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RSVPhillippi | MAY 2020

Dennis Phillippi


A few weeks ago my wife and I drove her 94-year-old mother to St. Louis to see our nephew, Sam Fink, perform superbly in a high school production of the musical “Cabaret.” If you are unfamiliar with “Cabaret,” it is set in Berlin in the 1930s as the Nazis were coming into power. The show is largely set in a nightclub that features an emcee of indeterminate gender, and includes references to anti-Semitism, homosexuality, abortion, mass hysteria, and, of course, the holocaust. So, you know, a typical high school production. The show was actually terrifically done. The cast was so skilled and talented we had to often remind ourselves that we were watching a bunch of teenagers. Our nephew played the villain, a Nazi, as you would imagine. This, by the way, took place at Charles Lindbergh High School. If you don’t recognize the irony of that I encourage you to spend a few seconds researching Lindbergh’s political leanings.

 This was a particular treat for me because I spent pretty much every waking moment from the age of 11 in the theater. I started acting in a production of “Peter Pan,” playing the father of the Darling children. From the first instant I walked onstage in rehearsal I sensed that something had change in my life. I was right. Any chance of a normal life disappeared. It’s possible that before that I dreamed of being an astronaut or a politician or a doctor, but as soon as I realized that there was a world where everyone would be looking at me, the idea that I would ever knuckle down and become a serious student went right out the window. Any time that I may have spent studying, say, math, was gobbled up by acting in production after production, in school, in community theater, and in professional theater. From an early age, people were actually willing to give me money to be the center of attention. I probably had a healthy ego before I started theater, but from that first moment of performing I developed what most people would consider a decidedly unhealthy ego.  

Theater really is a world of its own. Whatever clique you ran with in school, you didn’t have anywhere near the sheer volume of flamboyant, arrogant, witty, deranged, self-loathing, self-adoring lunatics found in any theater group. Athletes certainly get their share of attention, but they are competing to win games. Theater people subsist almost entirely on external validation. An athlete can lose a game and still hold their head up if they did their best. An actor doesn’t have that luxury. If a play fails, you are a failure. Performers are by nature an emotional bunch and the audiences’ approval becomes sustenance.  

Because the theater attracts the more outsized characters in society, it tends to be inclusive. That means, even over 40 years ago, theater was where you were likely to encounter people of all kinds of lifestyles and sexual orientation. In school some imbeciles took this to mean that every guy involved in theater must, by definition, be gay, and they were judgmental and even abusive out of sheer ignorance.  Their behavior never bothered me and I can sum up why in one word, actresses. Because there is undeniably a higher percentage of openly gay men in theater than on a baseball team, that meant less competition for the stunning amount of beautiful girls that were charming, exciting, and wildly insecure. I had inadvertently stumbled onto hunting a baited field. If you’ve never spent time around actresses then you have missed out on one of the great roller coasters of life. Their emotions are always screwed to the sticking point. From joy to anger to despondence to lust, they are always running at a red line. Breaking up with a girl in high school always involved some drama, but breaking up with an actress almost invariably involved threats of suicide. Once exposed to that level of intensity, it was impossible to imagine going to college to become an actuary.  

There is, of course, a downside to growing up in the theater. For instance I am incapable of doing the most basic arithmetic. At a time when my brain was a big sponge that could have absorbed Algebra or another language or Chemistry, I was filling it with Shakespeare and Thurber and Simon. From the first moment I discovered a teacher would accept “I have to be in the theater for rehearsal” whether it was true or not, any chance of getting me to attend any class outside of theater was doomed. People are often surprised when I say that most actors are pretty dim-witted. They ask how that’s possible when we can memorize dialogue? See, that’s the point — all we did in school was memorize dialogue. No actor would exchange being able to recite the periodic table over getting applause. No one is ever going to stop you in the hall to say how great you were in Art History.

I’m genuinely glad that my nephew discovered the joy of acting. I’m also genuinely glad that he didn’t discover it until he was a senior in high school. Had he, like me, wandered into acting at 11, chances are he wouldn’t be going to a good college in the fall to learn how to do something that involves a regular paycheck. Being bitten by the bug at this late stage, he is unlikely to veer off onto a life on stage. He can major in something sensible like Business or Accounting to do whatever those people do, and act on the side. At least that’s what we’re all hoping will happen. The last thing this family needs is another unemployable egomaniac. We already have me.