Acting was a bug that bit me at age five. My parents disapproved what they saw as an impractical choice, so while in high school, I pretended to everyone, and to myself, that I wanted to be a lawyer or an economist. But starting Queens College at sixteen, I could no longer resist pursuing what had long been a secret source of joy for me. With room for one elective class between Political Science and Oceanography, I enrolled in Acting I with Professor Raymond Gasper.
Doctor Ray was a barrel chested, soft spoken, bearded man who became not only a mentor but a friend, offering a knowing and safe presence that led me to later call him Uncle Daddy. He groused at my impertinence but, on occasion, would throw his head back with a raspy laugh that let me and my mates know he wasn’t so averse to the nickname after all.
From Ray Gasper, I learned a proper theatre discipline. He also offered useful advice that took me about fifteen years to take. As usual, he was right when he urged us to be entrepreneurial, to create our own material as artists. “Don’t wait,” he said. I took that to mean don’t wait for others to give you opportunity – or permission. Don’t wait for others to define you. And don’t get caught in a velvet trap of security rather than reaching for what it is you want most.
One of my greatest joys during those years was acting in our main stage production of “Our Town” which he directed. His Experimental Theatre Workshop was likewise a challenging undertaking that indirectly fed me years later when I worked as a solo performer.
He oversaw and mentored the installation of a Summer Theatre in residence at the college. I’m sure he got a kick watching me play Managing Director, nickel and diming the directors of our four chosen plays as we doled out their $100 budgets. Mark Gasper, my contemporary, my friend, and Professor Ray’s son, insisted upon money for breakaway glass for his production of “Petrified Forest” – we butted heads a lot! Uncle Daddy watched with a bemused expression but otherwise said nothing. Our Summer Theatre experience served as an excellent microcosm of the workings of the real world for all of us.
I still look back on my years at Queens College as some of the happiest of my life. I was privileged to meet and work with some dear, wonderful people. While social media has helped me to once again find my beloved college chums, I am saddened that what brings us together this time is mourning the loss of someone who offered a safe haven; a place to grow, to stumble, and to learn.
I have long felt there is nothing more noble you can be than a teacher. There are a precious few I’ve encountered whose words have stayed with me, teaching me to maintain integrity, to strive for excellence and to have the courage to stand up and be heard.
Thirty years later, Raymond Gasper’s influence, kindness and words of wisdom still resonate.
Thank you, Professor Ray. You will never be forgotten.