Charles Dickens was a good friend of mine.
No, not that Charles Dickens.
This Charles Dickens was a teacher/director in the University of Kentucky Theatre Department in the 60’s and 70’s and yes, that was his real name. He was tiny and skinny with a voice that was neither tiny nor skinny. He shuffled though the halls of the Fine Arts Building during play rehearsals followed by Bridey, his Scottish terrier and smoking (it was long ago and a freer age then – dinosaurs still roamed the savannahs, probably smoking).
Charles was an important teacher for me, though I never had a class with him.
How does that work?
Charles was my director in four different shows and he was a fellow actor in three. I learned much about theatre in those experiences.
But my first experience with Charles (unbeknownst to him) was before I even reached UK.
The year was 1969.
The place was the Guignol Theatre.
The reason was the Kentucky High School Play Competition.
I had competed earlier in the year at the regionals. We did well, but did not advance to the state finals. It was at these regionals however, where I met and befriended Jim Varney (see “Pre-Ernest Musings” in the archives of this blog). Thus, I was simply a spectator, enjoying the efforts of other schools.
Charles was one of the judges.
I knew of Mr. Dickens. I had seen one of the plays he directed and heard exotic tales. Don’t get too excited. “Exotic” to this Southern Baptist-raised high-schooler probably consisted of hearing that Mr. Dickens;
– Wore turtle necks.
– Drank…something…other than Coca-Cola.
– Quoted old movies like Gospel.
– Smoked…(sotto voce)…a lot!
But here he was, in the house of the Guignol, about ten rows in front of me.
We were watching and evaluating the same plays.
I felt wiser instantly and was reveling in my newfound sagacity.
Then Henry Clay High School took the stage.
For some unfathomable reason, they had chosen to do a miracle play; “Noah’s Ark.”
There it was, a gigantic backdrop of the title boat. In front of the ark, strutted sheet-bedecked high-school actors announcing and pronouncing archaic and utterly boring lines that didn’t even have the good manners to be iambic pentameter. At least you could have danced to that. It would be another nine years until Animal House came out. Otherwise, I would have erroneously assumed I had stumbled into a toga party.
The play crawled along through pomposity and vague righteousness until it reached a tense moment. The tense moment was tipped off by a tiny rumble of thunder offstage right. The ark backdrop rippled and from out of the top of the ark, holding on for dear life, popped a head in the midst of a medical cotton nimbus and beard.
It was God.
God stabilized his precarious perch, looked down, and sternly said; “No-O-ah-H!”
Now you fellows reading this…
At this point I need you to keep in mind the age of this young boy-becoming-a-man and recall that first tough moment when your voice changed and fled your control. Now, please turn and describe that moment to the females in our audience so they can also comprehend what just happened to our young actor…
…as he was playing God…
…In the Kentucky State High School Play Competition.
As if that weren’t enough…
…at that moment, a great rolling guffaw filled the theatre.
It was the hooting of Zeus.
It was the howl of Odin.
All emanating from this tiny man judging the competition.
It was Charles Dickens, laughing out loud…at God.
My inchoate sagacity evaporated.
I wanted to hide under my seat and await the inevitable lightning strike.
It was exotic.
I learned a lot about theatre from that minuscule blasphemous thundering chuckler.