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Not Quite a Saint, but Close Enough

“Hey, kid,” he said, his voice scratchy as a victrola--scrubbed by years of smoking to keep the stress of his own brilliance down. Even though stress might not have burst as much as it wanted to, the cigarette wisps curling from his lips had carved silent lines in his ruddy face, a dead giveaway. I nodded and grinned to him, then snuffled into my thermos for a strong whiff of caffeine once his back was turned. It was shortly after six in the morning, and the troupe was clustering around a lumpy white van, sitting near trimmed campus grass. Six a.m. was early for me back then; oh, the things I did for theatre. Rex gave us, a bunch of other bleary-eyed college students and budding musicians, a chance to sacrifice sleep and get to campus in time to huddle by the van until it was time to leave for a show. We were performing at a local elementary school; I say local, but the drive was a good several hours--hence the earliness. Rex hardly seemed to mind the sharp November cold or the mutters of his wards puffing their own adventurously mature cigs. He strode around, restive, scuffled cowboy boots thumping on concrete, running both wizened hands through gray, Mozart hair. It was amusing to watch him crossing his arms and confidentially insulting someone’s dyed-blue cowlick, or hearing him tell a rookie that the Jack Tale Players did not wear nose rings. This had become a regular thing for the Players, as I soon found out after I began touring with them; we would cluster by the van, shivering and smiling around weepy noses. Rex would stalk around shaking his head and commenting on what we needed to tweak in this or that scene. He was always bright-eyed and bushy-tailed despite the fact that we all knew he was dead tired. There was nothing crazy about him tromping in his boots all over campus before the janitors had rolled out of bed; it was just the theatre business. Rex loved all of it; he ate it up.
Rex Stephenson has been working with professional theatre for a long time; there are pictures of him and Richard Chase, author of the beloved Jack Tales anthology, taken back when long hair on guys was fashionable. Rex studied in New York and was already the author of several plays by the time he decided to teach drama at Ferrum College, a private institution founded in 1913 in a town so small you’d miss it if you stained your road map with antifreeze. The only reason I can see anyone settling in Ferrum to teach drama is for sheer love of the art. And Rex certainly has a love of it. There are hallowed tomes of drama curricula piled in his cluttered office, none of them dusty. His agitated sharpness is mellowed whenever he talks about theatre; his abrasive, assertive voice softens to the nostalgic tone people use when they’re remembering The Good Old Days. The habitual crossing of his arms becomes less hostile when he’s talking about some funny thing that happened, or some old friend who used to be in the business. He ceases to be a man whose curt replies and eternal Styrofoam cup of joe make him seem like a character wrenched from a good book, and becomes the thing he truly is: a man both professional and demanding of respect. And yet, at the same time, he would resent such ostentatious words ascribed to his character; practicality, in his mind, is not the cheesy placations of students kissing up to him, but rather the firmness of a handshake, the enthusiasm of a sleepy, stressed-out college kid, the obedience-without-question.
If Rex were asked, he’d say our relationship began with my very first audition, me clinging to my momma’s hand. I had always loved to goof around on stage, but writing was my Main Thing. I knew what it meant to be in love with something that was not human. I think that’s why, when I met the affable curmudgeon and watched him scattering the theatre troupe for a scene suitable to the audition of the local rabble, I was not intimidated. He was passionate--and that was something that I could understand, inexperienced and overly-ambitious to a fault though I was.
I have had the opportunity to tour with Rex’s well-received folklore reenactment group, the Jack Tale Players, and have also worked with him in several plays produced and performed at the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre on Ferrum College grounds. I have seen him at work; this is no passive affection he holds for the rich art of drama and live performance. He rearranges actors like the pieces of a speed chess game, looking for that elusive checkmate, the perfect scene. Actors huddle on the stage, glancing surreptitiously at one another, holding their breath. Rex calls the shots; he can break apart an act and build it back together, like he does with so many scenes, piecing together a play as I, a tickled audience of one, watch. “Move over there,” he would snap, the words sometimes followed by a curse, and some skinny sophomore would jump to the new location. One movement, and the entire scene took on a different feeling. One ounce of stage light adjustment, and the mood was mellowed or sharpened.
This past summer’s production was Heidi. In one scene, the characters travel from the grimy city to the sublime heights of the Alps by train. Stress from the day pulled on everyone’s faces; stomachs growled and high heels clicked impatiently back and forth, a groupthink scrambling to guess what Rex was going to do with this scene that was simply refusing to work. Three characters sat uncomfortably on an old-fashioned portmanteau, fiddling with their homemade costumes, pretending to be riding a train into the mountains. Tension was palpable. Everyone was waiting to see what Rex was going to do, how he was going to turn this scene into something that would be worth the audience’s time. Rex said nothing; he sat back in his chair, arms crossed, moustache bristling, and watched. Sweat glistened on the actors’ faces--it was hot in those layers of cotton and gingham. To relieve the wait, they began bouncing on the large trunk, joking that it was the movement of the train. Suddenly Rex stood up, subduing the train-goers, and called several props onto the stage. A couple little kids carrying the painted trees, clouds, and telephone poles previously parked stationary onstage trotted into sight and, following Rex’s sweeping hand, kept walking. “Pretend you’re the moving landscape,” he ordered, as if the plan was obvious. The movement of the actors sitting patiently on the trunk suddenly morphed into the train as clouds, green acrylic trees, and wobbly posts marched in front of them, creating the illusion of the passing scenery. “Come back and do it again,” Rex called once the last slow tree had bumbled offstage, but the delighted ooh’s from the moms watching in the audience justified the big grin Rex had on his face. Checkmate.
The red and white straw used to stir Rex’s coffee has replaced a cigarette now that his lungs are protesting with age, but his intensity has not been watered down with years. Theatre is magic; it must be performed by someone who has devoted countless hours to its perfection, or the illusion will shatter before the skeptical eyes of an audience unable to be drawn in. I respect Rex as an artist; he has taught me to pursue my own loves with confidence. And should we have a bad audience one day, the sparse applause and their ignorance of Rex’s talent only made me try harder to convince them, to contribute to the mystery and glamour already existing in that one ephemeral word, theatre. That was why I would get up on those long show days, throw my weary teenage body into the cold, and wait by the van with the troupe until we were all assembled to take off for foreign lands in our gingham and suspenders. Essentially, Rex risks every day what serious artists must risk: he presents his soul to a world that can accept or reject the worth of someone truly dedicated to their artistry.



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This article has 3 comments. Post your own!

Mutsmag said...
May 21, 2012 at 3:52 pm:
This is an amazing piece of writing. I have seen the Jack Tale Players perform dozens of times and I know Rex, and this essay depicts him so perceptively! I love the scene in Heidi that is described here and it's great to have this behind-the-scenes story about it. How lucky am I to live in a tiny place with the kind of talent demonstrated by this writer and her subject.
 
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Mutsmag said...
May 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm:
This is an amazing piece of writing. I have seen the Jack Tale Players perform dozens of times and I know Rex, and this essay depicts him so perceptively! I love the scene in Heidi that is described here and it's great to have this behind-the-scenes story about it. How lucky am I to live in a tiny place with the kind of talent demonstrated by this writer and her subject.
 
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Mutsmag said...
May 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm:
This is an amazing piece of writing. I have watched the Jack Tale Players perform doznes of times and I know Rex, and this essay describes him so perceptively. I love the scene in "Heidi" that this article describes and I love having this behind-the-scenes story about it. 
 
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