Vita Brevis. Ars Longa.
In August of 2002, I got my Master’s Degree from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Susan Willis, our inspirational theatre history teacher, (think John Keating but female and an Anglophile) gave a speech. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something to the effect of this: “You will give your life’s blood to this art form, and in the end, it will all be worth it. Because Vita Brevis, Ars Longa. Life is short. Art is long.”
As she said those words tears streamed down my face. Little did I know how right she was.
I believe theatre is a calling, and that fully dedicating your life to it requires sacrifice. Those sacrifices are financial, personal, familial. Did I mention financial? I did? Just checking. Those sacrifices are fine when you’re in your 20s. At that age you can survive for weeks on coffee and a dime bag. (If my mom is reading this, a dime bag definitely is not a reference to marijuana.) When you hit 30, however, it feels like a choice must be made. We all have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask if we are really going through with this. I remember being in my early 30s, sitting on the front steps of my apartment in Brooklyn with Adam Knight, joking about how our ships had sailed. This is what we had chosen. The course had been set. My God help us all.
Then comes 40. Life starts to become real. “Are we really doing this” becomes “How am I going to make this work” and “What am I doing this for.”
What am I doing this for? That question was answered for me last night on Ponce de Leon in Atlanta, GA.
One of the other people listening to that speech of Susan Willis in early August of 2002 was my classmate Thomas Ward. Tom is hands down one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. Instinctive and funny. Scary and surprising. All the things you want in an actor. If you happen to live in Dallas and get the chance to see him work, you know what I mean.
He’s also a playwright. His writing always walks that fine line of tragedy and comedy. And it’s always completely and utterly human.
When I started doing stand up out of grad school, Tom was one of the first people I told. He decided that he, too, would give it a go. Of course he was funnier than I was. A natural at that as well. He didn’t stick with stand up though. A particularly challenging show at a bar near the Canadian border soured him on the life of the road. He had seen behind the veil too quickly, and he didn’t like what he saw.
Eight years ago, I was sitting with him in an 18th Century farm house in Brewster, NY. I was doing a workshop of a play I was writing at Space on Ryder Farm. The play that eventually became Folly Beach. He had come to give me a helping hand. That’s the kind of person he is. One afternoon, on a break from writing, he hands me a draft of a play he was working on, and asked if we could read it out loud. It was a two hander, called International Falls. The inspiration for it was that night at that club near the Canadian border. It was about a mid-level stand up comedian at the end of his rope who has a chance encounter with the woman working the front desk at the hotel, who was at the end of her rope as well. The play was as funny as it was devastating. As silly as it was insightful. He wound up performing the play for several years to rave reviews, with him as the comic and his equally talented wife, Sherry, as the woman at the front desk.
I can only imagine how special those performances were. Chances are we’ll never see that again. You see, Sherry has this extremely rare, extremely fucked up disease called Stiff Person Syndrome. It’s the kind of thing that makes me thankful that I only have cancer. She’s in a wheel chair now. Tom is her caregiver. Which makes his dedication to his art all the inspiring.
(You can learn more about Sherry's condition at https://www.gofundme.com/6e6q13k)
A few years ago one of Tom’s former students read International Falls and was blown away. She was an aspiring film maker, and wanted to know if she could turn his play into a movie. Tom went to work, adapting the story of that night at the Canadian border into a screen play. And last night, I had the honor of seeing the World Premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival.
Rachel Harris played the woman. She has parts on New Girl and Reno, 911. She was brilliant. Completely transformative performance. Seriously, it should be nominated for awards. Rob Huebel was the comedian. He’s from The Office and Transparent. He was part of the group Human Giant. I was blown away. He was so funny and so human. It’s a shame he hasn’t gotten the chance to do more serious work.
It was directed by Amber McGinnis. Her work was incredible. She brought this script to life. That sounds trite, but it’s sincerely the highest honor I can give a director.
And underneath it all were the words of my friend Tom. It felt like he was giving us all a glimpse into his soul. Because that’s what writing is. We open ourselves up and invite everyone to come in and see. Hopefully you see something inside of me that you recognize in yourself. Hopefully that makes us feel a little less alone in this world. This world full of slings and arrows that we exit before we even knew we were on stage.
Because life is short.
But thank God art is long.
And thank God there are people like Tom, sharing their art with the rest of us.