Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Who/What Inspires You?

"Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something."
-Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Happy July 5th!

I hope you had a great holiday and are gearing up for an exciting July! This past week in BACK STAGE, the theatrical trade paper, there was an article asking "Which acting teachers inspired you?" It got me to thinking about who has inspired me over the years. My blog today will be taking you back to the one person who inspired me and got me on this path as well as my first days in the theatre. I hope you enjoy it. It truly is my personal journey. Florence Epps and The Theatre of The Republic inspired me to pursue my dreams and goals and have helped shape me into the person I am today. You will also learn a little about my roots and where I came from. Come with me as I take you back to where it began! I walked out on stage at The Main Street Auditorium in Conway, South Carolina on November 12th 1975 as one of Mame's party guests in The Theatre of the Republic's production of MAME!

Miss Florence Epps (pictured at the beginning of this blog). Born September 11, 1907 in Conway, Horry County, South Carolina. Miss Epps was/is a legendary figure in my hometown of Conway, South Carolina. Miss Epps, according to legend, was the first woman to bob her hair in my hometown in the 1920s! That was a pretty brazen thing for a young woman to do at that time. She would be considered a VAMP! She also ordered her husband through a mail order catelogue! However, when he arrived, she was out of town! He did, however, meet her sister and married her instead. Although Miss Epps and her sister lived next door to each other, they never spoke to each other again. Miss Epps decided, instead, to pursue her theatrical career. She went to Winthrop College in South Carolina, which, at that time was a prestigious ALL GIRL college. She graduated with top honors and came to New York to be an actress and went to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which, at that time, was more prestigious than it is now. She took classes with Henry Fonda and James Stewart. After graduating, she went to The Pasadena Playhouse, but rather than deciding to stay in California for a possible film career, she desired to bring theatre to her home town. Among her most devoted fans are those of us she "gave birth to" and we honored her by calling her our "Fairy Godmother". No wonder Cinderella, as you will see, plays a role in my story. Miss Epps became a well known coach and teacher. She lived in the house that she grew up in on Main Street in Conway.
She even had a little playhouse in her back yard where she presented "theatrical extravaganzas"! In 1969, she formed The Theatre of The Republic where I made my debut in 1975 in MAME.
Inspired by Patrick Dennis' biographical nove1 Auntie Mame, the musical show had packed them in on 44th Street during Broadway's 1965-66 season.

And our Mame was Carolyn Cox! She will ALWAYS be my Auntie Mame!
(pictured left Angela Lansbury as MAME)

The story, of course, revolves an irresistible socialite"auntie" who inherits her ten year orphan nephew, and is charged to plan his subsequent education.

Mame's chic cocktail party is interrupted by the arrival of young Patrick and his timid, prayerful chaperone, Agnes Gooch.Mame enrolls the boy in a progressive school. I feel this all very symbolic of the world in which I was now embarking upon.

From the very beginning it was emphasized that the "Conway Little Theatre" was to be a family theatre with full community participation, and that its activities and productions would include children as well as adults. Sherri Jones and Wayne Chestnut, former theatre students of Miss Epps, were asked to direct. The first plays would be produced in the Coastal Carolina Lecture Hall. The organization was now underway, and the fledgling eagle was eager to fly.
On September 16th, 1969, the first meeting of the Conway Little Theatre was held in the auditorium oh the Horry Electric Co-Op Building in Conway. Miss Florence Epps was elected Fairy Godmother and Life Member of the group. For the young organization to become more knowledgeable about stage technique, Miss Epps presented a "how to" programon speech projection, pantomime, diaphragmatic breathing, entrances and exits, appropriate gestures, stage movement, and the development and retention of character. At the end of the meeting she gave each of the participants a copy of "Eleven Guides for Stage Practice" and encouraged further practice at home. Although I would work years later with her, I still have my copy! Also at that meeting, Miss Epps suggested that the name Conway Little Theatre be changed to Theatre of the Republic. She explained that the term "Republic" in the title was a reference to Horry County's proud and historic distinction as the "Independent Republic of Horry"- a testimony to the county's geographical isolation and the independent nature of its residents. As usual, her knowledge, wisdom and far-sightedness proved to be invaluable during the Theatre of the Republic's and my formative years.
The newly Christened Theatre of the Republis was on its way!
The Theatre needed a logo, and a contest was held to provide one.

It was designed by Mrs. Jean Rex of Atlanta, Georgia.
Before the decade of the seventies there was no local organization regularly producing LIVE theatre in my hometown. Few high schools had drama departments for teaching the dramatic arts. Miss Epps had a knack for dominating every stage she trod upon.

Through the efforts of Jane Berry Haynes and the Myrtle Beach Jaycees, the Myrtle Beach Playhouse brought a taste of Broadway to the Grand Strand in the 1950s.
Famous actors were brought in to play the lead roles in plays, while giving local thespians the opportunity to play supporting roles. Among the stars who played the Playhouse were Sidney Blackmer, Barbara Britton, Brian Donlevy, the Gabor sisters, Miriam Hopkins, Veronica Lake, Zazu Pitts, Robert Preston, Charlie Ruggles, Sylvia Sidney, Frank Sinatra Jr,. Gloria Swanson, Arthur Treacher, and Shelly Winters. Ask me about the night my mom, as an 18 year old waitress, waited on Ms. Winters!
Unfortunately, rising production costs and the expansion needs of the Ocean Forest Hotel closed the Playhouse in 1959.

The Grand Strand now seems to be spawning theatres at a dizzying rate. Some of them, unfortunately, will fall by the wayside.

Miss Epps was known for her devotion to theatre, her love of literature, her aptitude for quoting from her wide reading, her interest in history, particularly the past of Conway and Horry County, her her love of nature and her passion for growing things, her fondness for travel, and her friends around the world. She imparted these things to me.

Shakespeare said of Cleopatra, "Age cannot whither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. When Miss Epps died in 1988, Conway lost something of its distinctive flavor. Everyone who knew Miss Epps has a favorite story. Now it is time to take a nostalgic look back and see from whence I have so quickly come. One month from today will mark 32 years ago that I came to NY!
Miss Epps worked to give the children of Conway, including ME,an opportunity to see and participate in theatre. I remember so vividly participating in the little cottage behind her home and in the auditorium of the public library.

The Theatre of the Republic was an important part of my life for many years. As most of you know, I am very passionate about the importance of arts in education. THIS is where my LOVE of the ART of theatre began!
Our theatre must continue to inspire me as The Theatre of the Republic did for me.
Needs for theatre are changing all over the country. Our community theatres are having the opportunity to rub elbows with areas in all areas of drama. The need now for family-oriented, family-participating plays is even greater.
I went back to my theatre in 2004 to GIVE BACK! I did a benefit so they could now build a balcony in their new home, the former Holiday movie theatre (that I used to go to as a kid!
We need to be united all year round, not when the threats happen. Community theatres and plays in schools fosters that kind of teamwork!
I'll never forget that first time I auditioned on the stage of the Main Street Auditorium in the old Burroughs School complex in 1973.

Wayne Chestnut, who also served as a kind of a mentor for me told me that there were going to be auditions for MAME and that there was a part for a young boy in the show. I was thirteen. I have to be honest with you. Believe it or not, at that time, I didn't know Mame from Maine. But I went to the audition. I want to take this moment to apologize to all who were subjected to this kid's audition! I was so excited that I went right after school and waited three hours until people started to arrive for the auditions.

I had never been in a "major" show before except for shows that I put on myself in school...but I knew this is what I desired to do. I knew that it was what I had to do! What I was put on this planet to do. When the auditions started, since I was the first one there, I was the first to be asked up. They asked what I was going to sing. I said I didn't know I had to sing. Everyone laughed and told me this was a musical! I asked if there were any non singing roles. I was told not really.

Then I remembered that I had checked a book out of the Conway Memorial Library Library which had sheet music from Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals.

I had checked it out because it had the music from CINDERELLA which was an annual event in our home. The Lesley Ann Warren version. I told them I would be back and excused myself and RAN five blocks to the Conway Library hoping that it would be there. IT WAS! I ran back FIVE BLOCKS out of breath and said I was ready to audition. I gave my music to Lib Wellons at the piano and began to warble my way through "A LOVELY NIGHT". I couldn't sing my way through a paper bag at that time. They said they would be on touch. I called Daddy to come and get me. I just knew they would cast me!
I waited by the phone for almost three weeks! Remember, these were the days before answering machines and cell phones and call waiting. If anyone in my family got a phone call, I would try and hurry them through the phone call...because I knew I would miss that call!

I never got the call! Three weeks later, Molly Davis, a teacher's aide in our school. Asked me if I was going to be at the first rehearsal that night. She was cast to play Mrs. Upson. I couldn't believe that they hadn't called me. I thought MAYBE THEY LOST MY NUMBER! She said "Why don't you just show up anyway? You never know what might happen!" Once again, I rushed there after school and waited three hours for people to start arriving for rehearsals. Joe Greer, the director, was the fist to arrive. He was "shocked" to see me there when he got out of his car. He asked, "Ricky, what are you doing here?" I told him about my conversation with Molly Davis. He said, "I'm sorry to tell you, you were not cast. However, you're welcome to stick around and watch if you'd like." Just like Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, I just had to be in the theatre! I decided to stay. As the cast slowly made their way into the auditorium, I sat in the back of the theatre crying and soaking it all in. Once everyone had arrived, Joe started handing out the sides from Tams-Whitmark. Sides are unique pages, taken out of a script in order to help the actor prepare for the part. The sides are the most important thing that helps the actor to rehearse the part. This is how Tams-Whitmark distributes their scripts. After all of the leads and character parts had been distributed, there were sweveral walk on or two or three line parts. There was the part of the messenger, two lines
Messenger: Sign here.
Agnes Gooch: Oh dear, I've been here two weeks and already there have been thirteen cocktail parties!
Messenger: Only Thirteen?

Joe asked who wanted that part. I don't know what possessed me, but I shot up my hand and said, "I'll do it!"

Everyone applauded and laughed. Miss Epps said, "I think you should give it to Ricky!" And THAT is how I got into the theatre!
Now, 37 years later, and hundreds of shows later, those dreams have come true. I as an audience member AND as an entertainer applaud children, parents, relatives, and neighbors in roles a lot different from those they play in real life.

Thank you Wayne Chestnut for providing much of this history in your great book, MAGIC TO DO!. Thank you Theatre of The Republic for incredible memories, and thank you to my Fairy Godmother, Miss Epps who saw potential in me and believe in me when no one else did. I still feel your guidance till this day! Now, Who/What inspires YOU?

Check in tomorrow as I write about two more stars on the rise...one honoring a major superstar!

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Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com

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