A memorable professor

Fri, 02/26/2016 - 11:45am

“Yon can’t focus in class and your head is all over the place. Your work is showing me nothing. Why are you taking my class?” said Professor David Gustafson. It was my final semester as a theater student at Rhode Island College, and this guy had just come down from Canada to teach an acting class. He said this to me in his office next to the Robert’s Theatre. He casually ate his sandwich and crunched up whatever sense of ego I had, and tossed it into the waste basket. I noticed a picture on his wall as I walked out the door ― the professor was standing in front of a single engine airplane ― my knees nearly buckled when I closed it behind me. This was a fight or flight moment ― the man was intense and direct. I chose not to flee and it was the best decision of my college career ― including undergraduate and graduate studies.

Dr. David Gustafson was degreed in the study of theater, film, and television from Michigan State. He had previous experience in all three areas prior to coming to teach at RIC. The first day of class, he said to the 30 students in attendance, “If you’re not a theater major, you’re not electing this class and you need to leave.” There were 14 of us left, and we all knew this was going to be an intense experience. My cousin Steve was in the class. He’d served in Vietnam. Also, Gannon “Billy” McHale was another guy I knew who had served the past four years on a submarine. Both guys were from my hometown. The rest of us were younger theater students. The vibe in the room was one of pure concentration. “Spencer Tracy and Dustin Hoffman have a tremendous ability to concentrate,” he said. His class was all business.

The books assigned in this class were “Zen and the Art of Archery,” by Eugen Herrigal, “Acting is Believing,” by Charles McGaw, and “Journey to Ixtlan,” by Carlos Castaneda ― compelling stuff. The class itself involved discussion of certain plays. For example, Arthur’s Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” was studied in depth. Our professor left no stone unturned in this great play. Additionally, we did mime work and scene study.

I was always interested in comedic movement: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers. That final year at RIC, I had the great fortune to see a two-hour performance of the pantomime legend Marcel Marceau, an improvisation group called “The Proposition,” and a masked theater troupe from Switzerland called Mummenschanz. Most importantly, David Gustafson informed us about a French guy named Jaques LeCoq. He was well known for his work in mime and physical theatre ― he worked with masks. Gustafson brought in a guy he knew who had studied in Paris with Le Coq at L‘Ecole International de Theatre. We did a three-hour workshop with this guy using masks, and it was the most compelling and intriguing experience I’ve ever had in a studio environment. We developed improvisational narratives, which were driven by the various types of masks we used. (I went on to use masks for instruction in my theater teaching career.) 

After a semester of study, we had to prepare a final scene to be done for a public performance. I was assigned scenes from the play “Butterflies are Free,” written by Leonard Gershe. The play was successfully adapted into a film starring Goldie Hawn. I was to play a character name Don Baker. He was blind and lived alone in his apartment. Baker meets a girl who doesn’t know he’s blind until she sees him drop cigarette ashes on his floor. I figured I could pull this off — my character played the guitar, as did I. A fellow student rehearsed at her apartment with me for hours.  Moreover, I practiced being sightless by following a guy at Brown University for a few days, and developed some ideas for blocking the scenes in precise and measured steps.

We ran the scene in class one week before we were to perform the piece. I went through our beats: I lit my cigarette, and walked assertively to pick up the phone. I played my guitar and phrased my lines. Sue, my castmate, and I thought we had nailed the scene. Gustafson walked up on the stage with my ski hat. “You’re super blind; you’re too good at this. I don’t believe you. Play the scene now,” he said, pulling the hat over my eyes. Then everything went sideways. I tripped over the table and knocked over the coffee cups. I burned myself with a match while lighting my smoke, and finally fumbled the guitar on the couch while bumping into Sue. It was a mess; however, I got his point. I’d over-rehearsed my blocking.

The week before the gig, I told my professor that to play this right, I needed more stage business to do with Baker’s character. “Go home tonight and write down 10 pieces of business you think might work. Then, judiciously select five of those pieces of business and go through your beats,” he said. He gave me all the power and responsibility. I took my professor’s advice. The night came and we did the scene. It went well. After we all performed my fellow students hung around and talked with the audience. As Professor Gustafson strode toward me my knees didn’t buckle, but I was nervous. “Hey, good choices, you did all right up there, Houlihan,” he said quietly. It was the only compliment I ever got from him. Gustafson used kind words sparingly.

I graduated from RIC, and went on to teach English and theater for 32 years at Narragansett High School. I learned things from this professor that I applied in my classes and my personal life. This theater professor and airplane pilot Dr. David Gustafson, who threw down the gauntlet in his office in 1972, was the best teacher I ever had.