My favorite question to ask a fellow artist (and one someday for the Vs. Studio podcast): “What production, either one you were in or saw, made a significant impact on you? And why?”
Following up my most recent post about August Wilson’s Jitney, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss another giant personal takeaway from that show.
It was 2006. I was producing and acting in Brett Neveu’s Eric LaRue for Vs. at the Elephant Theatre (now Sacred Fools Theatre). In the same building, at the Lilian Theatre, was Jitney. Every night there was a big line of people to see it and the buzz afterward was electric. One of their producers, Alan Naggar, was always there to greet and thank the audience for coming. (Alan passed away a couple of years ago. He was a friend and a great actor and producer.) One night Alan and I struck up a conversation outside the Lilian, under the streetlights. He had heard good things about our show and planned to see it. He also invited me to see Jitney when our run ended.
I took him up on his offer and was…poleaxed. Everything about Jitney was first rate–the acting, the direction, the set, the costumes, the lighting, the sound design, I mean EVERYTHING–you could see and feel just how much love and care went into the show. When I got home I told my wife how phenomenal it was. And in the ensuing days I reached out to everyone in Vs. and other colleagues and told them they HAD to see it. I went back many times, bringing people with me each time. I found my lodestar. While I was very proud of the work we were doing, THIS was on another level. THIS was where I wanted Vs. to go.
One night Alan introduced me to the cast, including the actor who was also a producer. I peppered the actor with questions. Showered him with praise. He patiently and thoroughly answered everything and received my compliments with true grace and humility. When he left, Alan told me a secret…The actor didn’t have all the money to pay for this production. But because he was so passionate about the part and the play, the actor, who was also married with a new baby, had taken out a second mortgage on his home.
I vowed right then and there that Vs. wouldn’t produce another play unless it was something we absolutely loved. Something we HAD to do…Two years later, after numerous appeals to get the rights, we produced John Kolvenbach’s On An Average Day. It was a seminal work for us. We turned a corner with it and haven’t looked back since.
I will forever be grateful to that actor, to Alan, and the entire Jitney production for inspiring me on a deep and soulful level. For affirming just what can happen when you hold out for what you love, and you have a strong why, and you commit to excellence and generosity throughout.
P.S. – I’d love to hear any stories about shows that impacted you!