I was so involved in acting in high school and at university that my Biology Dept. Chair, the late Dr. Dimitman, stated in my junior year; “Len, you have to decide whether to be a scientist or an actor.” Later, despite this conflict, he nominated me for (and I was awarded in 1966) the Hamilton Watch Award for “exceptional proficiency in both the arts and the sciences.” As is now obvious, I decided to be a scientist, but had enjoyed great expectations as an actor.
At Amat Memorial high school, I wrote the By-Laws for the first Thespian’s Club (we were the first graduating class). I was one of the leads in our first musical and the lead in Tens Little Indians, our senior play. Beyond that, the principal, Fr. Kiefer, allowed the entire high school out for one afternoon (a rare decision in a tough Catholic High School dedicated to rigor) for a musical review I wrote, named “Blimey Limey.” It has a story I wove around my favorite songs from Carousel, West Side Story, HMS Pinafore, and Pirates of Penzance.
I earned all “A’s” in my theater courses. My most memorable performances, to me, were the following two:
- The death scene (Act V) of Shakespeare’s Othello: The Moor of Venice as Othello killing Desdemona. A moment of that scene, which I blocked and directed, came at the end. We had one single, little candle still lit in the dark theater in the round after the jealous murder. In my mind, at that very moment, despite my past blocking, I became enraged that the candle was still lit after I had compared my wife to a light yet murdered her in a jealous rage, so I crushed the candle out with my naked hand. Since that was the last light in the theater, everything went black instantly and I heard the audience gasp at the unexpected move. Then a pause, and they erupted in wild applause.
- One of the many arguing scenes in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf. I was George, the part played by Richard Burton. This scene was produced and directed by another senior drama student for a video produced in our new TV studio. I remember one scene in particular. I had just turned abruptly in an angry reply, and one of the two camera’s must have caught me just right because, even through the glass enclosed, silent, studio that enclosed the rest of the directing and sound staff, I heard a sudden cheer. Another aspect of this scene was that I did it with two different actresses; one was a tall, shapely blond and the other was a short, squat overweight woman. I remember how differently it felt to do the very same George’s lines in the two very different scenario’s.
I served as Feste the Fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and was the first actor to appear in the new University Theater because our Director decided to open the play with the fool singing a song, in the dark, at the edge of the orchestra pit, and then acting like he lifted the curtain to the Duke’s palace audience. Because it was the first play in that new theater, I remember serving as a professor there for 40 years with one of the photo’s of two of the scenes with Feste on display in the theater lobby. The few students I told this to could not believe their instructor was a student actor half a century before at the same university, until they went to the lobby and saw for themselves.
I was also chosen as the leads in our first musical, and as Job in Job. But that is when I decided to withdraw from ALL theater to focus on being a scientist. I very much enjoyed my time in the theater and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I continued (since I was called “the professional” by my fellow Thespians and by my friends in the audience).
I have three more stories involving theater work involving (i) the real Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, (ii) my theater colleagues going way out of line celebrating one of my birthdays, and (iii) being elected President of the Newman Club because of one of my performances and a little incident with a wallet and a condom. But those may have to wait for me to write additional memoir essays.