Half Full/Mark Wilcox

Last month I was blessed to, once again, perform with the Michigan Tech Theatre Company. It was the second time I had done a show with them in the last six months. In an earlier column I wrote of fulfilling a nearly life-long dream last April playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” This time around I was part of an extremely talented ensemble cast in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

“Fiddler” was a homecoming of sorts for me. While my training and degree is in drama, I’ve never pursued it as a profession, opting instead for a career in various media. That said, for most of my 20s and 30s I acted in plays on the community theatre and college level. Then I took some time off. It really wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened that for one reason or another I hadn’t gotten back on stage for more than 20 years.

Prior to April, the last time I had been on stage was at Michigan Tech, in what was then called the Walker Theatre, years before the Rozsa Center was built, in a production of “Royal Hunt of the Sun.”

It was on that same stage, now called the McArdle Theatre, that I returned last month.

Hours before the show opened, I posted on Facebook something to the effect that opening nights never get old. No matter how many plays you’ve done whether in high school or beyond, that tingling in the belly before the lights come up is as addictive and satisfying as a caramel cashew sundae from Culver’s.

But whenever I go onstage, my thoughts always go back to the first time. Not counting elementary school Christmas pageants, (I was Santa in sixth grade -I’m told pictures still exist) my first “real” play was “Our Town” when I was a freshman in high school.

That play also marked another important first. My first kiss. I played George and Mari West, another freshman, was Emily. I was a chubby little goober who hardly had talked to a girl let alone puckered up with one. And as embarrassing as taking “kissing instruction” from our director, standing on that stage was a turning point. Later that year I saw my first “real” play, “Fiddler on the Roof” and my avocation, if not vocation was set.

I have been fortunate to perform in a variety of venues, historic as well as modern.

But to be honest, even the thrill of performing before a thousand people at the Rozsa center can’t dull those memories of “Our Town” on the high school stage. Rock High School, like many of the time, had no formal theater. We had a stage on one end of the gym. Chairs would be lined up on the gym floor for commencement, concerts and the odd play. Stage lighting consisted of floodlights hung inside of inverted coffee cans on “light trees” and footlights. I’ll never forget those. They were on panels that “flipped up from the floor.” No matter how many stages I’ve been on the memory of those red and blue footlights can never be replaced.

I hope to continue my return to the stage. I realize my talent is limited but I have a great time and the folks at Tech have been kind. I’m glad they allow community members to audition and perform in their shows. I’m also glad the Visual and Performing Arts faculty and staff “get it.” Yes, Michigan Tech Theatre is a high-tech deal. With state of the art audio and lighting, and a world class “flying” program. But at the end of the day, they know that it really is only about a writer telling a story, which comes alive through actors and delivered to an audience. It’s a process that’s been around since at least the ancient Greeks.

It’s something I learned on the Rock High School “cafetorium,” and cherish to this day.