The Early Years
I recently wrote this piece originally for publication in a centenary book for St. Bernard’s, my old alma mater. They had asked if I could provide any interesting recollections. Well, at least until I can finish a proper Tull update of activities some of you may derive a peculiar delight in knowing my humble performance origins. Others may experience an uncomfortable identification with this cautionary tale of youthful ambition.
Clunko was getting VERY upset. Ironically, the audience was also enjoying the biggest laugh of the entire show at the same time. Peering into the wings I could see his face reddening with that all too familiar look, which preceded some inevitable outburst that in all probability, would be headed straight in my direction. UHHH OHHH!!! There was really very little I could do at that point to change the course of onstage events and the domino effect that was clearly underway.
Let’s back up a bit. Mr. McClung (Clunko to his students – a moniker that he had bestowed upon himself) had chosen for this year’s class production, to do an adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows”. We were all familiar with the story and agreed that this was a good choice. Casting….hmmmm. Most of us wanted to be in it in some way, preferably in a starring role, despite any real or even imagined natural thespian talent or experience. I don’t really know what he was expecting from a bunch of excitable, spotty fifth graders but apparently he had “great faith” in us! Oh, what a disappointment we must have been to him, myself most notably.
I was cast in the fairly unglamorous role as the chauffeur to Mr. Toad. Determined to make the most of this lean but obviously pivotal character to the story, I endeavored to learn my few lines and speak them with gusto, feeling, subtlety and a seasoned maturity, which would reveal an innately natural command of the role and my thorough knowledge of the character’s inner workings. There could be so many ways to say, “ Well, here we are Mr. Toad”, that could be infused with nuanced layers of meaning. I was on a mission. Yes, and I could even see my life’s work laid out before me in a glorious moment of clarity. An epiphany and I was only ten!
Meanwhile, back to reality. Rehearsals began and I was busying myself in art class designing, with Mr. Lukatch’s help, the ultra sleek vehicle in which I would be chauffeuring Mr. Toad. This is where the hard reality of the limited production budget became glaringly evident to me. While I had imagined a miniature three dimensional replica of the classy black Jaguar that Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel from “The Avengers” had stylishly driven around in, the actual budget allotment for props would only provide for a piece of painted plywood cut out in the shape of a car with the lid of an old paint can nailed on top as a steering wheel. I should have seen trouble coming right there and then and put my foot down, demanding an upgrade on artistic and aesthetic grounds but unhappily I caved in and acquiesced to the greater good of the production, not to mention Clunko’s potential response to such an extravagant production cost.
The dress rehearsals went reasonably smoothly and without incident, which, as anyone in show business knows, should have been the first indication that trouble was afoot. As the actual performance date loomed, anticipation and excitement grew amongst my classmates. This would be the year’s crowning moment of artistic expression for the “Young Artistes” of Class 5B.
The performance seemed to be going pretty well although I was conscious of my car behaving a bit erratically due to the paint can lid which seemed to be losing it’s purchase on the plywood steering column. Then it happened. As we “drove” to the middle of the stage, which in actuality meant walking in a low crouching position behind the plywood car, the script called for Mr. Toad and his friend, played by Sam Butler and Mark Lawrence (or it may have been the other way around), to leap out of the car and say their next lines. Well, that small thin nail through the paint can lid had had enough and saw fit at that juncture to liberate the “steering wheel” from the rest of the car when Sam’s foot struck it sideways in a moment of hammy overacting zealousness as he was exiting the plywood dream machine. This resulted in the 5/8” thick car virtually disappearing as it fell flat onstage leaving me unceremoniously holding the paint can lid with a nail sticking through it. Needless to say this was to the complete and utter delight of the entire audience who were howling with laughter at this point, drowning out poor Sam and Mark’s attempts to speak their lines. They made a hasty exit leaving me onstage by myself to contend with an unruly audience, a collapsed car and an increasingly irate Clunko in the wings, gesticulating wildly to me to GET THE HELL OFF THE STAGE!!! He was growing visibly more agitated the longer I was out there. On the one hand I was paralyzed by fear with the thought of Clunko waiting in the wings to give me a serious lecture about my general lack of professionalism and on the other I was beginning to enjoy the odd sensation and elation of being at the center of all this rather unexpected attention. They were laughing! Not being able to clearly delineate between that fine line of being laughed at or with, I nonetheless carried on as if this was a scripted part of the play. Inspired by this latest turn of events, I casually adjusted my driving cap and then leaning over, picked up the flattened car, put in under my arm, stood bolt upright and carried it off the stage, car in one hand and steering wheel in the other. This only served to send the audience reeling into further gales of laughter, at the absurdity of the whole thing, which absolutely sent Clunko completely around the bend. Head in hands and redder than I had ever seen him, I thought he was going to have a coronary right there, but probably only after strangling me first. Clunko towered over me, glaring down and apoplectic, unable to speak.
I think I spoke first, saying something along the lines of, “Well they certainly seemed to enjoy that.” This was NOT a good thing to say, even if it was true. My appropriation of his directorial role, even for a brief moment onstage, went completely unappreciated by him. Some gratitude, especially after THAT fantastic response. Mr. Westgate (the school principal) offered a more deeply disturbing and frosty reception to me later that afternoon when he passed me in the hallway. A completely nonverbal exchange, he simply arched one those azalea bush-like eyebrows at me, while squinting through half closed eyes over his bifocals, as a penetrating and wilting 1000 watt stare emanated from his stern visage, turning my knees to last Friday’s Jell-O. Anybody who ever got “The Ray” knows EXACTLY what I am talking about and just how scary it was to encounter. Undoubtedly, it is permanently etched in the psyche of all whose path it crossed.
One would think I might have learned my lesson all those years ago and perhaps have considered a more stable and sane occupation. Realizing that I was going to be no threat to Olivier, DiNiro or even Mr. Green Jeans I instead moved laterally and ended up as a professional musician. Now understandably one would assume that little or no thespian disposition is required of a working musician but AHH, how wrong you could be. Now for many years my acting talent lay dormant and unexplored, coiled up like a sleeping cobra, anticipating the slightest provocation to justify springing back into action.
Doing studio session work in New York and Los Angeles for records, film, television, the occasional Broadway show or TV soap opera and touring live with different artists continued to be fun and satisfying work but there was a deeper itch needing to be scratched. Oddly, no one except myself seemed to sense the volcanic acting talent that lay dormant within me. With the advent of MTV, I began appearing in some music videos with a few different artists I was working with who gave me some latitude for personal expression, although like many of the greats that came before me, most of my best acting work ending up on the cutting room floor. It was probably too intense for that limited medium and I just had to accept the fact that this might be a talent that only I alone could appreciate, as it certainly seemed like nobody else did! Still not taking the hint or giving up, I continued to work as a musician with this ace quietly up my sleeve.
Finally, in 1984 I was asked to join the wonderfully eccentric English group Jethro Tull, where I continue to serve as drummer, percussionist, occasional mediocre magician-comedian and dubious singing, violin miming character actor, plus I get to play the Glockenspiel. Oh Joy, at last a group that truly appreciates and exploits my musicianship AND marginal acting abilities. This just goes to show you that perseverance can really pay off!
Thanks Clunko, I hope I’ve made you proud!
Doane Perry • Class of ’68