I try to keep my family life off this blog, Gentle Reader; this is a professional website, and I try and manage the blog accordingly. At the moment, however, none of us are working at our profession (thanks, COVID-19). And when it comes to the arts, the family lives that shape us aren’t easily separated from the work that we do (when we’re doing that work, which we’re currently not – thanks again, COVID-19). So as weird as it can be to talk about publicly, it would feel even weirder not to.
My father passed away a week ago. We actually don’t have COVID-19 to blame for this; he’d been fighting lymphoma for a few months. However, the coronavirus epidemic did keep him in isolation for much of his last hospitalization, and kept me from leaving New York to be there at the end. There’s no way for me to travel right now anyway, and I wouldn’t risk the health of the rest of my family, or indeed the health of the entire city where they live. So I’m still up here, in my ever-beleaguered city, processing my memories.
I find that most performing artists share one of two childhood backgrounds. Either our parents were involved the arts themselves, and instilled our passions through their examples; or they had no interest in the arts at all, and our careers have been in some ways a reaction to their indifference, sometimes even a form of rebellion. I grew up with both experiences. My mother worked as a theatrical production assistant for a few years before she married, and so I grew up hearing all manner of backstage stories. But I also grew up with my father’s disinterest in those stories, or with discussing the arts. Not that he didn’t appreciate them – he’d spend his weekends watching movies on the cable channels, just like all of us, and introduced me to a fair number of beloved classics. He just couldn’t stand listening to people talk about them, reviewers and excited viewers alike.
(Since I maintain a blog which is entirely dedicated to discussing the arts, and do so in a culture where such discussions are a genre unto themselves, you can imagine that my father and I could be at loggerheads on a frequent basis.)
My father may not have had any personal interest in the theater, but he never failed to support mine. He and my mother made the two hundred-odd mile trip from home to my college to see me perform quite a number of times. Once I was back in the city, though, such excursions to see me perform became far less frequent. Now I was just doing my job – commendable, but not something to be gawked at.
And yet –
The last time my father saw me perform was six years ago, when my play Dragon’s Breath was presented in the New York Fringe Festival. I produced that play myself (being the Fringe and all), and my father wound up taking a keen interest in this – at my wrangling the business elements of the production into shape, at my promoting and marketing the event. The trip from his home to my stage was a much longer one this time – six hundred miles now – and a much harder one to make. He came to the show I wrote, in which I performed a supporting role as well. Though he was moving with some difficulty then, he hobnobbed with the cast and audience in the outside courtyard after the show.
And when he overheard a well-meaning audience member talking about possible cuts to the top of the show (as New York theater audiences are wont to do), my father chimed in:
“No, you can’t do that. You need all that at the beginning to establish the character’s dramatic arc.”
My jaw nearly hit the pavement. At the last show of mine he ever saw, my father – a man who ordinarily couldn’t stand discussion of the arts – blossomed into a full-fledged dramaturg. And a capable one at that.
Fathers. When they’re here, they continually find ways to surprise you. And when they’re gone, you’re left with the memories of those surprises, trying to find their underlying meaning. A task not unsuited to a capable dramaturg.