Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lanford Wilson LA Memorial (LA)

Here’s some more history that you may or may not know about me: Lanford Wilson was my mentor. I met him back in 2004, at the University of Houston, where he was filling in for Edward Albee. Over the next 3 years, I was lucky enough to be allowed to direct under his guidance in a new play workshop. The friendship that we developed over the course of our work together continued until the day he died, March 24, 2011. Yesterday, October 29, 2011, I spoke, for the second memorial service, in his honor. Please forgive this blog for being a little less focused and organized than my normal blogs are, I am still trying to sort through things on this end.

I was lucky enough to stand on a stage with some of the most talented and successful artists that I know of, and share the life of the same man, drawn together by the love of and for a man who was a luminary in his own right. And more than a luminary, he was my friend, and the friend of many other artists; he helped and guided so many people along the way. I have been twice blessed to be part of an ensemble of individuals using their talents to honor this man – the actors acted, the writers wrote, the stage mangers managed, the sound designer sounded… – everyone's job just as important as the rest – and I can’t help feeling that that is the way Lanford would have wanted to be remembered, by the outpouring of each individual artist's gift.

One of the things I was most struck by yesterday that others said about him: Marshall Mason called him the American Chekhov – calling upon the fact that he wrote in what was to be dubbed the lyrical realism.

Lanford had an amazing ability to present what most people would consider the lost people of society with realness and a tenderness that we, as a society, often misplace for them. He was the playwright of the lost. And he did this through an awareness of people, because he loved them. He listened, looked and truly observed the world around him – using all he observed to create a new movement of theatre, to create theatre with new rules.

Yesterday, a great many people referred to theatre as a church, as an alter in which he worshiped, as many have before and after him. To me, the amazing thing about Lanford was his willingness to share it, and his belief in the people he held close. Someone said yesterday that 'it is up to us to become the artists that he thought we could become.' That is what I hope for as well – that I can somehow become the director he saw in me so many years ago, when I was young and didn’t know any better – that whatever seed of talent he saw in me then will grow into a sustaining career path.

Lanford truly believed that art was a necessary function in life, as I and all the artists I know do. He collected outsider art: art that is made by untrained individuals – work that is honest because it is created by the basic human need to express and to create. And that honesty, and that need helped guide him to be the amazing man he became – his belief that we need artists to show us how to be more than we are. In many ways, someone else’s words yesterday sum up this feeling: 'He was very clear about the artistic path he was taking, and he wished that for all of us. He was the only true genius I know.' – And for me, that is part of what this blog is about – honoring my friend and his wants and needs by finding my own path – figuring out what I want and what path I want to be on.

Lanford saw so clearly the changing of the times – from the railroads to the theatre community as a whole – he wrote so beautifully about them, gave them all a voice and place to be… well... real and forever - on stage. He gave them a life, in that moment, the moment of change. He created life, and space and the ability for others to do the same – to bring these amazing words to life so that they might never be forgotten. He loved them - he loved them into existence - as, in some ways, he did for so many people, both real and imagined.

I wish I had the words to explain in this blog how wonderful he was, how amazing and generous with his time and knowledge and belief. How I wish everyone could have known him, and known what it was like to have him on your side, or even just be able to pick up a phone and talk to him about anything. The best part of talking to him, as someone pointed out yesterday was “There was never any discrepancy between his heart and his words.”

For my own part, I said the following words:

Memories flood my brain, and I can only say I wish I had more. My memories of him start where, I’m sure, others start. With a cigarette – ours on the smoking benches at the University of Houston. I remember the first time I met him. I think the first he said to me was “It’s so fucking hot. How can you stand it?” It wasn’t until several days later that I learned I had met “Lanford Wilson, Pulitzer prize winning play write” I met the friendly, if slightly grumpy, older man on the bench, smoking a cigarette – and hey, he had a lighter, which, anyone who knew me then can attest, I never managed to have. And thus, an unlikely friendship was born.

My memories of us on those benches are some of the clearest of my life, memories of ideas, and thoughts – of being late to class to have one more cigarette, one more conversation with Lanford – somehow already unconsciously aware of how much he had, would have, and will continue to have a hand in my making.

Some of the most important things he taught me on those benches, and in theatres, and coffee shops, and rehearsal rooms:

Focus on the story. Focus on the character. Tell the story. Create the characters. Create a space that your actors can work. Create space.

People don’t think before they talk, the think while they talk. Take the air out of the lines.

Everything is either stupid or genius. If it’s stupid, keep working till it’s genius. If it’s genius, then well done there.

What do I owe, and to whom?

Get yourself to NYC while you’re young and stupid enough to do it, but when you’re old enough to know what to do.

Don’t give up, the world needs us.

The thing that amazed me the most about him is that he did it all with a sense of wonder, he could never quite seem to believe that whatever happened had happened. And his unfailing honesty – he never held anything back. When Lanford had an opinion, you knew it. He wasn’t shy about telling you the truth - the good, the bad, or the ugly.

How do I put into words how much the man meant to me? How do I codify what I’m feeling or how conversations we had will stay with me, and keep me moving towards my dreams, step by step, just like he told me I should.

Lanford had an amazing ability to give and create space – to live, to breathe, to create, to be – and for the lucky few, we were able to see this both in and out of the theatre. In part, this knack was a demonstration of his willingness to help those around him.

My first day back at school after my best friend’s death was rough for me. Lanford found me that day, at the benches, probably looking for a lighter. He sat down next to me, patted my knee, and said. “I heard what happened. I don’t want to talk about it, it’s just too sad. Let’s talk about something else. Like that tree there –it’s growing its leaves back. I bet that means my garden is starting to open.” And just like that, in those few words, created space for me to take the first breath I had taken all day.

I wish I could give words like that to you. Something wise and beautiful and simple to hold onto during this time. But I am not as skilled as he was. He was, after all, a man of words.

A man of words reduced to these few from those he left behind, of words in thoughts and memories, in our minds hearts and on our lips. It is in times like these that I look to the words of those before me, to comfort and guide, to let me know that I am not alone, that we are not alone. I think that his words say it the best this time:

I don’t want to talk about it, it’s just too sad. Let’s talk about something else. Like that tree there–it’s growing its leaves back. I bet that means my garden is starting to open.

So to close this blog, I will say: Good bye. Thank you for being my teacher, my mentor, and above all else, my friend. You have not only changed the course of theatrical history, you have changed my own personal history as well – and I will never be able to thank you enough for that.

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