Who had the most influence on your career in the theatre and how did that influence manifest itself?
The "who" was Esther Mullin, a wonderful actress. She headed the children's theatre program at the Cleveland Play House. This was during a period of Cleveland Play House history that brought significant national attention to it for becoming a professional theatre with a resident company of actors.
Miss Mullin was a no-nonsense straight shooter, who expected our full attention and got it from the get-go. All of us kids were referred to as "Mr." or " Miss" plus our last names. (This continued for all the years I was part of the group, which ended when I was graduated from high school.) She was swiftly and dearly loved by most of us and respected by all but a few of the exceptionally large number in each class. A few left early in the semester, more when going got tough, but at the end of each term the number of students was still large and many stayed with the program until they were finished with high school. This same pattern continued every year I was in the group.
I appeared in many of the plays for children. Within three years after I started the classes I was cast in the only juvenile role in a major production as a member of the company. It was the world premier of an interesting play. I always find it humorous that in my first professional production I played the illegitimate son of the madam of a house of prostitution during of the Civil War. It was a good role. Over the next seven years, while I was a student of Miss Mullin, I was in eleven productions with the professional company, during which time, as a result of my training, I also did numerous radio dramas, on local, regional and national broadcasts, including many leading or featured roles and one nationally syndicated drama series in which I played all the leads.
In short, in my life in the theater, which started with Miss Mullin in 1942 and hasn't ended yet in the year 2016, I have worked in the theatre continually. Throughout my career my experience has been as an actor and concurrently, as a director, an educator, and a playwright. The countless lessons she taught me remain with me. I thanked her before she died, but I think she would be amazed to know she is with me to this day.
A positive change has been the rise and growth of not-for-profit professional regional theaters throughout the country. A notable rise was felt by the late 1950s and a larger growth spurt continued in the 1960s. As a result there are more opportunities for work which can lead to enhanced growth and the honing of skills in the art and craft of theatre. Actors, directors, designers, playwrights and technicians can all benefit. This is true whether they are in the early stages of their careers or seasoned professionals. This growth has resulted in the enriched quality of productions and the further education of audiences. Positive spill-outs have affected many theaters in the country ranging from amateur to commercial theatre, but there is still a ways to go. Is it sustainable?
Another positive change that has extreme importance for the theatre, and our country, is the beginning of full, active inclusion of " the others": women, people of color, of differing religions, ethnicities, sexual preferences, physical handicaps and all the other things that have divided and separated people from each other for far too long. We are finally in the beginning stages of this revolution. We in the theatre have been involved in the early steps and have made notable recent advances. We should now move forward to lead the way. Our efforts will enrich theatre and its audiences. It will put more pressure on the motion picture industry to do the same. It will add to the relevance of theatre for more people. It will help advance the idea of inclusion in our society. If not now, when?
Are there negatives? YES! There is one that heads the list: THE RISE OF BROADWAY TICKET PRICES. This has little to do with normal inflation and a lot to do with greed. It started to occur in the late seventies and picked up speed and strength in the eighties. As people with only business or legal expertise, not theatre trained managers, assumed the management of theaters the goals of running those theaters changed. It led to the business of making of money over the delivery of high quality theatre. It led to the development of a "rich person's theatre". When financial gains became paramount the choices of productions changed. Many people who used to attend the theatre regularly could now only attend occasionally, if at all.
There is much more to say on this topic, including the effects of this trend outside of New York City.
Immediately after I was graduated from high school I prepared to move to New York City to continue my career. I informed Frederick McConnell, the Artistic Director of the Play House. He wished me well and said that he was grateful for my fine work. He then advised me to think about another avenue which he believed could help my acting to a richer degree of quality: college - majoring in theatre with the support of studies outside the major. He reminded me that some of the actors I had been working with had gone to college. He said that with my fine start in the art and craft of acting I was ready to probe deeper and expand my abilities through an understanding of the many things I could learn, not only about theatre, but also about life and the world through history, literature and all of the other studies I might encounter. Among other possibilities, that enrichment would nourish everything I did, including my growth in the theatre. He said it would be very beneficial to my acting abilities.
I responded "I'm afraid my plans are already set. I'm leaving for New York in two weeks." I stood up, shook his hand and thanked him. As I moved towards the door he said, "What if I could get you a scholarship to Carnegie Tech where K., Max and I went?" (K. Elmo Lowe, Max Eisenstat and Frederic McConnell, the triumvirate that led the Play House in it's rise to national prominence.) I told him I was really very grateful and that I'd give it a lot of thought for the future, "Thank you very much. I really do appreciate it, but I need time...a bit of time...to think it over." At this time I could not bring myself to reject his advice. I hoped I would find a way.
Within a few days I received a phone call from Mr. McConnell. He told me he had spoken to the Head of the Theatre Department at Carnegie Tech. He had told him about my acting skills and the kind of experience I'd had at the Play House, as well as on radio dramas and industrial films. Further, he said that he thought it extremely likely that there was a scholarship for me. I fumbled for a response that fully explained my rejection of what I knew was a remarkable offer. I did not want to insult Mr. McConnell for whom I had immense respect. I knew I was fully committed to going to New York City and had saved what I thought would be enough money to get me through what I anticipated would be a short time before I had income from my acting.
I had just reached my 18th birthday and was, by nature, an optimistic person. I also had some latitude, a free place to live in the apartment of my "New York mother" the identical twin sister of my mother. Finally, after what had seemed like an interminably long time, I responded as best I could. I stumbled through a statement declaring my sincere appreciation for his thoughtfulness and his support for my development. Then I left his office.
I spent almost two years in New York. With some swiftness I obtained an excellent film and TV agent, Max Richards. He got me a number of gigs as an actor in filmed national commercials plus two live commercials for national TV. This period also included roles in the March of Time series. These films were short documentaries which were played week after week in movie theaters all over the country, prior to the feature presentation. I was surprised to learn that they used actors not "real people" in some of these films. Max Richards also got me a real featured role in a short film that premiered at Radio City Music Hall. It was a significant step forward. I played the boyfriend of a young woman who was the lead and thread of the story. It followed her through the process of getting her first Broadway role in a production that featured Rex Harrison who was in scenes in the movie, as was Charles Boyer. The director was supposedly a fine movie director, but like other directors I had worked for in films, he gave little attention to being helpful to the actors. (When I went to see the premier I was surprised when I saw a life-sized photo of myself on a large sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of the Music Hall. I stood there for a bit, hoping someone would recognize me, but left because I knew it was silly.) None of these experiences were what I believed had much to do with becoming a better actor in the theatre. More and more I thought about Mr. McConnell's advice about college.
Finally I got a powerhouse of an agent...a THEATRE agent! Her name was Jane Broder. She was K. Elmo Lowe's agent. He had told me to see her. When I went I announced to her secretary that K. Elmo Lowe had sent me. The secretary immediately picked up the phone and whispered to me that Mr. Lowe was just now in her office. She then told Miss Broder that I was there and that Mr. Lowe had recommended me. I was very surprised that K. was in New York. In about fifteen minutes, an eternal length of time I was ushered into Miss Broder's office. She said that she had heard lots of good things about me and that she would get me some readings. About three weeks later I got a call from her. She told me that she had gotten me a contract in a "Subway Circuit" tour of THE WINSLOW BOY with John Loder and Sylvia Sydney. I was stunned by two factors: I didn't have to read for it and, more importantly, that I couldn't take the offer. I had already signed a contract for a summer stock company in Arden, Delaware. Her response was "Break it!" She scolded me after I told her that it violated everything I believed in about the meaning of "commitment". I was even more adamant. She abruptly asked me to leave.
My experiences in New York had already moved me in the right direction, so I was now ready to enhance my abilities as an actor in the way Mr. McConnell had suggested. I was ready to head off to college and I did. I chose Iowa over Carnegie Tech in part because of the extremely good actors with whom I had shared dressing rooms at the Play House who had gone to Iowa and also because the program offered a broader range of courses throughout the liberal arts for further enrichment. Mr. McConnell was happy about my decision. He had been a visiting artist there and had developed close ties with the program and the people there. Waiting to enter Iowa when the next term began, I did two more shows at the Play House. I was happy about the present and looking forward to the future. In retrospect I've always been damned pleased. All my interests continued and expanded. Frederic McConnell knew what he was talking about.
Notable honors with continuing active membership:
* Elected to the National Theatre Conference, The Players Club, 1971.
* Designated for life an American Theatre Fellow in the College of Fellows of the
American Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., 2004.
DAVID FULLER is in his 4th year of service to NTC as Trustee and Treasurer. He is co-founder and Co-Producing Artistic Director, with his wife and partner Judith Jarosz of Theater 2020, the only AEA theater in Brooklyn Heights, NY, founded in 2010. AEA & SAG/AFTRA Actor: 64 plays and musicals on and off Broadway, regionally, London; many TV roles. Producer: 62 plays and musicals produced in NYC plus 22 tours. Director: 36 shows directed in NYC and regionally. Theater 2020 in 2016: acted Fredrik in "A Little Night Music." Former: PAD, Cocteau Rep.; Exec. Dir., Theater Ten Ten. Training: Dartmouth College, (AB,magna cum laude); LAMDA (Diploma, Acting); Brooklyn College (MFA Directing).