Rev. John Koole '57
My love of the theatre developed from an early aptitude for recitation that I had from my mother and a love of opera that I had from my father. I still remember the surprise of finding as I recited "The Night before Christmas" for our Allendale,N. J. grade school that knees really do knock. And I remember well standing in line with a school chum for a performance of Aida at the Metropolitan, my first taste of a live opera. I think it was the last time that I so overestimated my capacity for standing for several hours. The old Met was full of tricks for the less affluent part of its audience. When the Ramsey High French class attended Manon, it took us some time to figure out from our seats where the stage was. It was more fun when my uncle took me to see "Der Meistersinger." He could afford good seats. Opera was not at all part of the Calvin experience and I had all I could do to maintain my privacy at the old dorm on Saturday afternoons so that I could tune in to Milton Cross and the Met. However, one of the greatest operatic thrills of my life was a wintry concert of the GR symphony with a favourite of both my father and myself, Zinka Milanov. It was poorly attended, but she forged a note from somewhere behind her, it seemed, and sent it booming through the old Civic as she sang Pace, Pace Mio Dio. It was breathtaking. My first real experience with theatre was in the 7th grade when I was given the part of Koko, the Lord High Executioner for the Mikado, complete with hatchet and a large handkerchief to cry into (and a rope burn on my neck in an aborted hanging). This was not long after the war and the newspaper headline cleverly reported "Mikado takes Allendale without firing a shot." They were intrigued by my high-pitched voice, which I remember I did my best to disguise, being very embarrassed by my high soprano (No one ever told me that there was reason for a boy to be happy at being able to soar up to a b). My voice reminded them of the voice in a popular Philip Morris cigarette ad.
Our regional high school gave boys no opportunity for singing. I had some good roles in plays, but most of the plays were romantic fluff. I was Presbyterian until I confessed my faith in the family's church of origin, Midland Park, near the end of my high school years, but I was reared "as if" Christian Reformed, and I remember what a terror it was to have to dance across the stage in one play.
I came to Calvin, a very shy little freshman, knowing no one and unfamiliar with the CRC culture. It took a year to dare enter the music scene, but I started immediately with Thespians and had a minor role as a ruffian in Abe Lincoln in Illinois with a tough egg line that amused the audience, for though the voice was by this time right, the pint-sized speaker wasn't. All I remember of this play was my introduction to cast member Hans Uittenbosch, who seems in real life to be permanently on stage. In "Elizabeth the Queen" I played the Fool, which I would do later in "As You Like It." I remember nothing of "The Late Christopher Bean" or "Life with Mother," but I notice that I often shared the stage with a few other N.J. actors, Stu Kingma, John Zegers, and Faith Holtop (Orlebeke). Perhaps in those days, serious drama had not gone much further than Western Michigan (Merle van Dyke), Paterson and Chicago (Don Postma and the Huiners); we were all Christian Reformed.
My Shylock was well received, also by Prof. Henry Zylstra, who had but a year to live, and what a loss to the college his death in Amsterdam was. His course made Shakespeare's work truly come alive. The volume of the bard's plays I found under the Christmas tree almost 60 years ago is still one of my most prized possessions, and my proximity to Ontario's Stratford has allowed me to see just about the entire canon of plays, some many times. Several things stand out about preparing the role of Shylock. I was part of an excellent production, but I developed a tongue blister late in the game and Mrs Batts took me aside and asked me if that was all I was going to do with the part? I happily got rid of the blister. Then there was the line "I thank God, Tubal." Mysteriously, it had not been cut. How could I say that? I dropped it --until at the last minute I discovered that I simply could not leave it out. I also began to work my fingers on my staff. The character began to emerge in me. The putty nose and costume also triggered my imagination. I think that I do best in non-standard parts that drive my imagination into something very unlike who I am (Dare I say that about the part of the Fool?). One cast member said that, near tears one night, she really did cry the next. I will not vouch for an interpretation that makes Shylock a pathetic figure, but I guess that was the direction I took. The first night I put my hands to my face in the last scene and was sure I had mashed my nose. I dared not look up before my exit. Happily, in those days, we had no worries about being politically correct. How Stratford must struggle these days with putting the Jew on stage, the Moor, the "converted" Shrew. Ben Carlson made the most of his soliloquies in Hamlet this year. How Shakespeare does preach! I wondered how much these young folk making phone calls around me in their varied dress and hair styles absorbed of this other world of the Dane. The tittering when the ghost talked of his torments gave some hint of the struggle to hear seriously the messages about death and forgiveness and meaning. Years ago I was distracted when Romeo appeared on the balcony bare-chested and the young audience started hooting. This year I got a similar surprise when the Roman Catholic Dutch widow in her 80's I took to the same play began protesting on the way out that they made too much of the love element. "If you have the same background, etc...." Having studied in the Netherlands, I recognized the typical sober Dutch practicality and laughed heartily. I told her she was probably right, but they would not hire her to teach literature or drama.
Calvin has come a long way in 75 years with respect to drama. I remember two men talking to me about a future in drama after my performance in 7th grade. I had no answer, for no Christian could possibly be involved in professional theatre. The sacred day of worship was as much an obstacle to that as it was to Johnny vander Meer's playing Sunday baseball. And nothing indicated any change when I was interviewed by the Board for entry into the seminary. Bernie Peckelder, Midland Park's pastor at the time, confronted me, a very nervous young man, with a brilliant question about how a Christian could dare leave himself in the wings and play another person. I lost all nervousness and began fighting for my very life in my answer. But the exchange ended with someone suggesting it might be better to memorize Bible verses than lines for a play. We quickly changed the subject. Even 15 years later an Ontario Christian grade school principal complained bitterly that one of the supporting communities would not permit any dramatization of Bible stories.
There are no easy answers to the perennial question of life as a servant of Christ in the world full of "lords many." I sometimes wonder if an overdose of romantic opera did not skew my worldview. But I am thankful that Stratford continues to draw people through classical theatre to discover answers people suggested long ago. And I am thankful that Professors like Miss Slingerland and Henry Zylstra and many others built further on my training in literature, adding a new dimension that Calvin seeks to articulate. I am grateful as well for the opportunity I received in Thespians to grapple not only with theatre as a whole, but also with the deeper questions of portrayal as an opportunity to enter into the lives and sorrows of people quite unlike yourself.
-John Koole, class of '57