Friday, July 19, 2013

An Actress in the House

When my wife and I first started dating seriously she started introducing me to the people that were important to her in her life.  One of those people was a girl who lived across the street from her when she was a kid who she loved very much. Her name was Laura and she was an actress. I was wary when I first met Laura because I had over time met a lot of people who called themselves writers, actors, and artists but just really wanted to wear the hat and never produced anything. 

The night I met Laura was at my girlfriend’s parents’ house.  Laura lived in the city, but she was home visiting her parents. My future father-in-law pulled out a big jug of red wine. Laura and I sat at the kitchen table talking about plays, books and all sorts of other things. I could tell that Laura was serious about what she was doing. That night she and I polished the whole jug off.  So began a new friendship.

Laura and I were probably bad influences on each other. I remember one night at a party at my parents’ house the song “Wipeout,” came on the stereo and we grabbed a couple of ironing boards my mom had, threw them down in the main room, and pretended to surf.

After my wife and I married, and my wife started graduate school, we would still meet up with Laura.  She would tell us about her part-time or temp jobs that made her money while she was auditioning for shows and acting with a couple of groups.  Sometimes she would do monologs in the front room of our first apartment and I would be blown away.  I did plays in high school and college but I am an amateur at best.  When you watch someone who has studied and is now a professional, it does blow your mind.

If Laura was ever in a play, my wife and I would go see it. At one point I was invited to be an adviser on the Chicago Review, which is the literary magazine of the University of Chicago.  Some nights after reviewing manuscripts I would go see Laura doing improvisation in a bar called Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, which was not far from the office we worked in at UOC.  I loved going to those shows because I always laughed a lot and I could tell that Laura was getting increasingly more talented at her craft.  When the night was over I would sometimes drive her home in my wife’s convertible, with the top down, which would inspire more conversation and laughter.

At one point in Laura’s life she broke up with a boyfriend, a fellow actor.  My wife and I had just bought our first house in Roscoe Village. She asked us if she could stay with us until she figured out what she would do next.  We had an unoccupied room so we said, yes, of course she could. Thus began the magical time of having an actress in the house.

Some mornings Laura and I would get up and walk up to the elevated train together.  Laura had lived in the city longer than me and she had a system, a sort of “Laws of Transportation” that she followed. She could judge where on the platform you needed to be if you wanted to get on a train.  If a packed train came by, and you couldn’t get on, she would grab my hand because she knew exactly where you needed to go to be on the next one.

Laura was not always the neatest person in those days.  There were times I could not open the door of her room because there were so many clothes on the floor. Sometimes when we were doing the dishes and other chores Laura would walk around the kitchen with a cigarette and just vent about her day waiting for dinner. We used to just smile and kind of roll our eyes. Nevertheless, we loved having her there.

While Laura lived with us my wife was not only working but also studying a lot.  She would often go to bed early. Sometimes Laura and I would sit out on the front porch and talk or if we were bored and restless, we would walk. On some nice nights we would get as far as Schuba’s, which was several blocks away, and then we would smoke, talk and laugh some more.  Sometimes I would show her little things I wrote and she gave me honest feedback. She’d always say “Tom, just keep working on it.”

She, and her friends that she introduced to us, used to push and push at their craft and it was an inspiration to watch their perseverance. Through her we met some of the greatest people in whatever they did.  Sometimes it was at plays and benefit events, and sometimes it was just finding them on the living room floor going through my records when we came home from a dinner out.  

Laura did not overstay her welcome.  Things happened and she was able to reclaim her apartment.   We were very sad when she left.

Later on Laura went on to be an acclaimed actress in Chicago and other places. She met a man who is an architect that my wife and I like very much, and she married him. She and many of her friends from those days have won major awards for their work. My wife and I continue to try to go see her in shows whenever we can.  My favorite was one we saw once was where she had a dual role as an English mother and an ethereal incarnation of an older Judy Garland. It was a tour de force.

One night when my son, Ben, who I call Hollywood because he is a film student, was in high school I started telling him about Laura’s career. I was trying to communicate to him that studying and working in art, film and drama does require perseverance, persistence and an ability to accept risk.  It’s about pushing forward. I didn’t expect this but he asked, “Then why Dad did you give up on your writing?” 

I said, “Ben, I never gave up on my writing.”  He screwed up his face.  “I have never seen any of it.” I said “Well, it’s there.  It’s what I do at night when I’m traveling.  Beats sitting in a hotel bar.”  He asked “Is any of it finished?”  I said “No, it’s just practice writing.  Writing is like learning a language or playing the piano.  You have to practice every day or you lose it.”   He said “That’s all good but at what point are you doing it for no purpose?  Isn’t writing about expressing yourself and sharing it?  You have been practicing for over twenty years and there is nothing.”

Later that night I thought about a time when Laura still lived with us. She and I, and some of her friends too, were in Grant Park.  We were watching fireworks. I was standing by a tree and lamenting to myself that these people I was with had such interesting lives that I wanted to live too.  I wanted to work on stories, pictures, and plays like they did, but instead I worked in an office doing mundane things. Laura came up to see if I was alright.  I told her what was on my mind.  She said, “You have to keep working but you can figure out how to blend it into your life. I know you’ll do it, and when you are ready, you will share it with the world. I have read things you have written and I have faith in you.”   

I thought about Laura, Ben, and other friends of mine who are fearless and throw themselves out on the stage, into art galleries, magazines, houses, garages, and private workshops.  I thought about how they always inspired me because of what they created.  I think I have always been afraid that I would fail at what I love doing the most.  Ben gave me a nice wake up call and that helped a lot and allowed me to take a leap. I’m pretty sure though if I didn’t have an actress in my house for awhile you probably would not be reading this right now.