Nostalgia is like a Mirror of Broken Colored Glass

This summer, I published through Amazon my short book on my teaching experience (Strippers, Guns, and The Holocaust Museum) and it felt good to revisit those days as I wrote and thought about what to include and reminesced about days gone by.  

A large part of my teaching career took place at District One Middle School (later named for the late Thurgood Marshall.)  I was a completely different human being back then. The reflection is in some ways colored by hindsight and bolstered by nostalgia.

The best days happened even before there were students in the building.  Five of us were hired and tasked to take an abandoned Catholic High School in Albany Park and convert it to a Middle School in one summer.  CPS had purchased the building and it was pretty much empty so we would converge in the small auditorium on the first floor and plan each day's labor - constructing desks, putting up white boards and filling shelves with brand new textbooks. We would take the afternoon's and plan curriculum for the Middle School aesthetic.  

I was 25 years old.  I was engaged that summer but not yet married to my first ex-wife.  I'd been in Chicago for just shy of two years.  I had started taking classes at The Second City Training Center (back when there were only five levels and no other classes available.)  I spent my evenings playing jazz on the South Side or improvising terrible scenes in the back of a bar.  I drank a lot but not as much as I had in college.

Last week,  it was announced that Thurgood Marshall Middle School was officially being shut down due to lack of enrollment.  I wasn't (and am not) sad about this - the building, the teachers I worked with, the students - are all a part of my past but it has made me reflect just a bit more on who I was before I was me.

If you count 16 windows on the top floor from L to R, the 16th window is the legendary HOT ROOM in the book.

If you count 16 windows on the top floor from L to R, the 16th window is the legendary HOT ROOM in the book.

One of the nicest things, after hearing the news, was the online outpouring of nostalgia from the former students (all now grown up with kids and problems of their own.)  Some of these former students are FB friends of mine.

In addition to this bizarre but warm trip down the Lane Named Memory, Greg Allen decided to take back his show "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" from the company he founded after 28 years.

Amidst all the histrionics and name calling and "Fuck Greg Allen" memes online (even the most 'hippie' of our arts community can't help but pile on in the mob shaming thing like a pack of rabid lap dogs looking for validation via shitmouthing someone else), Dave Awl wrote a FB post that struck me in a similar vein as the closing of the school I helped open a quarter of a century ago.

[Excerpted from Dave Awl's Facebook post]

From the beginning, there was always a gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Like a lot of revolutionaries, Greg Allen had the ideals of an egalitarian, but the controlling impulses of an autocrat.

He ushered us all into the company by telling us that it was a democratic structure and we all had an equal voice and an equal vote. But what he really wanted was for us to have a boisterous discussion — and then vote to ratify whatever it was Greg wanted us to do, by universal acclaim. Greg liked fighting but what he really liked was winning.

In practice, this quickly devolved into a situation of "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." If we held a vote and he didn't like the results, he'd keep the group arguing all night long until he got his way. 

And in those early days of The Neo-Futurists, we had no choice but to put up with it, because we knew Greg was holding all the aces legally speaking. Anyone else had to give up if they were outvoted, but not Greg. In the aftermath of the breakup with Stage Left theater, Greg had nailed down the intellectual property rights and trademarks for the show, all in his name. And that gave him legal ownership, which translated into ultimate veto power over every decision. 

We had a lot of arguments, especially when it came time to publish our first book of scripts from Too Much Light, over Greg's relationship to the show. I remember the argument about the book going on for hours and hours. Greg seemed to feel that his relationship to the show was like that of a playwright, and his name alone should go on the cover of the book. The ensemble disagreed. I felt, and still feel, that Greg was the creator, and that was noteworthy — but that we were *all* the playwright. All of us together.

The elements of the show Greg created were important, but they weren't what made the show a hit all by themselves. What brought it to life week after week was the talent of the people the show attracted, and what distinguished it was the quality of the ensemble that coalesced to carry it forward. Greg needed a stable of talented writers to make the show successful, and we all poured our life into it every week. Too Much Light has always been precisely as good as the people who are performing it on any given day.

As for Greg's veto power: He didn't use it in every argument, but then again he didn't have to. The knowledge that the weapon existed meant that it didn't have to be used. It just made Greg's voice louder and carry more weight than anyone else's in our supposedly democratic discussions.

Over time this caused a lot of disillusionment and hard feelings. A lot of ensemble members left the company over the years because they simply couldn't deal with the difficulties of working with Greg. As well as the feeling of putting years of our blood and sweat and sheer life force into something that ultimately he owned and we didn't.

"the ideals of an egalitarian, but the controlling impulses of an autocrat."

I have no dog in this fight between Greg and the long history of the company he founded but this post caused me to contemplate who I was way back when.  Like Greg, I started a theater company with friends.  Like Greg, I had the ideals of ensemble and consensus but the controlling impulses of tyrant.  Unlike Greg, I wasn't (and am not) an artistic genius.

I made a lot of mistakes.  I alienated a lot of people in my quest for art.  I was a real pain in the ass.  I had little control of a legendary temper and almost no filter on my Big Mouth.  Dave's writing suddenly brought forth the ghosts of arguments that lasted for days over things I can, in hindsight, recognize as wholly unimportant now but seemed life and death back then.

I lost good friends over these struggles.  My horse-blinder devotion to theater sabotaged my first marriage (there were other, more monumental issues at play but my focus was on the ensemble and the shows rather than my home life and the toll was taken.)  I was 25 years old.  I was 29 years old.  I was 32 years old.  All lifetimes ago.

Once there was a time when our nostalgia was strictly ours.  The vast tapestry of the internet, however, has changed that and while it feels claustrophobic in the present, it also forces our hindsight narratives to be more honest and inclusive.  I'm certain, like the online posts of former students waxing over the closing of a school and a teacher important to them, if there were a moment that allowed for people I worked with in the 90's to weigh in on who I was, there would be some positive memories but also some pretty damning ones as well.

I can't say I necessarily regret the choices I made - unless I could see into the future at how my interactions with both students and artistic colleagues could possibly manifest, second guessing myself is a waste of my time.  The beauty of hindsight, however, is that I have templates of behavior I can choose to emulate or reject based on who I was and who I am today.  Call it evolution, growing up, or just getting too tired to keep repeating patterns, it hold with it a sense of progress.

Just lately, after five years of telling true stories onstage with the realization that everyone's stories are at least part bullshit, I'm deciding to preface every story I tell with the percentage of Truth I estimate it contains.  I'm pretty certain that no stories told by anyone contain much more than 90% Truth, so at least I'm being transparent, right?