Josie Always Knew
Breaking some news to a mentor
Josie always knew. She had a way about her and she knew that too. She was a mentor to me and I am just one of hundreds, possibly thousands that consider her that. She died in November of 2014. She shares a birthday with Kid #1 and if she were still alive, we would be celebrating her 82nd birthday next month. She was a force and I mean a FORCE.
She was a brilliant acting teacher and an amazing actor and director. The thing she was best at, though, was seeing the gifts in others and nurturing them, watering them, helping them to grow.
I wanted to be an actor. She saw what I wanted to be and she knew what I could be, so she nurtured that. After another audition, she called me into her office.
Her office was also a Library of Plays. It was floor to ceiling bookcases completely filled with plays. This was an important resource for acting and directing students in a university. She ran it like a library. Each play had a card. Students could come check them out in order to broaden their knowledge, but mostly to find monologues to use for auditions. Dear Friend was the librarian for a long time, then I got to do it. That meant having the opportunity to hang out with Josie in her office and organize plays and books. Sometimes, I got to sit in her chair while she was in meetings. I would just be there in case a student wanted to come in and search through the thousands of plays available to check out.
Her office was a museum too. There were posters from plays she had done and there were toys everywhere. Like, a Jacob’s Ladder may be up on the shelf next to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare or a weird little hand-made wooden man with a yellow shirt would be next to Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein. There was too much furniture for the size of the office, extra chairs so that more than one student could visit at a time, filing cabinets with years of teaching syllabi and student records, stools in the corner for use in class or to stand on to reach a play near the ceiling. She had bright colored things hanging from that ceiling and propped in the window sill too. My god, I didn’t realize how much I miss that space.
The first time I was ever in that office was my first semester of college. I had to get her signature on a piece of paper in order to declare Theatre as my minor. Education was my major. By the time I left her office, she had convinced me to major in theatre and forget education for the time-being. She helped me with the whole process THAT DAY and I never looked back.
Of course, it isn’t the space I miss. It is her. She was tall, really tall. She wore a lot of blazers with shoulder pads. She had very short and thin hair which was white. She had this way of using a hand to flick her bangs off of her forehead, just to move it a little. Muss it up a bit — especially when she was frustrated. And, her laugh. Her laugh could be heard in a dark theatre no matter how big the space. She did this sort of guffaw that would be one big “HA” and if they heard that multiple times in short order, then the actors on stage would know they had her.
When I was a sophomore, I auditioned for yet another play she was directing. Because it was my major, I was required to audition for all the plays. She called me into her office.
She could be direct. She could be VERY direct.
“Here is the deal. I’ll cast you if you want me to, but you are going to be in the chorus. Understand?”
“Or, you could be my stage manager and be in charge.”
Josie always knew.
I didn’t know what a stage manager did, but she saw something in me that I had not yet identified myself. She nurtured that and I became the best damn stage manager the program had seen. I still stage manage and it is because she guided me there.
It felt like she put a lot into my education. Of course this is true for all the students she had. She gave her whole self to her students. When I was a month away from graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance — even though I’d done little performing — I was searching for a full-time stage management position and knew I would be happy doing that for the rest of my life.
That is when I experienced the understanding that I would be going to seminary instead. It was a weird spiritual experience that we can name “a calling.” I had a lot of feelings when this happened. A LOT OF FEELINGS. One of those feelings was fear of telling Josie that I was veering off the route we had planned together.
I was too scared to tell her in her office. We had been sitting in there together for a while and I couldn’t work up enough courage. I was certain she would be angry. Josie could get angry and, compared to most, she was enormous so that could be really frightening. Mostly, though, I just didn’t want to disappoint her. She wasn’t a very religious person. I was certain she would be unhappy about “losing me to seminary.”
When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's years later and came to my house to tell me, I asked her if she had thought about what she wanted us to do for a funeral when she died.
“I don’t need any of that nonsense.”
“So, you don’t want prayers or anything like that?”
“Oh, no, you can pray for me!”
So, religion was not her bag. And, I was pretty sure she would think that I had wasted four years of my life, in fact, years of her life too, by not following where she was leading.
We left her office and were walking down a dark hallway. I don’t know why it was dark. I think the fluorescent bulbs needed to be changed at the time or something. I know exactly where we were. We were about to turn from one hallway to go down the backstage hallway to the green room. I stopped her.
“Josie, I have to tell you something.”
She looked worried.
“Josie, I think I have to go to seminary.”
She guffawed once.
“Of course you do! That’s what you have been doing here the whole time!”
She hugged me, told me to drop my shoulders and breathe and we went to rehearsal and got to work.
Five years later she drove three hours to sit inside a church building to be present for my ordination into ministry. She called it my “Flying Up Ceremony.”
Josie always knew.