At Rochester High School, grade 11, I took Drama for one of my electives. My teacher was Mr. T. Not the “Mr. T” but an American with a French name who I suspect got so tired of students butchering the pronunciation of his name that he asked everyone to just call him Mr. T. He was to drama class what Mr. Holland was to music class. He blew all of us guys away when we found out he had an impossibly hot girlfriend (which secretly gave us all hope). She came with him to see “Dracula: the Musical” with our Fine Arts Club and wore an outfit that had so many slits that most of us guys (not all the guys, it was an ‘arts’ club and some of us were more interested in Mr. T.) didn’t start watching the play until she and Mr. T left at the intermission.
Incidentally, the best part of “Dracula: the Musical” was in a scene in the second half of the show. Van Helsing confronts Dracula trying to keep him from sucking a girls blood or singing another song, we weren’t sure which. Van Helsing cuts off Dracula’s escape out a window and Drac says, “Damn you!” He tries another exit and Van Helsing cuts him off again and he yells, “Double damn you!” At this point Van Helsing pulls out a crucifix, Dracula cowers and my friend John yells out, “Triple damn you!” The audience roars. Best laugh of the night.
I had already taken Speech from Mr. T. It’s where I learned the very valuable lesson that if you’ve got to do something uncomfortable, do it, get it over with and then you can relax while the rest of the class sits waiting to be called on as they alternated between looking severely constipated and extremely nauseous. At the start of the year when he’d ask for volunteers to go first I sat there like everyone else wondering what idiot would volunteer to do their speech and sat, miserable, until he made his way up or down the alphabet and got to the M’s and my turn. I’ll never forget the day that the revelation suddenly came that since I had to do a speech if I just did it, just pretend my name was always going to be at the top of the list and just did it, I’d relax for most of that day and all the next two days of class as we went down the roster.
I was a fine arts nerd. I was in the RHS classic productions of “10 Little Indians”, “The Cave/Zoo Story” (Mr. T’s existential swan song), “The Night of January 16th” and “Captain Fantastic”. James Lipton used to stop by and take notes. Drama class looked to be an easy credit and an hour every day to hang out with my friends and be in class with a teacher who liked us and who would let us have some fun.
One day the class was on improv and mime. The exercise for the day was for us to create a scene, one by one, with mime. The first person up established the scene and then everyone else would add something to that scene while recognizing what had previously been established. Our scene was a park. People established a bench, a trash can, a playground and a sunny day. Then it was my turn. As soon as we started I knew what I wanted to do.
Have I mentioned yet that Mr. T took acting exercises very seriously?
My turn came. I was going to enter the scene and establish a tree in the park. I dropped down to all fours and bounced into the “park”. I sniffed the bench, the trash can and then I “found” a tree and lifted my leg and then bounced out of the scene again. I thought this was hilarious.
Mr. T not so much.
“Do it again,” he said, “and you have to be a human in the park, not an animal.” He said.
First, that was NOT one of the original rules. Second, why wasn’t he laughing? That was freaking hilarious! I thought for 30 seconds and said, “o.k., I’m ready.”
I entered the scene again but on just two legs this time. And instead of bouncing I staggered. I wobbled around like a drunken man over to the established trash can and looked for something. Then I stumbled over to the tree that my dog had established and with my back to the audience I mimed unzipping my pants and taking a leak. Then I zipped up and staggered out of scene: arguably my finest performance, ever. The class was laughing, I was laughing, Mr. T just wrote a big ‘F’ in the air with his finger, trying to stay with the mime theme I suppose. I think I’m the only person in the history of the world to fail drama by doing the assignment.
Mr. T left for other opportunities after that year. He left our little, rural community with the existential, ‘what the hell did we just watch?’ spring production of ‘The Cave/Zoo Story’. In that play he said he cast us according to personality; he cast me as “the Liar”. Drama indeed.