Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Family You Choose

I never need any reminder how lucky I have been with the family I chose.

My California Road Trip, which sometimes seemed more like a shlepp down Memory Lane, reminded me of the importance of family. I don't mean the family which shares my gene pool, I mean that handful of people who, for whatever reason, have stuck with me over the years.

In fact, I don't think it is the family I chose. It is the family that chose me.
I've been lucky to have recently reconnected with a few folks with whom I grew up in Atlanta, but as these relationships hibernated for several decades, they are somewhat new to me now. So, in my mind, my oldest continuous friend is, hands down, my Claudia.
I don't remember the exact moment we met, but I do remember the exact moment I first laid eyes on her. It was my first day of Play Production class at Kennedy High in 1973. I was already nervous about my new surroundings, so when the back door of the theatre burst open, it gave me a jolt. That was just the beginning. A large rotund Latina charged down the center aisle of the theatre, in pursuit of a lanky Samoan boy. This was Los Angeles, after all. The air was filled with a robust laughter which has not changed to this day. Claudia had made the kind of entrance that any actor would dream about. But instead of entering the stage, she entered my life.

My mother had just been diagnosed with the cancer which, ten years later, would take her life. I was not free to discuss this with anyone, but subconsciously, I was longing for someone to take a strong maternalistic interest in me. Claudia did exactly that, and over the years, she has remained resolute in her determination to make my life better.

We sailed through our college years, occasionally working together onstage, but more often, having real life. When my mother succumbed to breast cancer, Claud was one who went out of her way to be there for me. That aspect of her character, to always want to fix things for others, can sometimes be overpowering, but I wouldn't trade any aspect of her personality. When, decades after we left college and we were still best friends, I moved from LA to pursue my MFA, she decided it would not stand in the way of our relationship. She has visited me a dozen times, in South Carolina and in DC, and we remain the oldest and dearest of friends. She is my family.

Similar to my experience with Claudia, I don't remember the exact moment I met Scott, though I remember the exact moment I first saw him. During my undergraduate career, I had a hell of a time getting cast in the theatre department's plays, but Scott had no such trouble. His performances in "A Flea in her Ear" and "Lysistrata" are ingrained on my memory. Somewhere during those years, we met, possibly through his partner at the time, Ric. I can remember countless evenings spent in the shoddy apartment they shared in the middle of the Valley, screaming with laughter as they entertained. Ric and Scott eventually broke up, but I remained close friends with Scott. We worked together onstage exactly once, but the experience was so spectacular that we cannot help ourselves when we are together today, 25 years later. We just have to reminisce. Scott and I have a very similar comic sense, and our comic timing complements, rather than competes, with each other. It made "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" a pivotal moment in both our lives, and today, that complimentary humor makes our time together full of laughter and, more importantly, soul.

I eventually moved into that shoddy apartment mentioned above, around the time that Drew came into my life. All our lives, actually. The year I spent living with Scott was also the first year of their relationship, and though our first few meetings were rocky (Drew had some crazy notion that the Two Scotts were linked by something other than friendship), Drusis soon became a member of my family. I suppose he's the level-headed one of the couple, the one who gets the bills paid on time and arranges retirement investment. Yes, Scott and Drew have been together a whopping 25 years, and who among us can claim that?

My life would be far less rich if Drusis had not come into it.

It must have been my second year of undergrad when Judy slipped into my life, never to depart. She directed me (and a lot of other journeymen actors) in a couple of Shrunken Musicals, "Cabaret" and "West Side Story" (we did them each in under an hour). Every actor in the dept. scrambled to work with Judy, somehow knowing that her direction, though a student's, was superior to that of our faculty at the time. So, our rehearsals usually began at 11 PM, after everyone had completed their Main Stage shows or rehearsals. Judy and I had an immediate connection, but I suppose it was our landing in the same acting class which cemented our artistic bond. It's difficult to count the number of times Judy and I worked together over the years, it must number in the dozens. She afforded me many of My Firsts: My First Lead in a Musical ("Bye Bye Birdie," which included another first for me, My First Ballad!), My First Lead in a Shakespeare (" Twelfth Night," where I made my first entrance flying down from a hanging platform on a rope, swooping over the audience; we climbed the walls, turned the swordfights into food fights, and included the audience, seated all around on cushions, in the action. It was the most artistically satisfying production I did in college...the faculty hated it), My First Production in Hollywood ("The Time of Your Life"), my First Tap-Dancing Ego-Maniac ("George M"). She also gave me my First Out of Town Gig, when she invited me to appear in her first thesis project for her MFA in Directing at the University of Utah ("The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail").

Our artistic lives and our personal lives were lived together in those days, and Judy and I became inseparable buddies. She welcomed me into her extended family of Armenians, and she was the only one of my friends to know of my mother's battle with cancer.

Over the years we have occasionally lost touch for a while, but in our souls, we are always a part of each others' lives.

That's true of all my chosen family. One of the most special, most heartfelt memories I carry with me is the last birthday gathering we had in LA, the summer before I moved away. We gathered at my apartment nestled in the hills of Silverlake, shared a huge meal of our special treats, lounged on the deck which looked out onto the Hollywood sign, hooted with laughter as we reminisced, toasted each other, and caught up with each others' lives, as we had countless times before. Underneath it all, there was a poignancy which still catches my throat. We already knew that I was leaving in a month, moving east to attend graduate school, and though no one wanted to say it, we all knew that I would not be coming back. Not to live, anyway. Thankfully, I've been able to return several times over the intervening years, and when I do, we pick up as if we had never been apart.

Judy, Scott, Claudia, and Drusis. My family I chose.