A Standing Ovation for my Father
My mother was adamant that I arrive on time. I realized that tonight was important but she was overreacting. My father was going to retire. After teaching at this rural, backwater university for thirty-five years, he was going to retire. I was not sure how working there and being retired from there would look different. My plan was to be home last weekend, on opening night, but I just could not make it by curtain. The traffic out of the city was jammed up because of the snow. It was not as if I wouldn't be able to get a seat if I was late. The show was another of the obscure, seventeenth-century, Italian comedies my father loved. There was an excellent chance that seats would be available. It was manners. I would not dare walk in late to a show my father directed. I knew better.
I have known people who wanted to become a college professor. My father was never one of these people. He was a college professor by default, by a fluke, by a cruel twist of fate. He could have, would have, and should have been on Broadway. I know there was a time, before I was born, when he had shows in New York. I have seen the photographs and read the reviews. He beat the odds, repeatedly. They say the tough part is getting the first chance. They are wrong. Many shows get that opportunity. Once there, the tough part has just begun. The list of what can go wrong is endless and the fates are remorseless. You have a better chance of seeing God in a pink suit than having one hit show.
His dedication to mounting a good production was as strong at the University as it had been in New York. This would be his final show tonight. After the last curtain call, he would help the students strike the set and they would probably give him flowers.
There would be some tears and hugs and mom and I would take him out for a drink. There were a few weeks left in the semester, finals, and then-freedom. Would my dad be sad? Not nearly as much as everyone thought.
Thanks to my childhood asthma, I frequently spent days on the couch in my dad's office when I could not go to school. I would sit on the couch with the rising cloud from the nebulizer swirling around my head and the steady drone of the machine lulling me to sleep. I am sure his students thought I didn't have a head. Since they were all theatre majors, it probably did not occur to them that a headless kid was unusual. The office walls were covered with photographs and posters of plays and newspaper reviews. My dad's whole life was documented on two walls in about one hundred frames, like a film projector periodically frozen. The early photographs were of him in college productions. If you looked closely, you could see several now-famous actors with him. The next phase was my dad, still a young actor, touring with other actors who would also become famous. In his thirties dad shifted from acting to directing and this phase was represented by posters and playbills of his shows. There were pictures of him directing his friends, the famous actors. The newspaper reviews were also included here, the unkind ones right alongside of the glowing ones. My dad was nothing, if not honest. There is a subtle shift at this point to his guest-director phase, which led to a career in academic theatre. These remaining photos and posters chronicled my dad's life, thirty-five years toiling in the boondocks. These were the mile markers through the journey of his life. Like any mere mortal, he aged, rather well actually. He would pressure his friends, the famous actors, to visit the University and speak with the theatre majors. These events were, of course, pictured on the wall.
There were shots of me from various stages of childhood costumed usually as a small animal or inanimate object. I played a baby monkey in a production of "The Jungle Book". I developed a huge crush on the actor portraying my primate father. One of my favorite photos is of me as an orange in some opera. There are not many, but there are more than a few shows that need child actors and this gave me the opportunity to be on stage. I know that my dad tried to imbue me with his love for the theatre. I was about nine when I realized that other kids had to audition for the children's roles in the productions. There is a series, consequently, of about fifteen pictures that chronicle my passage to adolescence. Gratefully, once I reached puberty my father's powers of coercion failed. The remaining frames held an endless parade of a multitude of student actors performing in an endless parade of a multitude of college productions. To me this represented a colossal waste of my father's talent.
I never developed an interest in the theatre. I would rather eat glass than go to see a play. I considered it trivial then and I consider it a waste of time as an adult. I have always felt that my father abandoned a promising career in professional theatre. If you must do theatre, Broadway, at least, was preferable to teaching at a college. He just did not have the competitive spirit necessary to succeed there. He took the road of least resistance. Even with that, I know that the last three decades have sucked the life out of him. They have used him up. I watched him piss off his talents into a bottomless cistern of obscurity. To top it off, his salary bore no relationship to the hours he devoted to his job. He never made enough money to relax. I know he was disappointed, but I chose to attend a university that did not even offer a theatre program. As an engineer, I had matched his salary within five years. The money was secondary to the fact that I felt that I was doing something that made a difference in the world, not fluff. I have never seen the value in prancing around on stage.
None of this mattered any more because tonight would be dad's final show. This must be the way a parent feels when they witness their child embracing adulthood, finally. I would make it with time to spare. I loved my father, if not the theatre, and it was my turn to support him. I would applaud him as he had always cheered me on. My mom had sent a message to meet her at the theatre because there had been some crisis. I could not help but laugh at that, a theatre crisis. This probably meant something earth-shattering like a broken heel or a lost wig. It turned out that I did not have time to spare because the parking lot was unusually full and this forced me to park on the other side of campus. Typical, I thought. They must have scheduled the performance the same night as a basketball game.
By the time I entered the lobby it was almost empty. My mother was pacing frantically, waiting for me. The moment she spotted me, she grabbed my arm and propelled me into the theatre. It was not until that moment that I got the whole story from my mother. The student playing the romantic lead had been hospitalized with pneumonia after last night's show. The cast met with my father at 6:30 a.m. to decide the fate of the final performance. The easiest course of action would be to cancel the last show. Most of the students were seniors and, like my father, it was their last show, too. They voted to go on with the production, with my dad stepping in to the romantic role. They decided to do the hard thing. They rehearsed with my father all that day. He was certain he would not remember every line so he would go on with script in hand and the kids were prepared to cover for him if necessary. Mom dragged me to our seats. As the house lights went down my anxiety level went up. The show started, and I settled in...but not for long.
The production opened with the typical Commedia dell'Arte frenetic chaos and audience laughter. This was followed by a frenzy of activity that heralded the entrance of the principal characters. My dad is good at this stuff. Four actors tumbled on stage in a cacophony of noise and suddenly the world stopped turning. A moment of total silence and the audience broke into applause. Standing on stage, surrounded by twenty-year-old actors, in a costume four sizes too small, was my sixty-five-year-old father. The ingènue gave him his cue line and he froze, as did my heart. He stared at the audience. When my father had his cataract surgery, the doctor sewed contact lenses into his eyes. People often remarked that he had a "twinkle in his eye" and he got a lot of mileage out of that. I saw the stage light glint on the lens like a beacon announcing his terror. I grabbed my mother's arm. The ingènue waited a beat and gave him the line again. He blinked and I held my breath as a familiar smile spread across his face and the audience broke into applause. And out came his line. He hadn't frozen; he just had impeccable comic timing. His powerful voice thundered forth and he whirled, swirled, and twirled in true Commedia fashion for the next hour and a half. He not only kept up with the kids, but he set the rhythm for the performance. Not once did he ever look at the script dangling uselessly in his hand.
Part of the human condition is enjoying, to some degree, the discomfort of others. In seeing the blunders of others we can feel better about ourselves. It helps to minimize our own foolishness. That was not the case tonight. This was different. The actors and the audience were connected, rowing this boat together. The audience was not about to forgive ineptitude, they just wanted the actors to succeed. They were willing the actors to greatness. As an outsider to this phenomenon, I was observing the experience and could actually feel my defenses breaking down, popping like soap bubbles. I could feel my heart pulled into this vortex of emotion. It was like an undertow to which I joyfully submitted. The sincerity of the audience electrified the actors. In celebration of that, the actors pushed aside the natural boundaries that exist between an audience and performers. The audience became part of the production. The connection was palpable. One fed on the other like some cosmic energy cycle. Its pull was gravitational and seductive. Standing in the middle of this force field was my dad, the ringmaster. His final performance generated a communion of actor and audience in a powerful marriage. No one would soon forget this experience and all of us would spend life trying to recreate this feeling. It is a rare moment in time when theatre is what it was meant to be. For the first time I saw what my dad always knew. Theatre, and the people who make it, and the people who love it, are made powerful by it. My dad collaborates, and that is why theatre is important. That is what life is really about. My dad taught people how to work together to create something sacred that moves the human spirit to a higher plane.
Every child has that moment when you look at your parents and see how age has taken its toll. There is a horrifying moment when you understand the word fragile. It is the moment when you realize you are an adult and your parents are mere mortals. I witnessed my father's return to his youth. I saw the young actor in all those photographs I had stared at as a child. I heard the power of his voice and remembered the million stories he had read to me. As Act Two progressed, he became taller and the energy flew from him to the other actors. You could actually see the electric snap of it. There was a second when one of the students missed a cue. The line was just not in his grasp. My father covered him with the grace and agility of a seasoned performer. He protected the students the way a parent protects a child. I saw the young actor break into a smile and at that moment, I knew how much they loved my dad. It is one thing to love your parents unconditionally, which I did. We love our parents in private, in the recesses of our hearts. We love our parents quietly. These kids loved my dad openly, boundlessly, powerfully—loudly. Their affection was genuine and shameless. To realize that others felt that way brought the whole world into a different focus. The center shifted. The clarity almost knocked me off my seat. That moment is what the word epiphany means.
The famous actors were not doing dad any favors. He was getting them work long after their careers had faded. For the first time I realized my father had not slipped slowly into the world of academic theatre. He had not faded like a brittle leaf on a withering tree. He had not refused to compete in the world. My father had chosen to collaborate in the world to make it a better place. He had chosen to be a college professor. He had run full speed onto a university stage. The world was a better place because he taught people how to work together to create something that has a soul. It is in this act of creation that the human spirit survives. This is how the heart of man learns to fly. My dad taught people to soar.
The final curtain fell and before the actors were in place for their call, the audience was on its feet. I was startled to realize that for probably the first time in my life, it was a full house. All six hundred and fifty seats were taken. My mom told me later that while the cast was rehearsing with dad, the stage manager had started a phone chain to the alumni about tonight's performance. Not only would this be my dad's last show, he would be performing as well. And they came. They came and filled up the parking lot. They came and took up every seat in the house. They came from all over the state to pay tribute to the man who had applauded for all of them. I looked around the audience and saw students from my childhood. I saw kids who had been my babysitters. Were they all actors? Some were. Most were lawyers and teachers and social workers. All of these people were here to bear witness to my dad's last performance. They came because they knew tonight everyone would leave with a full heart and they all wanted to be a part of that. They came to celebrate the man who had taught them so well. I rose with them, stood like them, proud to be in their ranks, and applauded for my dad. I had been wrong about everything, but mostly about my father. He had never settled. He had not hidden in mediocrity. He was part of a something larger than I could imagine. He had created something. My father had made a difference. And when he took his final bow that night, and looked out at the audience, he brought his hand to his heart and there was a twinkle in his eye.