The Founder


cliff-mag

ABOUT THE FOUNDER CLIFF CABANILLA…..

Like any young actor, I wanted a Tony, an Oscar and my picture in Sardi’s. I don’t know when I got over that. I do know that the process of getting here, and what I saw of life at the top, forced me out of “professional” show biz and into a more exciting life than I could have imagined.

When I went to Detroit in 1964, I’d performed in 18 plays and appeared in two MGM films. I was 28 and had an apartment on the 14th floor in one of nine buildings built for low-income families in the heart of Detroit’s ghetto, three blocks from the Hillbury Classic Theatre at Wayne State University.

The front door was made of steel and rigged with six separate locks and one peephole. The rehearsals were as crazy as my apartment on the 14th floor. I’d heard shouting and seen tears before, but in Detroit and I’m sure in New York, it is routine. Naïve as I was, I was soon screaming with the others.

Over the next eleven months I was in 14 plays and I hated rehearsing 10 of them. I know that stars go through hell to get where they are, but that didn’t make it easier to take their bullying or to sit through their tempers and nerves. In Hollywood they tell the camera and light to “follow the money” — the star.. It’s the same in the legitimate theatre. I learned to deal with them, to sympathize, and take their acting notes, and the notes from their agents, husbands or wives.

And the director, unless you’ve worked together before, is rarely any help. All the director knows about you is what he’s seen for a few minutes during an audition when you were bizarre enough or exciting enough to catch his attention among multitudes of others.

I was once cast for a professional show because I had a beard. They liked the way I looked, but never told me. A month later when I showed up for rehearsals without it, they didn’t know who I was and almost threw me out. During the next four weeks I got little direction but they watched the growth of my beard like hawks. My acting skills were a minor consideration.. And it was the same with most directors, who told me over and over again, “Just do what you did at the audition. That was great.”

Rehearsals over, the play opens and is “set” or “frozen.” Seven times a week, the actors run the routine like Rockettes. Some stage managers encouraged me to change or grow in a part, but they asked me not to mention them if the director noticed it. One of them said that he kept one show alive by starting fights between the actors. Sometimes we don’t need a stage manager to do that. The boredom alone will do it. All this is show biz; that part of the theatre that asks only, “What’s it worth in dollars and cents?” I’ve heard an actor say, “Hamlet? No money in it.”

I continued studying and I began to think of acting as something that took place in a class or at the Actors Studio, unconnected with what I was paid to do in plays. I found myself measuring the type-size of my name in the newspaper and checking to see if the actors with smaller parts had larger salaries. I needed extravagant praise to make me believe in myself. I got tougher and more cynical. The director of one show walked out of the first rehearsal yelling, “This is crazy. Get yourself another director,” while the star and the writers fought over the second line, I knew he’d come back in ten minutes. And he did.

One night during “Anthony and Cleopatra” when an actor, Jim Lane, collapsed on stage because of a severe case of vocal nodules, the very next morning the producer flew an actor in from Florida, Alexander Phenas, put him in costume, and sent him on stage with script in hand for the evening performance. There is really no business like show business.

Through it all, I continued to be bothered by the billing and salaries that reflected agents negotiations rather than relative worth: the large productions that smother the actor, swelling the budget and taking time during rehearsals when the actors work stops. I talked about repertory, regional theatre and productions that had artistic significance. I was out of touch with the Broadway types and out of sight of the “serious” actors. I didn’t fit the style. I wanted something new.

I might have gone on like this, getting more and more unfeeling, while my career advanced, but my analyst, Lavar Rockwood, was opening me up to feeling more; then too, I longed to return to Hawaii. Hawaii, Chekhov might have known the place. In “Uncle Vanya,” Sonia says, “Where the climate is mild, less energy is wasted on the struggle with nature, and so man is softer and milder. People are beautiful and sensitive. Art and learning blossom. There ,philosophy is not gloomy.”

I spent the next months working as a field foreman Luna in the pineapple fields on the island of Lana’i. When I came back to the mainland, I found I’d changed. In a short time of intense feeling, I became aware of a need for the slower, more meaningful life that I once enjoyed. Working in a big city had trained me to ride the bus and walk the streets unseeing, with no connection to the life around me. I didn’t want to live like that anymore.

I decided to return to grad school at BYU and complete my degree, so that I could teach, help young talented people find direction and means of expression, direct new meaningful plays, train people to become a better, more demanding audience, and to create theatre where there was none. I started saying my “good-byes.” My agent at the time was appalled: “You’re gonna work with amateurs? Someone cautioned, “Ivy crumbles stone.” I knew I wouldn’t get rich, but I have no regrets.

Following grad school, job offers came from American Samoa Diablo Valley College and Fresno State, but I needed to be as close to home as possible, and Southern California was the place. So I came, was offered a nice position at San Bernardino Valley College, and I took it. The students responded to my crazy ideas. In a few short years, we had created a full-scale Shakespeare Festival on campus, run by a repertory company made up of students and local professionals.

So here I am, an old time professional show-biz drop out. I have created a form and style of theatre that suits me, and one that audiences seem to like. I marvel at the success of so many of my students, of the many who passed through my classroom and I cannot help but feel pride of fulfillment in the accomplishments of so many of them.