Robb: A [Short] Life in the Theatre

February 7th, 2012


The trouble with being an accidental drama major is they actually expect you to do drama.  I’ve already described the lame device my dad employed to get me into the department. Well, the SPEECH drama course that Dad lobbed off on me was, in actuality, a very occasional (and boring) speech course surrounded by a world of DRAMA.

As I said, this is the problem with having no plan B. Dad was still being Ethel Merman in Gypsy … ‘go then… and ACT’, and all I was trying to do was shuffle through four years of college so I could go to law school.

The trouble began right away: Introduction to Theater Arts 101, taught by… no, too weak a word… presided over… dominated… RULED… DICTATED by one Doctor Wiliam Schlosser.

Everything that follows is the God’s honest truth. Dr. Schlosser was a huge imposing man, at least 6’4”, football shaped, whose voice never dropped below a bellow. He held a seldom-lit pipe at the ready and swept the class with a malicious gaze, picking out with his bespectacled eyes the most cowed looking students for his intimidating hate stares.

He stood there on the first day of class. After an interminable dramatic pause, he let loose his first line, loud enough to fill the Coliseum: THE THEATER IS AN IRON MISTRESS!!!

A stunned silence followed. Another dramatic pause followed by his second line: MY NAME IS SCHLOSSER. THAT’S SPELLED G – O – D!!!

I guess he pinned my eye roll for he stopped pacing in front of me and gave me a disdainful up-and-down appraisal. Ten minutes into my acting career and I had already achieved my first powerful enemy.

The rest of the speech was a diatribe to the effect that the theater was a God-descended discipline that required a dedication that makes monastic novitiates look like dabblers.

Okay, so that went well. Next was Acting I, taught by Dame Helen Backlin. She probably didn’t have the actual title, but she did have an English accent and her whole demeanor reflected the glory of centuries of Shakespearian tradition. She spoke in soaring, breathless tones of the Old Vic and the Globe Theatre and Drury’s Lane. I, on the other hand, had acted in exactly two plays, my triumph in the high school Junior play in which smart mouthed kid played smart mouthed kid, and the Senior play, in which I had a nondescript supporting role.

The problem with all college acting classes: college actors

Armed with this vast experience, I received my first role from La Backlin: Tiresius, the blind, octogenarian prophet from Oedipus Rex. I gave it my best shot; I stooped, I croaked, I groped, I clutched my imaginary toga, I staggered, I muttered. In spite of my total immersion in the role, I could see from the corner of my eye, Backlin writhing in agony. It took nothing more than that moment to reveal to me, with unmistakable clarity that, no Dad, I am not going to be an actor.

And here I am stuck in four years as a theatre major.

The coup de grace immediately followed, administered by Dr. Willard Bellman, faculty supervisor for the stage crews.

Part of our total dedication to the theater was to be demonstrated during our assignments to production crews. Mine was to push sets around in a children’s theater presentation of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The first few days went well enough. But on the second weekend, the performance conflicted with a swim meet in which I had three individual races and anchored both relays. I went to Dr. Bellman.

‘Dr. Bellman, I have to reschedule my crew assignment, I have a swim meet on that day and the team needs me. I’ve already worked it out with Steve to switch performances with him.’

Bellman, ‘Can’t switch assignments.’

‘Sir, why not? He knows all the moves, nobody would ever know the difference. If I don’t show up at this meet it’d be a disaster, no other freestyler is within three seconds of my time’.

‘Theater is number one. If it conflicts, quit swimming.’

Long pause.

‘Okay, Dr. Bellman, I’m gonna put it this way. When that performance comes on Saturday, I won’t be there. If you don’t want to use Steve, use somebody else. But I will be at that swim meet’. I left his office.

I dutifully did my assignments on all the other performances of Emperor as well as crewed on two other plays that semester. Dr. Bellman not only gave me an F for that semester, he failed me on every other crew class I had for the rest of the time I was at Valley State.

So I was persona non grata at the theater department. When Tim says the mere mention of my name was enough to get the teachers sputtering and spitting, now you know, (partially), why. Oh yeah, there was also the whole attitude thing. After what, I’m sure, were some lively discussions in the teacher’s conference room, it was clear to me that I was the NUMBER ONE target for removal at the SFVSC theater department.

There is an interesting follow up to this. I won the Oscar (for best song) three years after leaving State. Tim was still there, as a graduate assistant, and determined not to leave school until a high-paying job beckoned (which he soon got). When he heard I had won, not being one to miss an opportunity, he bolted into Bellman’s night class and shouted ‘Great news Dr. Bellman. Robb just won the Oscar!’ As I recall, he said Bellman collapsed on his podium.

I wanted to love the theater. Many people obviously did but for me it was just an oversized box filled with people dressed absurdly, wearing improbable makeup, shouting too loud at a squirming audience and spitting on their costumes. One afternoon, in a Hamlet like introspection, I walked out onto an empty, darkened main stage and tried to imagine the connection between actor and audience, the energy, the rush of the sounds, the smells of the greasepaint and black painted flats. I stood there for several minutes and tried to connect, to absorb, to channel the magic.

Nothing. The magic would come to me a few months later, early in my sophomore year, from an entirely different art form.






10 Responses to “Robb: A [Short] Life in the Theatre”

  1. michael hallinan Says:

    Charming! One can never make enough enemies for life. This is the Robb I know and love. Offbeat and irreverent; and winning an Oscar too; all in face of your detractors. I laughed out loud at your characterizations of the drama faculty. Art school is full of similar people. Keep up the good work,

  2. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    For various reasons, i went to a JC for a couple of years. I ran into the “king of the hill” people-I think every group builds up a G-O-D, and they love it. I like your life as a response, Oscar, and all. Living well is the best revenge. By the way, this is probably not news to you. There are prima donnas everywhere.;)

  3. EverettK Says:

    Wonderful, Robb!

    I have to agree with Lil, there are victims of the God Complex everywhere, and the best revenge is to live well in spite of them (and TO spite them 🙂 ). But somehow, the acting world seems to attract a disproportionate number of them. I have a story (that I won’t bore you with now) of my run-in with a Director who was shooting a commercial for Hewlett-Packard (for whom I was working at the time). Sheesh. He had steel cables for suspenders to hold up his britches, they were so large, and 10 gallons wouldn’t come close to measuring his hat size…

  4. Suzanna Says:

    I had no idea your Oscar came so soon after college!

    What is it about some theater professors that make them believe that pretending to be other people is so much more important than anything else in the real life of their students?

    I like that you stuck to what you thought was more important to you and stood up to Bellman.

    Your Oscar win was the best revenge!

    I spent time at Santa Monica College in the theater department, which was a great place for me to study, up until the head of the theater department publicly announced that I was on his “black list.”

    I never asked him why he had decided I should be on his black list, but I gathered it was because I refused his unsolicited advice and avoided him at all costs.

    One afternoon, without asking me about what I wanted for my future, he demanded that I get rid of my boyfriend, transfer to the school of his choice, and sign a contract with his agent.

    He may have meant well but his fascist dictator approach was revolting.

    I left the school at the end of my semester, but I continued to study privately, acted professionally for ten years, and enjoyed some pretty good success, considering I had the distinct disadvantage in Hollywood of not looking like a Barbie doll.

    But it was a terrific ride while it lasted.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I can vouch for everything Robb says about Schlosser. I remember thinking that theater was probably a somewhat less demanding iron mistress when one practiced it with tenure and a pension, and also that — while theater may have demanded much of him — it was pretty obvious that it had never demanded that he skip a meal. Or if it had, he’d doubled down at the next one.

    Like Suzanna’s experience at SaMo, the Valley State department was a vital and bright example of how those who can’t, teach. Still, I had a wonderful time. I finally decided that college is really about other students, not teachers or even classes. I’ve never in my life had so many friends and enemies, and I never felt more like neither I nor anyone else had a subconscious. It was a wonderful feeling, much preferable to the sort of vast indifference that settles in as we get older. Although all those relationships did require a lot of work, and fortunately they came to us when we had time and energy to spare.

  6. Gary Says:

    Breathe with the forehead!

    Think with the diaphragm!

    Sing with the eye!

    I envy you guys. The nearest I got to theatrical drama was a lady singing teacher, who told me that bel canto really meant “Can belto”.

  7. robb royer Says:

    Mice – great to hear from you. Yes winning Oscars is excellent revenge – trouble is they’re so few and far between. Currently looking for more dependable method for more recent antagonists

    Lil an Ev – yeah the minute you combine art and ego people get crazy (and if you want to see things go all the way live, just add money)

    Suz – Wow! You had a real department Nazi. You should have invited him down to the mall to pick out a few ensembles for you. Well, maybe not, the jerk would have probably taken you up on it. Sounds to me like there were some creepy sub rosa attraction issues here.

    Tim – you hit on the real essence of what was going on at SFVSC. Great kids, terrible teachers. Look at the kids who came out of there: Teri Garr, David Giler, David Arkin, Allen Burry, Bonnie Di Simone, Robert Englund, you, me, on and on. And the great creative-on-the-outside teachers like Fred Katz and Al Levitt, were just as non grata as we were. By the way, those profs with real talent and success treated us just great. The huddled academic powers-that-be were definitely threatened by talent. The good news was, we kids fed each other so well we didn’t need ’em.

    Gary – yeah, I do all that stuff.

  8. Julie Evelsizer Says:

    I’m so new here… Robb, what song did you win the Oscar for? And congratulations on being able to use it to puncture GOD Himself!

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I should probably let Robb answer this, but he tends to spend weekends on his farm, where there’s no Internet connectivity. (I know, I know. It breaks my heart, too.)

    He won for “For All We Know,” the theme from “Lovers and Other Strangers.” In a nice bit of irony, the song, which Robb and Jimmy Griffin wrote under different names, was a smash for the Carpenters, who were at the time in a sales rivalry with Bread (although Bread was much more rock than the Carpenters).

  10. robb royer Says:

    Ah, I return dusty and with hay in all my pockets and orifices to see Tim has handled the question quite well. However, I do not use it to threaten God (my dear wife would object to that) even God’s mini-me, I use it for home defense.

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