Friday, September 21, 2012

Requiem for John Ingle (and the High School Drama Festival)

When I read about the passing of John Ingle, who’d starred for two decades as Edward Quartermaine on General Hospital, I wondered if this was the same man who’d ruled high school drama competitions back when I was a fledgling thespian. Yup, same guy. I never met him, but in my era his impact on the semiannual festivals put on by the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California couldn’t possibly be overestimated.

I was a student at Alexander Hamilton High School, home of many serious-minded drama kids. Each year we worked hard on our dramatic scenes, comedy scenes, and monologues, hoping to bring back booty. We had some successes (I nabbed a trophy myself, for playing the English-challenged Katharine in Shakespeare’s Henry V), but when it came to the sweepstakes prize we were perennial runners-up to the powerhouse that was Hollywood High School. Hollywood was led by John Ingle, who had a singular knack for directing teenagers in bold material that wowed the judges.

Needless to say, we at Hamilton were not big fans of John Ingle. He was clearly a creative talent, and he was wonderful at instilling discipline into his ranks. But he also had this maddening habit of bending the rules. I’ve never forgotten a scene he staged from Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, a daring choice in an era when school administrators expected their faculty to endorse puritanical standards of conduct. It built to a climax in which a martinet Spanish mother discovers that her pregnant and unwed daughter has hanged herself, and Ingle staged the girl’s death in a way that was sudden and startling. The thing was: we were not allowed costumes or props, and Ingle’s staging made astonishingly dramatic use of a long, dangling shawl. Brilliant? Yes! Unfair? That too.

The next year, the scuttlebutt was that if Ingle’s Hollywood High troupe didn’t win the sweepstakes yet again, he was going to decamp to prestigious Beverly Hills High School. Hamilton’s showcase scene from The Miracle Worker actually beat Hollywood that year, and –- however it happened -- Ingle surfaced the following fall at Beverly High, where arts budgets were generous and lots of campus parents had industry connections. Albert Brooks, Nicolas Cage, Richard Dreyfuss, Joanna Gleason, and David Schwimmer are among the famous alumni of Ingle’s Beverly Hills era. And when Ingle retired after thirty years at Beverly, he gravitated naturally into an acting career in film and television, playing powerful patriarchs. On General Hospital he accrued many fans among cast and crew, along with the audiences at home.

L.A. drama students in my era always had a mixed view of the film industry. We considered Hollywood frivolous, at the same time that we secretly lusted after movie jobs. It was always a thrill when a veteran of the drama festival who’d made good on the big screen was called forth to address us as fellow actors. When, years after my own high school days, I covered the festival for the L.A. Times, Mare Winningham was the warmly-welcomed guest speaker. At that later date, I was struck by how cinematic the performances were becoming. Instead of merely presenting a single, well-conceived excerpt from a play, drama teachers were now squeezing bits and pieces of many scenes into a fast-moving live montage (so that a ten-minute selection from Romeo and Juliet, for instance, crammed together meeting, mating, dueling, and death). And everyone’s “street clothes” consisted of long skirts, flowing sleeves, tight leather britches, and high boots. As always, John Ingle led the way.

BTW, I just returned from watching Endeavor (the space shuttle, not the Hollywood talent agency) make a pass over the iconic L.A. Observatory. I half-expected to see James Dean come out and challenge it to a chickie run.


  1. I watched a big of General Hospital back in the day - knew David Lewis more from his recurring run as the prison warden on the 1960's Batman show - and I was aware that this other gentleman had replaced him in the early 90's. But I had no idea of Mr. Ingle's history - thanks for sharing the spotlight on one of those faces who pop up on our TV screens but about whom we know so little. Your amazing world contains interactions with and brushes with so many interesting people. RIP John Ingle.

    Was the Endeavor experience worth a post? I'd love to hear more about you seeing it!

  2. Ah, yes, seeing Endeavor soaring over the Hollywood Sign on a perfect blue-sky day was very special. I love L.A.! (More on the shuttle this coming week. Thanks for asking.)