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Theater and Gilman Culture

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Theater and Gilman Culture
By JAMIE SPRAGINS '73

      While I was a Gilman middle schooler in the late 1960s, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend several summers at Hyde Bay Camp in Cooperstown, N.Y. The camp was run by a rare collection of Gilman characters: Herb "Mouldy" Pickett, Hunt Hilliard, Alton Davison, and in earlier years, George Chandlee, Edward Russell, and the Commodore, Walter Lord.

      These gentle men created an environment in which boys could thrive both physically and imaginatively. Hyde Bay featured intense team sports, individual tests of strength and ability, big woods mountain and river expeditions, ghost stories and Leatherstocking lore, even work-all activities to be expected at any good camp. But what made Hyde Bay special was its cherished tradition of theater.

      We didn't just do theater at Hyde Bay. We lived it. The distinction between reality and the imagination had been refined out of existence. The buildings themselves had all been painted by scenic artist Jack Garver with visions of camp life from years past. Wandering the grounds made a 12-year-old feel like a character in a vibrant adventure. Word play, nonsense rituals, and role playing were a natural part of daily life. Not only did every camper perform in an original play, but most counselors did too. The theater gurus (Josh Shoemaker and John Schmick) wrote and staged 30-odd plays each summer. The whole community gathered on Saturdays to watch.

      The routine of daily life was enlivened by a superb sense of the grand gesture. Anything could happen. On one occasion, a 12-foot fiberglass sailboat had recently been given several coats of fiberglass so that it would stop sinking. This rare event called for a formal boat launching with full pomp and circumstance: muscle-bound oarsmen marching synchronized routines, dancing flower girls, the boat itself festooned like a Mardi Gras float, and finally a coach drawn by lackeys carrying the sailing staff in full regalia, accompanied by the Commodore himself in a rare pro tern appearance. His ceremonial dunking climaxed the ritual.

      There is a photograph of me taken as I gaped in astonishment at this spectacle. My eyes still sparkle.

      I first came to appreciate the meaning of tradition at Hyde Bay Camp. Tradition is not simply a set of values or manners. It is a gift for living kept alive from generation to generation. A major part of my responsibility as a teacher of English and drama at Gilman is to pass this gift for living on to the young. To imitate the style of 30 years ago would be pointless, impossible to accomplish. But the spirit which inspired those gratuitous gestures-that cannot be allowed to pass. The Hyde Bay tradition of theater grew out of Gilman's early culture-still vibrant in the late 1960s. The school reveled in a love of language as intense as its love of football, wrestling, and lacrosse. The late 1960s at Gilman, far from being a time of violent dissent, was a time of neo-Victorian form and Imperial manner. Theater fit naturally into the life of the school.

      Latin Day was celebrated in the grand, mock-heroic fashion with mandatory togas, ivy garlands, and reckless chariot races, all interspersed by mighty feats of grandiloquent oratory: poetry recitations and contests, debate between the Areopagus and the Pnyx. In those days the Gilman Circus was a huge extravaganza which the whole school helped create and sell. The Spring Art Show took over a full wing of the cage. Traveling through it was a strange fun-house adventure. McDonogh Day was the occasion of bonfires, chicanery, and song climaxed by the ceremonial reading of the Farmer's Almanac by Mr. Russell in his aged, quavering voice. Tradition was palpable because its energy found vibrant form not only on special occasions but also in the rituals of our school day.

      Rhetoric was in our blood. Each morning at Chapel we'd sing one of the Protestant Dirty Dozen hymns, chant the sonorous rhythms of the King James version, and listen to the schoolmasters--Mr. Finney most memorably--solemnly sermonize. The Senior Speech was the most decorous and mannered of rites of passage. A tidal wave of language enveloped the classroom experience. Everyone imitated the grand style. Teachers lectured. Students were regularly assigned speeches in history as well as English and Latin classes. We studied Cicero and J.F.K.'s inaugural address. We memorized Shakespeare, studied parts of speech and diagrammed sentences. We wrote massive research papers. Life was dominated by daily rhetoric and ritual. We even sat down to formal lunch in an ornate dining room, prayed, watched our manners, and wolfed the horrible food.

      The theater in those days reflected the WASP male culture of the time. The style was neo-Victorian; plays like "The Barretts of Wimpole Street;' "Arsenic and Old Lace;' and "The Madwoman of Chaillot" predominated. "The Caine Mutiny" was out on the cutting edge because it featured a central character who was Jewish. Student enthusiasm and talent brought into being a summer repertory company dedicated to producing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Young Victorian Theatre Company came into being in 1971 ( the year of the invasion of Cambodia), and it is still going strong. The theater at Gilman was palpably connected to the school's rhetorical excess and its grand sense of WASP pomposity. Despite its biases, Gilman's culture was vigorous and lively.

      Thankfully, Gilman has undergone vast changes in the last 25 years. Our community's demographics now reflect the reality of society at large. We have assumed a new responsibility. We model for the city how a community of diverse backgrounds can function creatively and responsibly. Extensive coordination with girls' schools has encouraged a new open-mindedness and tolerance. The ongoing renovation of the school's physical plant is indicative of Gilman's effort to re-define and re-shape its image while maintaining its traditional identity.

      The administration cherishes and protects a core program: rigorous academics, competitive team sports, and a devotion to an open society founded on the principle of honor. These aspects of Gilman have not changed, but the school is still groping to find a way to leave its patrician past behind and embrace a vastly different student body. The only common denominator which exists to unite our student body is the predominant culture of sports in America. It is my hope that the theater can playa role in helping Gilman refine and reshape its identity to be more inclusive.

      Happily, the school's administration is open to innovation. The leaders have taken a laissez-faire attitude toward change. If students or teachers want to try something, typically they are encouraged. This open-mindedness reflects a sea change in educational philosophy. Instead of force-feeding students information, the teacher now encourages the development of independent thinking. The seminar style has replaced the lecture in most classrooms. Student ideas drive classroom discussions. We don't test memorization skills as much as we encourage students to sharpen and revise their own responses to the text. Texts no longer express one point of view. Students see life from many cultural, gender-inclusive perspectives. Students learn how problems have various solutions and how collaboration is frequently necessary to uncover "the truth."

      Our assemblies, like our classrooms, are no longer occasions for lecturing and sermonizing. Instead, our most successful assemblies have taken on the form of a Quaker meeting where anyone can speak if the spirit so moves him. Students no longer observe the rigorous coat-and-tie rule of the patrician dress code. More often the sports culture dominates dress. The school's atmosphere is more relaxed and egalitarian, less patriarchal and upper class.

      This new atmosphere of openness and flexibility, this new receptivity and spontaneity is indicative of an ambiguous emerging style profoundly different from the Gilman style of yesteryear, and that is good. But something vital has been sacrificed in the process. Sadly, our banquet of the arts and love affair with language have gone the way of formal luncheons. We no longer have a taste for ornate speech or the grand gesture for fear of appearing overbearing or incorrect. There is no obvious performance analogue, no formal ritual to our daily interaction. The consequence is an uneasiness and tentativeness which typifies our relations. We err on the side of politeness rather than risk offense by showing our true selves. The end result is that the vibrancy of true cultural interaction fails to take place. Only on the athletic field do we truly overcome our differences, but that activity excludes a sizable percentage of our school's population.

      It is my belief that the theater program will play an integral role in helping Gilman follow through on its commitment to model a healthy, open society which celebrates diversity. Instead of promoting assimilation, the theater can celebrate difference and teach empathy. It can help Gilman find a style which facilitates student expression and interaction. Performance art-pervading all three school units-could be the new rhetoric which invigorates and gives form to the school's daily life. And this performance art, this theater program, will continue to be based upon the same principles which I absorbed as a Gilman middle schooler at Hyde Bay Camp: a dedication to universal participation and an encouragement of the grand, gratuitous gesture.

      With major inspirations being Roy Barker ("Hamlet"), Alex Armstrong (theater), John Merrill (music history), and Edgar Boyd (modern European history), Jamie Spragins has focused on the teaching of English and drama since his first year of working at Gilman in 1987. While a student at Gilman, he was a member of the Dramatic Association, Areopagus-Pnyx Debating Society, Hoffman Club, and the Gilman Bavarian Band-a rhythm section which performed at sporting events. Graduating Cum Laude, Jamie moved on to Williams College, majoring in English with a specialization in Shakespeare, modern drama, and James Joyce.

      Spragins has a burgeoning interest in multi-media education and hopes to help students create projects in a performing art/multi-media facility: a full theater with a shop, radio station/recording studio, video soundstage, and computer room.

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