A sports columnist for the Boston Herald; a TV, radio, and web sports caster; author of 4 books and over 200 published magazine articles, even a children’s book for Sports Illustrated for Kids; winner of a New England Emmy for best sports feature… It is evident Steve Buckley has left his imprint in the world of sports. But few know how fondly to this day Buckley speaks of theater and acting, and that he’s even professionally dabbled in that world himself. Buckley considers his involvement with Boston Children’s Theatre the “highlight of his acting career.”
“I got into BCT the spring of 1973,” Buckley recalls, “the play was Tom Sawyer and I played the part of Muff Potter, a character unjustly accused of murder until Tom and Huck save the day. I was a junior at what was then Cambridge High & Latin School. I was in the drama club and Mr. Guest called me in one day and said he knew some people at Boston Children’s Theatre and they were looking for an older boy, around 15 or 16, to play Muff Potter. I was nervous, because I had never auditioned for a play outside of Cambridge before. So I took the subway to the Back Bay and auditioned in a room full of people, everyone sitting in a big pew.
“The director was an older woman named Adele Thane. She was a diminutive lady with glasses. She was an absolutely delightful woman, and I was instantly impressed with her. They asked me to stand up and read some lines, and I remember I got the impression everyone there knew each other but I was a complete stranger. I was very nervous but I stood up and read my lines. Three days later they called me and said I got the part.”
The Performing Experience
BCT was not Buckley’s first theater experience. He first started at a drama outreach program run by a Harvard student for neighborhood kids in Cambridge. Buckley and his brother “had no acting experience, but took a shining to drama through this program,” and later he joined the club in his high school. Boston Children’s Theatre was “by far the most professional,” Buckley adds.
“The performance of Tom Sawyer was at the New England Life Hall. It was a huge, beautiful hall. The productions I was in growing up in Cambridge were all in acoustically unsound, big, clunky, old multipurpose auditoriums. New England Life Hall was cozy and very big, lots of kids went to the productions. It was by far the largest number of people I ever performed in front of. It was during April vacation, and there was a packed house every day for 7 shows. The other boys and I had a dressing room, the girls had a dressing room, the younger kids had a dressing room; there was a make-up artist, a costume person, lighting, photo-shoots of the cast for hours… It was so professionally run I thought I was in heaven. The mayor of Boston, Kevin White, came and saw the show and waved at us. It was the closest I have ever come to being a real actor. It was quite an experience for me.”
After the performance, “I was enamored by BCT for a good long while,” Buckley says, “and harbored dreams of being an actor. I went to college at the University of Massachusetts, and went to audition for a play. However, for some reason everyone there struck me as so theatrical, that I was intimidated and left without auditioning. I began writing for the sports paper instead.”
Almost 40 years later, “I still remember so many things and people from the BCT performance of Tom Sawyer,” says Buckley. Five years ago I found the program and started googling the names. I got in touch with the person who played Huck Finn, John Weltman, and we had lunch.
“I will also never forget Adele Thane. When I read her obituary a few years ago I was very sad. She nurtured me and respected me. I don’t know if she ever thought of the lasting impression she could have on a young actor, but she certainly lives on in me, she was a lovely lady. She taught me so much. One day, my friends from Cambridge came to see the show, and after the show was over I went out to talk to them dressed as Muff. Adele said ‘Never appear in public in costume, always come backstage and change! You ruined the image for the theatergoer, they should go home thinking of you as Muff Potter.’ That was wonderful advice, now when I see a play I think of it. It’s one of the best piece of training I ever got, it might be obvious, but I didn’t know it as a teen.
“On another occasion, I remember her pulling me aside and saying ‘Your acting is very good when you’re speaking lines, but you go out of character when someone else is talking, which is just as important. It is disrespectful to other actors, and remember, the audience can see the entire stage and everyone on it. Acting begins the moment you step on that stage!’ She was so adamant about that. The character of Muff whittles a stick the entire time during the story, and I was always whittling on stage. And then, even when I went backstage, I would keep whittling to remain in character. I still have the rest of that stick. After the last performance I took what was left and put it in my pocket, and I still keep it in a box at home.”
The Importance of Theater
So how does somebody from the world of sports view theater now, especially theater for kids? “I think it’s important to expose children to a variety, a bouquet of opportunities,” Buckley answers. “The more opportunities you expose them to, the better the chances are the child will find something that appeals to them. Had it not been for BCT, I wouldn’t have realized how passionate I was for theater. To this day when I see a show I consider the possibilities and think ‘That could have been me.’
“My whole life, I never got over the kind of specificity BCT brought to each production. While I was with them, I can honestly say I wasn’t just some kid from Cambridge playing Muff Potter – I was an actor.”