Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Santa Monica Playhouse

During the summer when I was eleven (maybe twelve) and living in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I had my first taste of The Industry, which of course out there means acting. For two summers running, my parents enrolled me in the summer camp program at the Santa Monica Playhouse, which is still going strong, still under the ownership of Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo. Back then, the place felt as homey as it was professionally run; now, their Web site (even the fact that they have one—but of course they would, we all have moved into another century!) seems so far removed from my impressions of the place; they have expanded tremendously. I am glad for them, but I like holding on to my simpler memories. I remember sitting on the ground with other kids in the courtyard on sunny days, learning lines and completing writing exercises where we'd "get into the minds of the characters." I remember seeking refuge from the sun, too, inside the cool, dark theater, where we practiced our singing (the plays we did there in the summer were musicals). I also remember being surprised when told that, in fact, I didn't know how to breathe! I'd inhale and suck in my stomach, and I certainly had never heard of that deep-breathing space in my body called a diaphragm. The theater was a dream come true: intimate but no less "big time" with its lighting system and backstage area; this was not the public school gymnasium rigged up with folding chairs. The plays were great fun, and I especially recall the one called Our Camp, which was (at least in name) a takeoff on Our Town. The story, script, and songs were created by Evelyn and Chris, and everyone got a chance to do at least one solo. We learned the entire play by heart (including other cast members' lines), and during a visit from my aunt and uncle, when my mom and her sister went out somewhere and left my uncle watching over me at home, I bent his ear with the entire production, start to finish. In Our Camp, I had the part of a social-climbing, materialistic, trouble-making camper named Rhonda. (Note here: I was not typecast based on my actual personality!) The crazy thing is, all these years later, I still remember verbatim the solo verse I sang during one of the songs. The lyrics were written as though they were letters home from the campers, and for the record, here's what I sang:

Dear Uncle Joe,
Camp is expensive, you know.
I had to [deep breath here]
pay for the sheets that I tore when I tried to escape through the window, the hole that I shot in the big air-conditioning unit I thought was the rifle range target, and they never said what I owe for the time that I turned my counselor's hair green...
And shucks, you said you'd send me something if I wrote,
so could you send me fifty bucks?!

It was a great experience, with end-of-summer performances to show off everyone's efforts. I saved the show programs for some time but no longer have them; still, I see the layouts: the giant red rose on the cover of Our Camp, the photos within rocket-ship portholes for the play whose title I don't remember (though I remember one song: "Calling All Stars"). There were cast parties as well, which I attended and enjoyed, despite being a bit confused by the older kids' interest in Spin the Bottle. All in all, these were summers well spent, summers that fed my desire for creative expression, for performance, for stepping out of myself and into an imaginary world where I could be anyone at all and earn applause.

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