As an aspiring actress, I would use the emotions I felt and witnessed others feeling during these types of tragedies and global events. I found inspiration in everything, the joyous as well as the sad. During my high school years, I was lucky enough to have a most enthusiastic and outstanding drama teacher as my first acting teacher. Inez Norman Spiers was legendary at Garden City High School. Mrs. Spiers gave our school the greatest gift by creating a drama department and theater group called Masquers that was one of the finest programs a public school could offer. Despite the fact that our school tended to focus more on academics and sports than the arts, the drama program was second to none. Mrs. Spiers had curly red Lucille Ball–style hair that was cut short and cropped close to her head. She wore green nail polish and was quite a colorful character in her presentation. As a teacher, she gave me such an incredible head start. I was 13 years old when I took my first class with Mrs. Spiers, and I continued to study with her until I graduated high school in 1964. She always had her students rehearse plays the way they do on Broadway and the way the protracted process works on television with a table read and blocking. She taught us to dissect scenes from beginning to end so we could understand not only the work but the meaning as well. Mrs. Spiers thought it was crucial to understand all areas of theater, so she taught us to apply theatrical makeup and to engage in role-playing, movement exercises and character work. She also encouraged us to learn as much about the behind-the-scenes work of set design and construction as we could. Mrs. Spiers took no prisoners. She was tough and expected her students to comply with the high standards she set for us. She was a strict teacher who placed many demands on her students, but all of them were in line with what we would need to do as professional actors someday. I was very lucky that Mrs. Spiers took to me right away. She believed in me and encouraged me to pursue acting from the very start. I was always cast in the various productions, playing a variety of leading roles throughout high school, which was wonderful. Mrs. Spiers had us performing everything from The King and I to Noël Coward. The woman was incredible to offer that type of diversity in high school.
Doing all of those shows gave me the experience of being onstage and of working at an advanced level at such an early age. It was Mrs. Spiers who taught me never to upstage the other actors and to learn how to improvise when something goes wrong. She helped us discover how to turn every mishap into an opportunity. I remember hearing a story she told about an early Masquers production when a backdrop painting fell in the middle of a performance. Without missing a beat, the actor onstage said, "My, how the natives are restless tonight." My only dilemma was that while I was involved in the drama department, I was also involved in cheerleading. Because I cheered throughout the school year, I'd often have practice or games between play rehearsals. The only way I could rehearse and make it in time to a football or basketball game was to wear my cheerleading uniform to both. Mrs. Spiers hated that and wasn't shy about telling me how she felt. She explained that I didn't move the same way in a cheerleading outfit as I did in my costume—and she was right. So, sometimes, I would throw a dress rehearsal skirt over my cheerleading skirt, which made my hips look really wide, but at least I was doing the right thing. I didn't want to disappoint Mrs. Spiers, but I made commitments to both activities, and I wanted to do both. Mrs. Spiers also didn't like the idea that I would finish rehearsals and then run off to the football field. Understandably, she wanted my undivided attention. I was told the year after I graduated that Mrs. Spiers officially banned rehearsing in anything but your proper attire. I am sure her heart was in the right place. It's not as if she didn't like sports, because she was always trying to enlist the football players to be in her plays. But that Glee mentality hadn't quite sunk in at our school yet—at least not while I was there. Many years after I graduated, the school commemorated Mrs. Spiers by naming the auditorium after her. She deserved that honor and so much more.
Published on March 29, 2011