John Munsell: A man who was not a douche

“We missed you at auditions last night,” said John, a sad look in his eye.

“I know, sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t show up.”

“Yeah, I was really busy.”

“Look, I know this isn’t what you want to do with your life. You’re majoring in journalism, you’re going to be a writer. You’ll be a great writer, but this isn’t about a career. Once you get the courage to step up on that stage, it will change your life. You’re good at it. It comes naturally for you. I just wish you would have come out the other night. We really missed you up there.”

Then John Munsell walked away, shaking his head like a disappointed father.

John was lying, of course. I wasn’t particularly great at acting, but he lied because he saw a good opportunity for both of us. For him, a chance to get another student involved in theater. For me, a chance to break out of my quiet shell and become a bolder, more confident person.

It took John nearly a year to get me to audition for a theater production. He hounded me every time he saw me. When I finally gathered together the guts to perform in my first play, he walked up to me afterward, smiled, and said, “I was right, wasn’t I?”

I laughed.

“You feel different now, don’t you?” he said. “Let me tell you something, Paul. That feeling will never leave you. You have it for life now.”

He was right. Being on stage DID change my life. For years afterward, whenever I was faced with an uncomfortable social situation, I treated it like I was performing in a play. I wasn’t asking out that pretty girl, I was ACTING. I wasn’t asking my boss for a raise, I was ACTING like a much more confident man asking for a raise. I wasn’t interviewing the attorney general of Wisconsin—we were both actors in a play, and I was merely reciting the lines written down in my reporter’s notepad. Adding a script to life made me less nervous.

I still use that trick today. I plan out future scenes of my life in my apartment, going over the possible lines, the blocking, the different ways I could make situations go my way. That pretty girl might still say no, but I’d be ready with a clever retort if she did.

After John finally dragged me into that first audition—kicking and screaming the whole way—I acted in three different productions that year. When I graduated and moved to La Crosse, WI, to be a reporter, I joined the local community theater and did six or seven more shows over the next few years. Doing things that made me uncomfortable became a thrill, and it’s the reason I’m here writing for this newspaper right now. Harassing every newspaper in the Twin Ports region on a daily basis was the next uncomfortable task I challenged myself to do.

John taught his students that people could believe anything as long as we believed it. If I acted like I was someone who fit a role, the role could fit. I don’t share any personality traits with a king, a murderer, or a ladies’ man, but could I if I practiced long enough? John helped me realize that I could.

This translated well to real life. When I was laid off from my newspaper job at the height of the recession and couldn’t find work anywhere, my dad offered to find a temporary spot for me as a construction laborer. I’m not a construction laborer. I’ve never built anything in my life. I weigh 150 pounds, for Christ’s sake, but I had no other options. When I walked in for my first day, I ACTED like I was confident. After some time, I actually did start to become confident.

I still wasn’t great at my job, mind you. I did construction work probably about as well as I acted, but I got the job done. It got me through a particularly difficult time, and allowed me to save enough money to go where I really wanted to go.

I don’t wake up each day telling myself I’m going to live my life by John Munsell’s rules. His teachings just had a way of seeping into my subconscious. I only had John as a professor for a few classes, but when he died last week at the early age of 70, it felt like a close friend had passed.

A lot of people are likely feeling the same way. We’re not actors. We don’t have careers in theater or the arts. But we’re all a little smarter because one good teacher took the time to not just grade us and push us out the door, but to also teach us things that affected our daily lives. Rest in peace, John. If anyone has earned that, it’s you.