Never Memorize Your Lines

In high school, I was a new kid again. There were some of my eighth grade classmate who came over to the private, liberal arts high school, but none of my friends. Jeff, Cynthia, Betsy… a few, but not ones I hung out with. So most everyone was new to me. And I made friends slowly.

So I tried some new things. I went out for the soccer team and made second-string as a freshman. I tried some things like chorus and drama and tennis. I found a left-handed tennis player to go up against. Since my father, a left-handed artist, taught me to play, I was used to crowding the net against a lefty. The coach was happy to pair us. Ian was his name. He was okay at tennis. He was a great soccer player. But he only stayed in the school one year.

I liked to talk about cars more than sports. So I found some greasers to hang out with sometimes. But I really didn’t have firsthand experience working on cars, except for a little body work, so I couldn’t keep up. And I didn’t have a car yet.

It was a little lonely, but my classes and teachers were excellent, so I stayed busy. I was in a small production of a few scenes from The Odd Couple, and I got to know a few girls, but they were older and more apt to pat me on the head than talk to me.

In my second year of high school I joined the “work study” program, which allowed me to work off a portion of my school bill by staying after school and cleaning the restrooms and offices. I was only fifteen, so I couldn’t work anywhere else. I’d worked over the summer for the CETA program, but that money had gone to help my mother pay the bills. Now I was paying my own bills, but it meant no time for soccer that year.

But I could still do theater. And I found a new partner to act with. He was also a mentor I could learn from. I already knew William from my bus. I had been friends with his older brother Charles, sitting with him and talking about what high school was like. And he had introduced me to William while I was in the eighth grade.

Charles was a studious fellow. He had braces as a senior. He also had a touch of cerebral palsy. It wasn’t too bad. He could walk unaided if a bit stiffly. And his speech was a little slurred. But William was less well off. When I first met him he needed arm-braced canes in both hands to walk. He couldn’t navigate the bus steps without falling. And he seldom spoke on the bus.

But William had one thing Charles did not; a big smile. Charles seemed to always be serious and had a look of concentration on his face. William smiled and laughed easily. He was smart and funny and able to laugh at himself when he toppled over.

My acting mentor, William

In my sophomore year, William was a senior, and we shared a class for the first time. I had spoken with him in the library several times, but in the theater class we got to work together. He loved the theater and was keen to act in any comedy that came up. We got to do several Neil Simon scenes together with him always in the leading role.

William loved to do funny take offs of popular commercials. He wrote them and we performed them between sections of school assemblies. There might be a dance routine, a song, or some poetry, but between things we’d do a hilarious commercial. Sometimes we would try my little twists to punch things up, but William was the writer. And he was also the one with more lines.

One time, when William and I were rehearsing the first scene of Chapter Two by Simon, I asked him if he had his lines memorized, yet. He seemed offended and told me he never “memorized” his lines. He “knew” his lines, and that was different. That day he took time to teach me the difference.

William would get into the character and stay there through our rehearsals and performances. Even comedy converted him from his jovial self into a serious actor concentrating on his craft. It was my first experience with a real actor.

I was just comic relief. I enjoyed acting up, and showing off, but I wasn’t serious about acting. I was more of a “distractor” than an actor. And I could always make William laugh. Sometimes at my antics, sometimes with jokes, and sometimes just at the situations we got into.

One day while we were walking up from the main building to the Arts Barn on campus, he was walking in his stiff gambol. Rather than moving forward up the hill, William began going backward. By his senior year, he only used one standard cane to steady himself. Once he started stepping backward down the hill, he could not stop.

There wasn’t much I could do, either. He stepped back off the edge of the path and tumbled into the leaves and bushes beside the walkway. When he began going backward, I said, “Hey, where are you going.” He just smiled and laughed and fell in a heap. I went to retrieve his cane while he got himself up and dusted off. He would usually refuse help to get up, preferring to rise on his own.

William continued to improve in the time that I knew him. He always challenged himself in an epic battle against his condition. He rode horses, competing in equestrian events in the Special Olympics. He took roles with long speaking parts. The soliloquies challenged his mind as he learned them, his mouth and throat as he delivered them.

Sadly for me, I did not keep in touch with William after he graduated. I do not know where he went to college or whatever happened with his brother. But I found him a few years ago on Facebook. There were many pictures of him in costume, both for a local theater and a part in a zombie movie. I had to kid him about playing a zombie. I asked if it was type-casting.

That may seem cruel to you, but William never felt sorry for himself and always had a sense of humor about the cruel jokes his body played on him. Because of his ability to laugh at himself, he could always pick himself up and try again. He helped me much more than I ever helped him.

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