Medieval Europe wasn’t kind to actors. It wasn’t kind to many people, true, but actors were not lauded with wealth and fame as they are today. There was a season for acting, and that practice continued well past Shakespeare. The plague, always more or less present in those times, would flare up particularly during the summer months, so acting, which necessarily meant gathering large groups of people together for prolonged periods of time, was forbidden.
Still, some would travel from village to village with nothing more than the clothes on their back and set up a “stage” by fashioning a pair of boards on two makeshift sawhorses, allowing them to be a bit higher than crowds who would come to see them. Most of their plays were moral tales, maybe a few takeoffs of Greek tragedies and, more often than not, tales from the Bible, specifically the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
“Two boards and a passion,” said Richard Winterstein, the drama and English teacher at Adolfo Camarillo High School, smiling wryly. “Stripped down to its essence, that’s what acting is—and sometimes it’s all we’ve got.”
Winterstein is bigger than life, but not because of his fame. He stands about six-foot-four and would be imposing were it not for his engaging and enthusiastic demeanor. In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that his main character had “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.” That’s Winterstein, too. But Gatsby was a fictional character; Winterstein is real.
Two periods a day, the former Hollywood character actor, now 62, can be found in room D-2 at the Camarillo school, pouring his giant-size heart into drama classes of about 35 students. D-2 used to be the auto shop and its conversion into a theater is really nothing more than a portable series of pedestals that piece together to form a stage. There are still hazards in the concrete floor and remnants of hydraulic equipment. Oil stains abound. The classroom portion is half the size of most regular classrooms, and with no air conditioning and two wall-mounted heaters circa 1960, temperature control is near impossible. This past spring in the same room, Winterstein staged an elaborate version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on a shoestring budget, rehearsing his cast five afternoons and evenings a week.
Richard Winterstein grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi and knew early on that he wanted to act. “I fell in love with acting sitting in the theater in the 1950s. My mother worked there and I got to see all these movies. I wanted to be like those guys up on the screen,” he said, his Southern drawl now buried behind years of working to forget it. In doing so, and in playing so many characters, he was able to adopt accents and dialects from all over, repeating them in his deep baritone voice. Occasionally, he’ll break into an English gentleman or a southern hick, calling to students and colleagues alike: “I sssay, neighbuh, might I int’rest you in a cup of hot coffee?”
He began doing parts in community plays and school but it was an audition with the Southern Repertory Shakespeare Company at age 16 that sealed his fate. From there, he went on to study at the University of Southern Mississippi. After a brief stint in the Army stateside during Vietnam, he went to Catholic University and toured with the National Players.
It was while on tour that Winterstein was again discovered, this time by Burt Lancaster, who was looking for someone to play the part of the sheriff in the film Midnight Man. Winterstein jumped at the chance. “You’re touring with a company and Burt Lancaster comes along. Man! I went to Hollywood. That was the biggest mistake I ever made,” he said. “I should never have gone to Hollywood.”
A classically trained actor, he thinks perhaps one of the last trained in the U.S., Winterstein looks back at that time as seminal. “Hollywood doesn’t care about your training. I was better connected in New York. I should have stayed with that,” he said. “But, I don’t regret it now. I’ve had a wonderful life here. I met my wife, had two children.”
Winterstein came to teaching late in his career. “I found connecting to students easy. I was well educated. It worked for me,” he said. “It’s a wonderful vocation. I love literature—and performing, of course.” Since coming to Adolfo Camarillo High School in 2006, Winterstein has staged two plays a year, one in fall, one in spring, with an ever-growing interest among students who want to “trod the boards” and try something new. “The passion for me is expressing God-given talents,” said Winterstein. “I’m teaching students to explore themselves and learn about themselves through the characters they create.”
To that end, Winterstein is constantly looking throughout the school for personalities and even physical looks to fill rolls. “I don’t just cast from the drama classes for productions,” he said. “We hold open auditions and anyone can try out.” He believes in the power of theater. “A lot of times, drama kids are the ones who are the most insecure, searching for themselves and finding ways to make their lives work,” he said. “The creativity explodes. I help them create their characters out of who they are.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” filled the house every night it played last spring. The Camarillo High School community has come to expect great things from the little makeshift stage in room D-2. Winterstein has a different benchmark, though. “We’ve helped a lot of kids who had no direction,” he said of his drama classes. “They get to express their feelings here, and that allows them to know themselves. It’s the ultimate expression of love.”