Earle Gister

Earle in 2011. Photo by Bruce Katzman, my YSD classmate and Earle’s devoted friend.

My Yale Drama School acting teacher died this week. He was 77 and lived long and tumultuous life. He was an extraordinary teacher.

In my first year at Yale Drama School, I was determined to prove to Earle what a great actor I was. I was working on the infamous head-bandaging scene from The Seagull. I had realized that the scene was about a guy with mommy issues, and as such would dove-tail nicely with my own. I’ll hit the ball out of the park, I thought, I’ll crack myself open. But instead of being a weeping, throbbing mess of actor greatness at the end of the scene, I was dry-eyed and numb. Earle stared at me. “Something’s missing, huh?” We brought that scene in three times and it just got further and further away from me. It was from that experience that I coined the expression: I have the emotional depth of a paper plate.

Some years and therapy later I can see that he was on to me from the start. He knew I was an actor more concerned with my own ego than with the given circumstances of the scene, and he knew that through repetition the scene, and my failure at it, would expose me to myself. I kind of hated him then, but I revere him now as one of the most powerful influences in my life as an artist.

In 2006 I wrote a book about an actor bound up in the self-destructive throes of narcissism. I gingerly reached out to him, and asked him if he might read it and write a blurb about it, feeling all the while very insecure. He did read it, and he wrote a glowing blurb, which is proudly on every copy of that book. He was saying to me – you learned something after all, didn’t you Ben? Yes I did Earle. Thank you.

In addition to being a great teacher, Earle was something else. Earle was an alcoholic. And while I can’t confirm it, I suspect – knowing that he had been drinking again – that if this disease didn’t kill him, it certainly played a major role in his demise. In addition to all the wonderful stories we are telling about him on-line, true and inspirational, there are other stories, equally true and tragic. Like the time we invited him to play Trivial Pursuits at a student’s apartment, and he got so drunk so quickly that within 90 minutes we were laughing at him, not with him. Asked to name the largest body of water in North America, he shouted “Gulf of Mexico!” For the remainder of my time at YSD “Gulf of Mexico” became code for getting shit-faced. “Oh man, my head . . . ” we would moan in voice class, “got pretty Gulf of Mexico last night . . .”

He could be mean when he got drunk. I remember an encounter at a cast party in which he staggered over to me and a friend he knew I compared myself to. He stood between us, swaying. “You’re a good actor Ben, but you’ll never be great,” he slurred, pointing at my friend, “he’s going to be great.” He would tie one on, and then do what we came to call the “Antler Dance”, boogying around the dance floor waving his finger-spread hands over his head.

Like so many intense and creative souls, Earle struggled with demons and the urge towards oblivion. I was one of the last actors to see him smoke, and my enduring memory of my year studying with him was of a smoke-filled basement room on Crown Street. He comically divided the students in two groups – smokers and non-smokers (yes, we could smoke as we watched each other act). But soon the “non-smoking” side of the room was rendered meaningless by a blue haze so think you could cure meat in it. Like all addicts, he had fascinating rituals, and the way he opened his packages of Chesterfield unfiltereds was like watching a watchsmith at work. He went through a half a pack each class. It took the removal of his larynx to stop him from smoking, and for the last 20 or so years of his life he spoke through a kind of microphone held to his throat, rendering his voice a monotone, robotic shadow of its former gravelly greatness.

He tried to stop drinking. His amazing wife Glynda moved out, then moved back in. There were interventions, and support of all kinds offered by students and colleagues. He was able to put together some wonderful years sober in those last 20, but ultimately his disease took him down. I don’t pass judgment on him one little bit. How could I? I’m a drunk myself, and throughout my three years at YSD I was Gulf of Mexico on a regular basis, with a few trips to Lake Titicaca to boot. There were many of us at Yale. I think Earle could spot a kindred spirit in auditions.

I wish I knew why some us can learn how to achieve sobriety one day at a time, and some of us can’t. It’s one of the great awful sadnesses of my life. I wonder what Earle might have been like without that disease. Who knows? It’s tempting to say, even greater. But perhaps he wouldn’t have burned so brightly. I do know this though: it would have been easier on his family.

The book I sent him to read is in part about the connection between alcoholism and creativity; about how our intense need to run away from ourselves can lead us to two fantasy worlds, one on stage and one in the bottle. In my story, Andy begins to learn how to disentangle those two worlds, which had seemed so intertwined before. I too worried that I wouldn’t be as creative if I stopped drinking. What horse shit. Ultimately, after a period of intense restlessness and vulnerability, the recovering person rediscovers himself outside of a prison, in the bright sunlight with a wide open world to navigate. I think it’s that view that is intolerable for some, who return to the confines of the walls they know so well, instead of a real world filled with unknowns.

Wounded actors like me and Earle are drawn to the play because it organizes experience safely. It has a beginning, middle and end, and no matter how furious or sad we may become within it’s given circumstances, we know what happens each time. The same may be said of the alcoholic and his drink. We know what happens each time. Safe. Familiar. Oblivion.

Again, thank you Earle, for teaching me in ways you never knew. You are teaching my students now, through me. I so wish I might have brought you to an enduring peace while you were alive. But you might have said to me, that’s grandiose bullshit, Ben. People have to go and find the peace themselves, or not. You might have said, play an action Ben. Don’t think about it first, just do it. Learn something from doing it.