There was a point in my life where my life’s ambition was to be a high school theatre instructor. Although I never had high hopes of a longterm career on stage, the major required me to take all of the available theatre classes and as a result, I spent a majority of my college years memorizing lines and perfecting the art of applying stage makeup. However, after doing my student teaching in a small, rural high school in central Oklahoma, I quickly determined that a career in education was not for me
But that’s not to say those courses didn’t pay off. There have been countless times over the years that I have benefited from those courses in public speaking and mass communication. And I also learned how to juggle, which is always a fun party trick to pull out of nowhere.
Truth be known, one of the biggest reasons I pursued a degree in theatre was because at the time, it was one of the few degree programs in Oklahoma that did not require College Algebra, a course I dreaded. During those early years studying acting, I portrayed a wide variety of characters in a number of different productions. Although I can’t sing my way out of a paper bag, I somehow or another even scored a couple of fairly significant roles in musicals along the way. I once played Andrew Carnes, the shotgun slingin’ crusty ol’ father of Ado Annie in Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and then later a crusty ol’ stage manager named Pops Bailey in a fantastic stage show called 1940’s Radio Hour. After nearly perfecting my role as a whiskey-swilling curmudgeon (some would suggest it was early typecasting), I went in a completely opposite direction and was given a role as Linus in the university’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. With my thumb in my mouth and baby blanket in tow, I had a blast bringing such a memorable character to life. At the urging of my director, I even shaved my legs for the part, but having never shaved my legs before, it didn’t turn out so well.
But that’s a story for another day.
During those years, some of my best friendships were forged in the theatre department and many my fondest college memories involved those performances. In fact, I had such a good time that some 15 years later – while living and working in Maine – I had a wild hair and auditioned for a role in a local community theatre production. Much to my surprise, I landed a part portraying a thirty-something-year-old Jewish lawyer with a penchant for double martinis and dressing up in women’s clothing. For most people, the thought of standing up in front of a bunch of strangers is terrifying. For me, it was therapeutic – a chance to escape from the mundane reality of college life, even if only for a few hours. And as far as I’m concerned, learning to walk in someone else’s shoes is an experience everyone should try at least once.
Gustafson is the publisher of Signature Magazine. The last time he appeared on stage prior to the community theatre experience in Maine was in a 1994 production of “Much Ado About Shakespeare,” a comedy in which he wore tights and juggled flaming batons and swords, all while reciting “Hamlet.”