Watching the Oscars, and remembering my ill-fated college acting debut

The Academy Award nominations go only to those who have developed the nearly impossible skill for concentration and immersion in an alternate reality, even as the real world is everywhere they look.

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Preparations for the 94th Oscars red carpet arrivals area continue along Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on March 24, 2022.

Preparations for the 94th Oscars red carpet arrivals area along Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on Mar. 24.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Count me among the nearly 10 million viewers who will watch the Academy Awards on Sunday.

Not just because I look forward to the daring comedy of this year’s host Amy Schumer. Or because I’m gaga over the fashion and celebrity of Hollywood’s beautiful people.

I will watch because of the awe and deep admiration I have for the work that professional actors do, an appreciation gained from … humiliation.

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That’s because in the late 1960s, I had my own moment on stage and under the lights while working my way through college on Chicago’s South Side.

Mind you, I had no aspirations for theater or the cinema. I was majoring in English at Chicago State University because I was partly interested in writing, partly interested in teaching and mainly interested in maintaining my 2-S exemption from the military draft.

One of the classes filling out my 12-credit hour schedule in the winter term was a 300-level course in drama with Dr. Klein. It was a seminar in literature, not acting, in which we studied classic works by playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill, among others.

The readings were long, the class hard, and much of what Dr. Klein would say in his lectures went right over my head.

I was 19 at the time, but had a set of fake IDs for hanging out and my first real girlfriend. My attention in class waned, and I started cutting sessions once and even twice a week.

After two absences, when I decided I’d better make an appearance, Dr. Klein took special note of my presence, smiling and eyeballing me at the start of the hour.

“Mr. McGrath,” he said. “So nice to see you again.”

Several students turned around, and I’m sure I blushed, knowing I was on the hot seat.

Professor Klein then asked if I’d be willing to help out with the play the school was producing, since one of the minor performers in his theater production of Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno” had broken his arm.

Something in the tone of his voice told me I’d better say yes in order to pass drama, and I started attending after-school rehearsals that afternoon. I was assigned a single scene, non-speaking role as one of the American sailors aboard a 19th Century ship that intercepted carrying slaves who had revolted and taken over the Spanish vessel.

The play was a bold but relevant choice for Klein as theater director, since both war and civil rights protests were heating up in the city and on our campus. My sole interest, however, was getting through the play and the semester as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

With two weeks left in the term, we staged a live performance in the school theater.

I was not that nervous as I put on my two-cornered hat and navy cloak backstage. Robert was the other sailor, dressed the same, in our own black pants and shoes. We were to wait about 40 minutes behind the curtain before entering stage left, where we would remain on the ship’s deck, poised with our muskets, until two of the slaves rushed us at the climactic moment, just before we shot them dead.

Robert and I bided our time, talking in whispers, when finally the make-up artist came by to dab foundation and rouge on my cheeks.

That’s when my heart started to pound, and a bead of sweat trickled down my back.

Trying to catch my breath, I never heard our cue, and Robert nudged me onto the stage.

Instinctively, involuntarily, I turned to look out at the audience, and 1,500 pairs of eyes stared back.

Their scattered laughter gave me an odd and momentary sense of relief, until I realized it was all terribly wrong. My body went numb, my head, dizzy.

When the slave rushed at me with his dagger, I could not, at first, move, finally mimicking the recoil of my musket well after the sound of gunshot over the P.A.

I ended up earning a B in drama, though it had nothing to do with my acting debut.

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After the curtain closed, I scrambled backstage, stripping off my cloak and navy hat, and dropping them into the costume bin on my rush to the exit.

On the way home, I pondered my chances, calculating that marathon cramming of iconic playwrights’ lives and works each day and night until the final exam would be the only way to avoid a plane ride to South Vietnam.

The surprise was not so much that the studying was successful, but that Dr. Klein was so sanguine in our remaining class meetings. Students were congratulating him on the play, making me wonder if I only imagined that I single-handedly ruined everything for the other actors, the 1,500 people in the audience, the school’s reputation and the entire world of theater.

Or maybe Professor Klein was cutting me some slack, since acting is so damned hard. Certainly, he would have known that any awards going to Javier Bardem, Denzel Washington, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Stewart or others on Oscar night are not for beauty, privilege and luck. Instead, they go only to those who have developed this nearly impossible skill for concentration and immersion in an alternate reality, even as the real world is everywhere they look.

A unique aptitude, innate talent, but mostly, again, the skill they develop, hone and practice through endless days and nights, over an entire lifetime.

Decades later, I still break out in a cold sweat trying to imagine it.

David McGrath is emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and the author of “South Siders.”

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