Thursday, May 29, 2008

You know who is cool? Jonathan West

So I'm sitting here at the office with my pupils wildly dilated, not because I'm on some drug but because I just got back from the opthomologists' office for my yearly check-up. Everything is as it was last year, except the pressure in my eyes went up a little bit, after going down a little bit. There's a history of this in my family (thanks so much, Dad, and for the baldness, too), but the doctor checked the optic nerve and everything is normal. I just have to be vigilant, especially now that I'm -- gulp! -- friggin' middle-aged and all.

Anyway, last night was the community board meeting about the Provincetown Playhouse, and I'm going to be posting on that very soon. What I didn't post about -- well, there's a lot that I haven't posted about lately -- was the panel that I was on two Sundays ago at the Barrow Street Theatre, hosted by Mike Daisey and in connection with his monologue, How Theater Failed America. As you, dear reader, surely know, I've mixed it up here and there with Mike, but as I consider him a friend now as well as a colleague, and especially as I think I better understand, courtesy of his monologue, where he's coming from with regard to how we create theatre in this country, I imagine my future posts on all things Daisey will be less hostile and more hortatory. (Side note: Isn't the word "hortatory" fun? It's like Dr. Seuss made it up, but it's really a word.)

Anyway, I just came across what my buddy Jonathan West had to say about Daisey's panel from two weeks ago, which you can -- and really should --read at his blog. He says not much about me and that's cool, other than reassuring his loyal readers that if they want any dish or dirt on me, he's got a barrel full sitting in his backyard. But that's not why I think he's cool. Actually, here's a little history -- and no, he doesn't know I'm writing this. I thought Jon West was cool from the moment I met him, which if memory serves was about 20 years ago when I was working full-time (and rather unhappily) as a receptionist in the NYU undergraduate admissions office on Washington Square North; he was one of a slew of kids that led campus tours. Jon directed the first real play I ever wrote, and he's one of very, very few people I have ever met who I would consider a clear theatrical natural. We did go through a whole bunch of years without being in touch, but ever since we got back in touch two years ago, I have been so very glad of it -- glad for how he has both changed and not changed.

So I'm reading Jon's blog, and he wrote something that, because I knew him way back when, really made me ponder this curious arc we call life:

So it was me and a bunch of New Yorkers and one dude from Boston with a British accent. I felt a little out of my element going into the night, to tell you the truth. All of my anxieties about my career -- or lack of career to be more accurate -- were being tested by having a place at this visionary chit-chat. I have great respect and admiration for all the people I’ve listed. They get into the ring and battle everyday. Me, I left New York after college, never really giving my young rebel a chance to shine on the streets of challenge and change that are New York. I drove back to the Midwest and bought a house and did plays away from a twisted real estate market and kinetically competitive artistic environment like the one found in New York. I felt going in like I should have been sitting at the kids table, but somehow I was just tall enough to take a place at the adult table, so I would need to jump in and swim in the conversational pool.

I was nervous. But all these artists and the ever-gracious Mike Daisey seemed nice enough, so I was committed to putting myself through a possibly humiliating professional experience since I was feeling a little like I had no professional experience when compared to the others in the group. I also have loads of dirt on Leonard Jacobs from our college days together at NYU, so I knew I’d at least be able to put him in a corner if things got out of hand.

But my attitude about my place on this panel and the state of the American theater really started to change almost from the moment I showed up at the Barrow Street Theatre. Magical started to happen that made me realize that, yeah, the theater is broken, and maybe it always has been, but there’s really nothing quite like it. And in terms of the people the theater attracts right here and now in the every unfolding national story of that art form, I can think of no other group of aging enthusiasts, young dreamers, and mid-career battered and leather-tough practitioners to lead the charge towards making sure that future generations of theater fans and makers will understand how to jiggle the handle on the toilet that is American theater and make it work as best as it can.
When Jon writes about leaving New York after college and never giving his young rebel "a chance to shine on the streets of challenge and change that are New York" (gorgeous phrasing!), I have to say that I completely remember when Jon left and how, quite frankly, heartbroken I was. I had visions of Jon and I being a writer-director team for the ages, darers of derring do and don't who would put together theatre experiences that would smash doors and crash walls and bash all the idiocies and platitudes that Leonard, at 20 or 22, felt were so important to bash. I don't want to make this posting needlessly gay (I'll stop laughing yet?), since it was always clear that Jon is heterosexual and I am not, but I loved him then, truly loved him, for his talent and for his genius and for his strength and for what I think was a really marvelous case of self-actualization -- he was certainly more wholly endows with a sense of who he was and is far, far more I was at that time. And so in my heartbreak -- in my inability to understand why on earth Jon would leave the Big Apple for home in Wisconsin -- I was a little angry, too. Or at least a little mystified and disappointed and unable to understand something that's very, very key in terms of what he posted on his blog about the panel.

Jon returned to Wisconsin and really did do everything in the professional theatre that anyone in New York could do -- acting, writing, directing, and getting his union membership; founding and operating a successful nonprofit theatre; holding one, if not more, prominent positions within an institutional nonprofit theatre; plus forging friendships and relationships and having a family and buying a home and doing all the things that theatre people too often forget to do or wait too long to do as they operate in pursuit of a life on the stage. Because Jon did all this and did it so well, it tells me, as it should tell all of us, that the theatre world is not only about New York, and that I was a fool to think it was. Indeed, what a fool I was to have such a shallow, cloistered worldview at the time (and I did!).

As a result of everything I've mentioned up above, I therefore think there's no question that Jon totally had a place on Daisey's panel. In fact, I'd go even further and suggest that his place was indispensible to Daisey's efforts -- and point. As for Jon's inner rebel, I think by moving back to Wisconsin and choosing the life path he's chosen, he's been most rebellious -- I mean, he totally eschewed the conventional wisdom about a theatre artist's life happening only in New York or Los Angeles or even Chicago; he proved it can be done anywhere and elsewhere.

So, Jon, don't you ever wonder whether you were "tall enough to take a place at the adult table." You are an inspiration to me, my friend. And part of my education, too. I'm so glad that you are, and always were, my friend.

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1 comment:

Jonathan West said...

You fucker. I love you, too.