My first impression of Yosha Bourgea was in the fall of 1988, my freshman year of high school. He was shortish and he always wore a giant overcoat and a heavy backpack full of mysterious books. There were rumors about Yosha: that he lived in a refurbished chicken coop, that he had never been to public school before, that he was only thirteen. He was different from me. I had spent my whole life in public school, I lived in a tract house, and I was way older (fourteen). But in that fall of 1988, Yosha and I did have one thing in common: We had acting class with Mr. Hawk.
Mr. Hawk is not his real name. I only call him Mr. Hawk because he looked a bit like a hawk, and he terrified me as a hawk might terrify a little white bunny. He never ever smiled. He was gravely serious about acting. He was a Southern gentleman, a transplant from Georgia by way of Hollywood. While he was in Hollywood, he claimed to have worked on the movie Scrooged. He dressed just like the Don Johnson on Miami Vice, in pastel suits with an undershirt instead of a dress shirt.
Mr. Hawk did these emotional exercises where he tried to reach into the most vulnerable parts of our souls and expose our tears to the world, wrestle with them, and apply our deepest and most terrifying emotions to our acting on the stage. We were teenagers. Guarded teenagers. We didn’t want to reveal our inner lives- or, at least, I didn’t. Mr. Hawk would have us form a circle on the stage, and inside the circle, he would have one of us improvise things as he yelled out directions from the outside of the circle. The directions were always doable, but uncomfortable. The first memory I have of knowing Yosha is of him being inside the circle. I don’t know what the acting exercise was, but Yosha was in the middle of the stage, writhing in agony, screaming like a Yoko Ono therapy session,
“Yawoooo! Aaaaaash! Baaaa!” And Mr. Hawk was kneeling beside him, pounding the floor, sweating through his pink jacket,
“Yes! Emote! Feel it! The pain! It’s real!”
Yosha twisted his body in jerking movements, as though some unseen force from above were jabbing him with an electric prod,
“Yeeeeeoooooooow!” Yosha screamed.
It is hard to exaggerate Yosha’s complete commitment to acting out this scene of torture. It was just unreal, like he was occupying some alternate universe where he really was being tortured, and somehow I was sitting a few feet away and not feeling a thing. And Mr. Hawk was beside himself with excitement. He was practically frothing at the mouth as he yelled encouragement at Yosha,
“Yes! Feel the pain!” Mr. Hawk punctuated his words by pounding his fist on the stage. And while Yosha shrieked and Mr. Hawk had his emote-gasm, twenty or so teenaged kids (and I) just stared at this scene before us, with mouths agape, in complete stunned silence.
It was a stunning first impression.
Here is a video of Yosha more recently, singing a Christmas song he made up (the melody is stolen from a song by Death Cab for Cutie).
Yosha Bourgea is also the author of the new release Murgatroyd Buttercups, which I illustrated for him. (And also for you, actually.) Today is the last day to purchase it at half price for $5.49. Tomorrow, it goes up to $10.98.