Remembering Roger Ebert and Jane Kleinman
[Regular Toqueland readers will have to forgive me – this post has nothing to do with chefs or restaurants – but I wanted to share these thoughts.]
I learned of the death of two people who had a tremendous impact on my life last week: One you’ve heard of and one you probably haven’t. One I knew personally and one I never met. Both helped me understand myself a little better when I was a teenager and then, unexpectedly, taught me something about death and dying as an adult.
The one you probably never heard of was my high school drama teacher Jane Kleinman. I have no recollection of when I first met her; when I think back at that time in my life, it just seems that she was always there. As a student at Ransom-Everglades school in South Florida, I took her drama classes and acted in her productions, rehearsing on weekday afternoons and performing on Friday and Saturday nights: Carnival, Our Town, Guys and Dolls – if you were an adolescent thespian, you can probably guess some of the others. When I directed our senior class play David and Lisa, she flattered me by playing a small role herself.
Jane’s classroom wasn’t a typical one. It was a wide, desk-less space and I remember hanging out there before homeroom and during down times between classes. Rehearsals for her plays were the social highlight of my adolescence, along with weekend set-construction sessions, road trips to state acting competitions, post-performance gatherings at the local Swenson’s, and the wrap parties that followed the end of each run.
Jane was also my first connection to the greater artistic world. She had studied with some up-and-coming actors of the time, such as Jim Puig, a local talent who had gone on to Broadway success in Rum and Coke, and Steven Bauer, who played Al Pacino’s aide de camp in Scarface, and who was married at the time to Melanie Griffith. This was the early 1980s and our school was a tony private academy on Biscayne Bay, but it was also situated in Coconut Grove, which retained much of its ramshackle 1970s hippie charm — after school, a bunch of us regularly strolled into the Grove, past palm trees and pink, Spanish-style houses to sit at breezy outdoor cafes and on weekends we’d go to the Grove Cinema and participate in midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Against that backdrop, Jane helped guide my creative awakening, along with the brilliant English teacher Dan Bowden; the big-hearted Beau Siegel, a raspy-voiced New Yorker and art instructor; and another teacher – I’ll leave her nameless here – whom a bunch of us called by the nickname we overheard an adult friend call her one day, “Doobie,” until she told us we had to stop before we got her fired. (We didn’t know what it meant!)
Jane was not a slim or glamorous woman, but she had a beautiful face and a heavenly voice. One year, at the school talent show, she stood on a bare platform illuminated by a harsh spotlight and somewhere between Jenna Robinson’s rendition of “Nothing” (the song about Mr. Karp) from A Chorus Line and Jeremy Haft’s monologue from Feiffer’s People, sang “Send In the Clowns.” Thirty years later, I can still hear the wistful, Patsy Cline-worthy ghost of a laugh she inserted between “Don’t bother” and “they’re here.” Most of us had never heard her sing before and we were spellbound, as though discovering she possessed some kind of superpower that she’d been hiding from us.
My most indelible memory of Jane – Ms. Kleinman to me in those days – is the warm-up exercise she engaged us in before each play we put on. The cast would gather in a circle backstage and hold hands. We closed our eyes and she’d talk about “the heartbeat,” a pulse that united us and which would ensure that we were in synch on stage. As she spoke, she squeezed the hand of the person to her left and told that person to pass it on to the next one, and to keep it going until the heartbeat came back around, over and over again.
And there we stood, eyes closed, waiting for the squeeze on our right hand, then squeezing the hand of the person to our left. She’d talk us into a trance, describing how we were a unit, how our hearts beat together, and as she did, she’d direct us to pass the heartbeat along a little faster, and the pulse would make its way around the circle, coming back around almost as soon as it left us. When it seemed to be moving as swiftly as an electron, she’d quietly say, “Break a leg,” and we’d all let go of our hands and open our eyes, a little dizzy from the experience, and go to our respective ready positions for lights up….