Head of the Class
Finishing His High School Epic, Rob Nash Graduates to Off-Broadway
By Robi Polgar
DECEMBER 28, 1999: Once there was a kid who attended Catholic high school in Houston. Then he went to the University of Texas at Austin, where he did some writing and did some stand-up and got involved in the gay rights movement (as much as there was one at UT in the early Nineties). After which he moved off to California to make it as a screenwriter and stand-up comic (among other things). And he had an idea for a film that would show off his imaginative skills as a writer and performer, win him the opportunity to tell stories on screens large and small, all while allowing him to dabble in theatre. It was the story of some kids who attended Catholic high school in Houston.
Hey, it did happen that way. But as we're still in mid-tale, what will become of solo performer Rob Nash and his charming, alarming, and entertaining coming-of-age plays that comprise the Holy Cross Quadrilogy has yet to be seen, though an off-Broadway in 2000 is likely. But it all did begin as an idea for Hollywood: "I'd always wanted to do four films following a group of friends through high school," says the bleached-blond Nash at a recent interview. "A serial film event. Like Star Wars. But one a year, not one every three years. And in high school in the Eighties, not in a galaxy far, far away."
Well, Hollywood wasn't exactly clamoring for Nash's inventive work, even though he was doing his best to make it in Los Angeles. So rather than wait for the studios to come to their senses, Nash set out to create four stage plays, one for each year of high school, to test his writing skills and abilities as a performer. (He would play all the characters -- dozens of them-- in each play.) Earlier this year, he completed Junior Blues, which he premiered at Austin's Vortex theater, as he did with Freshman Year Sucks! and Sophomore Slump. Now comes Senioritis, the last installment of his tale of three friends wending their way from youth to adulthood in the morass of emotions and bodily fluids that is a typical high school.
"I based the adventures of Ben, George, and Johnny on me and two of my best friends from high school," says Nash. "We were just jumping-off points. Immediately, with the first installment, Freshman Year Sucks!, the work took a decidedly fictitious turn. That way Ben, George, and Johnny become "everyboy.' They're fictionalized real people. Everyone knows Norman Normal: the guy who'd play all alone on the playground with his Chinese stars and say, "I could kill you right now.' Everyone had -- or wanted to have -- a Mr. Smith in their lives: the fatherly figure who always knew the right thing to say and the right way to say it. Maybe Mr. Smith is who I aspire to be. Everyone knew the pretty, virtuous girl Maria and her not-so-pretty, not-so-virtuous best friend Jenny. And everyone knew the self-proclaimed "nonconformists,' Ben, George, and Johnny."
Armed with such sure-fire material as four torturous years in an American high school run by the Catholic church, Nash has created a hilarious, moving, sometimes piercing, account of what it is to grow up in our nation's secondary schools: the pimples, the sex, the exams on paper and of character, the exploration of a world at once full of promise and completely incomprehensible. To keep things really interesting and unexpected, Nash has chosen a different era for each of the four plays, moving the boys' story forward even while jumping about from decade to decade.
"I was, for a while, working with a director and dramaturg who suggested that instead of doing four plays in the Eighties, why not push the envelope some more and have each year of high school take place in a different time period. I chose 1981, 1992, 2013, and 1954. With the new one, Senioritis, the most dramatic time change takes place because we go to the Fifties. Before the social revolution of the Sixties and the pop psychology revolution of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties."
Each play has had its unique surprises for Nash: "The Freshman surprises were that I could play 26 characters and that everyone would follow it. The Sophomore was that I could do it again, and that I could meet and beat the watermark. Norman Normal, [for example], was just this break-out, sensational character that showed up in Sophomore. And Mr. Smith's contribution to the story became so much more important.
"One of the interesting things to watch in all four plays is the gay theme -- Ben's story and Mr. Smith's story. Because in 1981, at the very end of [Freshman Year Sucks!], Mr. Smith doesn't say the word AIDS, but he's on the phone to [his lover] Marcus and mentions that he's sick, too, and we know what he's talking about. In 1992, he's on his deathbed. In 2013, it's not as big a deal. Ben has unsafe sex, and Mr. Smith is HIV-positive and has to take the protease inhibitors and tells [Ben that] you still have to be safe. In 1954, there's no AIDS."
But the gay story alters with the changes in the cultural landscape. "Ben doesn't come out in Freshman [set in 1981], he comes out in Sophomore . In Junior , it's no big deal -- he sleeps with a rock star and gets his heart broken; so he's just having growing pains like all of us are having (when you sleep with a rock star). [In Senioritis,] we go back to the Fifties and all bets are off: Mr. Smith is in the closet, Ben's in the closet."
But Nash, as keen as he is to point out the gay themes in his work, is even quicker to make sure his audiences realize that the "everyboy" story is more than just a story of a gay "everyboy." "It's really important to say that this is about high school. First and last. Johnny's story and George's story don't happen to be gay. Johnny's story is about his relationship with Maria pretty much. And his overwhelming arrogance and his being stuck in a world where no one knows the truth that he knows. And George's story is about his relationship with his father and about finding his manhood when he's a dumpy, high-voiced clown and klutz and not a very good student. Ben's is about being gay, and Mr. Smith is also gay. So for me, the political agenda would be to [stay] very mainstream about it.
"It's not so much assimilating," Nash reflects. "I mean, I certainly want to be a part of the mainstream world, I consider myself pretty mainstream" -- he says, with the light hair. "I want a family and a house and a career, and I want to be secure. I want the things that almost everyone wants. I also want really wild and crazy sex, and I want it with men, so maybe," he smiles, "I'm a little bit different."
But his story, quirky and unique as it is, homes in on the heart of that transformation we all make in high school, striking that balance between individuality and belonging. "One of the neat things in doing this whole thing is writing for grants, because then you have to come up with your mission. Then you have to ask yourself questions like, "Why am I doing this?' Well, I didn't get the grant," laughs the writer, "but I got this great handle on what it is that I'm doing and what it is that I'm about. When I first realized I was gay, I wanted two things: I wanted to tell someone, and I wanted to still belong. In high school, that's what we want: We want to tell people, "I'm different and I still want to be your friend.' I'm different and special and unique and crazy, but also very mainstream and I want a house and I want a family. -- High school is the middle of our lives, it's the big turning point; it's becoming an adult and losing childhood; it's when everything that's fucked up about the world is magnified a million times."
When you get such a combustible mix like that, it can get dangerous. In the latter half of Freshman Year Sucks!, and throughout Sophomore Slump, there is a sense of danger, be it growing up gay or just plain growing up. There are various threats, real and imagined, in this high school world. Perhaps the Fifties are even more dangerous.
"Oh very, oh yeah, I mean, Ben's in the closet," explains Nash, alluding to society's inability and unwillingness to deal with open homosexuality at that time. Added to the risks the boys are willing to take, "they decide that if they're going to be writers, they need to go to a writer place, like New York, Chicago, San Francisco. They opt for New York, and the New York trip changes them. So their danger is they decide to sneak off to New York. And they decide that any punishment is worth the trip."
"And Marcus [Mr. Smith's lover] is black. Did you know that?" asks Nash and gets a quick negative response. "Neither did anyone else!" he laughs. "I gave him this Cajun accent [because] I didn't know a way to make him black that couldn't get me in a lot of trouble; but he's black." Suddenly, Nash assumes the voices of his protagonists, starting with George, for this rapid-fire exchange: ""I heard he lives with a Negro in a Negro neighborhood.' Johnny: "What if he does?' Ben: "Yeah, what if he does?' Back to George: "My point exactly! What if he does live with a Negro in a Negro neighborhood?'"
This is typical of the antics and arguments of the boys from Holy Cross: snippets of conversation that Nash fills in with an impressionist's grace and simplicity. Each character has his or her specific physicality, particular voice. Nash has created a physical and vocal shorthand for making instant, remarkably clear and full characterizations in order to switch from person to person. This has been his signature for the first three episodes of the Quadrilogy. For Senioritis, however, Nash had to do some serious homework in order to create authentic sounding characters.
"One of the neat things about this [Fifties-era setting] is that they speak differently. I have to find a new way to have them talk. This is the most research I've done in my entire life. I've done six other plays, and I've done more research for this one than all the other ones combined. I did a little bit of research for Junior. I had to ask a bunch of computer nerds where they thought the technology would be 13 years from now. And that was fun. 'Cause Norman Normal had to do something."
But setting a play in the Fifties demanded study. "I used Fifties movies and Fifties television as a guide for how they're supposed to look and act. And you know what? Fifties cinema sucks. Thirties and Forties movies are much better, and Sixties and Seventies. Fifties is a big fucking black hole in cinema. I'd rent movies that I can't get through. I watch an hour and I can't finish them. They're very useful because they give you a feel for how the language should sound and how they speak the words and the words they choose to use. But I just barely got through On the Waterfront. Just barely got through Seven Year Itch -- I didn't get through it, rather; I didn't get through The Quiet Man, I didn't get through ... uh ..." Nash laughs at his inability to recall his homework, "the other movies that I saw ... whose names I can't even think of!
"I rented some television shows like Abbott and Costello. Now, I love Abbott and Costello, but their TV show sucked. This guy that I'm going out with, he said, "It's like porn, you know?' It's like watching porn: You've got to get through all this crappy situation and dialogue to get to the good stuff. To get to their little wordplay that they do. They do one little moment in the show that is brilliant, and everything before and after it is crap. But they spoke very Fifties. And The Honeymooners -- I can't stand The Honeymooners, I can't stand The Flintstones. But they talk real Fifties. They say, uh, "I tell ya,' "don't get sore,' "regular laugh riot, I tell ya.' I have to think of some lines from the play ... "Ah, you're a pain in the neck.'"
Nash has given each of the boys a stock period phrase: "Oh yeah, George's is, "What in the name of "blank"': "What in the name of Thomas Dewey am I supposed to do here?' "What in the name of Kim Il Sung are we supposed to do about it?' That's George's thing. And Johnny's got -- Johnny's politicized, Johnny's a communist in the Fifties, so Johnny's thing is always, "I tell ya,' and [a drawled] "See,' "Say,' opening his sentences with, "Say' and "Gee.' "Why, I've got a half a mind to give you a black eye.'"
Nash has premiered each part of the Holy Cross Quadrilogy in Austin, before moving on to perform them in other cities. "This is the womb," he says. "Because they love it here. And they don't care if it's rough or clunky. And in every other venue I play, I'm not right up there close to you like I am at the Vortex. I mean, I play other small venues, but nothing feels like the Vortex does. An audience anywhere else in the world does not feel like an audience at the Vortex."
So Nash the performer feels more comfortable, which has allowed him to edit and test new material as he hones his work, without fear of audience disapproval. "There's a nip and a tuck almost every night, at this point," he reveals. "I used to go a lot longer before I'd make changes, but now ... When I do the show here, I have to run it every day before I do it that night, just to throw it back into the short-term memory. I've got to figure out how to make it watchable and followable. I get better the more I do it. For each hour on stage, there are countless hours in rehearsal. And I have to do a lot of trial and error. I'm actually still practicing and learning in front of each audience."
Local fans of the Holy Cross plays may have noticed that Nash is back with Senioritis only a few months after having premiered Junior Blues here, whereas before he's taken a year between visits and new shows. Nash had to push forward the creation and premiere of the final show to anticipate a chance to perform the entire Quadrilogy in New York in 2000. "Two weeks before Junior opened last August," he says, "I did a week of residency at Dartmouth [College] with the New York Theatre Workshop and my director, Jeff Calhoun (who directed Grease and Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway) to develop Freshman Year Sucks! and Sophomore Slump. The musical Rent underwent this same weeklong workshop. The original plan was to do Frosh and Soph off-Broadway and then a year or so later to do Junior Blues and Senioritis. But the unanimous feedback from the process participants was to present the full quadrilogy: an epic, two-night, solo theatre event. Frosh and Soph one night and Junior and Senior the next. So, Senioritis, originally scheduled for summer 2000, got bumped up in the hopes we can open off-Broadway sometime next spring."
Was it hard to prepare Senioritis right on the heels of Junior Blues? "No, and I should do this more often. The learning curve, coming back ... I mean, I just did a show three months ago, so I remember how to do it better. Whereas if I took a year to do each one, there is kind of re-entry phase, this re-learning curve, that I totally didn't have to do this time. I am so much more on top of this one.
"It's not so much the physicality, not so much getting back into the characters. It's the story; just remembering the process. Remembering all the things that need to get done, remembering how to map out a story. Junior and Senior take a big departure from Freshman and Sophomore as far as how they work the story. They are much more mature. They blow Freshman and Sophomore away -- and I love Freshman and Sophomore, don't get me wrong, those are great -- but these ..." Nash has the knowing look of the craftsman who has come into his own. Rightfully proud, but not boastful, he is an artist at home with his art.
As such, Nash fits into a large contingent of solo performers who have cut their teeth on local stages over recent years, many choosing the Vortex as their Austin home away from home. Some of these artists are taking their words and work across the country: Heather Woodbury, Brently Heilbron, and even Tim Miller come to mind as solo artists whose styles incorporate the voices and bodies of an array of characters, most of them quite normal, but who, in the care of these artists, have something important to say, often something hilarious, even outrageous. But in the end, they remain a part of us, illuminating the human spirit.
"I think Lily Tomlin is the best person to credit as foremother of the kind of work I do," offers Nash as he mulls over his own performance roots. "If you see or read Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, you see a bunch of character monologues bookending a long suite of characters talking to each other in the middle of the play. That's the inspiration for what I do."
And there is the ubiquitous Spalding Gray: "As for Spalding Gray, for my next project I have a few ideas kicking around my brain. One of them is a monologue about my adventures as a PC campus radical 10 years ago while I was still at UT. That was the year that I quit going to AA, I stopped believing in God, I fell in love with the love of my life, went from being a 12-stepper to being a PC radical activist. And that was when Operation Desert Shield began. Building up before it was Desert Storm. And there were all these big queer protests on campus that I was involved in -- there were bomb threats," he laughs. "It was a big tempest in a teapot. In its own little non-tumultuous way. And that's what was so great about it."
Don't be fooled if you think Nash's reverence for Mother Tomlin or Father Gray means he isn't doing anything other than following in their career footsteps. Nash is an artist with a singular voice, an easygoing manner, and an inviting stage presence, with that rare ability to tell a complicated story with prickly simplicity. In his own non-tumultuous way, Nash has his ready-made theatrical tempest: three pals coming of age during four years at that Catholic high school, blissfully unaware that they are taking us along for that wild ride.
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