Winging It

With my career having been spent frequently lecturing on a stage, I am often asked if I was in many plays during high school or perhaps later in community amateur theater. Nope.

Somehow, I have never been any good at playing a role. I guess I just don’t have the vivid imagination to inhabit another character. There’s only one peculiar character I can do successfully on stage: Elliot Engel, Teacher-Lecturer.

I did have one experience being in a high school play — well, two actually: my First and my Last. It was a minor role in Eugene O’Neil’s Ah, Wilderness!. It was the only comedy O’Neill ever wrote. He is famous for his tragedies. And, no, smart alecks, Ah, Wilderness! was not originally a tragedy until my being in a production of it made it laughable.

I wasn’t bad in the play, and my role was small enough that even if I had been awful, it probably wouldn’t have had much of an effect on the production as a whole. But being on that stage has had a huge effect on me to this day, fifty-five long years later. Well, actually, it was being BACKSTAGE that was the revelation.

And that was because I attended the largest high school in the state of Indiana. Our graduating class was comprised of 930 students. Our high school was brand new and gorgeous, no expense spared due to our size and location in Indianapolis. Our theater-auditorium seated over 1,500, and the stage was so enormous and technically sophisticated that it was rented out by a local opera company.

Just walking out from the dressing room to stage-left for my entrance cue took more than thirty seconds.Those two long corridors, branching out from stage left and stage right, are called “the wings.” Please hold onto that information through the next two paragraphs, which I swear are not a digression.

During that fall of my senior year when I appeared in Ah, Wilderness!, I was terribly anxious because I had applied to Brown University and was desperate to attend the following fall. My parents had made it clear that our state school, Indiana University, was outstanding (and outstandingly reasonable for them, of course, due to in-state tuition). There was no cachet at all in going to I.U. But there was oodles of snob appeal if I could tell classmates that, yes, I had been accepted at “Brown” (those of us in-the-know would never add “University”). 

In any case, it seemed to me that the only time I didn’t fret about college admissions was when I was on stage performing, since all my concentration was on remembering the blocking and staying in character. But of course I was still a worry wart when performing because I was scared to death of forgetting my lines. 

There was, however, one place where I was completely at ease: in those backstage wings. As I made the long walk to the stage for each performance and then back again to the dressing room after I exited, I was neither in the tense role of live performance on stage nor quite yet back again in my daily role of angst-ridden teenager. In fact, during those two thirty-second walks, I felt utterly carefree, the exact opposite of being “in limbo”; instead, I was elevated to a state of role-less serenity. And for all my adult life, whenever I am especially fretful, I walk through those backstage wings in my mind and find that same blessed tranquility. 

I was accepted to Brown but with no financial aid, so off I trudged to my state university. And yet from the day I arrived, I adored the campus and my incredible undergraduate experience. I am now an extremely proud Indiana University graduate (those of us in-the-know would never say “The University of Indiana”).

But with all I learned there and during my graduate years at UCLA, it was the serenity lesson backstage in high school that has added such composure to my life. As I walked in those corridors to and from the stage in 1965, I still remember giving silent thanks for the chance to float far above my usual petty concerns. Yes, readers, I was flying “in the wings and on a prayer!”

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