Where It All Began
Several weeks ago I went back to Iowa to spend time with family and friends. The magical thing about Iowa is that while it progresses, it also never really changes. I grew up in northwest Iowa, and when driving through the cornfields, the AM radio stations are still playing Journey and Aerosmith like they are fresh baked goods. When I was there, high fashion was a University of Iowa or Iowa State (but NEVER both) t-shirt. It’s the same today. If there’s a Toni Home Perm being sold anywhere in the world, it’s in northwest Iowa.
I graduated from Drake University. Those four years were the most difficult and most important of my life. I treasure that time and the people from that era of my life in a way that truly defies description. We’ve had several reunions over the years that were wonderful and sad at the same time. People change and they don’t. Like Iowa. The minute I set foot on the campus I become nineteen again, in good and not-so-good ways.
The above picture is of the rear entrance to the Harmon Fine Arts Center. You’ll notice the cement benches. The building has seen some renovations that would appall the original architect, but essentially it’s the same building I knew. Inside has had minor renovations, but the paint job in the lobby that I’d helped raised funds for has been untouched all these years. What had been my locker still has a padlock on it that I believe is the same one I forgot the combination to, which means there are some very ripe sneakers inside that will walk out on their own when that lock is finally cut off.
This is another story, but I was super poor as a kid. I couldn’t afford a campus tour over the summer before I went to college, so I arrived sight unseen. That year, for some reason there were not immediately available enough rooms for the incoming freshman, which means that my first week was spent in a stifling social room with eight sets of bunkbeds in Harriott Hall and fifteen other guys, all of whom were far more sophisticated than I was. That means they were drunk virtually the entire week. I had neither the means nor inclination to partake, so I wandered the campus a lot. The sight of the fine arts building was something akin to seeing the Pearly Gates through the parting of celestial mist. Not really knowing what to expect if I went inside, I on those benches and contemplated the universe and just how I was going to reshape the American Theatre. The next day were the auditions for the fall semester shows. There were three professor shows, and I think there might have been a student production. As hokey as this may sound, I sat on that bench telling myself to drink in the humility of the moment because the next day my LIFE would BEGIN!
Over the summer I’d received a letter from the department head announcing the plays that were to be produced that fall and strongly encouraged to have read them before going to the auditions. I'd already practically memorized Michael Shurtleff's Audition, so was aching to read the scripts that would change my life. They were John Brown’s Body, That Championship Season, and Trojan Women. None of those scripts were available from the Le Mars Public Library, but I could order them from the Iowa library network. It took weeks for them to come in, but I managed to read That Championship Season first and knew there was no chance at a role for me there. All jocks. Then a copy of Trojan Women came in and being all in turn-of-the-century verse I couldn’t really make heads or tales of it, but it was obvious the roles for boys were limited. And it turned out there was no script for John Brown’s Body, just the poem upon which the play had been based. I read it. I enjoyed it and prided myself in realizing that Margaret Mitchell had basically cribbed plot and characters to write Gone With the Wind, but I had absolutely no idea how that poem would become a play. Still, I was pretty proud of myself for being “prepared” for the auditions and dutifully returned all three books to the library the day before I left for Drake.
As I recall, there were two rounds of auditions. The first round took place on Sunday evening, and basically it was just anybody reading for any role they wanted. I was destroyed. The level of talent was beyond my comprehension. The second round took place on Monday evening and that served basically as the callbacks. Watching one of the upperclassmen actresses give birth for her John Brown's Body audition has set the standard for auditioning to this day. I was only invited to read a section of That Championship Season, but I was so woefully outclassed by the everyone I was reading with I knew before I even finished the scene I didn’t have a shot in hell at being cast in that production.
I wasn’t called back for anything else, and it was a bitter, bitter pill to swallow when I wasn’t cast in anything that first semester. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only freshman who didn’t land a role, and I tried very hard not to be to jealous of those who did.
I went on to have a respectable collegiate theatrical career and left Drake with a reputation; some of it for doing good work on stage. But whenever I’m in Des Moines, I feel compelled to swing past those cement benches and compare my life to the imagined greatness I projected for myself on that August Saturday night. There is yet to be much of a match, but there are also no regrets.
As the summer wears on, I get nostalgia for that summer before my life began and am grateful that I can not only remember that feeling, but still rekindle it with expectations for what may yet happen. I smile to think of the next freshman who will have that same starry night and send them all my best wishes.