Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Viva Vita!

Monday night, friends, family and fans of John MacDonald gathered in tribute.

Bill Largess hosted the evening, called John MacDonald, Vita! The title was a little brainy for my taste, not being a Latiny kind of guy, but it suited the celebratory nature of the event.

There was an unmistakable feeling of history in this gathering, which took place at the Hartke Theatre on the Catholic University campus. It was that very stage upon which John forged many of the relationships which flourished throughout his career. Most of the founding members of the Washington Stage Guild met at Catholic, and many others in the audience for the memorial had CU in their history. There was a palpable feeling of camaraderie among those folks, an inclusive feeling which enveloped the rest of us, making everyone there feel a part of the whole.

I did not know John very long, so I was unaware of his life's history. The Big Name at the memorial was probably Liane Hansen from NPR, whose dulcet vocal tones are so enticing it makes one consider switching teams. Hansen was a classmate of John's during his undergraduate years, and she entertained the crowd with several stories of those long-ago days.

I am a big fan of Hansen, and she held the stage with her reminiscences. As I said, she was probably the highest profile speaker of the evening. But somehow her stories of John's undergraduate years were not as interesting to me as the others told later. I don't think our beautiful Liane was at fault here. After hearing the night's tributes, I think John didn't really come into his own until he hit Catholic University for his graduate work. It was then that he blossomed into the John MacDonald that we can recognize; there he seemed to develop the deft but light directorial touch which became the cornerstone of his work. And at Catholic, he began the relationships which lasted for the rest of his life.

John's early directorial efforts were illustrated during the festivities when Michael Rothhaar took the stage to recreate a moment from Beyond the Fringe, scenes from which John directed as a student at Catholic. Later, Rick Foucheux read a speech he delivered, under John's direction, decades ago in Hughie, a performance which garnered a Helen Hayes nomination. Laura Giannarelli provided a look at John's lengthy career as a voice artist, and we were treated to a bit of John's reading of Watership Down for Books for the Blind (it's still available).

Warm and often hilarious remembrances came from Alan Wade (who directed me a year ago in Of Mice and Men; this is a small and interconnected community), Vinnie Clark, Bill Pucilowsky, and Bob Butler. Scattered throughout the large audience were current and former members of the Guild (though that's a bit misleading; from my experience with the Guild the last few years, if you work with the group once, they consider you one of their own. I love that.) My favorite moment in the memorial was the Rondo, when a dozen or more actors rose from their seats and recited favorite lines from their performances, and memorable notes given by John as he directed them.

Short and to the point: "Don't suck."

Revealing the obvious: "You don't have to work so hard to be funny. You're dressed like a clown."

Perhaps my favorite line of John's was not part of the Rondo. It was uttered after the first read of Opus, which John listened to from a corner of the homey green room of the theatre. Our director Steve Carpenter offered John, as Artistic Director of the Guild, the opportunity to say a few words. And that's all he offered, a few words.

"It's a comedy."

I can't help it, I have to reveal a few very brief personal memories of John. As I have confessed, I did not get the chance to know him as well as others, and I miss that opportunity keenly. But he welcomed me into the fold with gentility during Opus, and more recently as I've been involved in the Guild's Staged Reading Series. But my very first one-on-one moment with John was not a Stage Guild moment. As I've previously written, about a year before Opus was produced, I was involved in a five-performance staging of 1776, to celebrate the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery. As these were staged readings, the full cast was onstage throughout, with book in hand. Everyone would exit for the intermission, then, at a certain moment during the entr'acte, we all trooped back onstage to our appointed seats. Well, for some reason one night (I think the lights changed unexpectedly onstage), John and I simultaneously thought it was time to enter, and we marched onstage. The audience paid us no heed, as they were still wandering around in Intermission Mode. No one else in the cast made this mistake, just John and myself. We stood center stage for a moment, looking around, then I casually muttered to John, "I think we're early."

"I think you're right," he replied, utterly calm.

After a moment in which we both realized that nobody was coming onstage to save us, I said, "Do you want to go off again?"

"No," John replied, "let's just stay here." And we did. We had a nice little chat between ourselves as the audience returned to their seats, and the musicians in the band arrived and began, finally, to play. At the appointed time, when the rest of the cast made their entrance, John and I calmly shook hands and walked to our places. Of course, John was practicing what we both already knew: the audience never knows you've made a mistake unless you tell them so.

During the run of Opus, I spent a lot of time backstage while the four other members of the ensemble did shmacting onstage. My role was the outcast and only made a few strategic appearances in the play. John was almost always relaxing in the green room during these times. Reading the paper, working a crossword, snagging another piece of cake, he was a calming presence for me. I am not one who does a lot of backstage chitchat during a performance, it tends to foul me up once I get back onstage. John seemed to sense this, and he left me alone, interacting with me only when I initiated a conversation. Far from being awkward, this always increased my confidence. These long backstage interludes taught me that I was working for an artistic director who understood actors (perhaps because he was a fine one himself).

These and other memories were present in my mind at Monday's tribute, and I imagine every single person in the audience was reliving their own private moments with John, even as we enjoyed the public remembrances being offered by the speakers, and hooted at the pictures of John's past ("Officer, we are having a pudding fight.")

John's wife and life partner, Ann Norton, was the final speaker, and I was surprised to learn that she almost never, in her marriage or her career with John, got the last word. (Even, as she pointed out, when she was right.) I suppose if I had known John longer, I would have seen that indeed, John usually did get the last word, but he achieved it in such an unassuming, gentle way, that nobody noticed or cared.

John himself finished off the evening, with a recording of the epilogue to Watership Down. As those clear, resonant tones filled the theatre, all those little memories of my own came back again. I'm sure that was happening to everyone else as well, no matter how long they had known John.

There was a prolonged standing ovation for this man whose life we were celebrating. Not much to give back, really, but it was spontaneous and appropriate. I will never forget the evening, or John, or our brief moments together.