Writing

Memories of Summer Stock Theater

Act I:

I loathed musical theater when I was growing up. My first exposure to the genre came during my college years in the late 1980s and early ’90s when I attended SummerStage performances at the Capitol Theatre in my hometown of Rome, New York. The productions featured college students from across the region who were majoring in drama or theater studies, and I remember seeing many shows, including Guys and Dolls and South Pacific.

Capitol Theatre, Rome, New York.

My mother, Carmella, and my stepfather, Bill, would buy me tickets, and in a failed attempt to impress the many young women who attended the performances, I would “dress up” in a black blazer that I had purchased at the Salvation Army store in Rome; yet my appearance and fashion sense drew no positive feedback from the females in the audience.

And while I wanted to go to the Capitol shows because they were summer social events, I was afraid that if I actually liked them, and expressed this appreciation, I would get laughed at or be regarded as effeminate by my friends in our sports-obsessed city.

Once the lights went down and the curtain opened for a show, I would snicker when the actors would break into song in the middle of a conversation. I wanted to stand up and scream, “This is absurd. Why am I the only one laughing here?”

Capitol Theatre Interior.

Live musical theater seemed even more preposterous than its cinematic equivalent, which I had been introduced to as a kid while watching my mother’s obsession—the 1965 film The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. And just like with TSOM, I could not suspend my disbelief and accept the characters speaking dialogue one moment and singing the next. Yet I seemed to be the only one dismayed by the experience because the packed houses at the Capitol responded to the final scenes with thunderous applause and standing ovations for the performers.

The Sound of Music.

As we would leave the theater, Mom or Bill would often ask me what I thought about the production. I would say something like, “I thought it was stupid. I just hate how they just start singing.” And my mother would shake her head and say, “Oh you never like anything. I don’t know why we even bother to bring you.”

What I didn’t share with my mom is that at the time, seeing the musicals on the Capitol stage tapped into the dark experience of my maturation from a boy to a man.

I had been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor when I was fifteen. In 1984 neurosurgeons performed a craniotomy to remove the tumor and then swept up the remnants in a follow-up surgery in 1988, after my freshman year at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. Endocrinologists also treated me for panhypopituitarism, as I lacked all of the hormones the pituitary gland normally produces. I was prescribed synthetic human growth hormone and testosterone shots during this period.

So even though I was in college when I attended the SummerStage performances, I still looked like a fourteen-year-old boy who had not passed through puberty. Lacking secondary male characteristics like facial hair, an enlarged Adam’s apple, and a deeper voice, I was sometimes mistaken for a girl, both in person and when talking with strangers or customer service professionals over the phone.

The women at my college were not interested in me romantically, and my low self-esteem grew into rabid self-hatred. I despised my youthful appearance and feminine features, and I became angry over my body’s inability to “catch up” to my chronological age.

So when I went to the theater with Mom and Bill, I resented the easy solutions to problems as presented by the actors. For example, a couple would be on stage bathed in bright amber or violet lights, and they would converse about some family dilemma or obstacle to their romance. Circumstances would appear bleak; and then they would start singing and dancing, and their fate would change and their drama would be resolved.

I couldn’t accept this. Life wasn’t like that. I could not alter my situation or “become normal” through song and dance. My problems stayed with me after I walked out of the theater. And so I hated musicals because they represented an unrealistic portrait of the world.

Of course I was only seeing things through the narrow prism of my personal experience. I wasn’t able to look out, beyond myself, in order to enjoy the artistry of the action on stage.

Act II:

Years later I underwent a reversal and evolved to love musicals, especially the films featuring Judy Garland, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Kelly. My all-time favorites are The Wizard of Oz (a given), Young at Heart, and Singin’ in the Rain.

I also attended many live musical theater performances. So what changed? How did I come to appreciate the genre I had hated so much in my youth? For one thing I grew up and matured.

But I also had a more practical reason for liking musicals. I began working at Syracuse University in 2007 and from time to time would receive staff discounts for tickets to performances at Syracuse Stage, Central New York’s professional theater. I took advantage of the deals and soon attended many of the plays produced by Syracuse Stage, including the musicals Fiddler on the Roof, Little Women, Godspell, Oklahoma!, and Rent.

Syracuse Stage Exterior. Photo by Steve Sartori.

I would buy a single ticket, usually close to the stage, orchestra left or right (one of the cheapest seats in the house). And because I paid for the tickets, I convinced myself I would enjoy the shows no matter what, so I wouldn’t feel like I had wasted my money.

Also, even though I was single at the time I started going to the shows, I tried not to focus my thoughts on my bachelor status or become discouraged because I never brought a date with me to the theater (although sometimes I couldn’t help being envious of couples holding hands as the house lights dimmed).

Instead, I turned my attention to the action in front of me. Unlike when I watched the SummerStage shows in Rome, I was able to get out of my head, to look outward instead of inward.

I also surrendered my desire for logic in the plot lines of the plays. In 2008 I began dating my future wife, Pam, a theater actress from the Philippines, and she helped me to suspend my disbelief. She told me, “Just enjoy it. Let yourself go and don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense.”

And in watching a number of musicals unfold before me, I no longer expected a realistic interpretation of the world; it didn’t bother me anymore that the actors behaved irrationally.

I simply allowed the experience to wash over me and marveled at the production values and collaboration involved in bringing the action to life on stage.

I also viewed the plays with a more critical eye and appreciated how musicals combine elements of multiple disciplines. They encompass the verbal, as represented by the words in the script; the visual through the costumes, lighting, and set design; dance and movement through the choreography; and the aural through the music and sound effects. Musical theater appeals to all senses, even including smell when smoke is used in scenes.

And I discovered what my mother had understood years earlier when watching The Sound of Music—that musicals offer escapist entertainment as the viewer lives vicariously through the characters, relating to their struggles.

I remember rooting for the character of Jo March in Syracuse Stage’s 2009 production of Little Women, hoping she would hold on to her independence as she strove to find her way in the world.

I remember being captivated by the song “Astonishing” and its soaring lyrics: “I may be small, but I’ve got giant plans to shine as brightly as the sun … I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace.”

And sitting up close for the performances I saw how hard the actors worked—the sweat pouring off their faces and brows and soaking their costumes as they belted out the songs and danced breathlessly on stage. In the dusty glow of the stage lights I also noticed the smiles on their faces and a flicker of light in their eyes. It was clear they loved what they were doing; and that joy translated to the audience.

I remember seeing Hairspray with Pam at Syracuse Stage in December 2014, sitting in row B, left orchestra. And during one of the songs—either “Good Morning Baltimore” or “You Can’t Stop the Beat”—I turned my head around in the same way Audrey Tautou’s character did when she visited the movie theater in the French film Amelie. In the darkness I scanned the crowd seated behind me, gazing at the mixed audience comprised of older couples, young professionals, and college students. And their smiling faces matched the expressions of the actors on stage; the emotional connection was palpable.

Hairspray Scene. Photo by Michael Davis.

And I joined in on the fun. I turned my head around and nodded my head and tapped my foot as I listened to the music and let the show carry me away. I also thought that if my mother were still alive, she would have loved the performance too.

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Vincent in the Waiting Room

While waiting for an MRI on my left wrist at Upstate University Hospital, as a follow up for my rheumatoid arthritis, I spotted a cheap Van Gogh print hanging on a wall directly opposite from me. The image displayed was Vincent’s Irises (1889), and the text read:

Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 1986-March 22, 1987

Inside the small waiting room, on a wall-mounted TV set, local broadcasters recited the morning headlines and a meteorologist gave the weekend forecast. I paid little attention, instead choosing to focus my eyes on the Van Gogh painting. From far across the room, and taking my weak eyesight into consideration, the slanted vertical green leaves looked like snakes writhing in the dirt; even so, the longer I stared at the image, the calmer I felt. The one word that came to my mind was placid.

Van Gogh print hanging on a waiting room wall.

I don’t meditate, but I have discovered that good art, like classical music, has a way of centering my thoughts and ushering a sense of peace in difficult and stressful situations. And even a minor MRI can start the brain working on all of the “what if,” worst-case scenarios. So I was thankful that Vincent spent a little time with me in the hospital waiting room before my procedure.

Here’s a better image of the painting.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

And after I left the hospital, inspired by Vincent, I captured my own “still life” image.

Flowers/Flora outside of Upstate.
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Stumbling Upon Sylvia

While perusing for books in the library, I spotted a large volume entitled The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. In the few moments I took to scan the 700-plus-page book, I felt like I peered into the troubled soul of the confessional poet and author of the novel The Bell Jar. Plath struggled with depression much of her life and committed suicide in 1963.

The intensity of the language in one of the passages from a section dated 22 November 1955 – 18 April 1956 captivated me, and I thought if you rearranged the sentences in verse form, they would construct a splendid poem. I had no sense of context from where Plath’s agitated emotions sprang, and standing in the library stacks, I felt a great sense of loss about Plath’s life and sadness that she took her unique voice with her to the grave.

Here’s an image of the passage I read:

Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

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Kiddie Party Planning

I recently spotted this scrap of legal pad paper on the ground in the parking lot of a medical complex in Liverpool.

Party planning list.

When I picked it up, I read a list of items needed for a kids’ party. Some of things jotted down included: hot dogs, water, sunscreen, juice box, ice cooler and plastic spoons and forks. There was also a reference to yard games, e.g. potato sack races.

On the flip side of the paper were the following notes: “order sheet pizza, order cup cake cake. Emoji. Approx 15 kids. Adults?”

Party planning list (flip side).

I love stumbling upon these little notes because I feel like I get a glimpse into the person making up the list. Also, I know that if I were planning a party for 15 kids, I would do the exact same thing—make up a detailed “To Do” list. I was curious, however, about the absence of a “bouncy house” on the list.

Writing

Litany of Beauty

Today I roamed through Bird Library at Syracuse University while searching for some summer reading. I took home five books, including Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Bag of Bones by Stephen King. And as I am wont to do, I pulled a book off a shelf at random, flipped it open to the middle and began reading the first text I saw.

The 1916 Poets, edited by Desmond Ryan.

The book had a light green cover with the title The 1916 Poets (edited by Desmond Ryan). It contains a selection of poems from Irish authors. My eyes settled on the poem “Litany of Beauty” by Thomas MacDonagh, and I found the words inspiring, particularly the lines:

Beauty of dawn and dew,
Beauty of morning peace
Ever ancient and ever new,
Ever renewed till waking cease …

Ryan, Desmond (Edited By). The 1916 Poets. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 1979, c1963.

And here’s a bad iPhone photo of a portion of the poem.

Litany of Beauty by Thomas MacDonagh.
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A Slim Volume of Verse by D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

I recently stumbled upon a short collection of poems by D.H. Lawrence when I went to Syracuse University’s Bird Library to borrow his famous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Amid the works penned by Lawrence, I found the slim volume of verse and pulled it off the shelf.

I thought the worn book might disintegrate as I held it in my hands and turned the pages, and with an original copyright of 1918, its title amused me: New Poems by D.H. Lawrence. The last stamp on the checkout slip is dated December of 1999, so it appears no one else has picked up the book in nearly 20 years.

Lawrence’s poems display sophisticated language with an “Old English” quality to them, and as I read the book, I had to stop several times to write down words that I would later look up on Dictionary.com. Many of the poems were short and possessed a timelessness, as they focused on nature and emotions, which cannot be bracketed by date or era.

Here are a few selections I liked:

Gipsy

I, the man with the red scarf,
Will give thee what I have, this last week’s earnings.
Take them, and buy thee a silver ring
And wed me, to ease my yearnings.

For the rest, when thou art wedded
I’ll wet my brow for thee
With sweat, I’ll enter a house for thy sake,
Thou shalt shut doors on me.

Piano

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

D.H. Lawrence

These final two poems are ideal for summer reading, and I needed to look up the definitions of the two “p” words that stand out in the verses—primula and palimpsest. According to Dictionary.com, primula is a primrose, while palimpsest is a noun, meaning “a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.” The reference to twilight as a palimpsest suggests night overtaking day.

New Poems by D.H. Lawrence

Coming Awake

WHEN I woke, the lake-lights were quivering on the wall,
The sunshine swam in a shoal across and across,
And a hairy, big bee hung over the primulas
In the window, his body black fur, and the sound of him cross.

There was something I ought to remember: and yet
I did not remember. Why should I? The running lights
And the airy primulas, oblivious
Of the impending bee—they were fair enough sights.

Palimpsest of Twilight

Darkness comes out of the earth
And swallows dip into the pallor of the west;
From the hay comes the clamour of children’s mirth;
Wanes the old palimpsest.

The night-stock oozes scent,
And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:
All that the worldly day has meant
Wastes like a lie.

The children have forsaken their play;
A single star in a veil of light
Glimmers: litter of day
Is gone from sight.

Lawrence, D.H. (David Herbert), New Poems. London: Martin Seeker, 1918.

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Black Trees: A Poem

One of my poems, Black Trees, was recently published in Issue #5, The Poetry Issue, of Spirit’s Tincture, a literary magazine that publishes speculative fiction and poetry. Here it is:

Trees in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Black Trees

The limbs of the black trees
cradle the roadkill porcupine
splattered against the asphalt.
The leaves of the black trees
whisper to the deceased animal,
telling it: “With the spring rain
your bones, blood, and quills
will flush into the soil
and fertilize our roots.
Your death sustains our life.”
But the porcupine
is long gone from this earth,
snuffed out by a texter or tweeter who
failed to notice it crossing the street.
And the black trees stand erect
as a storm roils in the distant.
They remain impassive,
aware the forces of nature
could target them next—
uprooting their trunks,
shearing their branches.
And the black trees know
they could soon occupy
the same ground
the dead porcupine rests upon.

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A Poem for the Preakness

Pimlico Race Course

In celebration of Saturday’s 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, I thought I would offer a horse racing-themed poem inspired by Charles Bukowski and his penchant for betting on the ponies.

Charles Bukowski

Hanging with Bukowski

I wish I could spend an afternoon
with Charles Bukowski—
drive out to Santa Anita,
watch the horses parade in the paddock,
then head up to the grandstand and
compare theories about breeding,
jockeys, trainers, and finishing times.
But I know he wouldn’t share
any betting tips with me.
I’d ask him: “Hey, who do you like in the fourth race?”
And I can hear him say,
“Screw you man, figure it out for yourself.
I don’t have the answers for you.”

But maybe if I hung around long enough—
if I bought him a hot dog
and a few draft beers,
his tongue would loosen
and his disposition turn.
He’d let me stick around,
and I’d get to see him composing a poem,
scribbling notes in the margins
of the Daily Racing Form,
flashes of images preserved,
like the glistening muscles of the horses,
or the curves of a tan woman
wearing an orange sundress
and standing along the rail.

Maybe after the last race
we’d go out to a bar
and have a couple of drinks,
maybe meet some women
and take them back to his place.
He’d fry some eggs or make sandwiches,
and we’d drink some more,
while listening to
Mozart or Beethoven on the radio.
This is how I imagine
I would spend the day with Bukowski.

Charles Bukowski

But since the social interaction is not possible,
I will seek out Bukowski
in the pages of his books.
There I will discover the writer
who rises above the legend.
The odd jobs and shabby apartments,
the drinking, gambling, profanity, and women—
they entice readers, draw them in
like a trailer for a summer blockbuster.
But once there, you’re hooked by the stories,
the prose and poetry of a man who
sacrificed everything to express his art.

And what he had inside
is now stored for us to review,
volumes upon volumes
in any public library.
I will keep reading,
cracking open Bukowski books,
and saying “hello” to my friend.
And maybe I’ll spot his ghost
the next time I go to the track.
I may even place an exacta bet on his behalf.
But he would probably complain
about the horses I’d pick.
“Jesus, you wasted six bucks on those nags,”
he would say.
“You don’t know your ass
from a hole in the ground.
Next time don’t do me any favors.
Stay home if you’re gonna blow money like that.”

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

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A Random Act of Kindness

When I headed to my office Thursday morning to go to work, I noticed several small envelopes scattered throughout the Food.com cafeteria area inside the Newhouse Three building. All of the cards read something like, “Open Me! A letter for you.”

No one was around and so I decided to open one. I found a card inside that had a gold design with word “Wassssssup?” written on the front. Inside, this greeting appeared, written with a blue marker:

“never
give up, there
is no such thing
as an ending
just a new
beginning.

Keep smiling!”

A small slip of paper tucked inside the card listed the social media accounts of Campus Cursive at Syracuse University, the SU branch of the national More Love Letters program, “lifting and empowering individuals through tangible acts of love.”

Here is more information about More Love Letters.

The idea of anonymous letters given to strangers is so appealing to me. Someone I’ve never met actually took the time to purchase a card, write a warm greeting, stuff the card in the envelope and then place it in a location where it would be discovered.

I loved the feel of the heavy paper and the handwritten words on the page, and this random, tangible act of kindness is so much more meaningful than a Facebook “like” or a text message. It demonstrates the positive impact of real human connection, and I am happy to know that a bunch of merry well-wishers are spreading joy and love in the universe. No doubt our world needs it!

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Diagnosis: An Essay

I just wanted to share that I have a short patient essay published on the website of The Pituitary Foundation. It’s part of a coming-of-age memoir in progress. You can read the piece here. Thanks for taking a look. I am still working to shape the messy memoir into a very bad first draft.