Tag Archives: Gene Arkle

A Runner Stumbles to 1977

I had a time-warp moment last Sunday.

After our matinée performance of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at AthensWest Theatre, there was a talk-back session with members of the audience. Talk-back sessions are not a thrill for me. They’re usually sparsely attended and fairly short, with a few timid questions and typically one unpredictable pompous answer that serves to evaporate any remaining questions, comments, or conversation.

But this show is atypical.

The innate civility of the script seems to invite participation. Several dozen audience members have been lingering each night. People are moved and want to share…emphasis on “share”. They have been challenged to listen and think and explore without judgement or solution. They have not been challenged to either change or be considered deficient. There are no instant triggers to defend feelings or questions or beliefs. Curiosity and civility seem to be in ascendance. Pomposity has left the building.

After Sunday’s talk-back concluded, a lady approached me and said; “You probably don’t remember me…”

She was wrong.

Seeing her took me back 31 years.

I play a pastor in The Christians. The last time I played a religious leader was in 1977 at Studio Players. I played an erring priest in The Runner Stumbles. My Sunday questioner was my director. How cool is that?

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The Runner Stumbles (1977)

However, rolling my mind back to 1977 and that show reminded me that I first met two great friends and actors in that production; Gene Arkle and Paul Thomas.

At the first company meeting of The Runner Stumbles, we were polled by our director to give our first impressions of the script. The gentleman to my right replied that the script reminded him of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. He went on to elaborate, but he had lost me at Mahler. To me at that time, “Mahler” was just a clever rhyme in the song “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company. I recall my impatience by the irrelevance of his remarks and being more than a little intimidated. The gentleman was Gene Arkle. My impatience was quickly unveiled as the young know-it-all’s folly it was. Gene and I went on to do a bunch of plays together (some of them were pretty good), and because of Gene, I delved into the symphonies of Mr. Mahler (ALL of them were pretty good – go figure).

During the first blocking rehearsal of Runner, I was sitting in a scene awaiting my church superior, played by an actor I had never met; Paul Thomas. He entered and intoned; “Father Rivard, it has come to our attention…” That’s as far as he got. My guffaw brought him to a halt.

I said he “intoned.”

Actually it was more of a cross between Gabby Hayes and a soupçon of Ethel Merman, with maybe a smidgen of dentist’s drill thrown in.

I truly thought it was a rehearsal gag. I was ashamed when I was discovered my error and have spent the ensuing 31 years trying to make it up to my gifted friend. Paul and I have performed together about two dozen times and I was his best man when he and Lisa wed.

All of this flooded my mind when my Sunday lady prompted; “You probably don’t remember me…”

How wrong can a person be?

Moments of origin can’t be forgotten…certainly not by actors. We remember the people, the time, the place, the temperature, the wind direction, the smell, the sound. We dredge those moments from the past and use them to create today and hope always to launch new moments of origin…that won’t be forgotten.

It’s a powerful reason to get up in the morning…

A Geezer Remembers; Play-by-Play by Gene Arkle

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“Coach” Gene Arkle center

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.

Side note…

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.

Silence ensued…

…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.

I miss Gene.