Tamra and I drove up the coast to Santa Cruz one sunny morning last month and I finally got a chance to lay eyes on the university that I graduated from 30 years ago and hadn’t seen since then.
I graduated with a BA in art from Oakes College, UCSC in 1982. I was a year behind, as I had taken some time off to work at Hanna Barbera in 1978, and to study oil painting in Spain from 1980 to 1981. By the time I actually graduated, most of my classmates were long gone, on to jobs in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, New York, Hollywood, Europe. I didn’t care about graduation at the time, didn’t attend the ceremony; I was just finishing what I had started. I didn’t think having a diploma or not was going to make much of a difference in the artistic destinations I was heading for. It hasn’t.
I had tried to revisit the University of California, Santa Cruz about twenty five years ago, but the torrential rains kept us inside the rental car the entire trip. We literally couldn’t see the place for the downpour and the fogged up windows.
After that, I never had any opportunity or strong enough desire to come back and explore. And very quickly, 30 years fled by.
On this recent trip, I noticed a weird sensation that was dogging me all the way up the coast. It wasn’t pleasant. Something like one feels when one is making an obligatory visit to a person who might be very unkind. Like a mean, cranky grandpa.
Over the years I had grown a bit “snarky” about my old school. I won’t bore you with the natter. So, as an uncomfortable feeling of quiet dread settled over me, growing more acute as we approached the campus, I attributed it to the myriad deficiencies about the place I had grown accustomed to reciting to myself and others.
But still, it didn’t ring true.
I had been invited back to do a performance of my show, JIMPRESSIONS, and to do a workshop for theatre students on voice acting, or impressions, or whatever I wanted to talk to them about. It was pretty loose. I was also invited to participate in a rehearsal and short performance with the resident improv group, called Somebody Always Dies, (that being the trademark ending of their shows.)
This was going to be a pretty full schedule for two days.
One always gambles a bit in doing improv with strangers; the different schools and performance styles that call themselves “Improv” are sometimes incompatible, and I have had some nice experiences and a few really uncomfortable ones… I was praying that this would be one of the nice ones.
And again, this quiet, now gently throbbing dread was making itself known, in dim fantasies of antagonistic students lobbing challenges at me and my wife, making us feel embarrassed, or old, or…
As it turned out, the rehearsal, (which I volunteered my wife, Tamra for as well, to her surprise) was a pleasant one, an example of actors creating well together with cleverness and a lot of mutual support–which is far more important than cleverness–and made for a good time, and familiarized me with the “games” the group would do in performance the next day, after my show.
The improvisors had all greeted Tamra and I politely, introduced themselves and shook hands like civilized young people. There were far less piercings, tats and facial hair than I expected. (In my time, the style was very hippie, very hairy and probably not very fragrant.) I was impressed by how quick and sophisticated the references came flying off the tongues of the students, who were all about 21 or 22. Of course, they were all fresh off of a number of plays, so naturally their literary allusions to Shakespeare and others were right in their back pockets. Effortless.
They didn’t have a very set structure, less so that I am used to, but the support and regard for one another’s creations was built in to everything they did; it was often quite a magic trick to see them start in spontaneously in the same creative direction. No train wrecks. It was damn fine to see.
And in the end, someone DID die. But she laughed about it.
The next day, the day of my workshop, I again felt slightly like I was going to be given a cigarette and a blindfold before facing a lethal line of artillery. This I attributed to… something. Too much coffee? Not enough preparation? Full moon?
I decided to run the workshop by doing drills on a few simple fundamental points about Duplication and Control, things I had found were at the root of most of the work I had been doing as a professional voice actor. I felt that even if no one eventually chose to follow me down the unique, thorny path I had stumbled onto as an actor, at least they would have some grasp of fundamentals that would pertain to more than just this pursuit.
Again, to my surprise, the assembled twenty or so college students were bright, attentive, pleasant and willing. They jumped into the drills, were very kind to one another and to me, and didn’t even text! Amazing.
The phantom dread was starting to slip into the background.
Students reports after the workshop were very favorable and I found my affinity for the students, particularly the ones who were also in the improv group, (who, in this second gathering I now was beginning to become very familiar with) and my affinity for the campus itself was increasing… I was feeling like I actually liked the place. Very peculiar sensation.
That night, I did my show for a full house at Porter College, and despite the kind of old-fashioned slant of JIMPRESSIONS, full of allusions to actors of a bygone time, I got a lot of laughs and a standing ovation at the end. Nice!
Then, the improv show. Which also went off very well, and which I found very easy to fold myself into and contribute to. The kids all thanked me earnestly and we parted as friends.
A girlfriend from my student days even showed up unannounced, sweet eyes crinkled in a smile, just like in 1982, a face now framed in graying hair. Gave me a quick hug and disappeared.
By this time, the dread had fully passed, but there was then a strange vacuum in its place; The Hole Dread Leaves Behind. I felt like someone had left the room, but who?
Later, after I returned home and was trying to relate this story to my friend Tait, I found myself vocalizing what had happened:
“It was weird… I was feeling a lot of trepidation going up there, like I was expecting to run into someone who was going to give me a hard time…” (Sound effects: BING.)
“Ah. I was expecting to run into ME. The person I had been when I left there back in 1982. (Pause.) But that guy is long gone.” Big smile.
That was the hole the dread had left. The guy I used to be back then left it, like a footprint on a beach. Not a villianous fellow, but with an odd, unpredictable edge. Challenging, aloof, sometimes quite crass. Uncharitable and prone to belittle. Glib, smug, unkind. Afraid, more than anything else. And fearful, attracting things that threaten one, in the mistaken idea that one will “Just get it over with.”
Not a nice chap. Certainly not all the time, and though the more positive qualities were there, too, the weak points were the ones that, unanswered and unaccounted for, made them float along in time, seeking resolution. Like a ghost, I guess.
I wouldn’t have wanted to meet that long gone stranger again. But if I had, (and he wasn’t me) I could probably have helped him. At least to control his voice, if not his psyche.
Many things in Santa Cruz had changed, many were exactly the same. Many new buildings had sprouted up on the campus, huge ones, still small compared to the redwoods. The trees were taller, I guess. I’d never been close enough to the top of any to have a comparison. But trees, especially redwoods, do a good deal of growing in 30 years. So do we.