I played Rumplestiltskin in “Rumplestiltskin.” Seven years old. Terrified! I remember jumping on stage from a piano bench that represented the underworld. I liked playing a weird creature who turned flax into gold. A harbinger of things to come — not the gold part, the weird part.
You can make up your own play from scratch. It’s different from interpreting other people's words.
I played the emperor of Japan in the Mikado and innocent dandy Algernon Moncrieff in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” All through college I performed more than I studied, following the prescriptions of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ibsen, Pirandello, and Shaw. I loved playing in the big productions at the Loeb Drama Center but the stories didn’t reflect the hard edges of my awareness. Something was missing.
No matter. I found out you can make your own play. It’s different from interpreting others’ words. Making your own play usually requires a desire to say something about something; or say nothing about nothing. Something or nothing, you have to find the best way to say it with five elements: setting, character, dialog, action, and image. Oh, and music. Don’t forget the music.
Endings are the hardest part when you’re working from scratch. If you know how your story was going to end, you probably wouldn’t have written it in the first place. At the end, you never know what — or who — to believe. It’s best to let your characters decide but you never know because… the truth lies in stories.
My playmaking began in the black box experimental theater at Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center. A guy named Mike Solomon came up with a script based on his — and my entire generation’s — obsession with 1950s comic book superheroes and the surreal nature of straight society. Mike called his comic-book drama “Rat Man Meets the Fifty-Foot Hindu” because that’s what happened.
Robert Crumb and Zap Comics hadn’t surfaced yet, but “The Realist” had. Comic writers Stan Freeberg, Paul Krassner, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters often tripped into a comic surrealism to parody life in hegemonic, mid-Century America. Wiggy, man. Cartoonist Gilbert Shelton created Wonder Warthog, a comic book anti-hero who hated society and killed everybody he didn’t like. But nobody had done anything like “Ratman” for the stage. There were no special effects and no budget. We designed it as we went along.
When you collaborate on original work you need to be open to explosion and collapse. Words and blocking, every sequence, transition, action must be up for grabs until the whole thing works on stage. Cursed be the dramatist who insists that his or her words are unimpeachable.
New York’s White Castle hamburger restaurants served as the Fifty-Foot Hindu’s principle target for revenge. Ratman’s costume consisted of a black leotard, a red cape featuring a hand-drawn Ratman rat and tighty-whitey jockey shorts tugged high to The Rat’s waistline. I played a Fifty-Foot Hindu recently arrived in America to avenge the murder of the sacred cow. I spoke with an Indian accent and would have been boo’d off stage today for my cultural appropriations. Progress has been made.
My costume consisted of a white jacket from the Adams House dining staff, black slacks, and a white paper soda jerk’s hat replaced nightly due to the horrific damage done to it every evening when Ratman and I had locked horns in a revolving restaurant high above Manhattan, the pinnacle of the White Castle Tower. There was no tower, there was no revolving restaurant. Instead Ratman and I approximated the slow-moving grandeur of our curtain-dropping deathly duel by slowly circling the stage while spewing confrontation. There are no photos and, if anyone knows the whereabouts of Mike Solomon from Adams House, please let me know.
After we did “Ratman Meets the Fifty-Foot Hindu,” Mike and I drove across country. En route, a Pennsylvania State Trooper pulled us over. I had long hair. Mike sported a turned-up porkpie hat and plaid shorts that sagged beneath his Hawaiian shirt. When asked where we were going I replied, “California.” Mike stuck his thumb up, smiled a crooked grin, and said “surf’s up.” This Solomon-like observation confused the trooper and made him angry, but he let us go anyway. No more plaid shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and thumbs up in Ohio.
The next scratch show I built happened with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. In that company, we adapted old commedia dell’ arte scripts to the issues of the times: the Vietnam War, feminism, the ills of capitalism, civil rights. When you tackle issues like that, you wanna be funny, raucous, and bawdy. As with our Italian street theater ancestors, we echoed the illustrious realities of our times, a bunch of syphilitic freeloading crooks who’d bust their collective asses to put on a good show.
The play would develop all summer, the lazzi, or physical comic bits would constantly change as would the script. Our performances were in continual flux, driven obliquely by the changing of events each day, the actors locking into close touch to improvise around hastily discussed developments in the world. Changes onstage required everyone’s full concentration to keep the show flowing.
Each fall, the Mime Troupe would take its shows on the road, moving from campus to campus, synchronizing our shows with New Left events — campus-based protests and demonstrations. We’d provide the entertainment, cheerlead protestors, then pack everything back in our unmarked white vans and take off for the next campus. We were authentic outside agitators, the kind that chancellors, local sheriffs, and the big mother FBI warned you about.
We created the Pickle Family Circus in the mid-70s. The first alternative circus in America, the Pickles drew on circus visionary Larry Pisoni’s artistry and momentum, embracing the ancient circus tradition from pre-history through European traditions of clowning and physical comedy. The list of the Pickle’s influences would fill a book, from Kabuki to vaudeville, to mime. We caged no animals and mounted a jazz/latin/funk ensemble that interacted prominently with the acts in the ring… yes, a ring, an honest-to-gawd circus ring.
We took the Pickles on the road, too, traveling from Tijuana to Alaska to hook up with environmentalists and other rural activists to set the circus as the center attraction for community fundraisers. The Pickles gave direct spawn to New York’s Big Apple Circus, Montreal’s Sept Doigts de la Main Theater, and Cirque du Soleil.
During my stint with the circus, I teamed up with a smart, talented and hilarious Woman of the Theater who later became My Companion on the Road of Life. We decided to move to Los Angeles to expand our horizons. We would have moved to Manhattan but the island was too small to accommodate the Woman of the Theater and her mother.
Our first LA project involved a political “living newspaper” cabaret designed to reflect weekly happenings in Reagan’s America. The band began the show and generated segues with musicians often crossing the line into the acts onstage. The Los Angeles Theater Center took us into residence in its grand downtown complex. We were the vagabonds in the black box of Theater Four and our work developed yearly.
About that time, we also took a show to Cuba, another show with music. We were the first Americans to perform in Cuba since my guerrilla alma mater, the SF Mime Troupe, toured there. The best way to learn about a foreign land is to take a show there. We learned a lot about Cuba and its people. I felt completely at home.
We’re still producing shows, me and the Woman of the Theater. We’ve developed over a dozen plays, workshops, and full productions since we first began putting music and theater together in a loft above a muffler shop at the corner of Bush and Polk streets in San Francisco. Although I miss doing the classical works of the theatrical canon, the agony and ecstasy of creating one’s own show reigns supreme!
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.