My teacher, Israel Hicks, died on the 3rd of July (see the New York Times obituary); but I didn’t hear about it until this week. In a way, it was appropriate that I’d learn of Israel’s passing while I was at Carnegie Mellon. All of my memories of him are there.
The first time I remember seeing him was at my audition interview. I was being questioned by an acting teacher, Dick Shank, about why I – at age 18 – thought I “deserved” to attend Carnegie Mellon as an undergraduate director. Israel sat at the table with us, and said not one word. He just stared. I figured he was trying to intimidate me: this black guy wearing this leather jacket doing his Clarence Williams, III impersonation. I just looked at him like he’d lost his mind, and proceeded to assert that I belonged at that school. I knew it. Felt it. Wanted it.
Apparently, Israel and Dick believed me. I was accepted.
The next time I saw Israel was on the first day of acting class – when he went around the room and called each and every one of us by name. We were all astonished… and a little bit unnerved. As he intended.
At the end of sophomore year, he talked to me about how things would be when I started directing classes the following fall. He told me to play strategy games like chess. “Directors always have to think ahead,” he said.
He assured I would be well-served by directing teacher, Larry Carra, and the book (Fundamentals of Directing). Then he led me to a window, and told me I’d be even better served by figuring out why the young woman approaching us crossed to the right of a tree instead of the left.
As a junior, I was Israel’s stage manager on a production of River Niger. Determined to do well, I took a hard line with everyone – including Israel. The edge of our newly-built set was fragile, and I commanded all within hearing of my extremely loud voice that they were NOT to jump off the edge of that set! Later, I overheard Israel asking “is the general around?” before he jumped off the edge of the set.
For opening night, I was given a T-shirt stenciled, “The General.” I cherished it.
He’d told me once that I wasn’t mature enough to be a good director. At the end of junior year, I asked if I was mature enough now. He replied, “If you have to ask, then you’re not.” He walked away, and I had to laugh at myself. I could, because he’d taught me how.
Israel Hicks was my teacher. He made me a better artist, a better director and writer, a better person. Because of him, I’ve never approached a script without asking “why.” “Why did she turn on the TV instead of picking up the paper?” “Why is he smiling after that line instead of the next?” “Why would he move upstage of the couch instead of downstage?”
Why didn’t I ever reach out to Israel to thank him? I wish I had.
There is some comfort. Since the man was always six steps ahead of everybody else, he probably knew how much he enriched my life before I did. But for the record, thank you, Israel.