Dan Caldwell Directs ‘The Crucible.’
During my sophomore year at Tam I took two classes which pulled me in opposite directions: journalism with Miss Rogers and English and drama with Mr Caldwell.
Miss Rogers was a short good looking dark haired woman somewhere between 30 and 40 who had a very brusque manner particularly with a mouthy wise guy like myself. She always regarded me as someone who was constantly out of order but what she taught me I have never forgotten. Her number one rule was that we had to start each article with a good leader. This meant that your first paragraph had to summarise what the piece was about.
Her classroom was up some stairs in the highly industrial building which also housed the print shop above, the music department next door and some other kind of shop down on the ground floor. There were several ‘shop’ classes at Tam but the only one I ever took was a semester of print shop where the school newspaper, The Tamalpais News was produced. Down in Miss Rogers’s class I contributed regularly to the paper, writing reviews of films and drawing cartoons. Miss Rogers seemed to live and breathe journalism but also taught straight forward English. I was at this time also taking English but from a different teacher.
Mr Caldwell was my English teacher in possibly the biggest room in Wood Hall for it had a theatrical stage at one end. Dan Caldwell was a tall good looking man with a healthy head of dark hair. He was an actor and had stepped back from a professional career to teach instead. He would tell us that if you wanted to be an actor you mustn’t cut your hair as you never knew when you would need it longer. This was well before the Beatles invaded our shores and long hair on men was definitely not the fashion. Quite the contrary. Greasers wore their hair long on top in a pompadour but the vast majority of young men at Tam High had very short haircuts.
This was Dan Caldwell’s first term at Tam and there was always a big theatrical production presented in Ruby Scott auditorium. Usually it was a musical organised by Robert Greenwood who ran the music department. The big show the previous year had been Carousel but Mr Caldwell wanted to do a drama and chose The Crucible by Arthur Miller which was a controversial choice.
Though this play was set in Salem, Massachusetts during the famous witch trials of the 1690s, it clearly was also about the McCarthy witch hunts of the early 1950s. When Arthur Miller first drove from New York up to Salem to begin his research for The Crucible, he stopped off at director Elia Kazan’s house. The famous director had asked him to visit as they needed to talk. By this time Kazan had decided to be a ‘friendly’ witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He wanted to discuss it with his colleague Miller. He laid out the fact that Spyros Skouras, then head of 20th Century Fox, had told him his career in movies was over if he didn’t cooperate with the Committee. Miller found this exchange chilling as he was hearing for the first time that his friend and mentor was going to betray his colleagues and name names. A cold silence descended on the two men bringing their meeting to a conclusion. As Miller got into his car to leave, Kazan’s wife Molly came out to make a case for her husband’s decision. When Miller told her that he was on his way to Salem to do research for a possible play she instantly understood his intention and became angry that he should be making such a comparison.
So this play was politically controversial as by 1963 there was still a functioning blacklist in American media. The reason that both Bob Dylan and Joan Baez refused to appear on network television during this time was because ABC, NBC and CBS all refused to allow blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger to appear on air. The blacklist was still a powerful reality, certainly in Hollywood.
Francis Hamit who eventually played Judge Danforth in The Crucible had also worked in the stage management teams behind all the major theatrical productions at Tam since 1960 including Mr Greenwood’s Carousel. So he was an early recruit to head up Dan Caldwell’s team.
When asked how good he was, Francis replied: “I was a teenager managing other teenagers. Herding them was like herding cats, so I was a bit of a screamer. I feel some regret about that but no one else wanted the job and I was making it up as I went along.” Assisting Francis on stage management was Michael Thomsett who also played the role of Giles Corey.
Auditions took place in Mr Caldwell’s room in Wood Hall and I have no memory of auditioning at all but I wound up playing the small role of Francis Nurse, an elderly fellow with very few lines. Stanislavski’s phrase: “There are no small parts, only small actors,” was not known to me at this time and I’m not sure it would have comforted me as I was most definitely a physically small actor.
The play began with Salem’s minister the Reverend Parris nursing his motionless ten year old daughter Betty after finding her dancing naked in the forest at night with other girls. With rumours of witchcraft flying through Salem, Parris felt particularly vulnerable as his niece, Abigail Williams was the naked girls’ ring leader. He summons the Reverend Hale, an expert on witchcraft to investigate. Abigail manipulates the girls who danced in the forest and before long is making accusations which lead to people being arrested and tried for witchcraft. The penalty was death by hanging. My character, Francis Nurse and Giles Corey were both elderly men whose wives were arrested and they came to the court trying to be heard in defence of their loved ones.
The main protagonist was John Proctor whose wife Elizabeth was soon accused and high drama followed. Dan Caldwell cast the main parts very well and all his actors gave strong performances. Proctor was played by Robert Young, Reverend Parris by Biff Younger, Reverend Hale by Alan Hayakawa and Thomas Putnam by Peter Liederman.
The major female roles were all double cast and again the performances were committed: Elizabeth Proctor was played by Laurette Matson and Jan Overturf; Abigail by Linda Arbuthnot and Valerie Wright; Mary Warren by Jill Cogswell and Debbie Ross. The role of Giles Corey was doubled by Sibley Cogswell and Mike Thomsett and Judge Hathorne was played by Guy Howard. Margo Margolis played my character’s wife Rebecca Nurse.
Mr Caldwell tried to bring something of a professional atmosphere to this production and had good support from Francis Hamit’s stage team. “We had an absolute no talking rule for people who were not on stage,” said Hamit. “The crew used hand signs. Now Dan was a pretty good actor and if faking anger helped get the job done, he would use it.”
Jill Cogswell, (now Yasmin Spiegel) who played Mary Warren, remembers one rehearsal when Dan organised a seance: “to get in the mood of creepy possession, complete with red lights. I remember finally overcoming my shyness at letting her rip screaming. By actually going there it opened the door for performances that had authenticity and were pretty hair raising for the audience. We respected ourselves as actors, which enabled even the newest performer to put in a competent performance.”
As an actor I was pretty terrible and perhaps had I been present at Jill’s seance my performance as Francis Nurse might have had more life in it. I didn’t come out of myself which is something a thespian must do to physically inhabit their character. As Francis Nurse I sat in the courtroom with Giles Corey and recited my lines competently and tried to move like an old man. They sprayed silver on my hair. For some reason my role was not double cast so I worked with both the actors playing Giles and found that Sib Cogswell was slightly more convincing than Mike Thomsett. Mike remembers: “Giles Corey was an outspoken, nasty, opinionated 84 year old man, and it was difficult to capture that as a 15 year old freshman, but we all did our best.”
Jill Cogswell and Mike went on to do many more plays with Dan Caldwell. After he died, Jill delivered a eulogy when the Marin Shakespeare Company celebrated his life. “He was always giving us classic plays to perform,” she said. “And he demanded that we develop discipline and devotion to the art and craft of the theatre. The Crucible was a good example of his rigorous choice of subject matter and demand for everyone to act as an ensemble.”
The play also had very raw dialogue which Dan Caldwell was determined not to change or water down. As he had given up a good acting career to become a teacher at his first wife’s insistence, some felt that his taking such a strong line by not cutting any of the gritty dialogue was risky. He received a lot of heat from the PTA and the parents of one of his female actors took great exception to their daughter being called a “whore” on the stage. Francis Hamit thinks it’s possible he took the risk in the hope that he might get fired.
After Dan’s death Francis spoke to Mr Greenwood at a reunion and he said that Caldwell was very frustrated at having to give up his acting career and that it took about five years for him to settle down and finally accept his fate.
Hamit’s observation that managing teenagers was like herding cats did mean that tempers sometimes got very short in rehearsals. More than a few of Dan Caldwell’s actors say that he had a tendency to throw tantrums. Hamit however defends him with vigour citing his artistic integrity in not cutting controversial lines to please the squeamish.
The play was, as I recall, a great success. One element of that success was the magnificent poster designed by Tad Alvord. Tad was an art student in Mr Boussey’s class and did a fine piece of work. I haven’t seen it in all these years but have a clear memory of admiring it.
Now you may recall that I was also a journalism student with Miss Rogers and she seemed to think that I was in a good position to write a review of the production. The fact that I was in the cast and might not be impartial never seemed to cross her mind. So I asked her how critical I should be. I seemed to bring out the impatient side of Miss Rogers. She looked at me as if she was telling me something for the hundredth time and said I should write my honest opinion. Well that wasn’t difficult as Mr Caldwell had directed a magnificent production with some very powerful performances. So I wrote a glowing review, but in listing the cast members when I got to Giles Corey I said that Sib’s performance was slightly better than Mike’s. My review was printed on the front page of the paper along with a photo from rehearsals.
I then had an uncomfortable meeting with Dan behind the curtain on the stage in his classroom. “John why did you write that about Mike?” He asked. “He’s very upset.” I was tongue tied. Professional journalists quickly develop a thick skin and this experience showed that I had no such buffer in my psychological makeup. I left Mr Caldwell’s room feeling ashamed of myself and when I saw Mike Thomsett he wouldn’t even look at me. I felt wretched. I felt like Walter Winchell.
I had no further experience of the drama department for the rest of my time at Tam. When I came across Mike Thomsett on Facebook I got in touch and we became FB friends. He could barely remember the review I wrote.
“The review you mentioned clearly remains on your mind, but I had long forgotten about it. There are no hard feelings remembered. High school was a period in which we all made mistakes we regret to this day, but more important than my forgiving you, is that you forgive yourself. The statute of limitations expired long ago!”
I’ll bet Walter Winchell never got a letter like that.
I must thank several people whose contributions were most valuable in putting this piece together: Francis Hamit, Michael Thomsett, Yasmin Spiegel (aka Jill Cogswell), Alan Hayakawa, Tad Alvord, Bob Reichmuth, Margo Margolis, Robert Cogswell, David Gilliam and Shannon Pixley Sheppard. The information about Arthur Miller writing the play came from his book Timebends: A Life.