Happy Day-After-Mother’s Day, Gentle Reader!
In the popular imagination, arts professionals tend to be grouped into one of two different camps. There are those who were introduced to the field by their artistically-inclined mothers, who took them to shows and museums every weekend, played cast albums to their babes in utero, and steered them towards the world of the performing arts in a hundred ways both large and small. Then there are those whose mothers wanted them to have nothing to do with the arts, who dismissed theatrical dreams as foolish and warned their children away from such wickedness; those who seem to have devoted themselves to this strange profession in order to spite their parents. Since my folks have been nothing but supportive to me (aside from the quizzical glance or two), you might therefore conclude that I fall into the former camp.
You might further think this hypothesis definitely proven by the fact that, between her graduation from high school and her marriage, for a few years in the late 1960s, my mother worked as an assistant to Harlan Kleiman, co-founder of the Long Wharf Theater and working then as an independent producer off-Broadway. This was during the height of the Off-Broadway boom of the Sixties, and they were arranging the commercial transfers of some of the wildest and wooliest off-off fare of the time, like the scandalous Futz and the bruising race-relations piece The Ofay Watcher. Which means my mother had all kinds of theater stories, from one of theater’s most dynamic periods. Surely, this must have influenced my choice of profession.
Here’s the thing, though. There wasn’t anything remotely romantic or inspiring about those stories. Mostly, my mother’s tales of what more histrionic types might grandly call “the THEE-uh-tah” involve placating demanding bosses, maneuvering around bickering designers, figuring out where to schedule lunch breaks in a day of auditions, and the like – the grunt work of production. She never said much about the content of these shows, and when she mentioned the well-known actors in the cast, they were always in the most mundane of contexts – snatches of water-cooler conversations and the like. And her stories tended to leave out some crucial details. For instance, she was an assistant on a production entitled Tonight In Living Color, which throughout my childhood I knew only as the source of the decal on a vinyl folder in which my mom kept her various papers. Did she mention that it was the playwriting debut of American master A. R. Gurney? Or that future Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham – Salieri himself – was in the cast? No, no she did not. She had more to say about the logistics of copying the scripts, and ferrying the mimeographs about midtown Manhattan, than anything else.
So, my mother’s war stories about her short theatrical career were fascinating, but in no way did they romanticize theater. At all. Quite the contrary, they made it sound like just another grinding, aggravating workplace – one she seemed to have no regrets about leaving. My youthful creative energies, as a result, didn’t tend towards acting in the slightest. I was focused almost exclusively on writing back then (as indeed I find is the case more and more these days). And theatrical life in suburban Long Island was focused exclusively on high school musicals, and I wasn’t much of a high school musical guy. It wasn’t until college that I tried out for plays, and started studying acting and theater in earnest, and then one thing led to another pretty quickly.
But here’s a funny thing. While many of my peers have given up on the arts after youthful disappointments, I’m still here, still finding ways to create and have my say. I’m not the least bit surprised by the disappointments and the hundred mundane aggravations of the profession, precisely because I grew up knowing all about them. Instilling dreams in our children is important, but it’s just as crucial to let them know how difficult realizing those dreams is going to be, without killing those dreams in the process. And as it turns out, those childhood tales of backstage bickering did precisely that.