One of my favorite college theater stories, apropos of nothing, other than it happened about this time of year, 16 years ago.
I was in my last semester at Murray State University, mostly coasting through my final classes, working full-time hours at Wal-Mart but not getting full-time benefits, because…Wal-Mart.
This one night, some of us theater nerds were hanging out at Heidi and Eric and Krista’s place. I don’t know how we got to this, but we decided it would be hilarious to toilet paper our theater department chair’s house. It wasn’t out of malice; we all loved and respected David Balthrop. We just thought it would be funny.
We went to the store – (probably Wal-Mart), grabbed a bunch of toilet paper, drove out to his house on the edge of town, and did what we did. I don’t think any of us had ever toilet papered a house before, and we were making up for that lost experience, giggling like school kids in the cold autumn air.
The next day, word got around pretty quickly that David was livid over our prank. It had apparently freaked his kids out when they came out of the house the next morning. He wasn’t absolutely sure, but he had a strong suspicion it was theater department people. He made it clear it was absolutely not to happen again. Later that afternoon, I got summoned to his office.
Well, here we go, I thought.
He had called me in for a different reason. He was directing the Music and Theatre Department’s joint production of “Fiddler on the Roof”, about to open in a couple of weeks. The lead actor playing Tevye was having some personal issues and may be dropping out of the show, he said. If he did, David wanted to know if I would be interested in taking the role. There were a couple of people in the cast that could have done it – and much better singers than me – but he thought that would cause even more disruption to the show, and I had a reputation for being able to learn lines freakishly fast.
I told him my only concern was being able to take the time off work. He said if Wal-Mart would let me have the time off, he would work it out so the school would reimburse me whatever time I had to take off. In essence, this would be my first paid acting job.
I told him I would love the opportunity. I went home and told my then-wife, excited at the possibility to jump in the part, and we laughed over what strange timing this was with the prank, and how I thought I was going into his office sure I was in trouble.
The next night, my wife and I were just starting to eat dinner, and the phone rang. It was David. The lead actor hadn’t showed up to rehearsal. Could I come to the theater right now?
That was the beginning of one of the most rewarding theater experiences I’ve ever had, academic or otherwise. I got to take two weeks off work at Wal-Mart (my manager was much more understanding than he had to be), and I got to be a full-time actor. The cast was warm and welcoming, of course. The person who the role maybe should have rightfully gone to – my old roommate and friend, Dustin – went out of his way to help me learn the songs. I am not a strong musical theater singer.
It was a hell of a run…all four performances. (These days, I can’t imagine pouring so much energy into a show and doing only four performances.) I can’t quite put into words what that experience meant for me, and how great it was to leave my college career on that note.
A few days after, David called me into his office again to give me my paycheck from the school, and to de-brief what I had learned about the experience and how I could take that and apply it to my future professional career. We chatted for about 20 minutes, and just as I was about to leave, David said he had one more thing to give me.
He opened his desk drawer, pulled out a half-crumpled up wad of paper, and placed it on the desk in front of me.
It was one of my Wal-Mart pay stubs.
A pay stub I had haphazardly shoved into my coat pocket after tearing the check off of it.
The coat I was wearing the night we toilet papered David’s house.
We sat there silent for a moment. David said he’d found it in the yard the morning after. He knew I had toilet papered his house the day he first called me into his office to talk about the show, but he didn’t want to deal with both issues at once.
I wasn’t in trouble. He confessed that he wasn’t ever really that mad about it, he thought it was funny, but he had to put on a display of being angry so it didn’t turn into a thing for his students to mess with him. We had a good laugh about it. I graduated the next month, and my second professional gig came a few weeks after that in Louisville.
The experience of doing the show crosses my mind often, but I had forgotten about the toilet papering incident until recently, sitting around telling stories at Betsy’s family reunion a couple of months ago. I have no idea what was said that made me remember it.
But a fun memory indeed. That was the first and last time I ever toilet papered someone’s home.