I had been very much involved in five of the last eight shows, having designed and built sets for West Side Story, Wait Until Dark, and A Chorus Line, and playing a leading role in The Sunshine Boys, where I also painted a large backdrop for "The Doctor Sketch" and another lead in On Borrowed Time, where I also decorated Tom Schultz's set design and built a large apple tree. So, for the fall of 1987 I was enjoying a much deserved break that I hoped would last through the entire '88 season, since I knew very little about the upcoming shows and nothing enticed me to try out or to take on another set design. I was determined to avoid Stage 212 and any other theater group that contacted me and try to get my life back.
Director, Dave Peterson came by one day in late fall to get my input about his design for Man of La Mancha, but I had never seen the show, so he had to explain how it was a "Musical within a play, " which I really didn't grasp, but as a prison setting, it looked like it would work just fine to me. He never came out and asked if I would help decorate, and I didn't offer, but I knew he was hoping for me to help. With that behind me, I just continued my break and theater was the farthest thing from my mind.
Dave called me one day, and the first words out of his mouth were..."Where were you these last two nights?" I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, "I thought for sure I'd see you at tryouts." I explained that I really needed a break and had no intention to try out for anything in the year ahead. There was a long silence until he said..."Glen, you are Don Quixote!" I wasn't sure what he meant by that, considering that he was a delusional mad knight! He persuaded me to come for "call backs" by stressing that Quixote was also the ultimate dreamer who saw things as they ought to be, and fought to make the world a better place. That had a certain ring to it, and I reluctantly went, convinced that Dave was the crazy one. I didn't do too badly with the readings, but the vocal tryouts had me reaching for unreachable notes! I scanned the script, slowly realizing that it called for playing duel roles as Cervantes, the writer, who also becomes Don Quixote to tell the story of this mad knight to his fellow prisoners, so they won't burn his manuscript.
Holding my breath, and praying for a miracle, I took on the role with little confidence. I was never the best at learning lines, and both of these characters were extremely verbose, so what might have been simply stated was laced with colorful adjectives, emphatic adverbs, not to mention two distinct stage voices, plus displaying the movements of the confident, young, energetic writer and the faltering, stilted, doddering old man. One day I realized that the only way I was going to learn the part was to reach back to something we were taught almost as soon as we learned to read, which is quite simple but using it to break things down to the basics, sounds very complex. I always took Phonics for granted, since it became a part of reading, and was never consciously thought about. It took some experimentation, but by taking each word and breaking it down into syllables, finding the right inflection, and melding it to the accent creating pure sound instead of words, it became the key to make it all work. So long before anyone else was off script, I knew every line and exactly how to say it. It worked so well for me that I would encourage every actor to learn lines this way.
Singing the part was another story, but using what I learned by speaking phonetically, and melding that with applying the passion built into the words, somehow I was able to reach those notes after much practice. We were blessed with a cast that became immersed in the story we were telling, and I was so fortunate to have Jon Grigalunas with me as Sancho, and the entire cast of prisoners there to bring it to life, so we all shared in the show's success. Although they endured some sounds that I'm sure made them cringe when I first tried to sing the songs, and we all suffered through "The Moorish Dance" (A story in itself) where after speaking my lines (which described what they were doing in the dance) countless times while the others tried repeatedly and failed to learn all the moves, I finally had to refuse to say them one more time because my mouth was so dry and my jaws hurt. A break was the answer, but I gladly became "Prima Don" (as Producer Maggie Frost teased) just so it would stop. It remains a standing inside joke that stops us in our tracks to this day. Playing the part never became easy, but I finally was able to put all the elements together, to give what I feel was the performance of my lifetime.
So, Dave got what he wanted. That brilliant con man also persuaded me to decorate the set, so my hope for a break was delayed by one show. One that I might not have considered, but one that sharpened my acting skills, stretched my vocal range, and propelled me to a level of stage involvement that I had never known before. You don't often get the chance to reach for the stars, but if I had to choose one moment, or one event in my life where I was able to use and share the gifts I've enjoyed to the fullest, having the opportunity to play Miguel Cervantes and Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha with that wonderful cast who all gave the best of themselves, will always be the fulfillment that impossible dream.