We’ve been to Pennsylvania (THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, ERRATA), and Texas (THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS). We’ve been to Sweden (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC), Spain (MAN OF LA MANCHA), and England (THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, SWEENEY TODD, and CAMELOT).
We’ve plumbed the depths of Oscar Wilde and Western Kentucky (FLOYD COLLINS).
All because you saw us there.
I’ve been a lawyer, a doctor, a murderer, a playwright, a sheriff, a barber…
…the King of England…
I was even a goose!
All because you said I could.
Once, we even got to sing together. That might have been the best.
The Guignol Theater at the University of Kentucky has a history that extends to the middle of the last century. A history of that length has room for several “Golden Ages.” I like to think I was lucky to have been a student in one of those halcyon eras. In the early 70’s the theater department was flush with young actors who had participated in the two-year experiment of one-week summer stock theater experience in the Guignol called Centennial Theater. New York actors mingled with UK student actors rehearsing one play in the afternoons and performing another in the evenings. I arrived on the campus in 1969 to a collection of veteran players and immediately understood I had to catch up quick or sprout roots in the UK library. My academics atrophied but rehearsals were soaring.
I foolishly accepted the trade then and I wisely accept the trade now.
Another “Golden Age of the Guignol” happened about ten years later. Dr. Jim Rodgers attracted a talented faculty and talented student actors followed.
Tim McClure, Martha Bernier, Sheila Omer, Lisa Jones, Sue Grizzell, Walter Tunis, Patti Heying, Bill Felty, Julie Klier, Billy Breed, Nancy Shane. What an assemblage of talent!
But I think of it as the time of The Three Kevins; the “Kevins” being Haggard, Hardesty, and Kennedy.
Kevin Kennedy was bright and quick. I worked with him in Terra Nova. The Antarctic was not nearly as cool as his wit. I think he makes violins in Colorado now.
Kevin Hardesty has a voice that makes you listen eagerly even if he’s merely reading the phone book. I worked with him Glengarry Glen Ross. Kevin is currently the rage as Daniel Boone in the Chautauqua Program of the Kentucky Humanities Council.
Kevin Haggard is a professional actor. He moves with reason and purpose. He speaks from the heart when his character must, from his head when his character must, reluctantly when his character must, and impetuously when his character must. I worked with Kevin in The Curse of the Starving Class. I’m a fan.
This reminiscence was triggered by viewing a Fox program I’d never heard of; The Resident. Kevin Haggard appears briefly as a hospital board member participating in decisions that would not qualify one as a “better angel.” Kevin had three or four lines and maybe a total of 40 seconds of screen time. A small part, but played with integrity and attention. Just what I’d expect from Kev.
Kevin moved to Nashville from Lexington and seems to be always working as an actor and seems to have become respected in his profession and seems to be happily married. Talented and nice guys don’t finish last.
I have worked on stage with The Three Kevins…and all these Guignol Golden Agers.
I was made better by all of them.
Lexington was made better by all of them.
That’s what the arts do.
Janie and I had a lovely night at the theatre a while back. We watched a crisp and energetic cast perform Oscar Wilde’s brilliant “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Athens West Theatre. It was one our happiest nights for the year.
I admired the efforts of Shayne Brakefield as a sometimes befuddled, often pompous local reverend (think Robert Morley in African Queen with a pencil-thin mustache), Janet Scott in full sail as Lady Bracknell, and Paul Thomas as the butler(s); mysterious, disheveled, inscrutable, vaguely obedient, barely competent, and clearly the mind behind every scene……not.
I have worked with all these actors before.
I know their gifts…and cherish them.
I know their habits and peccadilloes…and cherish them as well.
A week later I participated in a reading of Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN on the Carrick Theater stage at Transylvania with Joe Gatton, Sherman Fracher, Ellie Clark, Tom Phillips, Mark Mozingo, and Geoffrey Cobb Nelson.
I have worked with Joe, Sherman, Ellie, and Tom before.
Joe, Sherman, Ellie, Tom, Shayne, Janet, and Paul…
Together we’ve been to Dracula’s Transylvania, New Jersey, New York, a Midwest Mega-Church, Agincourt, Aquitaine, Deep South Mississippi, the magical forests of Shakespeare, Deep South Alabama, Upper-Peninsula Michigan, Russia, London, Pennsyvania, Scotland. We’ve been husbands and wives and daughters and sons and kings and vassals and brothers and sisters to each other.
We have history.
We have vocabulary.
When we step on stage with each other we have a big head-start to share with an audience; a dialogue that, in some cases, has been going on for decades.
These two stage experiences prompted me into a memory (what doesn’t these days?) of an early 80’s Guignol production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”. This was, in retrospect, a wonderful cast for me; Eric Johnson, Martha Campbell, Walter Tunis, Lisa Thomas, Georgia Ferrell, Tim McClure, Ann Dalzell, and Paul Thomas (once more playing the butler – murderous, scheming, ever-expanding his role).
This production was directed by Dr. James Rodgers, and he created an atmosphere playful, quick, and creative, but fierce in language…a happy culture in which Wilde’s mots, bon et rapide, could fly.
And fly they did. At the first table read, our Lady Bracknell encountered the word “indecorous” in the script. She paused and inquired; “Is that pronounced; ‘IN-DUH-COH-RUS’?” To which another cast member replied; “No, and if you say it that way, that’s where you’ll be.”
I have a bunch of video tapes (I almost said “OLD video tapes”). I’ve been transferring them to
discs off and on over the last five years. Occasionally I run across one that affects me a little too much.
The other day I picked up the tape of Bill Nave’s 1996 concert on the Guignol Theatre stage.
I miss Bill and frankly, as much I cherish living in present-day Lexington, it was an even better place when Bill was here.
Bill established two dinner theatres in Lexington; the Red Mile Dinner Theatre (1970’s) and the Diner’s Playhouse (1980’s). There are still veterans of those theatres haunting Lexington’s theatre scene today. I’ll let them raise their own hands.
Bill performed and performed well. The list of shows is long, but my favorite was his starring turn in Most Happy Fella (1983, I think) directed by Dr. Jim Rodgers in the Guignol. I was rehearsing The Fifth of July in the Music Lounge (now the Dickens Movement Studio) next door. I’ve written about that experience in this blog before; “Hey, It’s What We Do”. During breaks and after rehearsal I would sneak into Bill’s rehearsals to watch.
Bill’s various efforts were all important to Lexington theatre.
But the best was Café Chantant.
Café Chantant was his French restaurant. It was elegant, it was tasty, and it was civilized (“civilized” meaning it had a fine wine list).
It also had Le Cabaret in the basement. It was elegant, it was tasty, and it was civilized (“civilized” meaning the ghosts of Noel Coward and Cole Porter regularly materialized). It was open until the wee hours, an unusual thing for Lexington in those days. You could go to the theatre and finish the night at the Le Cabaret. Who knew such a thing was possible?
The company of Le Cabaret was witty, boisterous, a bit tipsy, and fiercely talented. Just when an evening seemed to be spinning into mayhem, Bill would unleash that voice and stun the room into gratitude for just being there to hear it. I loved those evenings.
In the concert on the tape, Bill explains that his first singing teacher was Nelson Eddy. His grandmother had a bunch of Nelson Eddy records (I almost said “OLD Nelson Eddy records”). Bill would listen to them and imitate what he heard. Similarly, my first singing teacher was Bill. He would perform around town in shows and at the Café Chantant. I would hang on every song like a groupie. I would imitate his sound and his demeanor. I never achieved either, but trying led me to far better places artistically than I would have ever found on my own.
Bill was smart, gracious, generous, and he sang like a dream. All of that was in full view on the concert tape.
It’s not an everyday occurrence to get a chance to act in a play or musical more than once. I don’t mean multiple performances like four weekends of The Importance of Being Earnest or two years spent touring dinner theaters in Everybody Loves Opal. I’m talking about separate productions of the same work. It’s hard enough to land an opportunity to do a play once!
I’ve done The King and I twice (different roles) and Measure for Measure twice (different roles).
Three times I’ve played the role of Tom Daley in That Championship Season. All three were successful productions. The first was at Studio Players (mid-70’s), the second at the University of Kentucky (early 80’s), and the third was with Phoenix Group (1992).
The second production is the one that prompted this reminiscence.
It was directed by Joe Ferrell (this is where I first met Joe) and featured Paul Thomas, Dr. Jim Rodgers (as an actor!), Eric Johnson, myself…and Gene Arkle. We were performing in the Laboratory Theatre in the Fine Arts Building. A few years later this theater was renamed the “Briggs Theatre”.
The play concerns the reunion of the remnants (four players and their coach) of the 1955 Pennsylvania High School Championship Team. Gene played the coach, the rest of us were the players.
Jim Rodgers doesn’t act often but he’s a fine actor. Paul Thomas acts more often and he too is a fine actor. However, as basketball players…well…they are fine actors.
We used to warm-up each night with a real, live, no-batteries-included basketball.
We would whip it around the stage (yes, whip it…work with me…I speak though the happy filter of memory here) for ten or fifteen minutes with Joe Ferrell and Assistant Director Ralph Pate watching in terror and then begin rehearsal.
While whipping the basketball around, when Eric passed to Jim, he would, with great regularity and malice aforethought, put a forward spin on his bounce pass. Now, Jim is a master of the English language, but English on a basketball was pure Greek to him. The ball would, with great regularity and malice aforethought, sail under Jim’s outstretched hands and strike him everywhere (yes, everywhere) except those hands. Jim would emit a polite “oof”, Eric would giggle and cover his mouth, Paul would look for a place to hide and we would continue our warm-up. It was a marvel and I’m sure it somehow made us a better team.
End of side note.
The big moment in the play comes after my character has fled the scene. The remaining team members are drunk and demoralized and the Coach must rally them. He does this with a wonderful long speech. At the end of the speech, the Coach places a recording (remember them?) on his record-player (remember them??) of the play-by-play call of the final game-winning shot of their championship game. It is a stirring moment. The team members respond, I return to the fold and we lurch to the end of the show.
The closing performance of our show was going as planned until this big moment.
I was offstage…listening…thinking…of basketballs and trophies and booze and betrayals…and whether my post show snack would be a cheddarburger from Charlie Brown’s or a disastrous pile of hash browns from Tolly Ho…in short, I was preparing (as an actor must) for my next entrance.
Gene was on a roll. His speech was indeed stirring. He built it to a climax and marched to the record-player and slapped that record on.
…and continued to ensue.
Finally, Gene said “I’ve been meaning to get this thing fixed.”
Offstage, I’m saying thanks and hosannas to every god known to man that I’m not onstage.
Gene took a deep breath and continued, “As you know, the game ended like this…”
And he proceeded to recreate the entire play-by-play himself!
It was absurd. It was heroic. It was a game saver.
We were saved………..by our Coach.
As usual, there is truth in dem dere memory, but I can’t recall just how much.