When I was eight years old, my mother signed me up from a summer theatre workshop at our local civic league downtown; she knew I was a glutton for attention, and I was likely driving her crazy with my constant me-me-me attitude. In fact, upon her urging, I used my dad's boombox and her cassette tapes of musicals to record my own little radio show called Driving You Crazy, which she would listen to in the car -- get it? Driving? -- hosted by me and a gaggle of characters I'd play, mixed with music and stories.
So, no, it wasn't a stretch for her to think I'd enjoy performing on a real stage with people who weren't just imaginary friends, for more than an audience of one.
That summer, I met Kevin Baldwin, who cast me in a little skit called "Fair Today, Followed by Tomorrow," as well as a drunk who lip-synched Frank Sinatra's "That's Life!" (It was a different time, then.) I loved doing this workshop, not really because of the script or the Old Blue Eyes standard, but because of Kevin. Outside of my family, he was my first male role model, and boy, was he cool! I cannot picture that time without remembering his blue Honda Civic (which I always wanted for my first car), seeing him holding a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup in his hand, or him in a light black jacket with the sleeves pushed up. At one point, I was so enamored by him that I begged my mother to find out what cologne he wore so I could wear it too. (Ralph Lauren Polo, by the way.)
I was not a very easy child, then (but look how cute I was!); this was pre-ADHD diagnosis (and therefore pre-medication), so I was rambunctious, prone to big emotions, and constantly wanting attention (as I may have already mentioned). All my schoolteachers to this point -- the only other adult figures I routinely came in contact with -- put up with me, but only to an extent. Kevin was different.
After that summer program, he directed the musical Godspell, and I wanted to be in it because of the previous experience I had. I wasn't sure if he was actively looking for kids to join the cast, but he let me, and it became a very formative experience for me. Not only was it my first real community theatre show (and musical), but more than the power of the songs and book, Kevin demonstrated to this very impressionable youth the power of the community in theatre, and how to be a part of that.
I distinctly remember one night at rehearsals where I was probably being a little jerk and deserved a scolding. Kevin asked me to join him in the lobby, where, instead of yelling at me as I expected, he squatted down to my level, put his hand on my shoulder, and spoke very calmly to me. He asked me what was going on, and what he needed from me in order to continue the rehearsal (mostly quiet and attention). No one had ever taken this tack with me before, and whether it was because I wasn't sure why he wasn't mad at me, or because I didn't want to let him down (or both), it worked. (In the picture below, that's me on the right in front nearest Kevin.)
It's been over 30 years since that production of Godspell, and Kevin and I have continued to cross paths and work together throughout that time. I was in several more shows under his direction (most memorably, playing Tom Thumb in Barnum and Oblio in The Point). As the title character in Barnum, Kevin's appendix burst right before the show opened, and yet he still went on a few days later, jumping from a balcony of the theatre. You'd never have known how much pain he was in. That, my friends, is being committed to the craft.
A couple years after Barnum, I invited Kevin to my middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie and I remember feeling like there was a celebrity in the audience. Afterwards, he told me he'd gone to this same school, and when he was here, "you couldn't say 'damn' on that stage!" (I wonder what they can say on it now?)
When my high school drama club was short a director for the Senior Class Play, as the club VP, I called Kevin and he gladly accepted the job, doing a play he had neither chosen or cast. At an end-of-the-year awards banquet, Kevin privately confessed he had written a short speech thanking everyone for including him in our club, but due to running out of time, he never delivered it. He let me keep it, and I still have that document as a memento. I feel bad to this day he never got to share it with the rest of the students.
As an adult, Kevin has directed me a few other times, and we've even acted together in an evening of short plays (one he wrote!). We have also corresponded frequently through social media. My parents get a kick out of this, that we've stayed in touch so long. I admit I, too, am delightfully surprised that what began as a director-actor relationship has, at least to me, become one of my longest-lasting friendships.
It felt like the universe smiling on me me recently when I went to see a play in Boston, and, as I made my way down the row to my seat, looking down to not step on anyone's feet, a voice called out, "Hey! Don't get too close!" As the ire in my belly began to rise ("Why would I want to get close to you, buddy?" I thought), I looked up and did a double-take. There was Kevin and his lovely wife. We were literally seated next to each other. To crib a line from Casablanca, of all the rows in all the theatres in the world, what's the chance I sit in his?
In our conversation, he mentioned that he was directing a children's summer theatre program in a nearby town, and I immediately thought of how my own children would love doing it, and love him too. It suddenly occurred to me that my kids are the same age I was when I met Kevin (although they're much better behaved than I could ever be), and how "circle of life" this whole thing was. It's a good thing the performance started then, because I started to get tears in my eyes.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love theatre; the stories and music can be great, the acting, singing, and dancing can be superb, but it really comes down to the relationships. It's that warm and fuzzy feel inside you when you realize you are who you are because of the people you've worked with, who have accepted you even when you were a brat or weren't even that talented to begin with. There's nothing quite like a theatre family when it comes right down to it, and it's why once you've been bitten by the bug, you keep going back to the well for more.
It's because of Kevin Baldwin that I do theatre -- acting, directing, writing, and even running my own company; all the things I saw him do, and do so well. Heck, sometimes I even have a Dunkin' coffee cup in my hand too (but I don't wear Polo). He was my first theatre role model, and I have him to thank for inspiring this love of the art in me. I only hope that, someday, I will have even a part of the impact on someone's life as he had on mine.