Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘University of Colorado

Well, this past Monday was April 20th.  That may not be significant to those of you who don’t live in the Boulder area, but 4/20 at 4:20 p.m. is the traditional Smoke Out on the University of Colorado campus.  And what that means is that somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people show up to smoke the evil weed.  (Ostensibly to lobby for a change in marijuana laws.  Yeah, right!).

boulder-smoke-outOver the past several years the University administration and the police have tried a number of creative means of discouraging the festivities.  These have included blocking off the entrances to the chosen location and turning on the sprinklers.  Last year they filmed the crowd, posted photos on the Internet, and offered a reward for anyone who would identify a “perpetrator.”

In the run-up to this year, the administration simply asked students and the public nicely to stay home.  That didn’t work any better than previous years’ strategies had.

I had a meeting in the front lobby of the University Theater building at 5 p.m. on Monday, and as I approached the area where on-street parking is usually plentiful, I realized that Monday wasn’t a usual day.  20 minutes of searching and about a mile and a half further, I found a place to park and walked back to the campus.  I haven’t seen crowds like that — both in terms of numbers or appearance — since Woodstock.  (Which, by the way, I got within 14 miles of and then said “Screw it” and left.)

Immediately after the end of my run as Darwin in “The Debate” I shaved my beard and got a hair cut.  So instead of looking like a sympathetic and possibly participating overaged hippie, I look like an overaged suburban voyeur.

As luck would have it, the center of the Smoke Out was in Norlin Quad, right in front of the University Theater.  Talk about a contact high!  From a quarter of a mile away the smell was noticeable — not that I would recognize what MJ smells like, you understand.  From 200 yards away, the clouds were visible.

boulder-smoke-out-2I’m afraid I don’t remember much about the meeting.  I do remember being terribly hungry and going out for pizza afterward.

What was I writing about?

the-debate-3The opening of my play, “The Debate,” about Charles Darwin was this past Saturday night.  I’m playing the role of Darwin in it.  That’s me, hamming it up in the picture.

When Madge Montgomery, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Lafayette, spoke to me about submitting a script for their Lincoln/Darwin play festival (Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th, 1809), I knew relatively little about either man.  Having lived 20 years in England, I was more intrigued with the idea of writing something about Darwin, and I had a feeling that more of the submissions were going to be about Lincoln.   So I went on-line and spent about 15 hours reading everything I could find on Darwin, his family, his colleagues, Victorian England, ….  Then I headed off to the University of Colorado library and got out Darwin’s autobiography, as well of that of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s protege and self-proclaimed “bulldog.”

When I started the research, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about.  One thing that I was certain of was that I didn’t want to write about the controversy over whether or not evolution is scientifically valid.  (Of course it is.  Sorry, Creationists.)

But since I’ve started as a playwright, I’ve found that when I immerse myself in a subject, something invariably presents itself that has to be written.

In this case, I soon became caught up in Darwin’s description of his relationship with Huxley.  Darwin had formulated the bases of the theories of evolution and natural selection by the time he was 29, but he realized what social, religious and political dynamite he was dealing with.  So he spent the next 20 years gathering more evidence and biding his time.  Then a colleague named Wallace sent him a letter with many of the same ideas, and Darwin rushed “Origin of Species” out in a few months.  A year later an impromptu debate occurred at the Oxford Museum of Natural History pitting the supporters of evolution against the Creationists.   Darwin, who was ill and house-bound most of his life, wasn’t at the debate, but Huxley was and defended Darwin’s theories.

In Darwin’s autobiography, he talks about how he would constantly chide Huxley for being so aggressive in attacking everyone who dared to question his (Darwin’s) theories.  In contrast, Darwin was deeply into being a gentleman scientist and believed in dealing civilly with everyone.

The action of my play occurs a few weeks after the Oxford Debate, when Huxley comes to Darwin’s house to tell him about what had transpired.  And the “Debate” of the title refers to both the Oxford Debate and the heated debate that Darwin and Huxley engage in on a scientist’s responsibility to take into account the potential impact of his discoveries before making them public.

Thoughtful stuff for a loose cannon like me, who has a habit of deciding what he thinks needs to be done and declares “Full speed ahead,” huh?

The next day, I did a gig as Darwin at a Unitarian Universalist service in the area.  The Unitarians, and the Universalists in particular, claim Darwin as one of their own.  After speaking with the Reverend, I made up an extract from the play that seemed relevant to the theme of their service.  In costume and with my phony British accent coming and going, I addressed the congregation.  They seemed to enjoy it, and it was a real kick for me.

I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, and I must say that it was a revelation for me.  Much of what I heard was what has been going through my head for the last 50 years.  It was a lot like coming home after a lifetime away.

After the service, a woman came up to me and said that she thought she’d worked with me many years earlier.  It turned out that we had trained together in Chicago in January, 1974 (!!!) before flying together to Iran and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Tehran for the Iranian army.  (See “Up close and personal — with your chicken thighs” and “Banging on doors, yelling ‘Those Bastards.’ “)

Small world, huh?  Amazing that she’d recognize me after all these years.  I guess it’s because I’m succeeding in my obligation to live forever and stay young and beautiful all that time.  On the other hand, I do have a painting in the attic that’s getting old and ugly!

wolfLet me begin by stating categorically that, in spite of popular opinion, I am NOT a dirty old man.

Yes, I take classes at the University of Colorado Theatre Department.  But I can assure you that the fact that 75% of the students in that department are good looking women between the ages of 18 and 22 and in fantastic shape  had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to pursue my theatrical education.  It was  completely unexpected.  And it would have been terribly sexist of me to abandon my choice of a second career simply because I noticed that my heart rate was hovering near 140 beats a minute from 9:30 – 11:00 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.  (Which just happened to coincide with my Introduction to Theater class.)  I’m sure you agree with me on that.

Neither was my decision to take acting classes at all influenced by the fact that those classes, in particular, tend to be very “hands-on” affairs.  I mean, lots of men approaching sixty have frequent opportunities to embrace 20 year-old women, don’t they?

My classmates seem to sense my detachment and professionalism, and accept me as they would any other student.  The fact that they immediately grimace when they are told that they have to play a “close” scene with me shows how quickly and completely they are throwing themselves into their theatrical roles.  What a bunch of troopers!

Now that we’ve gotten any doubts in that regard completely out of your heads, I have a confession to make.  As a young man I was obsessed with sex.  (Try to control your shock.)

There was a statistic that was bandied about when I was in my early twenties.  “The average male thinks about sex every 11 seconds,” it said.   I remember being absolutely astonished at that figure.  My reaction was, “What in heaven’s name do they think about the rest of the time?”

As I got older, I realized that such an obsession wasn’t normal or healthy.  Quite apart from distracting me from my career, it was becoming increasingly exhausting.  So I set out to break myself of the habit.  And I’m happy to say that I’ve succeeded.  It took nearly 40 years of hard work, but I can honestly say that these days I don’t think about sex more than once every 15 seconds.  Approximately.  On average.  Sometimes, of course, it’s more often.

All the same, that’s quite an accomplishment.  Aren’t you proud of me?

“Wanted: actor to play homeless man for 2 hours Saturday morning. No pay, but you can eat lunch with us afterward.”  That’s what the email read. It was sent to everybody on the mailing list for the University of Colorado’s Department of Theatre & Dance.

With the beard that I’m growing for my upcoming role as Darwin, I realized that I certainly looked the part. As a sometime actor, being convincing as a homeless person sounded like an interesting challenge.  And as a playwright and author, I find it useful to experience as many different situations as possible. So I emailed back. “I’m a 57 year old actor, with grey hair and a scraggly grey beard. Attached is a JPEG. Let me know if you want me.”

A few hours later, back came a response. “We’re a Christian student group on campus and we’re doing a series of exercises that we’re hoping will help our students get a better understanding of what it means to be a man.  (Not that any of us organizing the event have it all figured out, but hey you have to start somewhere, right?)  The exercise I want your help with is about ‘accepting responsibility.’  Normally this means accepting responsibility for living a “moral” life and looking out for your friends, and that’s good, but I want to expand that idea.  The participants are going to have a short time to get from on place to another.  I’ll also give them a “hindrance,” like tying two guys’ ankles together.  I’d like you to dress as a homeless person and position yourself somewhere on their route. Make up a compelling story, and when they come by, ask for their help in taking you somewhere out of their way.”

At 10:30 the next morning I was sitting on a low concrete wall on the appointed route. I was dressed in some ratty old clothes that I normally use for painting around the house, and had my cover story devised and rehearsed. Along came four students, two of them with their ankles tied together. I kept my eyes down until they were opposite me.

“Hey, could you guys help me for a second?” I asked, half looking up. With barely a glance, they walked past. Strike one, but I figured they deserved a second chance. “I could really use some help,” I pleaded after them, my voice cracking. One of them stopped and looked back. The others stopped a few steps further on. “You go on. We’ll catch up” the one who had stopped said to the two tied together.   They hurried on, and he and the fourth student came back to me.

“I’ve been staying at the Homeless Shelter on North Broadway, and I was supposed to meet somebody at a place called Half-Fast Subs to talk about a job painting houses. I walked five miles down here, but someone told me that I’d gone a block too far. Now I’m feeling really bad and I’m afraid I’m going to pass out if try to make it back on my own.

“Do you want us to walk you over there?” asked my benefactor? Bingo! “That would be great,” I responded. “I don’t want to fall and crack my head open.” I put an arm around each of their shoulders, and we set off, followed by the stares of dozens of curious passersby.

They walked me to my destination, about a block and a half away, while I told them the sad story of my life. I used to own a painting contracting business, but I’d had some bad luck and …” We reached Half Fast, where they dropped me off, and they ran off to catch up with their colleagues.

“God bless you,” I called after them.

An hour later, changed into regular clothes, I walked up to the picnic table in a nearby park where the four students and their mentors they were having lunch. They smiled at me without recognition, and then four jaws dropped in unison. I introduced myself, and the event organizer explained what had gone on.   Then we discussed the exercise and all agreed that both missions had been accomplished – theirs and mine.