Thursday, April 30, 2015

One Click.

I cannot tell you how many emails I delete everyday. Scores of them. On some days, even hundreds. 80% of them I never even read. I just look at the subject line and the sender and make an immediate determination whether or not that person or company or criminal is worth my time. Or, worse yet, worth the risk of a virus that with one click will send me careening through the office with my hair on fire.

Three years ago, sometime around Thursday, May 17, 2012, 8:04PM (not that I really keep track of these things), I received an email whose subject line was merely, “Hi Wayne...” Okay. Fine. Could easily be generated from a database. Hey, this ain’t my first rodeo. The sender was not a name with which I was familiar. Well, that is not necessarily a red flag. Yellow, maybe. It did, at least, look like someone’s real name. In fact, it was a very nice name. Not remotely suspect. (I can tell a fake name and email address when I see ‘em.) No attachments or pictures or links, that’s good. Looked relatively short. Well, at least not massively long. Should be able to breeze through it quickly. Okay, one click and I’m going in.

“Hi there. Hope you are well. I don't mean for this to come as a shock, but…” Uh oh.

I got nervous. But only for a few seconds. Maybe, like, let’s say five. Just long enough to finish the first little paragraph. The message was at once a surprise and a revelation. Yet, it read as strangely familiar. Almost as if I had written it to myself. The turn of phrase, the tempo. Very familiar. It was equal parts humor, courtesy, sensitivity, intelligence, and thoughtfulness. It was also earthshaking. (Okay, so maybe “momentous” is a more appropriate.) For both the reader and, no doubt, the writer.

The next 322 words (not that I counted) would be my introduction to my daughter. A daughter I had never met. Okay, wait, nervous again. Zoinks! WTF? Did I read that right? Visions of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer racing through my head. Oh. My. God. Am I one of those guys now? “Hello? Mr. Watkins? I have Dr. Phil on the line for you. Please hold.”

Okay, one more time from the beginning.

“Hi there. Hope you are well. I don't mean for this to come as a shock, but…”

Wow. My heart was racing a little slower now. I did as the email instructed: "Pause. Breathe. Wig out a little." Second time through, however, the words were less shocking. After the third read I was fine. Heart rate normal. I turned to my wife (and best friend and companion for the last 30 years) and said, “Liz, you are not going to believe this.” I then proceeded to read her the email, word for word, with as calm and unaffected voice as I could muster. (Thanks, in no small part, to my drama school vocal training.)

The letter (because the word “email” somehow diminishes it) was surely a huge undertaking for this young woman. Both emotionally and technically. How do you write a letter to a man you know nothing about? How to tell a total stranger that you are his daughter? No really, how do you do that? How do you break the news in a way that won’t cause an immediate mental short-circuit? What if he has a family? How will this news impact that? Will any of this matter to him? The letter mentioned she was married, so her husband had to play into this, too. With one click she set herself, and her husband, on a completely unfathomable and risky adventure into the unknown. That’s a brave woman, right there.

Before she could grapple with all that insanity, of course, she had to find the right guy. No doubt with some help from her mother, but with a name like mine there must have been some degree of detective work to locate the correct contact info. I am pretty ubiquitous on social media, but finding the right email address can be tricky. Let’s face it, there’s a ton of people called Wayne Watkins out there. Most of them are standing in front of a police line up wall and holding a number under their chin, but still…can you imagine? She must have been freaking out to think that her father might be the guy with the mullet and the Fu Manchu. Or worse yet, the shaved-head guy with the prison tats on his neck!

Obviously, she was persistent enough to find the right me. The one whose outward appearance seemed pretty normal. The one without the prison record. The one who looked enough like her to risk the thought of making first contact. Apparently, the dimples gave me away. She has them, too.

Now the next phase had to kick in. I imagine her brain just rolling through a randomly surreal checklist of questions followed by her own hopeful answers. Then again, maybe not so random. Maybe she had been compiling this list for a while now. Maybe years.
  • Is he crazy? What if he’s in an asylum or something?
  • Is he funny? Not corny or stupid but really witty. That would be great!
  • I hope he’s nice. He looks nice. Hey, he has dimples, too.
  • Is he married? Wonder what his wife is like?
  • Does he have a family? Kids? That could be awkward.
  • Where does he live? Wouldn’t that be weird if he lived close by?
  • What does he do? Mom said he was an actor. Dimple-guy kinda looks like an actor.
  • What does he sound like? Will he have a nice voice or some crazy accent? 
  • Suits or board shorts? 
  • What does his laugh sound like?
  • Short? Tall?
  • I hope he’s smart. Wonder if he went to college?
  • Does he like cats? Maybe he’s a dog guy. What if he hates animals?
  • What if he doesn’t reply to my email?
Certainly, she must have been filled with trepidation. Had to be. Regardless of her apprehensions, her letter was crafted masterfully. She laid the groundwork for a very simple reply from me. Made it easy, in fact, for me to respond without any sort of commitment. Except for one thing. The words she chose to use, the very way she wrote, the careful manner in which she guarded both of us from discomfort or pain. I knew this girl. Even in this a short note I saw myself. I found myself wanting to know her more.

It needed, no it deserved, an immediate reply. A little over twelve hours later, I turned on my computer and began my response. I put fingers to keyboard and tapped out 375 words (if memory serves) and with one click I pressed “send” on Thursday, May 18, 2012, 8:53AM (not that I paid any attention).

And so it began. An amazing and wonderful fairy tale set in motion by one simple mouse click.

In the past 36 months, we have shared meals and told stories. Both of us trying to pack all these years of living into each other's memory. Making up for lost time. We first met, face-to-face, over grilled cheese sandwiches in West Hollywood and they met Liz over eggs in Portland. I’ve been converted to liking Brussels sprouts (no mean feat) at a gastro pub in Long Beach and we have celebrated her 30th birthday at a restaurant overlooking the city lights. My daughter has become a mother, her husband a father. I am now a grandfather and my wife a step-mother. Since they moved back to California, meetups for coffee and conversation are ever more common. Emails continue, as do text messages, and Facebook posts. Each one bringing two people a little closer together after being so far apart. More stories. More history. More laughter. More family.

One daughter. One father. One click.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Actors and Me. Musings on Fraternity.

I work with actors. Often I produce plays that have actors in them. I direct actors quite a bit. I also coach professional actors and teach young actors. Sometimes I act with actors. I have done all of these things with actors for well over 30 years. I have rarely been disappointed when doing this work.  Yes, I have a day job to pay the rent, get the suits cleaned, buy some plants for the garden and food for the fridge, and occasionally take my beautiful and talented actress wife on a swanky date. This work I do with actors does not fill my wallet. Not even close. However, these collaborations do fill my soul. They make me laugh. They make me cry. They make me think. They challenge me and make me better. Actors and the work actors undertake are one of my deep passions. I care about them. Their work, their psyche, their bodies, their voices, their health, their joy, their exuberance, their commitment, their intelligence, their opinions. Them. I care about them. Even the ones I don't much like, I still care about.

Now when I use the word "actor," I mean something very specific. I mean those men and women who are trained in the imaginative world of creating and inhabiting characters based on the written words of playwrights. I do NOT mean people who are merely celebrities. I do NOT mean people who call themselves actors but have never been on a stage or in front of a camera in a character. I do NOT mean people who, while perhaps are entertainers of some kind, have never lost themselves in the words of Shakespeare or Mamet or Miller. I do not mean talk show hosts or comics or models or media personalities or people with a website dedicated to gossip.

I AM referring to people who know how to use their voice. People who can speak properly and be heard in a theatre. Women who can project while wearing a corset and men who know how to walk on a raked stage. People who have been in a dark rehearsal room with other actors pouring over lines and movement and gestures. People who refer to a cigarette and a Diet Coke as "dinner." You know - Actors.

In my relationships with and between actors, even after all this time, I am still taken aback by the passion that actors have about what they do. Most recently, there have been two instances that have made me at once proud and so full of hope for the future of my tribe, my band of brothers and sisters, who have chosen these impossible careers.

The first is what I'll refer to as the "intimate theatre debate" occurring here in Los Angeles. For those unfamiliar with this ruckus, suffice it to say that a very large number of actors in LA are at odds with their own union about whether or not actors should be allowed to work for free (or close to it) if they so choose. The actors want to be able to make that determination for themselves. The union (Actors' Equity Association) says, no. Actors must be paid a minimum (regardless of budget or revenue) or else suffer not working under the protections of the Union. [For the sake of this post, I am dramatically oversimplifying this debate, obviously. For more info click here.] What has happened over the course of this argument may be more significant than the end results of Equity's action. The actors (several thousand of them I might add) have rallied together in an amazing display of solidarity as ARTISTS. They have communicated intelligently and passionately and (for the most part) civilly about this work they do as a community. Theatre artists and intimate theatre companies have joined their voices, and in some cases their very memberships, to support the idea that actors are special and have unique needs and requirements and consideration. From the very famous with lengthy careers to those just starting off on this arduous path -- they have joined together to control their own artistic destiny. Basically, making the case that the manner in which they pursue their art is just as important, if not more so, than money. I have never been as proud to be a member of this community as I have in the last several months. While the outcome will certainly affect me as a producer, the unity, collaboration and homogeneity of the theatre community in Los Angeles has been staggering. And beautiful.

The second occurred 1000 miles away in Portland, Oregon. Several times a year, I am asked by a few theatre companies and a couple universities around the country to come and hang out with their actors. Sometimes a couple days, sometimes a few hours. We call them "master classes" or "workshops," but I like to think of them as collaborative skull sessions where a company just gets a different perspective (mine) on their work or process of work.

Usually, when someone like me comes in to work with a group like this there is some initial resistance. I mean, let's face it, I'm not a household name in the theatre world (nor do I want to be), I don't have a book to sell, and I do not posture or pretend to be some kind of guru. I'm not. I'm just a theatre guy that has some experience and knowledge that some actors might find helpful. Hopefully, I can communicate it in a meaningful way to the actors around the table.

This particular group of actors seemed different, though. Experienced though they all were, they appeared open and available. (Each one of them also happened to be very talented, but that's a whole other subject.) I'm sure they had their questions about me. I had worked extensively with one of the actors (he's is the reason I was there in the first place), but the rest didn't know me from Adam's off ox. Yet, here they were for two days listening, questioning, applying, investigating new techniques. Challenging themselves and each other to get better, to learn, to experiment. Remarkable. And beautiful.

Two groups of actors separated by size and distance. Each proclaiming to the world and themselves that what they do has merit, is important, and should be constantly nurtured and improved upon even in the face of impossible odds.

Who does that? Actors do. And I love them for it.