I know hearing about the halcyon days of one’s college youth can be like listening to paint dry, but UNC’s Lab! theater was (and is) cool enough to warrant mentioning here. I credit the Lab for two things: one, showing me and 22,000 other students that it was possible to put on a professional play without the help of any adults; and two, allowing Tessa and I to get married.
I’ll get back to that second part, but I just need to mention how fucking great the Lab was in its day. Nothing but a black box theater in an ancient Drama building, the Lab was built into the old student union where Andy Griffith used to perform his skits in front of adoring crowds during pre-WWII Carolina. By the time I got there, it was an anything-goes experimentation center for whatever the post-adolescent mind could dream up. The first Lab show I ever saw was “The Real Inspector Hound” by Tom Stoppard, and I was hooked.
At a performance of “The Bacchae,” starring a very young, very pumped-up Fred Weller, then-18-year-old Tessa slithered over my shoes as one of the Dionysian sprites, and we became friends later at the cast parties, and then in the English Department. The Lab became the testing ground of future acting studs like Fred, Billy Crudup, Laurie Williams and Laurel Holloman; directing studs like Tessa, Tom Cole and Eric Rosen; and even backstage wizards like Walt Spangler and network anchors like Laurie Dhue. Google them all if you must, suffice to say they’re some of the best in the business, on or off Broadway. You see the faces of Chris Briggs, John Bland or Greg Miller all the time, even if you don’t know their names yet.
In the spring of my (first) senior year, I finally developed the nads to audition, and got the lead in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which was a huge hit, due in some part by the score, arranged by my mom and played over the speakers as we sang (she was to score the Pink House for us thirteen years later). Every cast member in that show was brilliant, and I finally felt as though I could be funny in a large crowd. Tessa, of course, missed the show because she was dating some other dude and probably had Comp Lit homework.
Years later, my brother Sean ended up at Carolina, and promptly wowed the crowd with “La Bte” and then a hugely successful run of “The Fantasticks.” Mac Rogers, who wrote the Lucretia Jones play I mentioned yesterday, started his career in the Lab with three big works of his own. By the time my 12-year sojourn in Chapel Hill was over in 1997, the Lab had been a truly sacred space where anything was possible.
Billy Crudup, me, Paul Goodson and Alison Michel during “Charlie Brown” at the Lab in 1989
the Lab now
Thomas Wolfe, our UNC forefather and a spiritual father to the Lab, said “you can’t go home again,” and he’s right: when I visited the Lab space last year, it had been ripped to shreds and rebuilt in the form of a Howard Johnson’s conference center. I was so depressed that I snapped a picture and ran out of there. The Lab still exists somewhere else on campus, but I have a hard time believing it retains the magic, without any interference from the ham-fisted Powers That Be. There’s only so long you can get away with something.
But there was one lasting legacy: in the summer of 2000, Tessa and I hadn’t seen each other for many years. While perusing the Lab! Alumni page, she came across my name, and said to herself, “I hope that Ian is okay – he’s really the kind of guy that could end up in a dark room getting stoned for years on end.” So she wrote to me.
Date: Thu, 25 May 2000 00:41:17 EDT
From: Tessa B.
To: Ian W.
what are you up to? where do you live? what’s happening in your life?
…and I wrote back:
Date: Thu, 25 May 2000 00:03:11 EDT
From: Ian W.
To: Tessa B.
Just waiting for the right to ask you to marry me.