Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Life on the Stage

Clayton Corzatte, an actor from Fairhope who died last weekend, had a profound effect on my own life and certainly on many others as well.

Happy-go-lucky as this picture looks, Clayton spent his life as a theatre actor, working in New York and in the regional theatre before Alabama Shakespeare Festival was even thought of. He had a shot at the movies, did a little television, but was more interested in living a life as an ordinary guy who just happened to be an actor by profession.

As I remember it, he was in the speech department at the University of Alabama, majoring in Radio/Television when the television part was in its infancy, when someone said he really belonged in theatre. The director of that department was Dr. Marion Galloway, one of those old dragons whose name often comes up with Alabama actors of a certain age. Clayton was a gentle soul even then and he was warned, "Dr. Galloway will eat  you alive."

But he had found his calling, and he hit it off with Galloway, had some success in university theatre, then took off for Barter Theater and other venues that were beginning to spring up in the 1950s. When I was a teenager he was home from Cleveland Playhouse for a visit with his family and was persuaded to do a one-man show of monologues and poetry at the then-high-school auditorium. I must have had a driver's license, because as I recall I went alone.

I remember sitting in total rapt attention to Clayton reading, among other things, the works of Dorothy Parker. I'm not just being nostalgic when I remember his performance. He read such works as "The Waltz" and "Just a Little One" as a woman, and he was convincing and downright brilliantly funny as well. I had never seen a man playing a woman -- and it wasn't a drag show. He did this without benefit of costumes or props. He simply became a woman. He even performed the agony of "The Telephone Call," about a woman obsessed with getting that all-important call (that is not going to come) from a man who has loved and left her, and left me convinced she/he was brokenhearted as only a Parker heroine (and real women everywhere) can be. It was before we knew about "He's just not that into you," and long before the concept reached me, but the day was dawning.

When I moved back to Fairhope in 1988 I asked Clayton and his actress wife Susan to help me with a fundraiser to launch Jubilee Fish Theater, which would be an Equity professional theater for as long as I could keep it going. They did some scenes that brought down the house, and Jubilee Fish became a local institution. They returned two years later for a program of one-acts and a question and answer session with the audience. He was as charming and unassuming offstage as he was talented. He and Susan were a delight to know.

When I learned of Clayton's death I had the mixed feeling one often has. I wish I had known him better. I regret that he died of complications from ALS, which means he had a bad time it it in his last years. He died in Seattle, where he had worked at the Intiman Theater for over 40 years, keeping audiences happy while he and Susan raised a son and daughter and lived a real and full life on and off the stage. He played in virtually everything in the American repertory, from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams and Kaufman and Hart. He said about his life that he was lucky. That he was, and Fairhope and the country was lucky to have him.