Cue the applause as 'Kram' takes a bow after 46 years at BUHS
BRATTLEBORO — In 1974, George Lewis, head of the Brattleboro Union High School English department, hired a young actor from Highland Park, Illinois, via New York City, to teach a communication course to seventh-graders, and theater and debate in the high school.
Forty-six years later, Bob Kramsky (or "Kram" as his students call him) is retiring from the job that combined his twin passions: theater and teaching.
"I am a performer," he said. "I think of the classroom as my stage. I want to engage my audience and give a good performance. I use humor, but it's never mean-spirited. And I'm not afraid to admit my mistakes."
Theater has been part of Kramsky's life for as long as he can remember.
At Highland Park High School, class of 1968, he was involved from ninth grade on in plays and musicals.
"It was a very competitive school," he said. "Many students took private acting, dancing, and singing classes. Senior year, I remember trying out for the lead in `The King and I,' and not getting it. I was told I wasn't `manly' enough." The part went to a quarterback on the football team.
"I still hate him," Kramsky added with a smile. "But I'm sure if I were to meet him today, I could be his friend. In all honesty, he did a pretty good job."
That same year, another teacher directed an alternate musical, "The Wizard of Oz."
"I played the scarecrow," Kramsky said. "I was dorky enough for that."
Every year, the school's drama club presented a student-written and student-directed variety show. In 1968, the theme of the show was the newspaper. It was Kramsky's directorial debut.
"That experience began my love of directing," he said. "It's the creative process. Taking words from a page and making them come to life with a vision that starts with casting, and goes into staging, set design, costuming, lighting, etc. All in an attempt to entertain and/or emotionally move an audience."
At Northern Illinois University, Kramsky continued his involvement with theater, although he never played the lead.
"My sophomore year, I had a relatively small part in a production of `Much Ado About Nothing,' " he said, "so I spent a lot of time backstage in the scene shop, socializing. That's where I met my wife, Leslie. She was my dresser."
One of the advantages of attending college not too far from home, Kramsky said, was that his parents could come to see most of his shows. His mother taught high school English, speech, and theater in nearby Deerfield, so after productions, "we would have really good conversations," he said. "It made me comfortable listening to criticism, and I think I probably agreed with her most of the time."
By the time Kramsky graduated from college, he and Leslie were engaged.
"But I said to her, `I really need to go off to New York. Give me six months to see what I can do.'"
In retrospect, he said, he was green and naive. The survival tools an actor needs — not only a place to live and food, but headshots and resumes and the postage and large manila envelopes to send them out (this was before computers and the internet) — all cost money.
"The expenses were eating up my savings," he said, "so I got a job at a McDonald's on 96th and Broadway. I had worked at a McDonald's in high school and college. The hours were flexible, which allowed me to go see an agent or go to auditions."
After the Kramskys married in February 1973, Leslie moved to New York.
"We lived in a little studio apartment," he said. "She took a job as a receptionist at a carpet wholesaler business. We had a great time — we went to the theater a couple of times a week. We went out to dinner three or four times a week. We didn't have children yet. But I was doing less and less auditioning, and more and more McDonald-ing, to the point where they made me an assistant manager."
In reality, Kramsky said, there were thousands of actors in New York more talented and more driven than he was, all of them seeking acting work. It was time for a change.
"I looked at my mom's experiences as a teacher and thought, `That's something I would enjoy doing,'" he said. "Leslie and I liked New England, so I sent out resumes, and BUHS was my second interview. They hired me, and I've been here ever since."
In 1992, Kramsky joined the faculty of the Windham Regional Career Center as the acting instructor for the performing arts program, in addition to the Brattleboro Union High School courses he taught.
"I've stayed out of school politics," he said. "I go into the scene shop and close the door and do my thing."
The first musical Kramsky directed at Brattleboro Union High School was "Oliver" in 1977.
"That's why I wanted to direct it this February," he said, "as my last musical here. I've been lucky with the colleagues I've worked with and the talent we have."
After the Feb. 14, 2020, performance of "Oliver," the school announced that its auditorium was to be named in his honor, the Robert Kramsky Auditorium.
"Of course, it took about 10 seconds for the students to shorten that to the Kramitorium," he said.
In his decades at the high school, Kramsky has not only taught and directed shows, but also served as faculty adviser to the debate club and to the yearbook.
"Working with kids has kept me young," he said. "I don't feel my age. I don't act my age."
Kramsky was quick to add that he has been very lucky in his marriage partner.
"Leslie has been a very understanding spouse," he said. "Rehearsing the musical every year has meant 43 missed anniversaries and missed Valentine's Days. She was my best friend in college, and she still is."
Nancy A. Olson was a member of the Brattleboro Union High School English department from 1978 to 2013.
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