The Tin Whistle

counterculture history and conspiracy theory

A Bitter End to the Sixties

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I attended college for free in San Francisco in the early 1970s, enrolling in San Francisco City College and studying theater and journalism. After I got kicked off that student newspaper, however, I got heavily into creative writing and became a huge fan of Anton Chekhov, although I was also influenced by current trends in theater, especially the work of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee.

Soon, I transferred to the University of Illinois theater department and became a budding playwright, although I only ended up writing one play. My instructor, Kenneth McLean, was so impressed that he staged this one act play, assigning Randi Collins to direct. I remember my first meeting with Randi. She was a talented director but couldn’t make sense out of my play the first time she read it, as she had no experience with blue collar life. I guess it seemed like meaningless dialogue going nowhere, but after I helped Randi select a cast (we were lucky to get some of the best actors in the department), I gave Randy some notes regarding the subtext behind many of the lines. I remember telling Ken Benda, who was playing the lead character, Lonnie, to talk fast, and John Hickey, who was playing Gerald, to talk slow. The dynamics between these two provided most of the comedy in the opening minutes of the play. Soon, however, the darkness of a world with no future emerged and Randi began to sense the futility the play was attempting to capture.

The photo above shows John Dunn, who went on to have a successful theater career in New York, Ken Benda, and Lorry Robin, during an early rehearsal.

Much to my surprise, Ken McLean submitted the script to the American College Theatre Festival and it was accepted, so we all got to travel up to Milwaukee for another performance. It was supposed to be a reading, but we put on a fairly polished production. I remember how stunned that audience was after the play. Several other playwrights congratulated me and let me know my work showed tremendous promise, although the moderator of the discussion group afterwards felt it was just a fragment and not a fully realized play, which provoked a huge disagreement from some of the audience.

After the performance, we all went back to the dorm where we were staying and I told some ghost stories to the cast. Randi, my director, got so scared she had to leave the room and was scared to be alone with me for the rest of the trip. That’s when I discovered I had a flair for scaring the shit out of people.

I never wrote another play, though, as I seemed to get it all out of my system with just this one. But when I went back to take a look at the script recently, I was amazed at how well it holds up. In the mid-1970s, a lot of young people were graduating high school or even college without much of an idea of what to do next. Most of the jobs that were available to us were very boring factory jobs, most of which have been moved overseas today, so the situation for the current generation is even more bleak. Meanwhile, the sixties counterculture revolution seemed pretty much over by 1975, having been completely co-opted by the mainstream. There just didn’t seem to be any future for many young people, a situation that seems to be repeating itself with this generation, which is why I think theater students today might enjoy staging this script again. I’d certainly love to see another performance someday, which is why I put the script on for free.

If you’re a theater student, I hope you check it out. Just follow the links at the top-right to navigate to my eBook site.

Written by Steven Hager

November 6, 2012 at 8:37 am

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