I’ve learned through my Gettysburg College alumni magazine that Emile O. Schmidt died last month three days after his 85th birthday. The man loved the theater, and had founded the college’s Theater Arts Department back around 1962. When I arrived on campus 20 years later, he was midway through his stint there, energetically advocating for and from the stage.
It was at the beginning of my sophomore year that a couple of classmates persuaded me to try out for The Owl & Nightingale Players’ next production, Moliere’s The Learned Ladies. Though often acting out, the only legitimate acting I had done was in a Kennebunk High School production of Tom Jones my senior year, a joyous experience which made me regret not having gotten involved earlier. Naturally not learning from that experience, I passed my freshman year at Gettysburg ignoring the theater. I do recall watching one of the O&N Players’ shows and enjoying it, thinking, Hey, that looks like fun. And that’s about how far I got pursuing it.
Schmidt was the director of The Learned Ladies, and was in charge of the auditions. (Later, Schmidt’s daughter Jenni showed me the videotaped auditions; I was astonished that her dad had taken the leap of faith to cast me, and suggested that perhaps the tape be burned.) Though small in stature and with a quick smile, the man burned with intensity and did not suffer fools gladly. Somehow, he not only suffered me, but also cast me in the lead role of Chrysale, which Moliere himself had played 300 years earlier.
Of the ensuing rehearsals I hold very little in the way of specific memories; what I can recall is a sense of desperation – a desperate desire to improve what little craft I had so as to please Schmidt, who was a taskmaster of the highest order. He had taken a risk casting a first-timer in the lead, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. I took the whole matter seriously, which was a new sensation for me. And how could I possibly not take it seriously, when I had to learn all that dialogue, some monologues going on for literally pages? It was a daunting assignment, but I pulled it off, thanks to Schmidt’s guidance and faith. Getting laughs while talking and acting silly on stage felt wonderful, and is something I indulge in to this day.
The process gave me a bit of self-confidence, and led to further roles with the O&N Players. It also paved the way for the college production of an original play I wrote, Smiling at Nothing, which led to the production of post-graduation original plays in Portland and Kennebunk.
So bravo to Emile O. Schmidt, for playing an influential role in my life. I will remember you always.