Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
On Friday night I perform a show that I have helped write and direct, to a sold-out house of enthusiastic patrons who rise to their feet at the end of the performance, in the company of several talented artists who I am fortunate to refer to as friends as well as colleagues.
On Saturday morning I attend the funeral services for the person most responsible for my experiences on Friday night. Her name was Valerie Sokol, who I also knew as Valerie Boyd, but most often as Mrs. Boyd or Sokol. From 1991-95 she was my drama teacher at Downers Grove North High School and the director of several school theatre productions for which I was either onstage or backstage.
The service is as long as it needs to be to communicate how beloved and extraordinary a woman she was, between the memorial anecdotes from family and friends, and the poetry, and the letters read by students, and the four young women singing a song from Wicked. I slip out shortly after the services end, because I don’t have the words yet, I never seem to have the words until later. Had I the words at that moment these are the words I would have said.
I remember many things but right now what I remember most is Dracula. Two things, in particular.
Mrs. Sokol directed a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel during the fall of my sophomore year. The final production was so well-received–even for a suburban high school production on a short run–that it scored a notice in the Chicago Tribune as a highlight of the Halloween weekend, which was tremendously exciting for all of us.
And it was, genuinely, an excellent show, full of tension and dread, with moments of epic baroque and high melodrama. I recall the thrill of hearing the audience gasp at the neat bit of stagecraft when the Count, seized by Seward and Harkness, transformed into a cloud of mist and left behind only his cloak in their hands. And I recall during the auditions the student who was asked to improvise a monologue about being a vampire, whose off-the-cuff performance was punctuated by a clap of thunder from outside and an obligatory round of applause from the students in the auditorium.
(Mrs. Sokol didn’t hold closed auditions. Because auditions were the most teachable of moments, the most sensitive clusters of nerves, the rawest of the magical stuff.)
She ultimately cast a student named Alvin Styles as Dracula–he was tall, rake-thin, poised, with an intense gaze and a deep, resonant voice that darted from wall to wall, filling the room with the beckoning tones you want from an immortal’s shadow. He was perfect for a role previously made famous by Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman; it was not even in her equation that as a young African-American man he was nothing like those more traditional actors.
The show itself was full of magic and power, but this was eye-opening and transformative to me. It expanded permanently the boundaries of the art form to realize just how far boundaries can expand with the tiniest sparks of imagination and observation. In that room, there was no better person for that role. Everything else tradition and society would express upon that truth was relatively meaningless. Art is not meant to be subservient to the world in which it will exist. It is meant to reflect, it is meant to prod and cajole and convince, it is meant to show people what they don’t realize they need.
That was the first thing. The second is this.
I was on the prop crew for Dracula. But I was, as I previously noted, a sophomore, which in most cases and certainly in mine meant that I goofed off far too much and did real work far too little. Being backstage was fun and games as long as everything was set on the table properly and maybe not even then because some of those props were cooooool.
I was exasperating, I’m sure. I’m exasperated at my own memory of myself.
The evening I went too far, I recall running through the aisles yelling loudly for no good reason, and finally having to be taken aside and personally told to calm down and listen to my crew head.
I’ve always responded immediately and with chagrin to being scolded by an authority figure. But there was something different about the way she could scold you in the midst of the rehearsal process–she could communicate her dissatisfaction, but she also made you understand that there was something larger being worked towards, that your behavior was as important to that goal as anything else in the room. It wasn’t that you were disappointing a person, it’s that you were disappointing something intangible and noble, something that needed you to be the best of itself.
The theater is full of laughter and wonder but that laughter and wonder comes of being practical and working hard to produce the illusion that it’s not that hard to do at all. I’m still working in theaters today because somebody told me that you could and should take the theater seriously.
There are some mentors who, years later, you’ll say “they taught me everything I know.” That’s not what I’m saying here. I’ve had numerous teachers since high school, some of whom taught me much more, some of whom held greater influence over the type of work I do now, some of whom were teaching me as profession and some of whom didn’t intend to or know that they were teaching me anything at all.
Valerie Sokol didn’t teach me everything I know about the theater. She taught me how much more there was worth learning about the theater and then encouraged me to explore it.
That’s who she was, and that’s who I am now, and that’s how the two are connected.
Current Music: The Decemberists, “The Engine Driver”