Suburban Soliloquy #89

Avoiding the Bacchanalia

That the Head of the Humanities Department suggested I should join the school's theater group startled me. There is a tenuous threshold between acting a part and being that part. It was my first year at Bucks County Community College and I was still groping with identity, still trying on "styles" that were not me and did not suit me. I imitated the movie heroes of adventure and the book heroes of intellection, yet in reality I shunned adventure and was never the equal of the intellectuals I admired. Besides, I was shy, always afraid of being found out. Even today, thirty years later, when I sit across from the loan officer at the bank and receive approval, I feel as if I just suckered the bank again - they actually take me for an adult! It is difficult to act grown-up and responsible. If I am not being me, I am not on steady ground.

The school's theater group was rehearsing in The Orangery, one of the stone outbuildings of the original Tyler estate that had been converted into a school. The Orangery is a block-shaped structure with three tall Romanesque arches filled with French doors facing west, a fourth such arch in the south-facing wall. I had wangled an invitation to a rehearsal and I arrived toting cameras. Thus began my short-lived career as the college's theater photographer, although I hardly appreciated it at the time. The play was Euripides' The Bacchae.

It was a wonderful production, almost a ballet, performed inside an intense spotlight and with no set. The Orangery is a small and cramped space. Since I was shooting without a flash, I had to push the film. I was happy with the resulting black & white images that came out of my darkroom.

In those days, my darkroom was the second bathroom in my parents' home. I had to stuff towels in the window to block out the streetlight, another towel running along the gap under the door. Even then my parents had to give me warning before turning on the hall light, or using the adjacent master bathroom because light seeped under the medicine cabinet. In that unventilated cell I would work the entire night long, giving up only when light leaked past my towels. I was still a budding photographer in the early seventies, but never an actor.

I brought my work back for the actors to see and my prints were very much appreciated, but then it might have had something more to do with an actor's vanity than with my ability to compose the shots. Indeed, the play's director basically composed the shots and I merely documented them. Still, I wanted to grow the work, taking more pictures to complete the essay, a recording of the play's highlights from beginning to end. Now that I knew the play and knew what would be happening next, I was better prepared to capture many of the shots I missed during the rehearsal. The director agreed only if I could remain silent and invisible.

So I was there on the first night without having to buy a ticket. The doorway in the east wall protruded into the interior and I climbed atop it. From this vantage point I could see over the heads of the audience and had an excellent angle for shots. One of the cameras I worked with that night was my friend's Leica M3 rangefinder. It was a masterful little camera with a silent shutter that allowed me to work with complete liberty and without disrupting the play.

The outcome so impressed the actors, they purchased a complete set of my photographic essay to present to their director as a surprise gift. They favored me with friendships and invited me to the party and presentation. I never did get paid. Actors can be surprisingly dismissive when you try to collect money from them. Suddenly they couldn't even remember my name.

Fortunately, the Head of the Humanities Department was at the party and was also taken with my photographic essay. He ordered a second set for the college's archives and for this I was paid, covering my costs. But then he hired me to continue photographing all the school's future plays.

I shot pictures of the next two - A Midsummer Night's Dream, then Ionesco's The Bald-Headed Soprano, and I was again the "friend" of actors.

It was never the same. That is to say, I was never able to duplicate the success I had with that first play. The fault wasn't with the productions. The fact is, I don't remember ever seeing A Midsummer Night's Dream done better. There were a few shots, but nothing I was willing to sell to the school, or maybe I just don't remember those sales anymore. It was a long time ago. The crushing blow was when my friend had his Leica M3 stolen. I didn't feel I could continue without having it to borrow.

Still, by this time I was in solid with the actors, well, for a little while longer. I was invited to yet another cast party. It was hosted by someone with a house in the country. The night was warm as I rode out to the rural address on my Honda DOHC 450 Roadster. When I arrived to the house, I found the party out back, out of sight from the road. There was a glowing swimming pool, a glittering island of light in a dark night, and it was filled with naked actors. They beckoned me to join.

Much of who I am is the result of first deciding who I want to be, then trying to live up to that ideal. I am always falling short of the mark. Still, it is an inseparable blend, who I am and who I intend to be. The two parts influence each other and run together, and I cannot affect a change in one without affecting a change in the other. To be caught acting would be a distressful humiliation.

I am in awe of the great actors who imbue their roles with reality. Do they not become the characters they play? Then how do they later separate themselves from their characters? Will they not always be falling in love with the playwright's assigned love interest?

Of course what you want to know is if I joined the party in the pool. I did not. I was too shy then and I am too shy now. I cannot be at ease with my body the way actors are. Today I could decline honestly. It would be easier because I have learned to live authentically, which is to say more comfortable living with who I am. But I was younger then and invented a stupid excuse, an unconvincing lie about not being able to take off my leather gloves because of some injury done to the skin of my hand - some nonsense like that. It was better than undressing and risking rejection. Still, the hormones were raging through my plumbing in those days. I rode the motorcycle all night long sublimating desire.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"