If not, why then this parting was well made.”
Julius Caesar – Act V Scene 1
Anthony Ridley sat alone in the men’s dressing room. Outside in the green room, an ensemble of 19 to 22 year-old college kids were cacophonous. The man, working among children, went about applying his makeup and his line recitals undisturbed for a few moments. As soon as the other actors made their way into the dressing room, with some like me late for their call, the chatter began, and it became unbearable for him. Here was an equity actor providing a living example of how to be a professional of the craft, and here was my 19 year-old self acting like a futureless hack. I remembered thinking, when Anthony accepted the role of Shylock in Merchant of Venice, how much fun it was going to be to work with him in this setting. I had assumed we would smoke cigarettes, and he would regale us with stories from his days in NYC. Like most things I discovered in the early years of adulthood, being a pro was not something one could simply turn on and off as one pleased. Effort, dedication, and focus were three facets of the craft that were necessary to succeed, and I was void of all three. Anthony, whom I generally enjoyed as my Theater Arts teacher, became the bane of my existence during the run of this show. He barked at me and the others who he perceived to be taking the production less than seriously. He would storm out of the dressing room and recite his lines outside, as I thought to myself how little fun he must be having. It turned out that his performance was extraordinary, and mine was monochromatic, at best. In this show, he was a beautiful master on the stage, and I was a punk.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had played the role of Gratiano with an obvious Texas accent. The accent I came to college with, and by year two as a theater major should have been able to mask it for the stage. I didn’t have a clue how I had sounded. Anthony did, but he didn’t say anything to me, at least not during the run. During the courtroom scene, in the final act of the play, there is a wonderful exchange between Gratiano and Shylock. Gratiano screams at Shylock at one point “Can no prayer’s pierce thee?” and Shylock responds with disdain and dismissal “No, none that thou hast wit enough to make.” I had delivered my line like a spoiled child, and he had orated his like a master tactician. I am sure that my sophomoric humor and disregard for other actors’ needs, while in the dressing room, gave Anthony all the subtext he needed to break down my character, both onstage and in real life.
He was so good in the role, I remember losing my willing suspension of disbelief (almost every night). I thought, no way any of us could have convinced a judge that this guy was actually the one who welched on the bet. I think Anthony’s version of Shylock would have known this was an inside job, and he would have taken that giant knife right to Portia before sticking it to Antonio. But, he was a pro. He never pulled me aside to shred me as my teacher. When he said anything to any of us, it was as a fellow actor trying to ply his trade in a sea of immaturity. No, he was not pedantic, he was simply better. A good actor, at least an observant one, would have taken his behavior as an example. A punk like me took it as pomp, and dismissed him as I dismissed anything that railed against my tendencies toward chaos.
A few months later, after a fellow student had told me that she loved my choice to play Gratiano as a redneck, YIKES! I was working on a monologue with Anthony. I asked him about my accent, and without hesitation, he pulled a a ballpoint pen from his pocket and said, “what’s this.?” I said, “a pee-un” He said, “No, what is this?” Again I said, with gusto this time, “A PEE-UN” He smiled, handed it to me, and said “it’s a pen, you are saying PEE-UN.” I was stunned, embarrassed, and wanted to run out of the drama building. He gave me a list of words and sentences, and told me to go home that night and repeat them over and over into a tape recorder. He suggested I play the recordings back, listen to myself, then repeat the exercise until I was able to pronounce the words with a neutral American accent. It took me about five hours of punishing work, in front of my mirror. I kept hearing Anthony’s voice, “Pen, it’s a Pen.” It has been “pen” since that night.
I hated working with masks. I was too dense to grasp that working with a mask would help me to engage my body, and to communicate in a more convincing way onstage. I preferred to play ultimate frisbee, and chase girls who never had any intention of anything more than friendship. The mask workshop was scheduled for 9am on a Saturday. I was hungover. I never showed. After class, on the Monday after the mask workshop, Anthony called me in his office, and asked why I had missed the mask workshop. I told him matter-of-factly that I didn’t want to come. The man lost it. “What the fuck do you mean you didn’t want to! You didn’t want to? This is your fucking major! You don’t get to decide what components you want and don’t want to accept. Theater is a collaboration, fuck! You should know that by now. You let everyone down when you just “don’t want to”
Rather than accepting his dressing me down, and apologize. I didn’t show any remorse for my actions. It was near the end of the semester, and I strolled into Carpenter Hall and promptly changed my major. “No one was going to fucking yell at me.” I was so abjectly immature that I could not even begin to see that Anthony’s frustration was meant to slap me into reality. Running away was always so easy for me, and I sprinted over to that damned ugly building with “I’ll fucking show you” all over my face. I was going to be the best damned Politics Major that ever quit the Drama department!
Fast forward to next semester, and I had rushed through my first essay for the Aristotle’s Politics class. Leo Paul DeAlvarez was not the kind of professor for whom one could rush an essay. I sat solemnly staring at the chalkboard when, without a word, he sat the D- paper down on my desk. Among the gyroscope of red lines criss-crossing every paragraph, I was able to make out 1 comment, very clearly. “This is perhaps the worst sentence I have ever encountered.” As I ran to Carpenter Hall, at a humiliating pace, I knew I had fucked up. I knew I WAS fucked up. I ended up dropping every class that semester. I earned 0 credits, had no credibility, burned 10 grand in loans, and was just about to walk away. I sat drinking Budweiser and smoking menthol cigarettes on the porch of my student apartment, while everyone else was taking finals. I pondered how the hell I had gotten there and what was I going to do. My options were limited, but one thing was certain. I needed to see someone before I left.
I found Anthony in the theater. He didn’t seem surprised to see me. He didn’t have a hint of ego, anger, or dismissal in his voice. We talked only briefly. I asked him, quite sheepishly and almost in tears, if I could come back to the drama department. He said yes. He issued no terms, no caveats, and not even a wry smile. He knew that the department was likely my only means to a degree. He absolutely knew if I was going to make it, I had to come back. For the first time in my life, and certainly at UD, it had occurred to me that I was being given a benevolent opportunity. I had one foot and a 1978 Olds Cutlass headed out the door, and Anthony Ridley steered me back. I was not going to fuck it up this time. I assumed Anthony would be my advisor going forward. PK returned the following semester, and Anthony was out.
I only saw Anthony one other time in this life. It was backstage at Shakespeare of Dallas. I went to congratulate him after a performance. He played a small role, one well below his talent and his status. He was brilliant. I awaited him backstage with a reverance typically reserved for clergy. I had been to Rome since our last meeting. I had even earned a high GPA that spring, just prior to seeing him in that show. We talked only briefly, as there were many waiting to speak to him. I told him of my turnaround. I thanked him, but not nearly enough. He not only had allowed me to salvage my college career, he had made me a better person. Like many of my classmates, I still tell his stories. I still see his face when I recount the many encounters we had as a drama student and an exceptional professor. Who among you doesn’t remember the tale of the old couple on the front row, at the Sunday matinee? Who hasn’t shared a smoke and listened to Anthony espouse the beauty of a glass of sherry?
I always imagined I would see him again, perhaps on one of these trips of mine. I assumed we would have dinner and talk about the world, as professionals. I like the sound of that word. I believe he knew I did, because he was the one that taught me how to pronounce it.
God speed Anthony Ridley.