I was a Theatre major in college. Though most people I know do know this about me at some level, it's easy to forget because I teach in the Communication field that I took my Master's degree in instead of in Theatre. But Theatre was the start - as every cheesy actor remarks at some point in their career - the first love.
Theatre is an odd thing. It's here, it's concrete, you see it, you hear it - then it's gone. TV you can go back and watch again and again - ad nauseam. Browse through the cable listings in your area and you'll find entire channels dedicated to reruns of Law and Order - just in case you missed the basic story the first 80 times they told it. And every time they re-broadcast it, it is exactly the same. Nothing changes - not a word, not a tone, not an expression. Don't get me wrong - I love the technology of TV and it has, after all, given us iconic images and experiences - including Lucy stuffing chocolates down her dress and into her mouth. No complaints there.
But Theatre is different. Theatre changes every time you see it. Even if the actors say the exact same words, they rarely say them the exact same way, with the same tone, the same expression, the same cadence. The movement changes, maybe just a fraction of an inch. The reaction of one person to another is slightly different in timing or intensity. You can go see the same production every single time it plays and never see the same show twice. Then, of course, it is gone. The actors, directors, technicians put in immense time and effort to create this experience and after 20 or 6 or 2 performances, that's it - it's done. They dismantle the sets which are repainted and become part of a new show, hang up the costumes which are tweaked to fit some new actor in some new character, and all that's left is a crinkled program, the still photos that get posted in a theatre lobby, and the memories of those who have participated.
The Theatre life is an odd one. You work insane hours, both in amount and in times. You work evenings and late into the night. You work weekends. You work holidays. You sleep late and stay up even later. When the rest of the world is getting up to start their day, you're winding down to go to bed. Because of the nature of the work, you interact with your colleagues with an intensity that you simply do not find in many other fields. It's the creativity, yes. And it's the emotion. Your job in the Theatre is to evoke an emotional response in your audience, whether you're the actor, the costumer, the director. The end goal is the audience response and everything is directed to that end - that vision.
That much emotion doesn't come without a price. That price is drama - and I mean that in every sense of the word. The point is the drama, yes - but the work becomes drama and the relationships become drama and the drama easily feeds upon itself and creates more drama. Add to the mix that you have people who have personalities that embrace drama and, in many cases, like to be the center of the drama and if there is no drama they will create some drama. If you're not careful, even in the middle of comedy you can get lost in the drama.
Luckily, though, in the midst of all this there are a few people who are sane and grounded - people who don't get lost in the drama. One of those people was Nancy Wheeler. Nancy was one of my directors in my university program, and one of the sanest, most drama-free people you could ever hope to meet. She plopped herself in the center of all of that angst and emotion and drama and became a pool of calm and sanity.
I don't want to give the wrong impression - Nancy was not, ever, boring. She laughed more than most people and had a sharp wit and a wicked sense of humor. She was the first to laugh at your joke, the first to join in the fun and was always up for a good time. She was passionate about the drama - she demanded the best and the most from her actors and her techs. Halfway, or half-assed, was not an option. Do your best - that's the standard. And that standard created some absolutely memorable work. I don't think it's possible that anyone who ever was fortunate enough to work with Nancy came away from the experience unaffected.
A story shared by one of her actors is a great example of Nancy's way of handling the drama which constantly swirls in the theatre. Jim Blanchette shares "...She was in rehearsal for Arsenic and Old Lace and I was lucky enough to be working in the theatre that day watching. An actor was discovering their inner Lawrence Olivier and needed motivation for everything they did. The actor asked for one too many justifications and Nancy answered curtly but sweetly, "Your motivation is a kick in the ass. Cross stage left..." Drama be damned - there's work to be done. I don't know who the actor was, but I'm guessing that working with Nancy was one of the best things that s/he ever experienced.
Nancy died on January 26. She leaves behind a legacy of actors, technicians, students, colleagues and friends who were forever changed for the better for having known Nancy and worked with her. On Sunday and Monday, many of us will gather together to remember her formally - and probably dramatically. We'll share stories, we'll laugh, we'll cry and we will raise a glass to one of the best human beings we've ever had the privilege to know. We'll recognize that our lives, like the Theatre, are ephemeral and that what ultimately matters is that we've done our best and that we've created something that positively impacts the people we interact with - something memorable. Even in death, Nancy remains our teacher.
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