all, without exception, endured it. What was our excuse? Why did we not stand up, if not for ourselves, then for each other?

The influence of the unionism in fact contributed greatly to the disagreeable aura of fear and dread that surrounded this show, in ways I hadn't at first imagined. I particularly recall an unpleasant moment with our stage manager, a squat queenly man with glasses and a beard. On a day of a performance, we had to check a box on a sheet that hung outside the dressing room, indicating that we were present. I was in a jocular mood one day-- God only knows why-- and instead of X-ing the box, I wrote "yo!" inside of it. Later that day, the bearded queen walked up to me with a stern, reproachful look, holding a clipboard (stage managers love their clipboards). In a scornful voice, he asked me, "Andy what do you call this?" He poked a chubby finger on my juvenile but harmless (or so I thought) "yo!" salutation. I grinned sheepishly, but his huffy countenance didn't alter one whit. I stammered something like, "Well, it's.... you know....it's just...how I signed in..." and he angrily interrupted: "Do you know that if this were an all-Equity show, that would be grounds for a fine??"

Oh, how I would love to be transported back to my skinny teenage body to relive this moment! I'd tell that mincing, scolding priss just where he could shove his threatened union fine! (Come to think of it, that reply may even have excited him a little...) Unfortunately, at the time, when it counted, I had no such gumption. Instead, I meekly apologized, and the drama queen lowered his schoolmarm's glare and ambled away, shaking his head.

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Yet again, I am faced with the rude question: Why did I tolerate being lectured so vigorously over something so incredibly stupid? Again, I chalk my cowardice up largely to youth and inexperience, but I think there is something more to it. Because, to repeat, it wasn't just about me; others were getting knocked around and roughed up too. In the aftermath of the "yo" brouhaha, I remember my fellow cast member, Ted Denious, who played my stage rival Lysander, sulkily asking me if I'd gotten "yelled at" as well; it seems that he also had committed the unforgiveable sin of writing a cheeky greeting on the attendance sheet. Someone was always bitching somebody out about something, it seemed-- the powerful feeding on the weak, the weak "learning their place," learning that it was somehow (for some unspoken reason) out of line for them to fight back. No one intervening, no one taking up for themselves or for anyone else... it is a scenario that in my grizzled old age I have come to recognize as all too familiar.

Is it the natural order of the world, this tendency? And if so, is nature really such a great thing to emulate? Perhaps artificiality should be our guide instead.

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Whatever the case, my "nature" at that time made me stay the course, convinced me to keep my legitimate complaints to myself. I suppose there were some benefits to this choice. The abuse mainly ceased after several grueling weeks of rehearsal; our director became "nice guy Vinny" once the show opened; he palled around and joked with the very ones whose spirits he'd crushed and whose egos he'd stomped on just a few days earlier. I think we were happy to see this change; I certainly was-- I was so relieved, in fact, that I forgot I'd ever experienced Vinny's mean and cruel side.

And indeed, clever and crafty mean people-- be they psychopathic killers or just plain garden variety dickheads-- are never vicious bastards all of the time; going this route, they are aware, would only make them hated. Smart and canny self-centered sadistic manipulators know that, pleasurable as it may be to kick your lessers around, you also have to be nice to them sometimes; this way, you can make those stupid suckers actually like you. Weak and unpopular people, after all, crave the recognition of their rulers; it helps them to feel better connected in their sad, lonely world. Charismatic bullies become popular through empolying this very push-pull dynamic; they establish their dominance through fear and intimidation, then act like they are buddies with those they victimized, and in so doing convince their victims that it really wouldn't be fair to hold their bullying behavior against them. And their weak, spineless victims almost invariably go right along with it-- they are played like fiddles, jerked around like puppets, led to do the bidding of the very ones they ought to resist, manipulated into worshipping the tyrants who cause their misery.

As for myself, I would even act in another "Vinny" production as a sophomore (a significantly less sexed-up version of Moliere's "The School For Wives"-- heck, I guess even sex maniacs need to chill out with a post-coital cigarette every now and then...). I took some crap from Vinny during this production, but not nearly as much; I suppose I wasn't quite as ripe for the picking anymore. I had a pretty good run of roles in various plays at Emory until my senior year, when I abruptly decided to ditch theater for good. And in both "Midsummer" and "School" I was singled out for passing praise in an Atlanta newspaper article, which of course was exciting (since I still naively believed at the time that most critics know what the hell they're talking about).

Still... I cannot help but conclude that in staying the course and taking my lumps, I really screwed up quite badly. Indeed, if I had to be on that 1989 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Emory University again, I would make a radically different "acting choice": that is, I would have quit. I'd have interrupted one of Vinny's insulting tirades to inform him that he shouldn't talk to people that way, that he ought to treat his actors with respect, that having talent and an extensive repertoire is no excuse to be a jerk.

Oh well-- too late now. Over two decades have passed. Vinny himself, I hear, has retired. The Cold War paradigm, which ended with a bang in late 1989, is now ancient history. Most of the students I teach today go blank when I mention the Berlin Wall. Everything changes. The past recedes.

Then again, IS it too late? After all, pace William Faulkner, "the past isn't gone; it's not even past." Given this profound paradox (unearthed by a brilliant, if often incomprehensible Southern drunkard), is it ever really too late to correct a past mistake?

At age 18-- contrary to my grandiose self-understanding at the time-- I was a coward and a pushover. Now, as I near the start of my fifth decade on this earth, I have grown some backbone, sprouted some guts, achieved some level of testicular fortitude. And so I say, in a sense twenty-something years too late, but in a Faulknerian way right on time:

Fuck you, Vinny! Find yourself a new Demetrius, you overscarved, oversexed, mean, pretenious artfag. I quit.

So... DON'T LOOK AT ME! I'M NOT HERE! See ya. Peace out.