Recently, I’ve become interested in the theory that the average human being is much more than he seems. Inspired by the work of comedian Chris Gethard (and The Moth Storytelling Series), I wanted to start sharing a collection of true stories from my life that, though seemingly ordinary, may have had larger implications. This is one of those stories.
I just wanted to be famous. Not for destroying a piece of a debating hall at Oxford University, but for anything else. However, it did get me my biggest laugh. It was also one of the most frightening experiences in my life.
During the summer of 2000, I did a high school study-abroad program at Oxford University. I studied Shakespearean Theater four days a week, with a minor class in English Literature. For four weeks, I lived in the cradle of Western academia, with roughly 500 other teenagers from North America. Our teachers and chaperones were Oxford graduates and Rhodes Scholars. No parents. Semi-loose authority. Living in a foreign country. It was – without question – the best summer of my adolescence.
My days were spent in theater classes, held in the cathedral at St. Peters College. There I studied with 30 other students; some of us from L.A., some of us from the East Coast, a couple from Canada. It wasn’t the stereotypically diverse rainbow of The Real World, but it sure felt like it back then. Guiding us on our intense study of Shakeapeare’s works was Rob, a man whose daily use profanity in a church will definitely earn him an extended stay in Purgatory. Next was Haley, a chipper, upbeat woman you’d half expect to see as Simon Pegg’s love interest on Spaced. Then, there was Drew, a real charming guy who made no secret to any of us by week’s end that he was homosexual. A quick clarification: to my comedy writer friends, he did this in the name of honesty and respect; don’t get any funny ideas. Together, the three of them drilled us on diction, scene study, monologues, and finally – auditions. I landed in Much Ado About Nothing – as Dogberry. Drew was my director.
This turn actually angered me. Dogberry was the comic relief, in a comedy. At 17, I wanted to be the next James Dean, and I wanted everybody around me to know it. This was the unfortunate center of my rationale nine years ago. For four weeks, I wanted to forget that back home in New Jersey, I was a loner. Of course, I had tried to embrace the status: I listened to emo music, I hung out at coffeehouses, I dreamed about being an actor in New York, playing Kowalski for all eternity. However, my efforts were all in vain. I was a poor man’s Lloyd Dobler, and back then, any Diane Court had better things to do than wait by her windowside for me. At Oxford, I wanted to re-invent myself. That goal wasn’t helped by the presence of Steve, my drama club rival who also attended the program with me. Steve and I were fierce competitors from 1999-2002. In Haddonfield, he had a posse of fellow drama geeks while I mostly rolled solo, save for my friends Ben and Cale during my last two years. But anyway, though Steve and I were able to be friendly that summer, I think we were both relieved that we got cast in separate shows. His production was Lorca’s Blood Wedding as the romantic male lead… did I mention that I was pissed off with how the casting went?
Anyway, by the end of the first week, we had our parts and my experience came with highs and lows. Dogberry was the buffoon. I wanted people to think I was funny. If I was going to be the comic relief, fine – I should at least do the Gods of Olivier and Gielgud proud. The fact that, back then, I was hung up on such hypothetical stakes should make clear that I was putting too much pressure on myself. You can imagine the results that followed. It wasn’t that people didn’t think I was funny (I had enough manic energy back then to be Robin Williams’s illegitimate son), I just wasn’t funny on-stage. I knew it. My friends knew it. Drew did his best to try to talk me down, but I wouldn’t listen. I was so hung up on being perfect – on impressing people with my talent, on one-upping Steve – that I often sacrificed my own enjoyment in the process. To this day, when I sense my mind getting singularly-focused on the end-product, I have to stop myself and remember to breathe.
Our show was to be presented in The Oxford Union, the night before the final day of the program.
The Oxford Union – for those who may not know – is one of the oldest debating societies in the world. Though not directly associated with Oxford University, the base of its membership is Oxford students. Since 1879, it has hosted debates and lectures from such figures as The Dalai Llama, Winston Churchill, former President Reagan, and Kermit The Frog. In other words, it was a big deal to be doing a show there. During our rehearsals, Drew thought it’d be funny to relieve my frustration with giving Dogberry some physical comedy. “At least he’ll stop thinking.” I could imagine was Drew’s sentiment. At the entrance of Oxford Union is an eight foot brass pole which divides the doorway. The pole has been the one permanent fixture of the Union since its inception. At the end of a debate, the audience would line up on either side of the pole and walk through the doorway to give their vote on the debate’s topic – “Yea” or “Nay”. Drew thought it’d be great if Dogberry walked into the pole. Not once, but twice.
We rehearsed the “pole walking” bit as such: head towards the pole, face down, going on with one of my speeches, get close enough, kick the pole, throw back my head, and feign pain. Easy. I – being a self-conscious perfectionist – couldn’t really do the bit without showing my anticipation of it. God bless Drew for doing all he could, but at the end of it, my poor director just gave up. I was so frightened of looking unfunny that I psyched myself out.
The opening night finally arrived. The night before, Rob’s production of an all-female, Kubuki-influenced King Lear played (complete with some terrific English gales) on the south lawn of St. Peter’s. I remember my friend Liz did a very killer Burgundy. Immediately following, Haley’s production of Blood Wedding got a late-night performance in the chapel. It was very sexy and very Spanish. Everyone thought Steve was great as the handsome cuckold who runs off with the bride; I rolled my eyes. Now, it was our turn – Much Ado About Nothing got an early evening performance, in front of the entire student body.
At the play’s start, I stole the “clapping coconuts” bit from Monty Python. Dogberry’s such an idiot, that why wouldn’t he be riding an invisible horse while clapping some coconuts? So – lights up: the audience hears the familiar sound, I appear on-stage banging away, and the crowd goes wild. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to have you first appearance on-stage be greeted by the cheers of hundreds of people, the answer is “Pretty fucking awesome.” However, after my entrance, the rest of the show was a different story. Looking back now, I realize that Shakespeare isn’t accessible to everybody. Also, the modern-day 17 year old rarely has a real sense of great physical comedy. That said, I knew I wasn’t holding anybody’s attention, and those fears were confirmed with my first run at the “pole walking” bit – it was met with silence.
Here I was: playing to a house of 500 at The Oxford Union. And I was bombing. For an hour and fifteen minutes.
The show went on though; my neurosis not withstanding. Hero got wronged. Benedick and Beatrice fall for each other. Dogberry – by the grace of God – apprehended the nefarious Don John. Happy ending was on the way folks – Dogberry (and the idiot playing him) just needed to get off the stage. On my final exit, I was suppose to do the “pole walking” bit again. My speech about being an ass actually got a laugh, so all wasn’t lost. Riding the small high I was then feeling, I did my set-up for the bit again: head towards the pole, face down, going on with one of my speeches, get close enough, kick the pole, the pole falls out of the doorway, I exit. Wait a minute – the pole falls out? Holy shit, the pole fell out.
On the second time, I kicked the pole so hard that I kicked it right out of it’s socket.
All of a sudden, I’m standing on-stage holding an eight foot, 121 year old piece of Oxford history in my hands. Only five feet away from me, I made direct eye contact with the program’s founder, Professor James Basker. It was like staring into the eyes of a bull in the streets Madrid. In a brief moment of stunned silence, I swore I heard the world collapse. The crash, however, was muffled by the audience exploding with laughter.
In one, single, shining moment of a complete accident, I fucking killed at The Oxford Union.
What do you do in that situation? You exit off-stage – pole in hand – and you really are an idiot, if you don’t come back out with it to take your curtain call. Both of which, I did.
Shortly after the show, Drew helped me replace the pole back into the doorway. Before he could say anything to me, he looked me in the eyes and just started laughing. It was then that I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to find Professor Basker staring back at me.
“What is your name, young man?” he asked.
“Matt Fried, sir.”
If this were, in fact, a scene out of Say Anything, it would be the part where I’d be told to pack my bags and get ready to go home early. Thankfully, it wasn’t – Professor Basker had a sense of humor.
“Well, Mr. Fried. You’ve certainly made your mark at Oxford. I’m looking forward to mentioning you in my orientation speech next summer.”
Professor Basker left me with Drew, and Drew then told me to go see my friends. Go enjoy the new celebrity.
After four weeks of waiting, I did become famous. I was Matt Fried. The kid that broke the Oxford Union.