Stagestruck: Coming Home

I didn’t attend my hometown college, but I grew up just down the street from the campus. I biked along its crisscrossed paths as a kid, DJ’d at the college radio station in high school and, most important, acquired my passion for theater from its plays.

Antioch College had an active campus/community theater program from the time my dad went to school there in the 1930s, and in the 1950s it hosted a summer Shakespeare festival that performed the entire canon in seven hectic years. I played most of the boys’ parts — Falstaff’s page, Banquo’s son, Duke Senior’s minstrel and others.

I left Yellow Springs to go to college, but in truth, I’ve always felt more connected to Antioch than to my own alma mater. So when two childhood friends who did attend Antioch invited me to participate in this year’s reunion, I accepted with the alacrity of a devoted alum.

In the past five years, Antioch has risen phoenix-like from the ashes of its demise. Long neglected and despised, like a poor relative, by the university it had spawned in the 1960s, the college was finally closed down in 2008 – only to be revived by an outraged and newly invigorated alumni/ae, who raised enough cash to buy the college back from its faithless parent. The first new class graduated last year, and this year’s reunion celebrated its re-accreditation.

I was invited to join the celebration because the reunion theme was Theater and Performance, which meant there was lots of both on the weekend’s schedule. My role was to direct a staged reading of five short plays by alumna Robin Rice, collectively titled AAAAH! Antioch Alumni Act Ad Hoc!  We put the show together in a day and a half of rehearsal hours snatched from the cast’s other reunion commitments.

aaaah-4We met for a first read-through in the green room of the theater building, still known as the Foundry after its original function. On my last visit, when the college was slowly crumbling under the weight of years of deferred maintenance, the building had been completely dilapidated, with antique equipment and puddles on the floors from a leaky roof. Now I found new paint on the walls, new seats on the risers, and a rekindled spirit of creative ferment flowing through the halls. Lots remains to be done, including the acquisition of a lighting grid for the cavernous mainstage space, but the old place was again humming with life.

Nine old Antiochians were in the AAAAH! cast, a few of whom I knew back in the day. They included my old friends Barrie Dallas Grenell and Paula Treichler, both of them children of Antioch theater professors in the postwar generation. I had acted with our stage manager, Kirsten Dahl, in summer theater (held in a true cliché, a converted barn), and I had seen Patrick Tovatt in numerous Antioch productions when he was the department star before graduating to a successful stage and screen career.

aaaah-2Robin’s five plays ran the gamut from social-justice drama to sketch comedy. In that first category was “Blood Sisters,” a courtroom vignette based on the 2003 conviction of three pacifist Dominican nuns for defacing a nuclear missile silo in an act of civil disobedience. Paula played timorous Sister Carol, Barrie the elderly tigress Sister Ardeth, and outspoken protest veteran Sister Jackie Marie was outspoken jazz singer Cynthia Davis. Larry Pearl, a member of Antioch’s new alumni board, took the role of the pitiless judge.

“Viral Pizza,” a cartoon caper about a dozy cat and a hungry mouse, paired board member Mark Reynolds and reunion co-chair Penny Storm. “Take a Bite Out of Life!” found two spinster sisters (Barrie and Cynthia) at their last supper aboard the Titanic, waited on by a flirtatious junior officer (Patrick).

aaaah-5aThe set concluded with a couple of two-handers – a double-entendre sketch titled “It’s All in the Breast,” with Larry and Mark as a pair of teenage turkeys loitering on a street corner ogling the mouthwatering girl turkeys; and “Between Dollywood and Disney,” a sweet, nostalgic piece about an elderly couple’s tag-team solution to memory loss, with Patrick and theater professor Louise Smith.

The performance, held in the Foundry’s studio theater, was a great success, standing room only and, I later learned, the best-attended performance of the weekend. The mixed cast of enthusiastic amateurs and seasoned pros blended seamlessly, clearly enjoyed the show as much as the audience did, and did the playwright proud.

That evening, at the annual fund-raising dinner to support the new Antioch, Barrie, Cynthia, Paula, Penny and I sang a comic parody of Cole Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” with new words by Penny and me, helping to loosen alumni purse strings. (Sample: “If a donor’s as tight as Andronicus / Say you’ll give ’em a building eponymous.”) Whether or not it had anything to do with our performance is debatable, but the fundraiser broke previous records and included a special gift of $25,000 to purchase and install the theater’s new lighting grid.aaaah-6a

It felt good doing theater with old friends (Barrie and Paula and I had been in plays together, but not since grade school) and connecting with new ones. It felt good being in that space again, ghosted with old memories. It felt like coming home.

Photos by Dennie Eagleson


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Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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