Dellecher Classical Conservatory occupied twenty or so acres of land on the eastern edge of Broadwater, and the borders of the two so often overlapped that it was difficult to tell where campus ended and town began. The first-years were housed in a cluster of brick buildings in town, while the second- and third-years were crowded together at the Hall, and the handful of fourth-years were tucked away in odd isolated corners of campus or left to fend for themselves. We, the fourth-year theatre students, lived on the far side of the lake in what was whimsically called the Castle (not really a castle, but a small stone building that happened to have one turret, originally the groundskeepers’ quarters).
Dellecher Hall, a sprawling red brick mansion, looked down a steep hill to the dark flat water of the lake. Dormitories and the ballroom were on the fourth and fifth floors, classrooms and offices on the second and third, while the ground floor was divided into refectory, music hall, library, and conservatory. A chapel jutted off the west end of the building, and sometime in the 1960s, the Archibald Dellecher Fine Arts Building (generally referred to as the FAB, for more than one reason) was erected on the east side of the Hall, a small courtyard and honeycomb of corbeled walkways wedged between them. The FAB was home to the Archibald Dellecher Theatre and the rehearsal hall and, ergo, was where we spent most of our time. At eight in the morning on the first day of classes, it was exceptionally quiet.
Richard and I walked from the Castle together, though I wasn’t due to audition for another half hour.
“How do you feel?” he asked, as we climbed the steep hill to the lawn.
“Nervous, like I always am.” The number of auditions under my belt didn’t matter; the anxiety never really left me.
“No need to be,” he said. “You’re never as dreadful as you think you are. Just don’t shift your weight too much. You’re most interesting when you stand still.”
I frowned at him. “How do you mean?”
“I mean when you forget you’re onstage and forget to be nervous. You really listen to other actors, really hear the words like it’s the first time you’ve heard them. It’s wonderful to work with and marvelous to watch.” He shook his head at the look of consternation on my face. “I shouldn’t have told you. Don’t get self-conscious.” He clapped one huge hand on my shoulder, and I was so distracted I pitched forward, my fingertips brushing the dewy grass. Richard’s booming laugh echoed in the morning air, and he grabbed my arm to help me find my balance. “See?” he said. “Keep your feet planted and you’ll be fine.”
“You suck,” I said, but with a grudging smirk. (Richard had that effect on people.)
As soon as we reached the FAB, he gave me another cheery smack on the back and disappeared into the rehearsal hall. I paced back and forth along the crossover, puzzling over what he had said and repeating Pericles to myself like I was saying a string of Hail Marys.
Our first semester auditions determined which parts we would play in our fall production. That year, Julius Caesar. Tragedies and histories were reserved for the fourth-years, while the third-years were relegated to romance and comedy and all the bit parts were played by the second-years. First-years were left to work backstage, slog through general education, and wonder what the hell they’d gotten themselves into. (Each year, students whose performance was deemed unsatisfactory were cut from the program—often as many as half. To survive until fourth year was proof of either talent or dumb luck. In my case, the latter.) Class photos from the past fifty years hung in two neat rows along the wall in the crossover. Ours was the last and certainly the sexiest, a publicity photo from the previous year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We looked younger.
It was Frederick’s idea to do Midsummer as a pajama party. James and I (Lysander and Demetrius, respectively) wore striped boxers and white undershirts and stood glaring at each other, with Wren (Hermia, in a short pink nightgown) trapped between us. Filippa stood on my left in Helena’s longer blue nightdress, clutching the pillow she and Wren had walloped each other with in Act III. In the middle of the photo, Alexander and Meredith were wrapped around each other like a pair of snakes—he a sinister and seductive Oberon in slinky silk bathrobe, she a voluptuous Titania in revealing black lace. But Richard was the most arresting, standing among the other rude mechanicals in clownish flannel pajamas, enormous donkey ears protruding from his thick black hair. His Nick Bottom was aggressive, unpredictable, and totally deranged. He terrorized the fairies, tormented the other players, scared the hell out of the audience, and—as always—stole the show.
The seven of us had survived three yearly “purges” because we were each somehow indispensable to the playing company. In the course of four years we were transformed from a rabble of bit players to a small, meticulously trained dramatic troupe. Some of our theatrical assets were obvious: Richard was pure power, six foot three and carved from concrete, with sharp black eyes and a thrilling bass voice that flattened every other sound in a room. He played warlords and despots and anyone else the audience needed to be impressed by or afraid of. Meredith was uniquely designed for seduction, a walking daydream of supple curves and skin like satin. But there was something merciless about her sex appeal—you watched her when she moved, whatever else was happening, and whether you wanted to or not. (She and Richard had been “together” in every typical sense of the word since the spring semester of our second year.) Wren—Richard’s cousin, though you never would have guessed it by looking at them—was the ingénue, the girl next door, a waifish thing with corn silk hair and round china doll eyes. Alexander was our resident villain, thin and wiry, with long dark curls and sharp canine teeth that made him look like a vampire when he smiled.
Filippa and I were more difficult to categorize. She was tall, olive-skinned, vaguely boyish. There was something cool and chameleonic about her that made her equally convincing as Horatio or Emilia. I, on the other hand, was average in every imaginable way: not especially handsome, not especially talented, not especially good at anything but just good enough at everything that I could pick up whatever slack the others left. I was convinced I had survived the third-year purge because James would have been moody and sullen without me.
Fate had dealt us a good hand in our first year, when he and I found ourselves squashed together in a tiny room on the top floor of the dormitories. When I’d first opened our door, he looked up from the bag he was unpacking, held out his hand, and said, “Here comes Sir Oliver! You are well met, I hope.” He was the sort of actor everyone fell in love with as soon as he stepped onstage, and I was no exception. Even in our early days at Dellecher, I was protective and even possessive of him when other friends came too close and threatened to usurp my place as “best”—an event as rare as a meteor shower. Some people saw me as Gwendolyn always cast me: simply the loyal sidekick. James was so quintessentially a hero that this didn’t bother me. He was the handsomest of us (Meredith once compared him to a Disney prince), but more charming than that was his childlike depth of feeling, onstage and off-. For three years I enjoyed the overflow of his popularity and admired him intensely, without jealousy, even though he was Frederick’s obvious favorite in much the same way that Richard was Gwendolyn’s. Of course, James did not have Richard’s ego or temper and was liked by everyone, while Richard was hated and loved with equal ferocity.
It was customary for us to watch whichever audition followed our own (performing unobserved was compensation for performing first), and I paced restlessly along the crossover, wishing that James could have been my audience. Even when he didn’t mean to be, Richard was an intimidating onlooker. I could hear his voice from the rehearsal hall, ringing off the walls.
Richard: “Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war:
We charge you, in the name of God, take heed.
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint,
’Gainst him whose wrongs give edge unto the swords
That make such waste in brief mortality.”
I’d seen him do the same speech twice before, but that made it no less impressive.
At precisely half past eight, the door to the rehearsal hall creaked open. Frederick’s familiar face, wizened and droll, appeared in the gap. “Oliver? We’re ready for you now.”
“Great.” My pulse quickened—a flutter, like little bird wings trapped between my lungs.
I felt small walking into the rehearsal hall, as I always did. It was a cavernous room, with a high vaulted ceiling and long windows that gazed out on the grounds. Blue velvet curtains hung on either side of them, hems gathered in dusty piles on the hardwood floor. My voice echoed as I said, “Good morning, Gwendolyn.”
The redheaded, stick figure woman behind the casting table glanced up at me, her presence in the room disproportionately enormous. Bold pink lipstick and a paisley head scarf made her look like some sort of gypsy. She wiggled her fingers in greeting, and the bangles on her wrist rattled. Richard sat in the chair to the left of the table, arms folded, watching me with a comfortable smile. I was not Leading Man material and therefore didn’t qualify as competition. I flashed him a grin and then tried to ignore him.
“Oliver,” Gwendolyn said. “Lovely to see you. Have you lost weight?”
“Gained it, actually,” I said, my face going warm. When I left for summer break she had advised me to “bulk up.” I spent hours at the gym every day of June, July, and August, hoping to impress her.
“Hm,” she said, gaze descending slowly from the top of my head to my feet with the cold scrutiny of a slave trader at auction. “Well. Shall we get started?”
“Sure.” Remembering Richard’s advice, I straightened my feet on the floor and resolved not to move without reason.
Frederick eased back into his seat beside Gwendolyn, removed his glasses, and wiped the lenses on the hem of his shirt. “What do you have for us today?” he asked.
“Pericles,” I said. He had suggested it, the previous term.
He gave me a small, conspiratorial nod. “Perfect. Whenever you’re ready.”