WATSON: Come on, man! ME: No, dude. No means no. Now, stop asking or you’ll be going to your mat until I’m finished eating. WATSON: Why won’t you give me some of your meatloaf? ME: Because it’s MY dinner. You have your own food.
(Pause) WATSON: Okay, I’ve got an idea. How about you eat my food, and I’ll eat yours? ME: Why would I eat your food when I have this meatloaf? WATSON: That’s what I’M saying!! ME: Go lie down. WATSON: Aww man…
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ME: I see you’re enjoying your “Gotcha Day” present. WATSON: I so totally am! Thank you!!
WATSON: And, by the way, I’m sorry about the Saran Wrap on the toilet seat prank. Until you gave me this indestructible slice of meat heaven, I had a completely different understanding of the meaning of the day.
I was thinking more along the lines of an “April Fools Day Gotcha!”, you know, like, “Gotcha!!”with a crazy gag kind of thing and much less along the lines of a “Happy Day I Came to Live With You Day,” kind of “Gotcha,” which makes so much more sense now that I’m saying it out loud…so…sorryboutthat…
ME: Yeah, well…No worries. I’d been meaning to clean the bathroom floor anyway.
WATSON: Do you think Sarah’s looked in her sock drawer, yet? ME: Why? What did you…Watson?! Where are you going?!!
WATSON: I need like six seconds! Just…distract her! ME: Wait, wh— WATSON: DISTRACT!!
I DON’T KNOW if I have ever *carried anyone with me* the way I’ve carried Florence Birdwell with me in my heart. Mrs. Birdwell passed away peacefully last Monday, and I’ve been searching for the unfindable words to express what she means to my life.
I knew her before I met her, and I mean it exactly like that.
One doesn’t simply “know of” Florence Birdwell, which might be how it all begins for you. When you hear people speak of her, you already feel a connection because of the undeniable impact she is having on those people’s lives.
Their lives have obviously been altered by having been swept up into her orbit, the atmosphere of her loving being.
It is simply an undeniable fact that Florence Birdwell was always very much alive in every moment of her life, and as soon as I made contact with Planet Birdwell, I wanted to find out how I could live there permanently.
I came to Oklahoma in 1988 to finish my undergraduate degree at Oklahoma Christian University (OC).
Oklahoma City University (OCU) was only a few miles away and its Opera and Musical Theater program, along with its Dance department, was legendary.
I attended many performances at OCU while a student at OC and picking out a Florence Birdwell student became the easiest thing in the world to do.
“Who is this kid studying with?”was a question I silently asked myself very early on in a performance of something I had gone to in order to fulfill a requirement of my music major (Music majors were required to attend so many live performances outside of the OC campus confines every year).
I reached for my program (my *proof* of attendance) and searched for the performer’s name in the “Who’s who?” section.
“A special thank you to Mrs. Birdwell, my amazing teacher!” it read, among other less noteworthy things at the time.
That happened time and time again during my undergrad visits to the Kirkpatrick Theater on the OCU campus. A Florence Birdwell student is very easily identifiable. It was like being in a club of sorts. There was obviously something different going on in her studio, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
When I was finally ready for graduate school, I had every intention of studying with Mrs. Birdwell, but I was talked into enrolling with a new full-time instructor who had had a wonderful career as a baritone.
I learned a great deal about my shortcomings in my time with that teacher. I always liked him, but we just didn’t click artistically. He tried his best with me, but I could never *get it.*
There was always a piece missing.
The Master’s program is a two-year endeavor and in-between my two years, during the summer of 1994, I had the privilege of playing Otto Kringelein in “Grand Hotel: The Musical,” immediately followed by John Adams in “1776,” to close out the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma season.
Mrs. Birdwell came to see “Grand Hotel” with her beloved husband Robert (a wonderful, beautiful human being in his own right; I’m happy to have gotten to know him, too!) and found me on the stage, after the performance.
She gently took my arm as I was finishing speaking to someone else, and when I finished, she looked at me for a moment in the eyes and said, “Where was that performer in your Jury three months ago? This was fine work.”
And she turned and walked on and away.
We closed “Grand Hotel” on a Sunday and opened “1776” on Wednesday, three days later. On closing night (eleven performances later, I think?) Mrs. Birdwell found me a second time.
She was talking in a small group of fellow theater patrons as I attempted to walk past. I wanted to say hello, but didn’t want to intrude. She stopped me again, this time giving me a big hug.
She pulled me in close and whispered in my ear, “We’ll have our time.”
And we never spoke about that again, until I began teaching at OCU four years later in 1998, such was her respect for other teachers on the faculty and their students, as well her understanding of one of the most important elements of success in any endeavor—timing.
When I approached Mrs. Birdwell during my first fall semester of teaching at OCU about taking me on as a student, it was like she had been waiting for me to ask.
“Oh yes!” she said, with a joyful laugh. “At last! We have SO MUCH work to do!”
And we did.
Ever since I first entered the orbit of Planet Birdwell, my life has never been the same. I have always wanted to make her proud in everything I’ve done, but it has always been more than that.
Living on Planet Birdwell meant opening your mind to every experience, to every possibility, and always giving nothing less than your entire self to every moment you had the miraculous privilege of an audience’s attention, no matter what the artistic genre or medium.
There is no one I have ever known who has understood more deeply what a heavenly blessing it is to be an artist and what the responsibility of being an artist entails.
If you ever had the great good fortune to land on Planet Birdwell and bask in its firm but always warm intention, you know that your life has been changed for the better.
If you never had the honor while here on Earth, I bring you great news:
Planet Birdwell is always alive and well in your heart, and all you have to do to visit and rest there is to love others so completely that you will accept nothing but the very best they have to offer this temporary and all too short existence.
I love you, Mrs. Birdwell.
You are always with me, with all of us, and for that, I am always grateful.
Sometimes, when I think of Faith, Hope, and Love, I dream of someone crossing the Atlantic on a wooden ship with a great mast, and great cloth draped and tied to catch the wind.
Thousands of ships have made the journey over times gone by. Every ship bringing with it hopes and dreams of something better, something more.
Each ship is filled with a soul, searching for a better life, always looking ahead through a pirate’s spyglass of lies, always seeing the unattainable horizon just beyond the distance.
They take the journey of a lifetime, searching for the paradise that doesn’t exist but has existed always, the myth of how life should be, must be, can’t be, but always has been.
Faith. Hope. Love.
Whenever I see these three together, I see the Trinity come to life in the world. This is the Trinity on the ground, in the presence of the people, taking names and loving them; loving the people attached to those names as if they meant the world because they do.
This Miraculous Three, this Trinity, calls to me, desperate for me to notice their presence, ready to guide me as I search for and desire to know more intimately the Mysterious More—the reason to continue, the experiential reality of the un-nameable who is omni-nameable, the summing up of why anything matters at all, the one than which none greater can be conceived.
This is my response to their calling my name.
“Faith, Hope, and Love: I welcome you. Do what you will with me.”
A ship only moves if it has a well-made sail. One fashioned together with material cut to withstand the storms and the sun, each one beating down hard upon the deck in its own time and turn and in its own way.
There could be water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. But a sail must stay ready, sturdy, willing to adjust to the new direction of winds never seen before. It will be (it must be) handled and moved and battered and untied and retied, but it must remain sturdy. It will be tested. Again. And again. And again.
What makes a ship sail across the seas? A fleet of strangers sailing alone, following a star to a land where life is free from pain. A land never before seen, only dreamt of. A sail is but cloth. Nothing more. A sail is not dreams, it is a sail.
Wind is the hero. Without wind, nothing moves. There is no peace, no understanding, no dialogue; there’s just no talking to anyone about anything without wind. The wind is a promise kept to the sail.
“Just be in place and be ready,” the sail is told. “You are imperative! Without you, the wind blows uselessly. But, because you are both flexible and steadfast, the wind will propel the journey!”
Our journey on the great sea.
The sea itself.
A boat travels because of the sturdy and flexible sail, propelled all along by the wind. But, the entire journey was, is, and will always be on the ocean water, the only place a ship can be when it crosses the uncrossable sea.
The endless water, the unfathomable fathoms, greater than any human understanding.
The ocean water is that on which the ship travels. The only reason for a ship to exist is to journey on the water.
Without Love, there is no journey.
There is only that feeling of always wanting to go somewhere but not knowing where to go, exactly, or how to get there. There is only wandering. Until we see the sea, there is only lost.
There are stories that have forever been told of sailors who can’t stay on land for very long. They must get back to the sea, to the journey. On the water is where they feel most alive, most connected.
Love is the unfathomable ocean on which we all journey. We all traverse the endless ocean together, though it might so very often seem as though we are all alone, in our own private wooden ships.
You do not travel alone. We are all on the endless ocean together. Some so much more experienced and even more comfortable than others, but we are all traveling together. Each of our experiences are unique, but the journey is the very thing we all share.
Love never leaves. It is the very substance of our journey, the very foundation of our lives at sea. Love is the endless water on which I journey through this life of mine, this life of ours.
If you feel you are sinking, tie your ship to mine, and let’s travel side by side together.
Let’s find more lost ships and offer to have them tie their sometimes broken vessels to ours. Let’s take the journey together, as we’re meant to do.
IN LATE SUMMER of 2002 I finally reached a benchmark in my newly relaunched performing career—the Walnut Street Theatre had called me in to audition.
The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia is the America’s oldest theater and has the largest subscription base of any theater in the world.
I’ve known about the theater all my life and dreamed about playing on the stage where Edwin Booth played the Scottish Play, and Brando screamed “Stella!!” eight shows a week during Streetcar’s out-of-town try-out.
Used to be, if you had a play you wanted to get to Broadway, it had to come through Philly first, and coming through Philly usually meant coming through by way of The Walnut.
So many of the greats have played that staged, and I couldn’t wait to temporarily take up the same space once temporarily taken up by so many legends.
I had been cast as the Nazi, Admiral von Schreiber, in “The Sound of Music,” the second show of a five-show season which ran all of November, December, and into the second week of January.
It was a great gig, and a fantastic show in which to make my debut at one of my dream theaters.
Admiral von Schreiber is the guy who, just as everything is about to turn out perfectly for the Captain, Maria, and the brood, comes in and throws a wet blanket on the whole situation by personally summoning Captain von Trapp to take his new post in the Nazi Navy.
I’m happy to report to you that I was particularly creeptastic and tried my best in every performance to live up to the honor of the history of the house that has, in many ways since, become a sort of home for me over the years.
In addition to my role as the Nazi Admiral, I was tasked with understudying the role of Franz, the butler, usually played by a wonderful character actor from Philly named, Lee Golden.
By this point in his career, Lee was beginning to slow down some. The lengthy run of a Walnut production can take its toll on the most fit and healthy of any of us, and I was told from the beginning to take special care to be prepared at a moment’s notice…just in case.
Toward the end of our nine-week run, I could tell Lee was looking a bit tired. Soon enough, it became clear that I would need to take over his role, at least for a while.
On a Sunday afternoon, following a matinee performance before having the next day off, I was told Lee would be out for a few days and perhaps even the entire week.
Before we left the theater that particular Sunday to go home for some much needed rest, Lee stopped by my dressing room.
“Hi, Lee! How you feeling?” I asked.
I knew he wasn’t feeling well, but I wasn’t sure what to say.
At that point in my career, I had never missed a performance of a play I was in, nor had I gone on as an understudy before.
There were several “first times in my career” things going on, seemingly all at once.
“I feel like shit, to be honest,” he said. “But I know you’re going to be great. I’m not worried a bit.”
And then he handed me a folded piece of paper.
I had seen that very paper before.
One of the benchmarks of a rehearsal process in almost any theater is the “designer run.”
This is when the production gets to the point, relatively early in the rehearsal process, where the cast performs a full run-through of the show in the rehearsal room for the producer, the designers, and the crew.
Often, it can be the first time for the entire cast to go through the whole show from beginning to end together.
Memorizing your lines is only part of what needs to be learned by heart in a production like “The Sound of Music.” Entrances and exits for a character actor can be confusing; you need a map of your ins and outs—your “track.”
It was during this designer run that I noticed Lee while he was waiting offstage for his entrances. Every time he exited a scene, he would reach in his pocket and pull out a meticulously folded paper.
He had made his own map of his entrances and exits, a “key” of sorts for his track.
Now, in my dressing room before leaving for what ended up being a full week of eight performances, Lee was bequeathing me his performance lifeline.
“I thought you might be able to use this,” he said. “I always make one for every show I’m in. It helps me keep my head straight, especially when I’m listening backstage. Being a character actor can get confusing. That’s why I always try to be prepared.”
“Thank you, so much!” I said. “You just get better. I’ll keep Franz warm for you, I promise.”
“Break a leg,” he said, closing my dressing room door as he headed out into the Sunday evening.
Left alone, I unfolded the paper to reveal everything I needed to know about how to navigate the business end of playing Franz, the butler.
Lee had typed everything out on a good old fashioned, ribboned typewriter, highlighting certain important parts and scribbling notes where he needed them, and where he thought I might need a reminder or two.
It was, at once, the kindest thing a fellow actor had ever done for me by bequeathing me this tool, and the beginning of a part of the acting process I have never gone without in any show I’ve done in the eighteen years since.
I gratefully accepted Lee Golden’s generous gift of his “track map” and have kept it to this day as a reminder that kindness is most often found in the seemingly little things.
I’m sure I would’ve gotten by just fine had he not given his notes to me to use, but in doing so, he made a permanent impact on my life and an indelible imprint on my heart.
It’s among the fondest memories of my professional career.
How can I make someone else’s life easier?
It’s a question Lee Golden asked himself regarding his understudy some eighteen years ago, and one that absolutely changed my life for the better.
Here’s to a fond memory, Lee Golden! Thank you for shaping my life in a way you probably never even knew.
Being an actor is the only thing I have always wanted to be.
There are so many reasons that come together to make the above statement true, and I will be exploring practically all of them as I continue trying to understand what it means to be human.
One thing I do know, and can say with a great deal of certainty, is that it’s not about the applause.
Applause is amazing, and I’m not going to pretend it isn’t gratifying and that it doesn’t feel good, but it’s not the reason I perform.
There is something about the connection between a performer and the audience the never leaves me with any doubt whatsoever that this is what I am made to do.
Acting the part of another being is where I feel most like myself, and as strange as that might sound, the very process of acting has brought me closer to an understanding of who I am and who we all are to each other than anything else I have ever done or attempted to do.
This clip from the 2011 film, Anonymous – which argues that all of the works attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford and not Shakespeare, himself- illustrates to perfection what great theater can actually produce in a moment.
This scene from the film- a moment from the play, “Henry V” – shows Henry rousing his troops in one of the greatest theatrical speeches ever written.
Watch how the audience responds to this actor in the most authentic and human way.
Watch what these words and how he says them move the audience to forget themselves and truly feel as if they are present with a long ago King of England and not some lowly actor in a wig and false armour.
What is that? Why does that happen?
I hope you will continue to join me on my quest to understand what that connection is and why it is so meaningful to our existence as human beings.
Thanks for joining me on this countdown journey, as we thrust ourselves headlong into this mysterious new year – 2021!