On Saturday, July 11, 2009, friends and family of David H. Semmes will gather to celebrate his life. This is sure to be an event filled with over the top storytelling, a skill that David excelled at, and one that he bequeathed to many of us who had the good fortune to venture into his world. David taught theatre at UW-Manitowoc for many, many years, making contributions to both the quality of the arts at the campus and to our community as a whole.
I first met David the year after my senior year in high school. Having dabbled a little in theatre, and wanting to explore more, I wandered into auditions in the tiny theatre at UW-Manitowoc. I knew nothing about the campus, nothing about the play being produced, and nothing about the man in charge. A small group had already gathered when I arrived. In unison, all heads turned when I entered, and a tall man stood and shouted "Welcome. Come on in and join the fun."
Now, I can't explain why I was drawn to theatre in the first place; I was always a background person - dependable wallpaper. The eyes fixated on me, and the bellering voice in my direction sent me running out the of the Fine Arts Theatre, into the lobby, out the double doors. Heading across the parking lot to my car, I heard the voice again. He was following me. I ran...honestly, the only time recall ever running! He was yelling "Come back, we need you." Right. If he hollered at me before we even met, before I had a chance to mess up even a little, what would it be like if I got a part, blanked out on stage, entered at the wrong time, or just plain couldn't cut it ? Nope. This just wasn't for me. My theatre career was over. Short lived. Done before it began.
Still, the thought haunted me, and a week after the great parking lot chase, I saw a tiny article in the HTR, announcing a training session for a readers theatre group. I called. A nice lady invited me to the meeting. Reading with a soft spoken lady seemed more my style, so I found my way to Fairmont Street, where I was greeted by a lovely redhead. Shortly after exchanging introductions in the kitchen, she was called into the living room, and crazy Fred arrived, a dog who announced his immediate dislike for me by showing his teeth and snarling. This was not run of the mill snarling. This was "I want you out of my house" snarling, the kind that includes occasional gurgling, and snorting. Well, old Fred managed to back me up until I was pinned between him and the refrigerator. I had just enough courage to sidle along, finally reaching the living room. doorway- quite a sight for those already at the meeting - me taking sideways baby steps, arms spread slightly at my side, entering the room backwards. It was then that I heard it - that booming voice - calling "Welcome. Come in and join the fun." It was him. I was torn between crazy Fred, and my parking lot pursuer. I chose the later, and am grateful for that decision.
David gave me countless, valuable opportunities over the years. Many of us still puttering in local theatre got our first moments in the footlights, and our love of the art from hours of work and play with David. The list of what I learned from him would be lengthy, and technical. It would make dramaphiles quiver with delight, no doubt. More than anything else, I cherish the peripheral lessons...give everyone a chance; try it, you might like it; nobody likes a diva; dream big; read lots of plays and see even more; be quiet and listen to the stories; be a rock in case someone near you needs a rock; nothing is too serious to chuckle about; be a little scary, it makes those you touch stronger...and so much more.
I am lucky. David and I kept in touch after he retired and left Manitowoc. Each year I got a Christmas card, with just enough of a note to let me know all was well. David still came to his Manitowoc dentist, and, on those days, we would go to lunch. He would talk, and I would listen. The stories of his new life were as engaging as any he ever told, and I never tired of them.
I will miss him.
*****No blog next week. I'll be at a trade show in Chicago Sunday and Monday.