Sunday, February 11, 2018

Who Lives? Who Dies? I'll Tell His Story

It took time to find these photos, but I knew they were in that memory box somewhere.

My high school drama teacher, Dick Call, died after a fierce battle against cancer. He fought long and hard, and I would have expected nothing less from this passionate man who was dearly loved by so many.

Mr. Call didn't introduce me to theatre. My mom exposed me to the great musicals of the 50s and 60s at a very young age, and I fell in love with the spotlight from the first moment I walked onto the stage at a Christmas party, dressed in a homemade nightgown and kerchief, ready to recite 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Mr. Call opened my eyes to the joy that comes from finding yourself in the theatre.

He wasn't an armchair director, not Mr. C. He would grab a script and join his cast on stage, changing our perspective on our characters purely through the power of his presence. He exposed us to the greats of the stage--anything by Shakespeare, Our Town, The Crucible, Blithe Spirit--and expanded our views of the world in the process.

He could see inside us to what was possible--depths of feeling we didn't know we had, but with his guidance, out it came. 

I wasn't the best actor in his class or part of that inner circle of students that always congregated in his room before school, but I had a place in his world.

And I mattered there.

I remember being so disappointed when he posted the cast list for this show. I wanted to be the star, the one with the most lines and the one with the most scenes. Little did I know at the time what trust Mr. C had placed in me casting me as Lady Bracknell, the best character in the show. From The Importance of Being Earnest I learned the importance of every actor on the stage, the power in delivering a funny line well, and the value of a great hat in transforming into character.

I wasn't cast in every show our school produced, and my high school ego often doubted his judgment on who got to be on stage. When he chose the musical, Something's Afoot, I complained about my place in the pit. He needed me at the keyboard, and after a few practices, I saw the wisdom behind his decision, but I still longed to be on the stage instead. Isn't that what all actors long for? From that show, I learned that every piece of the show matters, even those not in the spotlight.

Mr. C also had the gift of relating to teenagers. He listened, and he counseled. He never grew up, so you always knew that somewhere inside him, he felt what you felt--and understood. Sometimes he could see right into your soul and know what part you needed to get you through the struggles of real life just outside his classroom door.

High school was hard for me, as it is for many, and I live with a few regrets and bad memories. Don't we all? I always wanted to be a cheerleader, but aside from the capacity to cheer really loud, I didn't really fit the mold.  Thanks to Mr. Call, I got to live that dream in a solo scene from Vanities--in a real cheerleader uniform and everything. It was a drop of salve on a gaping popularity wound, and those few moments acting the ditzy cheerleader filled a little of the pain.
I only know of one member of our troupe who went on to have theatre be their life (and John was the best of the best of us, without question), but I transferred my love of theatre to my own kids, watching them experience the miracle that happens inside when the house lights come down and the floodlights come on. They learned that not all problems can be solved, but at least you can forget about them for a few hours a night while on the stage portraying someone else.

There are hundreds of people all over the country who carry a piece of Richard Call with them. Snippets of shows come back without warning, rooting their way into the most mundane of daily tasks. I have a friend named Ernest, and little does he know that I often hear his name as a punch line I recited dozens of times. Even when Brad and I walked through Elsinore Castle in Denmark this summer, I came face to face with Ophelia, and in that moment I was back in a flowing nightgown in Twin Falls, Idaho, reciting, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember."

While most of the world will never recognize his name as a famous actor or director, those who truly knew Dick Call will never forget the imprint he left on their lives and in their hearts. He was so much more than a director and actor. He was a teacher and mensch, one who gauged success by the family he loved and the people who continue his passion for what he loved--transforming words on pages to intimate moments that connect you with the world of human experience.

Thank you, Mr. C. Thank you for touching my life and guiding me through the rough road of high school. The world is better for you having been here.

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