The theatre community of Elkhart, Indiana, is mourning the passing of Marcia Fulmer, a prolific arts editor, writer, critic, director, and actress. I met Marcia at the age of 15, when I was cast in the chorus of a musical called Carnival that she was directing for Elkhart Civic Theatre, which operates out of the historic Bristol Opera House. In terms of community theatre, ECT was one of the best around, and I was beside myself to be performing on that stage.
Early into rehearsals, someone left the show, and so I was “upgraded” to a role with one line, as half of a “fake Siamese twin” duo. Marcia told me, in a rush, to pick up my sides from the office. I was so green, I didn’t know what she meant, but was too scared to ask her. So I asked for my “sign” from the office and discovered that it was one square of paper bound between a cover. Typed on the page was the “cue” line and then my own line of dialogue. I didn’t have a full script so I had absolutely no idea where my line was supposed to come in, which caused me tremendous anxiety.
Marcia knew her stuff and pulled no punches in her direction. I realized I was working with the most professional person I’d encountered up to that point and tried to do everything right. One day, we were choreographing a big musical number with the entire cast, and I was situated up on a ladder with streamers in my hand. I was worried about calling attention to myself, certain that the focus should be elsewhere, and so I held the streamers still while I sang. Marcia singled me out in exasperation during notes, saying, “Don’t just stand all the way up there with your streamers hanging down. Wave them around!” I felt humiliated to be called out in front of everyone and for doing the “wrong thing” but it gave me a swift lesson I needed to learn: that I was allowed to be seen and that I was encouraged to contribute of my own accord instead of waiting for instruction. I also had trouble because my line was comedic and over-the-top and it felt like death-by-torture for someone as insecure as I was. Marcia had to demonstrate a possible line reading for me (which she rarely did) and, once again, she gave me permission to at least attempt to come out of my shell.
We had an amazing cast which included quite a few mischief-makers. During a tech rehearsal, I learned that it was a bit of a tradition to play practical jokes during the scenes. I was terrified of what Marcia would say but, to my surprise, she tolerated the tomfoolery while also refusing to crack or to deviate from her rigorous direction. I celebrated my 16th birthday during the run and the cast surprised me with singing, cake and cards one night, which she also tolerated, even though it cut into her time. Participating in that show was truly one of the happiest experiences of my life.
A couple of years later, I was cast in another musical, again in the chorus. In addition, I was given a little comedic featured role that had some solo singing. And, yet again, I was terrified. I worked hard to overcome my nerves but could never relax until that part of the show was over. My castmate, and the lead of the musical, congratulated me on “shaking less every night” at the end of the run. A dubious accomplishment. But perhaps the highlight for me was when Marcia came to review the show; I could hardly believe it when she included me in a trio of actors who “contributed some nice comedy bits.” It was the first review I’d ever received and I knew that, from her, it was significant. It remains one of my favorite pieces of feedback, especially since I knew how much those “comedy bits” scared the hell out of me.
I can’t begin to touch on the accomplishments of Marcia’s life, which are better relayed by those who knew her best. She was, however, a full-blown artist, who brought a level of insight and professionalism to a small Midwestern community in ways that completely raised the bar for many, many years. In a recent podcast, she touched on the rough spots in her life, saying that we may have tough times but being a part of something with our neighbors, like putting on a great show, can be an elixir: “God, theatre helps.” I hold such a special place in my heart for the people I worked with on those community theatre stages while I was growing up. Theatre saved my life, in so many ways, and it was artists like Marcia who helped me to see what was possible beyond those stages…even for a scared Indiana girl like me.
Growing up within close proximity to Chicago, the Steppenwolf production of True West was an important play for me and probably my introduction to the world of Sam Shepard. I recorded the PBS airing (on a VCR) and wore out the tape, virtually memorizing Gary Sinise and John Malkovich’s definitive performances. None of my community theater experience had exposed me to anything so real, so raw, or so close to home. It was the kind of acting I wanted to see and wished that I could do. In college, I recall many hours sitting on the floor of the library, pouring over Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind and Buried Child. If I wanted to lose myself, that was how I did it. Sam wrote about things that shocked me…not because they were unfamiliar but because of how deeply and intimately I understood the secrets he brought into the light.
Sam also tapped into a restlessness that seemed to overtake me on a regular basis, especially when I was younger. There were many nights when I had to talk myself out of walking out of my shared house, getting in the beater car that probably wouldn’t have made it to the state line, and just driving west without stopping or telling anyone where I was going. I craved the wild deserts and gritty, open spaces that he constructed…knowing, somehow, that space had an intangible quality that could fill me up inside.
My first directing effort was a production of Waiting for Godot that, in my mind, was an homage to Sam’s world of weary cowboys and empty landscapes. I still feel that it’s a perfect marriage of playwrights. One of my only rewarding acting experiences in college was a production of Fourteen Hundred Thousand, directed by a close friend. It felt like a breakthrough in many respects: I was afforded a rare opportunity to perform, I finally got to experience some growth as an actor, and the material was something that resonated with me.
The summer I battled those incessant urges to flee west, I directed my own version of True West in a found church space. To this day, I don’t know how I did everything I was doing at time: working full-time as a live-in nanny for two pre-schoolers, working open-to-close on Saturdays and Sundays at a physically exhausting car wash, taking a semester of French and a semester of Algebra (with tutoring on the side) and directing that demanding play. I remember combing through antique shops for beautiful electric typewriters that got destroyed (along with my heart) with a golf club during every performance. And there’s a story that lives in infamy among my circle of friends: The guys in the show were goofing around with said golf club one night after I’d left rehearsal. It slipped out of someone’s hand, flew through the air, and smashed a hole in one of the upper-story stained glass windows. The guys spent frantic midnight hours running to the store, cutting up milk jugs (I believe), painting the plastic with watercolors and trying to patch up and hide their mistake. I didn’t learn about the mishap until years later, and the church never allowed another theater group to use their space after they must have discovered the secret. But it seems so darkly funny and appropriate that it happened in Sam’s creative territory.
Years later, I was in L.A., at the start of my attempt to return to acting. I was terrified to try–yet unable to stay away from–the thing I loved most in the world. I didn’t know if I could do it; I had never known if I could. I found a class with a teacher who was the first person in my professional life to tell me that it was possible. And one of my earliest breakthroughs as an actor came in a scene from Fool for Love. There was a moment when active listening took over, when I fell into the unknown, and when I allowed that powerful beast of a play to have it’s way with me. I had never before felt that kind of energy take me over, and it was a light-bulb moment that laid a foundation I was able to build upon in the years to come. I don’t know if anyone but Sam could have facilitated such a creative surrender during that time of my life.
And now, present day, I’m in development on my own feature film. The very first conversations I had with my screenwriter contained multiple references to Sam. I knew I could trust this writer’s taste because she loved him, too, and understood the tone of the story I wanted to tell, which remains profoundly under Sam’s influence.
If I’d known Sam Shepard personally, I’m sure I would have known an imperfect and complicated man. He wrote about the kind of world so many of us have struggled to grow up in…a world of secrets, shame, aimless wandering, confusion and desire. He defined the human condition on his own unique yet universal terms. I know that so many of us must feel less alone, less freakish, because of his singular and achingly beautiful art. I will miss knowing that he’s out there in that world with us.