When I was twelve years old or so a friend invited me to go to a play with his parents in Knoxville, Tennessee (I grew up in the nearby town of Maryville). I accepted with low expectations, my idea of theater being informed by awkward middle school productions acted by my stage-terrified pubescent peers.
But as soon as we stepped into the cloud of cigarette smoke inside the old brick-wall storefront that was Theatre Central, I was jazzed. This was the bohemian, coffee shop kinda life I’d sampled via my older brother who went to college in Knoxville. I dug it!
I remember very little of the play, except it began with a monologue delivered by a bald man, lit by a single, equally bald lightbulb, he was standing right at my knee, he was almost ranting, spitting the introduction to what I think was a farce of a murder mystery.
What I loved about it was the homemade-ness, the simplicity of construction, the reachability–this was DIY theater, not some untouchable Broadway (or, truer to my experience, Dollywood) show, but real people in a musty old building who you could touch if you wanted to.
I still remember sitting with my buddy John on a bench outside during intermission. In this cool, urban environment, at dusk, watching the streetlights, I felt just right. This was for me.
When I was sixteen or seventeen years old, and could drive a car, I auditioned for a play at Theatre Central. It had changed locations by this time, to a former department store next to a Subway in Market Square. The dressing room, which shared the wall with the Subway, smelled just like a damn Subway. Blended with cigarette smoke, of course. So it was much less aesthetically pleasing, but nothing could be done about that.
I didn’t know how to act, still don’t to this day, but a passionate interview with Kevin Kline on Inside the Actor’s Studio convinced my mercurial mind that my destiny was to be an actor.
The director and manager of the theater was named, I think, Phil. Or maybe Paul. I wish I could remember his name, and if anyone reads this, please tell me. I don’t believe he’s still with us in this world. He was an older gay man, a chain-smoker, and he had serious health problems that would cause him to disappear out of the blue, leaving a minimal handwritten note on the theater door.
I think he was from Philadelphia, which makes me doubt his name was Phil. I was very nervous around him, assuming him to be a philosopher of the art of drama. At my first rehearsal, I worked up the courage to ask Paul, «What acting school do you recommend, Juilliard or NYU?»
«Pssh! You don’t need to go to school to act!» he said.
Paul didn’t take shit seriously. His most frequent direction was «More Bugs Bunny!»
«Stupider! Faster! Louder!» he would shout. He gave me parts where I had to dress in drag and yell «FUCK!» in front of my parents, who, bless ‘em, never said a word. «More faggy!» he would yell at me.
Almost all the Theatre Central regulars were gay. It was my first exposure to actual gay people hanging out, and it was eye-opening, coming from churchgoing, conservative, homophobic Maryville, Tennessee. (I love that town with all my heart, so I have to be truthful about it).
They acted out scenes from Steel Magnolias with the most hilarious country accents, one friend showed me nude art photography of himself on hiking trails I frequented in the mountains, they cut open cans of Guinness to show me the plastic ball inside, one guy let me borrow 3 Kris Kristofferson CDs («He’s a poet»), another lent me the collected plays of Joe Orton (which I never returned, I guiltily admit).
I ended up performing in three or four plays with that company, while performing in plays at school (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden.) After school I drove to Knoxville, fighting sleep, listening to Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan on cassette.
I always arrived in Knoxville at the golden hour and walked around the Old City in the beautiful light. It was also the sunset of the Old City, as I knew it. Today, there’s a lot more action in the Old City, but a lot less of the charm and excitement. I miss that place. Miss that time.