When people talk about the "college experience," they don't mean the University of North Alabama. It's not a bad school, but it's not the institution you dream of one day attending. It's a tiny liberal arts school in the northwest corner of the state and I wound up there because I had to go somewhere – that much had been made clear by my dad. I wound up there because they had a communications program and it didn't occur to me I might be qualified or interested in anything else.
UNA had a lot of the things larger schools have, just in smaller doses. There are bars and hangouts, although you couldn't get a beer in town on a Sunday. They had fraternities and sororities that were proportionally annoying. There were sheltered girls reveling in their first taste of freedom as second semester lesbians, and guys who wooed them by becoming sensitive, stylish singer/songwriter wannabes well-schooled in Elliott Smith. There was a campus newspaper where I got to try my hand at writing and editing. Of course the best thing that happened to me while on the newspaper staff was making the acquaintance of the mysterious 11, a friend and brother-in-arms these many years later. The college is also where I got my first taste of radio, working overnights at a classic rock station that broadcast out of an old house in the middle of a neighborhood in Tuscumbia.
My first stop, though, was Calhoun Community College. The cultural and learning center of the universe it wasn't. We had nicknames for it. Some called it Redneck Tech. Others called it UCLA – University of Calhoun 'Longside the Airport. That was a cleverly unsophisticated nickname, although to call the two runways in the cotton field behind the school's main campus an airport was a bit of a stretch. Calhoun wasn't a cathedral, but it's the place where I tried my hand at a new identity of sorts.
I moved to Alabama my senior year of high school. My first week, I made friends with a fellow headbanger by the name of Cary. He is one of the sweetest guys I've ever met, and he laughed at my jokes. He made his way to Calhoun first. By the time we re-teamed, he'd become deeply involved in the theater program. I was skeptical. Community college theater? Calhoun Community College theater? You had to be joking. It turns out he wasn't. Such a program not only existed, it flourished. I didn't have the acting bug, but through Cary I was meeting some great people. They seemed to be enjoying it. Why not?
Why not? Well, to be blunt, I was terrible. I played bit parts and had minor speaking roles. I thought I was better than I was but knew I couldn't hold a candle to some of the more talented members of the group. Now, everybody comes from a town with a local hero. The truth is, most of these kids are very good only when compared to the very average. It's the big fish/small pond phenomenon. That said, there is that small handful of people who actually have the goods but for any number of reasons don't wind up on stage, on screen, or in the NFL.
Hell, it's what I'm doing here. Just about all of us who write for BC Magazine have dreams of writing full time and making a living at it, but as Lennon said, "Life's what happens while you're busy making other plans." Life happens. We get married, some of us have families. We don't get that lucky break or we make other choices and take different paths. Sometimes we lose each other along the way. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we get to travel that path not taken one more time. Sometimes, we reunite with those dreams and those people. So let me tell you about last night.
My wife and I attended Theatre Huntsville's performance of Paul Rudnick's comedy I Hate Hamlet, directed by Kim Parker. Former TV star Andrew Rally (Jake Barrow) moves from L.A. to New York and into the former home of John Barrymore, having been roped into playing Hamlet in Central Park. Rally is just down-to-earth enough to know he has no business playing one of the most challenging roles ever written in one of the world's most famous plays. But his "entourage" is pushing him to go through with it, and deep down he desperately wants to accept and meet the challenge even though he thinks it will likely be a disaster. He has six weeks to prepare for the role of a lifetime, and there to help him is the ghost of John Barrymore (Phil Parker).
Parker and Barrow commit the cardinal sin of making it all look so damn easy. Too easy. How easy did they make it look? Easy enough I forgot why I abandoned my career as an aspiring thespian… for two hours, anyway. Rudnick's text gives Parker creative license to play Barrymore as the larger-than-life icon he was, and he does so with zeal. When the script calls for the more human and contemplative Barrymore, Parker gives the role dignity. Barrow, meanwhile, has the challenge of being a good actor trying to play a bad one. That can't be easy, but you wouldn't know it from Barrow's portrayal. The supporting cast is likable and talented, but the magic happens when these two are onstage together. Their timing is brilliant, and the stage really opens up when the two are left alone to needle and nudge one another.
I've seen Phil perform numerous times, sometimes from the closest vantage point possible: onstage. My view is better onstage, but the performance is better the further from it I get. Actually, that's not true. He's always great. The play is better the further I get it from it. To all of my fellow attendees last night, you're welcome. I've also seen him "perform" offstage, and he's just as sharp, witty, and talented over a glass of wine or bottle of beer as he is onstage. His own material, improvised or rehearsed, is worthy of a stage. He's received several awards for his appearances in more than 60 productions, and I haven't seen nearly enough of them. It's a shame, too. Most of them have been right here in Huntsville, but they may as well have been in Beirut.
The stage is a special place if you have that rare gift. It's a special place for Phil, and his wife Kim. They met through Calhoun theater. They were married in the theater where they performed so many times. Their wedding was staged as a play. I was there. I ran sound. That might have been the last time I actually saw one of their productions live until last night. Kim directed that event as well as last night's play. Among the highest complements I can pay any director is that her efforts seemed invisible. Everything just "worked." That doesn't happen by accident. Someone plots these things out beforehand. The cast executed her plan and Rudnick's script wonderfully.
I'd forgotten how intoxicating this magic can be. There really is nothing like seeing live theater. The institution of theater, and my life, are grateful that the relationships I made lasted longer than my career as an aspiring thespian.
I Hate Hamlet runs through this weekend at the Von Braun Center Playhouse in Huntsville, AL. Ticket information can be found at Theatre Huntsville's website.