Saturday, September 20, 2014

What's the Difference?

Jeffrey Carter's blog from a few days ago put me to thinking about how different not just the rehearsal experience but the whole experience of the show is for each of us.  There is a saying that no two children grow up in the same family and there's some truth to that. Try as they may to treat their children equitably, each child has his or her own talents, challenges and personality which drive parents' interaction with them to be as unique as they are.

So too, does our show-life vary based on a thousand factors -- our role, our attachment to the story-line and the characters we play -- even where we are in our acting careers and how we came to be in the cast.  So as I think of Jeffrey's rather lonely journey, hidden behind his keyboard and music, I wondered, what makes my experience in this show different?  What unique perspective do I bring to "Bonnie and Clyde"?

This first (and perhaps most obvious) is that  I'm easily the oldest cast member.  That has its challenges (falling dead on a hard stage floor from invisible bullets makes me question the "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" lyrics!).  But it also brings a less obvious advantage -- this historical drama is based on events that must seem so distant to my young peers in the cast.  But for me, it's really not so far removed.

My father (pictured below on the left with mom probably in the 1940's) was only 5 years younger than Clyde Barrow.  Both grew up in depression-era families barely scraping by sharecropping in the South.  Neither had much in the way of formal education -- my father's ending in the 2nd grade. Like Clyde, my father took an interest in cars and eventually made his living as a mechanic. Remarkably, just like Clyde Barrow, for a period of time during the Great Depression, my father lived with his family in a tent.

Paul and Verla Coffel

I'm sure I could find more parallels in the two lives but my point is clear: both grew up in and were shaped by hard times.  So were the women they loved and their entire generation.  Obviously the outcomes were very different.  My father survived the Depression working in WPA projects and eventually supported himself as a mechanic. He went on to serve in the Philippines in World War II -- another experience he likely would have shared with Barrow had the latter not died young in a lawmen's ambush in rural Louisiana.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
So what was the difference?  Why did their lives, shaped by so many common obstacles early on, take such different trajectories? To be certain, living through the Depression tended to harden people. My father was not squeamish about slaughtering a pig that had been almost a family pet and he put down more than one cherished dog who had grown blind or lame with age, using his own handgun.  Life was tough; they became tough to deal with it.

My father's experience -- struggle, subsistence, survival, (modest) success, was not unique -- in fact, it was the experience of the majority of his peers; indeed, it was the experience of the whole country.  This "brother-can-you-spare-a-dime" generation went on to fight and win World War II and return home to build perhaps the most equitable economic boom in our nation's history.  Tom Brokaw famously called them "The Greatest Generation".  And beyond the post-war prosperity, when they came of age in the 1950's and 1960's, they gave us the Great Society programs and the Civil Rights Movement (grudgingly, yes, but still without them it might not have happened).  

The austerity of their youth made them more generous, more fair-minded, more open to learning and advancement, more accepting of others who looked or spoke differently but who had faced the same hardships.

So the question -- the question which we may never fully answer -- is not why my father and his cohorts succeeded not just in spite of but large part because of their struggles.  The great question is why Clyde Barrow and a small handful of other outlaws saw their hardship as an excuse to ignore law and civility.  And why do these radical miscreants somehow inspire otherwise ordinary people to join them in their death spirals?

As for me, part of the difference I bring to "Bonnie & Clyde" is knowing that I'm not that far removed from these characters and that my life is immensely better because the sharecropper in my story chose a different path.  There are no Wikipedia articles or documentaries on his simple life, but such is the lot of ordinary heroes.