30 years later

Last weekend Ginny and I returned to the University of Georgia for the first real visit since we left, which was 30 years ago. What a long strange trip it was.

The occasion was the Department of Theatre & Film Studies’ invitation to the New Georgia crowd to come and share its collective wisdom with the student body. And what might the “New Georgia crowd” be, exactly? After they graduated (more or less) in 1977, David Wright and Wayne Knight went to New York City to break into show business. They found an apartment, and in their own words, “we were all like cockroaches: you open the door for one, and the rest streamed in.”

Others followed to the 71st St. apartment, fanning out to their own places, but never losing touch with the home base. These 10-15 UGA theatre students found jobs for each other, found places to live for each other, supported each other through the hard times, rejoiced when they triumphed. And every year they came together for a Thanksgiving feast.

The Dept. of Theatre & Film Studies thought it was important for their students to see what that kind of support group was like, a group that was still in touch with each other 30 years later. Also, I’m sure that the fact that one of the group was Wayne Knight helped in deciding to pull this thing together.

As it came together, there were more than a few of us from that era who had not gone to NYC who got pulled into the event: me, Paul Pierce from the Springer Opera House, Paul Gendreau from LA, a couple of others. Our tangentiality to the main New Georgia crowd didn’t seem to present a problem to the department.

There was to be a large dinner on Thursday night, a Friday full of sessions, and then a tailgate party and football game on Saturday. Ginny and I had planned to drive up Friday morning and lurk through the Friday events, staying in a hotel in Commerce before coming back on Saturday morning.

So I was a little astonished when we all got an email outlining the agenda for the day and I found I was part of a session with Paul Pierce discussing “Future Developments for Regional Theatre.” What? I quickly emailed back and said that was fine as long as everyone understood that I ran an adventurous community theatre, not a regional theatre in any sense of the word. Not a problem, they said, the students will love it. Which does not argue for any perspicacity on the part of current UGA theatre students.

Both Ginny and I had deep misgivings about going to this thing. Ginny, especially, felt she had gone far astray from the path we all thought we had set 30 years ago, and the thought of coming back into contact with those who followed that path did not make her happy.

I had different feelings, of course, because I essentially have followed the path I laid out for myself: teach, run a community theatre. But there’s always the Road Not Taken, isn’t there? I have absolutely no regrets over my choices; I have gotten exactly what I wanted and probably more than I deserved. But I don’t think anyone can avoid the wistfulness that comes with age: what if I had gone to New York? What would my life have been like then?

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, in all likelihood. But at least one of those alternate lives had glittering prizes, didn’t it? I can’t even solidly imagine what those might have been, of course, but I know they’re there, in that other there. As Hemingway wisely says, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Overall, the event was a lot of fun. The memories poured out, one former professor, now retired, showed up for the tour of the building just because he wanted to hear the stories he knew would emerge. Wayne, our most famous compeer, is still just as funny as he ever was, and seemed quite happy to be among those of us who knew where he came from. He and Paul Gendreau, also a tremendously funny guy, had a lot of interesting things to say about life in the Big Time at lunch, especially with the writers’ strike going on.

We were all appalled to see that the Fine Arts Building, after being renovated during our final years there, has not been touched since in any meaningful way. The department has expanded to fill the building, the music department got its own huge, new, shiny building on South Campus, and they are about to begin major expansion/renovation, but last weekend it was exactly the same as we left it.

That led to a lot of interesting frissons: seeing the costume shop, where most of us toiled in joy; the stages where we directed and acted; the classroom where Ginny and I first met. It seemed a lot smaller. At least one other former couple in the group had a similar experience, in a different classroom.

Everyone’s lives have gone nicely and everyone seemed happy. Of course, we were the ones who chose to return and whose lives have positioned us so that we could afford to. (Another plus to the Current Road, of course.) There were quite a few people whom we missed; some of them, we don’t know where they are.

You always wonder: how far off our glorious path have they wandered? It’s easy to say, Oh, that doesn’t matter, they should have come, we just would love to see them. But I know that if even someone as successful as Ginny and I are had qualms about attending a reunion for “real” theatre people, how much more daunting might it be for someone who is selling used cars in Indiana? If one thinks that one’s undergraduate degree was simply a stupid detour, an ill-conceived conceit of a clueless adolescent that gave no meaningful direction to one’s eventual life, how crushing would it be to have to revisit that decision in earnest?

And what a relief, truly, to know that I have never been faced with that particular Road.

9 thoughts on “30 years later

  1. I, for one, am deeply grateful that you both took the road you did and are simultaneously, very Real Theatre People.

  2. I was surprised to learn that the Fine Arts building hadn’t been updated in the eight years since *I* left. Now I find out it’s been the same for decades? The drama department needs a rich uncle.

  3. I have to agree with Kevin. Without Dale Lyles as my mentor and friend, I would not be where I am today, and I mean that.

  4. Here’s another thankful person. If it weren’t for you, Dale, I would never have met Barbara and I wouldn’t have this wonderful family that I love so much. We owe our very lives to you. For my children, though they don’t know it, this is a literal statement. I’m sure Marc and Mary Frances would say the same, and probably many others.

    By the way, was Stanley Longman among the people there? He was my favorite teacher at UGA. He’s the one who introduced me to the wonders of Waiting for Godot. And Brecht. And Ionesco. What a wonderful man. His enthusiasm was infectious.

    Don’t worry about roads not traveled. You’re much too young for that nonsense. And much too wise.

  5. Longman was the professor who showed up for the tour! He also sat at our table for lunch: us, Wayne, Paul, David Wright and his wife, and Stanley.

  6. Did anyone else get to see Longman perform Chekov’s monologue “The extreme difficulty of concentration”?

    How did the discussion on the future of “regional theatre” go?

  7. I think I saw “Extreme Difficulty.” I think.

    The discussion was almost good. We were all seated around a large square table, which made it hard to see everyone. Paul and I talked about what we had done with our lives and why it was good, and why the children might want to emulate that.

    The most interesting question asked of us was for advice for those wanting to start their own theatre. I told them that space was the critical issue. Without a space to call one’s own, then the whole struggle becomes about a space. With a space, you can struggle about money and perhaps some artistic issues.

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