In the summer of 1963, I was 7 years old and demon-haunted; suffering occasional petit mal seizures and throwing temper tantrums to rival a tropical depression, but not able to tell you why. My overwhelmed mother signed me up for the new Ft. Lauderdale Children's Theatre (FLCT) under the tutelage of a recent graduate from Barry College, 24 yr old Miss Nancy Yohe.
I attended her drama school in a renovated garage behind a Winn Dixie grocery store, where we sat in neat rows of folding chairs and learned the art of becoming human.
We practiced saying "Hello" and shaking hands. We practiced stepping onto the stage, reciting poems, stepping to the side and taking a formal little bow. We expressed ourselves loud and soft and in-between, with big faces, big gestures, and feigned confidence.
More than any other teacher, Miss Yohe taught me to pay attention. To listen. And to read. Not because I was being graded or tested, but because I wanted to learn my poem, or learn my lines. She trained me in the skill of knowing something.
My demons never died, but they were yoked and harnessed to a higher power: Art.
I was her student for 12 years. She was the one constant in all those childhood years of schooling.
I rose up through the ranks, truly. My first appearance on the stage was as a soldier in Aladdin. I would graduate to the role of a guard, then a spear-carrier, and one day, a prince!
In the rarefied world of our Children's Theatre school, there were "no small parts, only small actors." Moreover, every production, every endeavor, was likened to a finely crafted quilt: if even one small patch of fabric was missing or torn, the entire quilt was ruined.
Leading players were expected to be true leaders. To be quick to lend a hand and offer encouragement. To appreciate everyone and to lead by example offstage as well as on.
Everyone was respected. Everyone was valued.
One of my proudest moments came during my tenure as a spear-carrier. I was literally carrying my spear across the room on a busy Saturday rehearsal when the theatre was filled with cast and crew and volunteering parents. Miss Yohe called the rehearsal to a halt and brought everyone's attention to me. She asked them to notice how I was carrying my spear (straight up and down, not pointed forward or back) noting that I was handling my "prop" safely and conscientiously and that they should all follow my example. I was transported!
She was spell-binding. She could command the respect and attention of 50 unruly children aged 5 to 15. And she could entertain everyone of us. But woe unto you if you should be having a side-conversation while she was delivering notes. Her gaze, her amaze, could conjure chagrin from the most jaded and cynical adolescent.
I continued on the trajectory launched from FLCT: working with children, telling stories, writing, speaking, teaching, and making art. Alas, too often has the real world of theatre, and the entertainment industry in general, failed to meet the high standards we were held to. Too often have the prima donnas been rewarded, the modest disrespected, the earnest over-looked. Too often I felt like Diogenes, wandering with lamp held high to find the ideal theatre I was raised to expect. Here and there, brief companies of like-hearted artists came together and for a moment the old flame was rekindled.
I now know that such ideals are unrealistic in the high-diddlee-dee actor's life for me. But that's not to say they are not important - indeed essential. Nancy Yohe conjured an ideal form, for us to grasp though it be beyond our reach. For what's a heaven for?
She gave us a star to steer by and her light shines before us still.
Thank you Miss Yohe.