Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Son of Alcumus

When I consider the people who have played essential roles in my adult life – family, friends, professional colleagues and teachers – I can, with ease, narrow the list down to two people who have served, and continue to serve, as my most esteemed mentors.

One of these men is Edward Albee, the three-time Pulitzer prize winning playwright who unknowingly assumed the role of my mentor in 1998 when I first read his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Within a couple of months of that seminal moment I began writing plays myself and wound up in Valdez, Alaska, where I won my first playwriting award at the Edward Albee Last Frontier Theatre Conference. I went on to win the same award two years later and had the chance to meet the man himself, who took to my play and invited me to attend his classes at the University of Houston in the spring of 2001, which I did. Within a few months of that, I moved to New York City where Albee offered me jobs as his personal assistant and as secretary of his foundation – posts I have held for over 9 years.

My other mentor, and the one without whose guidance and encouragement I would not have begun to write plays (nor obviously have met Edward Albee, nor proceeded along the focused career path I am currently on) is Professor Perry F. Mills.

I met Perry Mills in the spring quarter of 1998, a few months after moving to Bellingham with the intention of matriculating as a creative writing student at Western Washington University. I quickly discovered that, due to the registration system’s tilt against transfer students, there was no room for me in any creative writing course in the English Department. Frustrated, I sought advice from my student counselor who recommended I try the theatre department. Skeptical, if as yet uncynical, I walked over to the PAC.

When I arrived to the first session of Playwriting 386, I noticed that a lively, larger-than-life guy in sweat pants and t-shirt stood center stage, greeting students with a jibe and exuberant grin. My first thought—no doubt aided by the enormous set of keys he had dangling somewhere on him—was that this was a friendly facilities-custodian [read: eccentric janitor] finalizing the room for the semester, kidding around with the theatre students he obviously knew quite well. What surprise when I discovered that this was the man set to lead the class.

If first impressions are to be both remembered vividly and taken with a grain of salt, one must imagine (and sympathize with) Professor Mills’ likely reaction to the purple-haired waif sitting in the back row. If he thought that he had some goofy young punk in his midst—someone out to waste his and the class’s time by avoiding work and sliding on to the next discardable hobby—he was dead wrong and would soon learn so. And if I thought I had some affable janitor in front of me I, too, would soon discover otherwise.

When Professor Mills asked that two students attempt the terrifying – to dare to write a short play by the next class session – which was met largely with blank stares and leaden hands, I can’t say I remember exactly why my own arm shot up to volunteer. What I can say, for certain, is that this planted seed grew in me so rapidly that within three months of this first day in Professor Mills’ class I was standing in Valdez, Alaska, being handed a framed certificate, and a check for $1000, thinking ”Holy shit, I can really do this.”

I went on, during my remaining years at Western – which concluded by my being designated the 2000 Graduate of the Year, the official awarding of which I requested Perry present, which he did with characteristic warmth, humor and, dare I say, unselfish pride in my accomplishments – to take every single class Perry taught. It was during one of these many courses -- the Greco-Roman Playwrights Course, as I remember it -- that I wrote a note to the man on a small scrap of paper which I may or may not have ever actually handed to him.

It said, simply:

”You are a magician. You take the realization of my own ignorance and transform it into a bright, burning anger before my eyes.

That anger was what I then transformed into initiative, ambition and fortitude—traits which have ceaselessly assisted me -- and continue to assist me -- through the tricky navigation of a tough professional theatre world. And it's pretty damned unlikely I would have ever discovered that precise alchemy on my own. This is what, to my mind, a mentor is for.

I write this as an addendum to my first post on this site and belatedly so, due to the exigencies inherent in living and working in one of the most ferociously consuming American cities. Better late than never, I suppose, and as thorough as I need it to be in order to set the stage for what I intend to talk about next.

Stay tuned. My hope -- as well-intentioned and four-lettered as anyone else's -- is that the next post will forward this story a bit further, and show up with a less severe gap in time than this one has.

Jakob is a professional playwright living in New York City, working as the assistant to a much more famous professional playwright also living in New York City whom you now know by name. He’s married to a woman whom he met at WWU over 11 years ago, who has managed to brainwash him as thoroughly as Perry Mills has, but somehow manages to be better looking if easier to kill.

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