Last summer, I had the pleasure of heading up north, from my home in Princeton, N.J. to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where I saw the last performance of Steve Lawson's fine adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Valley of Fear."
Though the show was wonderful, it was a moment about half an hour after the curtain came down that really struck a chord in me. In the world of the theatre, it was nothing unusual, basically the moment just before "strike" (the final dismantling of the set) where everyone - actors, ushers, apprentices, the director, etc. - will take a moment and pop a bottle or two of perhaps not terribly expensive champagne and offer each other a well deserved toast.
They talked about how much it meant to work together. They talked about what they learned, and what they would take away from their experience. It was sincere, it was moving, and it brought me back.
It was after all, creeping toward the end of the summer. And as I stood apart from these talented artists, my mind and heart couldn't help but race back 20-plus years - when I was as young and hopeful as them - and when being part of a festival (also in my case, Williamstown) was literally my saving grace.
In 1986, I sent my first little collection of plays to Bonnie Monte at the festival. Since that time, Bonnie has become the venerable Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
I spent several summers up at Williamstown, "Playwriting Intern," "Directing Assistant," whatever title they threw at me that seemed remotely appropriate. The point was not what I was called, but where I was. I was "in the room" with professionals. And while yes, I was usually getting them coffee, I was at least there to soak it all up and learn.
The highlights of my summers still loom large: Paul Giamatti starring in my play "Running Funny," being there the night Chris Reeve first laid eyes on his future wife Dana, "assisting" Joanne Woodward, who brought to life for me the history of the Group Theatre. My mom dying during the 1987 season, and being sent a huge condolence card signed - it seemed - by literally everyone at the festival. People I knew and didn't know. But all of them family.
The most confusing moments of my summer? Being sent to fetch sandwiches at Pappa Charlies, the well known sandwich shop on Spring Street that names their sandwiches after actors who appeared at the festival. That meant I could be asked by Austin Pendleton to get him a "Joanne Woodward," and Olympia Dukakis might very well request a "Jimmy Naughton, hold the mayo." Talk about a mind twister. I remember walking toward spring whispering to myself: "Austin wants a Joanne, Olympia wants a Jimmy."
But visiting last summer, looking at all those fresh faces made me wish I could go back. I wanted to tell all of them, actors, apprenitices, directors, everyone, to never let their summer end (metaphorically at least). I wanted to warn them about the thousands of compromises they may find themselves making down the line, the walls of existential exhaustion they'll have to climb - and most of all, the heart breaking rejections sprinkled only intermittently with enough successes to keep going. And keep believing.
Some of them will think stability is possible in a life such as ours. And they will learn that really, it is not. I also thought - ironically - that my "self" back then, 20-plus-years ago, would probably consider my "self" now to be successful on some level. Which of course only tells you how little my "self" back then knew.
But, going back was important and I resolved to make a little promise to myself: "Keep a little of those summers inside you. No matter where you go."
It's a promise that "old self" of mine would no doubt have heartily approved of. And that's good, because I plan on listening to him more often.