I recently went to a reunion of the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival. I saw several people I hadn’t seen in twenty five years or so. There’s this thing about working in theater. You can run into someone ten, twenty, thirty years later – and that relationship is exactly where it was all those years ago. Working in theater creates a bond. I can only liken it to war buddies. (Or hearts buddies.) The Padua reunion was great. Lots of really good people. And there we were, as if we’d never been apart. Sure, we all had lived lives in the meantime. Had gone through personal stuff, had kids, had successes, had losses. But the relationships were still there. For me, the overwhelming experience was a sense of joy. These people I had truly respected.
Padua was magic. The first summer. The playwrights, the actors, the location and especially the writing. Learning to write. Exploration, trust. And also all the shit that goes on when people are living together for a month in college dorms. It was hard. It was hot. It was fun. The creation that happened was amazing. Especially considering that I was there day in, day out, watching all the work, all the behind the scenes stuff, all the sweat. A theatrical performance can (and should be) magical, mysterious, unpredictable. But if you’re there during the day, watching how it’s all done, seeing the stage with the work lights, watching the actors in their regular clothes. Listening to line readings, and the jokes, and the questions and the complaints, and the private language that develops between actors and between actors and directors. When you understand the mechanics, it can be difficult to watch a performance and be surprised. You know too much. But the plays at Padua blew me away. Stuff happened. Surprises. Mysterious stuff. Magic.
There were two guys I was in awe of, fascinated by everything about them. Darrell Larson and Norbert Weisser. If I ever had heroes, they were it. I may have been a Beatles fan, but I never wanted to be a Beatle. They were great performers, serious about their work. In Murray Mednick’s Coyote piece, they were strange and different – doing stuff i hadn’t seen before. On campus (so to speak) they were also funny and political and rebels and cool. They were also a little bit older, and a lot more experienced. (They were also human, but that took years to sink in.)
So, the reunion. As usual with these sort of events, I didn’t want to go. Countless lame excuses, mostly fear. Fear of confronting my past, fear of being judged for what I am now… Sometimes I can’t stand how stupid I am. This was a great day. Murray was there, being his usual enigmatic self. Suzy Champagne, older but somehow as young as ever. Another woman stepped right up in front of me, a huge smile on her face. Tandy Weisser, Norbert’s wife. Always a pure joy. She pointed to Norbert sitting at a table in the shade. Norbert and I smiled at each other across the yard. This was going to be good. Norbert and Tandy and I wound up talking for quite a while. We’d all had ups and downs over the past 25 years, but we were still here.
Leon Martel and Beth Ruscio were also there – two other inspirational people. Let me just say they are two of the hardest working, sweetest, most giving, talented, funny people I have met. Really. They arrived year two or three at Padua and brought an amazing, refreshing energy to Padua. Heroes of a different sort.
Toward the end of the party, Darrell arrived. He and Norbert had always been the stars of Padua. And while Norbert was a little more low key (at times, anyway), Darrell was a guy who entered a room. Or a backyard patio. It took a while to get to him. But eventually, I sat down at a table with Darrell and a few others. It was all smiles. We probably said “hi” or something, but almost the first thing out of Darrell’s mouth was “Jim and I will always have a special bond.” He looked at me, not quite checking to see if I knew what he meant, but checking. We said it together. “John Lennon.”
I had been crashing at Darrell’s apartment since I had moved to Los Angeles in September, 1980 . I’d kind of had the rug pulled out from under me when I showed up. All my plans evaporated. And Darrell was kind enough to let me stay with him. It was not a graceful landing in LA. But finally, after a couple months of extra jobs and other pathetic, sub-human “work,” I’d actually gotten a paying job. One night, I got a big fat $400 paycheck and was riding high. I stopped at a liquor store and bought a six pack of Heineken. No shit beer. This was a reason to celebrate. I got back to the apartment, burst in with my beer. But something was wrong. There was maybe one light on. Darrell was on the floor, in tears. He kept telling me something over and over again, but it wouldn’t register. John Lennon had been shot. John Lennon was dead. No. That was not possible. I turned on the radio. This wasn’t real. But there it was on the radio. The news. I guess that made it real.
I know I’ve said this before, but Lennon’s death was probably one of the most traumatic things that ever happened in my life. It hit hard. And it hit Darrell equally hard. We spent days trying to figure it out, talking about it, listening to music, looking at pictures of Lennon. It wasn’t just John Lennon that died. It was John from the white album, it was John from Help, it was John pitch-forking spaghetti. Every John Lennon was dead. And because of that time, that death, the attempt to understand and accept, Darrell and I have a bond. It’s not the complex relationship he has with Norbert through years of friendship and work. It’s not the friendship I have with my friends. It’s a connection from one horrible fucking shared moment.
Darrell has also gone through shit, or as we call it, life. We talked for a while, about the good and the bad. In many ways, he’s still Puck. In the crowd scenes of the Imax Rolling Stones movie. Drinking tequila. Laughing. Listening… That was an amazing thing about Norbert and Darrell. You don’t just talk to them. They listen. And question.
Going to that Padua party was important. Re-connecting with everyone. Including myself. I have let them go for too many years.
Anyway, Happy Birthday, John Lennon.