When I started attending Arizona State University in the mid-80s, I had a dream of being a screenwriter, but no real concrete plan on how to achieve it (the story of my life, really). Taking basic creative writing courses and reading Syd Field’s screenwriting bible on my own time was my only option. Then, during my sophomore year, I heard about an advanced playwriting class, THP460 Dramatic Composition for Stage, offered through the Theater department. ASU didn’t have any screenwriting courses at the time, so this was the next best thing, and I became determined to get into it. The instructor, Percy Granger, a visiting playwright from New York City, restricted admission to writing students he personally approved to take his class. The fact that it was an upper-division class normally limited to juniors and seniors meant I had to really sell myself though I didn’t have a lot of material to show him.
Percy Granger was a Harvard-educated playwright in residence at a well-known NYC theater (I can’t remember which one — it was listed on one of his plays that I have around here somewhere) who had taken a sabbatical. Noted for his satirical wit, he’d had plays performed on Broadway. I was both intimidated and in awe of Percy Granger and I aspired to be him.
When I met with Percy, he may have seen some potential in me because he agreed to let me into his class. To that point, all my classes had been fairly easy lower division ones but now I was moving up to the big leagues. Ecstatic, I vowed to myself I would validate Percy’s trust in me and prove my worth as a writer.
Percy’s class was an intimate gathering of around twelve students, so we were able to develop a personal rapport and discuss our projects in depth. Let me put it into perspective — my English classes were at least double in size and my biology class had 400 students jammed into a lecture hall. Anyway, as a 19-year-old sophomore, I was one of the younger ones in the class. Percy was around forty, a good-looking man with an impressive, yet humble, intellect, an artist who possessed both humor and gravitas. A fantastic teacher, he worked closely with us to sharpen our skills in dramaturgy. As a group, we knew we were part of something special and could do great things as we each began working on a play.
Finally, I’d found a path to my calling and a feeling of intense motivation coursed through me — I felt alive and connected to something bigger. I was ready. Ready to shoulder the Bard aside and set the playwriting world on fire with my wit and talent and claim my spot in the pantheon of great playwrights. Destiny had issued a clarion call and challenged me to answer it.
One small problem that destiny had not accounted for. Unfortunately, I was a terrible playwright.
Okay, let me walk that back. I don’t know for a fact that I was a terrible playwright from a talent standpoint because I never actually wrote a play that semester. So I guess the jury is technically still out on that one. What I can’t deny is the fact that I was a terrible student — well, at least for that one fateful semester.
Anatomy of a disaster in the making
At the time, I didn’t realize I’d set myself up for a potential academic Gotterdammerung. However, that spring semester, a confluence of factors created the perfect storm for an epically poor academic showing. To wit:
- I was an immature 19-year-old with big dreams.
- I was an undisciplined procrastinator with a dash of laziness.
- I was taking a full schedule of classes.
- I was flirting with a massive inferiority complex.
- I’d discovered partying.
- And worst of all — I was head over heels in love.
Ah, love. The Great Inspirer and the Great Debilitator of earnest young artists everywhere. Its delicate ambrosia has nourished geniuses who produced great works or food poisoned pathetic, love-lorn wretches who created sappy drivel. (One guess as to which group I fell in.)
Unfortunately, I had as much experience at love as I did with playwriting. I’d met a young woman through her best friend who was a new acquaintance of mine and we hit it off — her interest in me caught me pleasantly off guard. At the mature age of 20, she wasn’t a student, but a woman of the world. Anyway, I fell madly in love with her after she seduced me one night; crushed, I found out afterward she had a long-term boyfriend who she had initially characterized as an ex (apparently, whenever they fought — which was frequently — she considered them broken up). This complicated my life more than I was emotionally equipped to handle because the thought of being the other man did a number on me. Morally, it put me in a quandary. But I believed her contention that their relationship was doomed any day and since I was smitten (I even took her to meet my parents once), I was on the hook and ready to wait it out.
This went on for two months and pathetically, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about our future together and writing earnest, romantic twaddle to express the depths of my hope and anguish engendered by my semi-requited love. I also spent a lot of time hanging out at her best friend’s apartment hoping my love would show up. More often than not, she didn’t, so I drank my sorrows away because the apartment was also party central.
The 24-hour man
In the midst of my romantic Sturm und Drang, I struggled to make it through my full load of classes and work on the play I owed Percy Granger. Initially, I got out of the gates strong and wrote dialogue like a madman, but I couldn’t sustain it and began to falter well into the semester. I had school all day and then work and then projects. All while working on my “epic” play and pining for my true love. This could have been a challenge for someone with good organizational and time-management skills, never mind me, the High Lord Procrastinator. It was getting late in the semester and the only solution was to prioritize my activities and make wise choices.
Or take lots of speed.
(I’d ask you to guess which option I went with, but it’s not really a challenge at this point in the story.)
That was the problem with hanging out with partiers. They had access to drugs, which meant I had access to drugs. Now, I drank like a fish, but I’d never really been into drugs, but there were only 24-hours in a day, and I needed to be awake for as many of them as possible to handle my business, so I started popping amphetamines.
I’ll be the first to admit that this was a terrible solution and just a dumb idea in general. You know how I was inexperienced and bad at handling everything else? Yeah, add drugs to the list. Speed made everything else worse. Sure, it enabled me to get through the day and night, but not effectively. Things began to unravel.
Writer’s block from hell
Everything was suffering, but where I really began to struggle was in Percy’s class.
My problem was I didn’t have a story. I had a collection of absurd characters ala the BBC’s The Young Ones, but no real plot, no arc, no drama. Part of my problem was the fact I was young and hadn’t done anything in my life. I wasn’t creative enough to overcome that lack of life experience. All I had in my play was meaningless banter that took place around a giant sculpture made of empty beer cans (inspired by some dudes I knew who tried to create a beer-can sculpture out of their vast collection of empties — plus the time when some smartasses had once built an impromptu beer sculpture on me when I passed out at a party).
Basically, I had nothing. My stuff was garbage. At one point we did a live read with actors on a Saturday morning, and I had some decent dialogue, but it was meaningless. Just vapid exchanges that did nothing. I felt embarrassed. One of my older classmates cranked out a short play that Percy loved so much he helped get it produced at Drama City with local actors. Late in the semester, I felt discouraged, physically and emotionally wrung out, twisted dry like a dishrag.
And the more I wrote, the worse it got. At a critical juncture, my output lessened and ground to a halt. Creatively, I’d thrown in the towel — and that didn’t help things at all.
The end is nigh
One day, I was supposed to hand in my latest material in class, but with my deadline looming, I had nothing. Nothing at all. I’d been up late in a last-ditch attempt to scribble and scratch down something meaningful, but defeated, I gave up. Tail between my legs, I showed up to class and apologized profusely. To his credit, Percy Granger didn’t’ castigate me. He nodded and told me not to worry, these things happened, and to get him something later in the week. Relieved, I thanked him and vowed to myself I would redouble my efforts. And I did try, scribbling away on my yellow legal pad late at night crafting random lines of dialogue. But my muse still had a restraining order against me.
All along, I kept burning the candle at both ends; something had to give, and it eventually did. The Titanic hit the iceberg and began taking on water. Zombified in my cabin, I just hadn’t realized it yet.
A decision is made
When class rolled around, I had made zero headway. So, filled with despair, I skipped it. I reasoned I would just work twice as hard the rest of the week and come up with an act worthy of Percy Granger and submit it the following class. But again, I failed.
Defeated, I knew I should have gone to Percy earlier on in the semester and admitted I was struggling creatively, but it was too late by then. Afraid of being exposed as a fraud, I’d kept it to myself — it’s a deep-rooted flaw from childhood and a recurring pattern of behavior that plagued me for a long time — and still does if I let it.
After I missed my second class in a row, I could no longer contain my anxiety, so I made my decision. No way I could go back and face Percy Granger and admit I’d let him down again and betrayed his trust. I was pretty sure it was far too late to withdraw from the class, but I didn’t care. My course was set and there was no turning back. I’d take the F.
Once I’d made my decision, I was at peace with it. The only problem was — I hadn’t bothered to tell anyone else. So, I just avoided the Theater building, which wasn’t hard — Percy’s class was my only one in it.
An uncomfortable reminder
Not long after, I ran into one of my playwriting classmates coming out of Language and Lit. It was the dude who’d written the kick-ass play. He’d been kind of a big-brother figure to me. Concerned, he stopped me.
“Hey, man, where have you been?
The class had a tight bond and he told me everyone had been wondering what had happened to me.
“Percy’s been worried about you.”
Great. I felt even worse hearing that. I was having trouble being articulate and completing full sentences, but I assured him everything was fine, but he didn’t look convinced.
“You sure everything is okay? You look rough, dude.”
Actually, I felt like hell and apparently, I looked like it too.
Anyway, I thanked him for his concern and told him to tell Percy not to worry — I’d stop by to talk. The lie slid easily off my tongue and I felt bad about it and even worse for having let Percy down. I was an asshole. But I had made my decision, and I wasn’t going back. A failure, I would do us both a favor and just stay away. While I didn’t relish flunking Percy’s class, I’d come to terms with it; I actually felt worse about betraying his trust and squandering the opportunities he had given me. Percy had believed in me and I had let him down. I couldn’t face him.
Finally, the semester ended. By that time, I’d stopped popping amphetamines though the rest of my life was still turbulent. I’d been hanging out with some friends one night and crashed on the couch of my friend Pam, who was a punk chick and a hardcore partier. When we both roused close to noon, she asked me if I could drive her to the ASU bookstore to sell her books back (I always kept mine, but she was chronically broke). It was too hot out and she was too hungover for the bus, so I said sure. We hit up McDonald’s for shakes and went to the bookstore.
While Pam went in to take care of business, I stood out front of the bookstore and took refuge from the hot sun in the shade of the building by some oleanders that used to grow on the west side of the walk up. Hungover, I stood there hidden behind my sunglasses, sipping my chocolate shake.
The bookstore was doing a brisk business, and there were a ton of people out front. I hoped Pam wouldn’t take too long.
I stood there, an island in a sea of people washing in and out of the entrance to the bookstore. Among the hubbub, I caught part of the conversation of a man and a woman who had stopped right next to me to talk. The buzz of their words didn’t register, but something familiar about their conversation penetrated the fog of my hangover and set off my Spidey Sense. My eyes mere slits behind my shades as I slurped my shake; I turned and peered over my shoulder at the broad, t-shirted back standing next to me. What I saw chilled my blood and stopped me in mid-slurp.
Oh my God — It was Percy effin’ Granger!
Sure enough, there he stood with his back to me, larger than life, so close I’m surprised I didn’t accidentally bump into him. Stupified, my brain couldn’t fathom the odds that the one person in the world I was actively trying to avoid had materialized right next to me on the last day I’d be on campus for three months. And he hadn’t seen me. But he had trapped me perfectly against the oleanders. If I tried to slip past him on either side, he surely would have seen me. Despite the shock, I knew I had to keep a level head.
Then Percy Granger turned slightly in my direction as he chatted. Oh, shit! He was about to discover me! I had to act fast.
So, how did I respond? Pretty much like this:
Yes, that’s right. I panicked and went crashing through the oleander bushes with my chocolate shake like an airstrike was incoming, the branches and poisonous leaves whipping and grabbing at me. It was hardly a subtle exit for a guy trying to keep a low profile, but I had a 12-gauge hangover, so my neurons were basically operating in instinctual backup mode.
Emerging in a panic on the other side of the bushes, I found myself in front of the men’s weight-lifting building a tiny, single-story edifice that was more like a bunker. The university was about to demolish it to make way for a new multi-story building. Anyway, I’d never been in it before (duh), but in my mindless dread, I ducked through the door.
One of these things is not like the others…
Dingy, the weight room was a ridiculously small space full of muskiness and beefy bros working out with clanking free weights and on a variety of machines set up in a tiny circuit. Scrawny yours truly definitely stood out. Anyway, I maneuvered through the grunting and sweating He-Men around to the back of the diminutive building. There, I found a door with a small pane of glass in it. Through it, I could see a large outdoor pool area closed down for demolition. Ah ha freedom! Unfortunately, someone had locked the door. (I’m pretty sure that had to be a fire code violation, but hey, the ’80s.)
So, I stood there feeling more than a little awkward while the buff dudes worked out. A few guys were looking at me curiously, the skinny interloper lurking by the back door. But there was nothing for it: I’d just have to wait for a bit until Percy left and then go back to the bookstore and find Pam. I didn’t want her going punk-rock crazy on me if she thought I’d ditched her, but hopefully, she’d wait. She wasn’t in any better shape than I was, so I doubted she’d wander far. How long could Percy talk in front of the bookstore for, anyway?
Not long at all, as it turned out. When I went to peer out the open front door, who did I spy walking jauntily around the oleanders toward the weight room with his gym bag in hand?
Oh shit! Percy Granger!
Seriously? Was life just screwing with me for the hell of it? What was I going to do now? Why was Percy Granger turning into my own personal albatross around my neck? I didn’t have the emotional fortitude that morning to apologize abjectly for my poor behavior as a student. I was finally at peace with the universe — so why did it want to punish me? I just wanted to quietly get my F in the mail and move on. But here came Percy Granger, that paragon of grace, about to stroll in the door and force the issue.
When he came in, I ducked down behind a weight machine like a violating felon hiding from his parole officer. Percy moved to an open station and got ready for his work out. Peering between the weight machines, I kept an eye on him as I crab-walked to maintain my cover. When Percy laid down on a bench, I moved closer to the door. Guys were definitely throwing weird looks my way, but I didn’t care. Finally, when Percy began lifting, I nipped out the front door and hurried back to the bookstore, found Pam, and bolted.
So, I never saw Percy Granger again. A few weeks after the semester, I indeed got my F in the mail. I’m sure he felt bad about it, but I’d left him no choice.
Unfortunately, I’d only planned on getting one F that semester, but I managed to squeak out a second one. Early in the semester, I’d stopped going to my class on the evolution of the Short Story, but I’d kept up with the reading and got the notes from my friend Leslie and passed all the tests. I just needed to do okay on the final and I could raise my grade to a B. Unfortunately, I was a little fuzzy when it was and a girl from class I ran into told me it was on a Wednesday when it was actually on a Tuesday. So I missed it. Maybe I could have begged the professor for a makeup test, but at that point, I’d given up on life. I hoped my earlier efforts might net me a D, but no, I gambled and lost.
Luckily, even though I lived with my parents, my mom and siblings were in the UK visiting family, so I was able to intercept my report card without it falling into my mother’s hands. I burned it out in our driveway.
ASU didn’t kick me out for my poor performance, but they did put me on academic probation. By the end of the summer, I finally had my act together. My “romance” was over (well, for the rest of that year, anyway) and I moved on. Eventually, I retook the classes I had failed (THP460 with a new visiting playwright, Jim Leonard) and redeemed myself.
Anyway, I always wondered what kind of impression the sudden thrashing of oleander branches made on Percy as I noisily disappeared through them that day, but I never found out.
Recently, I was sad to see that poor Percy Granger died around ten years after I was a student of his. Hell, this is a sobering thought — he was a year younger than I am now when he died. Rest in peace, Percy; I actually got a lot of value out of your class, even if I was a poor student.
I learned a lot about storytelling and drama from him that has come in handy over the years. Anyway, here’s an article from the New York Times announcing his death and looking at his career. You can click the link for the full article:
Percy Granger, a playwright who focused his sharp-edged wit on academia, television, advertising and other vulnerable subjects, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 51.
He suffered a cardiac arrest, said his wife, MariElena. He had been unable to work since a previous cardiac arrest in 1992.
Mr. Granger was the author of ”Eminent Domain,” ”The Complete Works of Studs Edsel” and many one-act plays. His short, pithy comedies consistently brightened the Ensemble Studio Theater’s annual spring marathon. ”Scheherazade,” in 1992, was a lunatic satire of life as soap opera and soap opera as it mirrors life.