Father to Son
A Day in the Life of a Shakespearean Father
These are the special moments in a father's life: watching his son take his first steps. On stilts. As Oberon.
These are the difficult but inevitable father-to-son talks over the years: The Talk (about birds and bees, and how they relate to boys and girls becoming men and women begetting more boys and girls), the drug talk, the insurance talk (which plan is the best for him on the health exchange), the audition pieces talk.
These are the benchmarks that tell a man he's crawling ever faster to his grave: his son's high school graduation, his son's college graduation, and his son on the phone saying, "Hey dad, wanted to call to tell you I was just cast as Julius Caesar." Caesar? Really? Oh, I was proud, I was happy, I congratulated him, and I secretly wished he had said Cassius, maybe Brutus, or, better yet, Lucius.
Today, Sarah and I saw two Shakespeare plays and attended a Shakespeare workshop. That's not news to anybody who reads Shakespeareances.com or follows me on Twitter and Facebook: just two more reviews to post On Stage. But going into today I decided to set aside being a professional journalist and take off my Shakespeareances.com hat. Today, I decided I would be simply a father—a father to an eldest son who just happens to have become a Shakespearean actor.
Jonathan William Minton, left, with his father after the former's performance as Julius Caesar at the The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on Drew University in Madison, N.J. Photo by Sarah Janette Smith.
Today is all about my son, Jonathan William Minton, named after his uncle (my brother, John, with a twist on the spelling) and his grandfather (his mother's dad, William Bridges), with echoes of two important composers, John Williams, a favorite of his mother's, and William Shakespeare. Jonathan is currently in the Shakespeare LIVE! educational touring company of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, playing Theseus and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the title role in Julius Caesar. We try to see him in each of his productions, and as today was one of only two general public performances of these plays, we made what turned out to be a six-hour drive last night from Northern Virginia to North Jersey after getting off work, staggering into a Hampton Inn Parsippany bed close to midnight. After this morning's workshop, the hour-long versions of the two plays in the afternoon, waiting for Jonathan to wrap up the load-out with his cast mates, and then treating him to dinner (where we had the insurance talk), Sarah and I drove home.
Jonathan grew up in a divorced home, living with his mother in Alaska for the school year, visiting me at whatever locale Sarah's Air Force career had us calling home during summers and two-week post-Christmas holidays. We took him to plays when he was with us; at his Anchorage home, he pursued his growing interest in theater in school. For me to say he "just happened to become a Shakespearean actor" could be seen as a bit disingenuous; some might say it was destined. But, you see, he and I were not that close from his childhood through to college. I thought him an underachiever, he thought me arrogant and just plain mean (I read his blogs in college, so this is not simply my impression). He was probably more right than I was, which makes sense—when you're arrogant and mean, people tend to be underachievers in your eyes.
Though he devoted himself to the theater arts track at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, I was not convinced that he had as much dedication as he had desire and that reality would quickly overtake his fantasies. I gave him advice based on my years of experience as an audience member, and we offered what financial support we could; he expressed appreciation for all of that. He also got good notices in newspaper reviews up in Anchorage and impressed some directors who impressed us with their work. So, I had reason to hope he was actually good.
Still, when Jonathan decided to move to New York and dive into "being an actor," I maintained that smug arrogance of a father certain that his son still has much to learn. Of course, I supported the move, but only because I thought it would give him the taste of reality that he, in my perspective, so desperately needed. This was after I launched Shakespeareances.com, by the way; never did I anticipate seeing him in anything I might review. We did see him make his "New York debut" in a non-paying studio production, and even if I had intended to review it (it was not a Shakespeare play), I wouldn't have upon seeing it: a painfully dreadful production with absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever except that it was Jonathan's "New York debut." He was pretty OK in it—more talent than I anticipated, but still a tiny minnow in a giant pond as opposed to being a big fish in Anchorage.
Then he was cast in A Comedy of Errors at the Hudson Warehouse. In fact, he got the call telling him he'd been cast as the jailor and merchant while we were having dinner in Brooklyn, where he lives. He was most excited not only that it was his first Shakespeare but that it was an outdoor production at Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. His very first Shakespeareance was attending Hamlet at the outdoor American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, when he was 7 years old, and as that was what initially sparked his interest in theater, he always dreamed of playing The Bard outdoors.
It was the first I'd ever heard that. Was he conning us? No—he's since said the same thing to others. Was he simply becoming fully comfortable with me because I was no longer treating him as an underachiever but actively providing encouragement and support? Maybe. What was emerging, certainly, was that we shared a common interest: Shakespeare. In all the years I had disparaged his lack of academic drive, he had been reading and studying Shakespeare, and that led to his deep love of reading. I can honestly say he's better read now than I am. Not surprisingly, his writing skills flourished, too, and he can in many ways write circles around me.
Meanwhile, I was facing my own big test: Jonathan was performing in a play I would be reviewing for Shakespeareances.com. My journalism career has been intertwined with fatherhood for years. When he was still just 7 or so, Jonathan shared a byline with me on a story about young military brats moving constantly because of their father's or mother's new assignments. When I was an amusement industry trade writer, both my sons accompanied me on my visits to various theme parks, water parks, and zoos around the country—their accompaniment was even expected by the parks hosting me—and Jonathan's younger brother, Ian, became my production manager for my on-line newsletter, The Loop. But heading into Comedy of Errors, my greatest hope, frankly, was that Jonathan would be middling and of little consequence to the production so that I wouldn't have any reason to mention him in the article; then, I could couch my personal praise for him as encouragement to keep learning.
Yep, reading what I just wrote states the obvious: I was arrogant and maybe a bit mean, too.
Jonathan in a bit part stole the show (I can honestly say this is not father pride talking but an objective journalist's observation of audience reaction). His influence on the overall production had to be reported in my review on Shakespeareances.com, and I did so. I did again when he played Rivers in the Hudson Warehouse production of Richard III a month later. His Aguecheek in a Mad and Merry Theatre Company's Twelfth Night was good, but it most revealed to me his keen understanding of how Shakespeare draws his characters. Last summer at Millbrook Playhouse in Pennsylvania, he was superb as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream acting opposite a truly great Helena. We never got the opportunity to see him as Banquo in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's WillPower Tour production of Macbeth to regional schools, but, now, with The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, we can see Jonathan in another school tour troupe, taking three lead roles in a company featuring solid, professional talent at one of the nation's most prestigious Shakespeare theaters.
Two years' worth of maturity have accumulated since we saw Jonathan make his "New York debut"—my own maturity. Being arrogant in his presence is just plain stupid. Underachiever? No, I know him to be an achiever. In fact, I headed into today's performances confident that he would be good and probably great. As I did so, I felt I was crossing a line; any review I'd write would simply be bragging. With that acknowledgment along with other influencers, I determined I would set aside my journalist's hat and just be a father, sharing a Shakespeare moment with his son.
The moral of this story—other than to not be arrogant and mean toward your children—ends up having little to do with fatherhood or even Jonathan. The final assessment here, if I am going to be totally honest, has to do with me and the fact that journalism is my true calling. My dad was a minister and Air Force chaplain—a great father he was and is, but his calling always came first. My wife was an Air Force officer—a wonderful wife she has been and is, but her duty always came first. My son is an actor—a good son he's turned out to be, but pursuit of his craft is foremost in his life right now. And me? I am a journalist first and foremost—a good son, a loving husband, a supportive father, but my calling is always there. And so…
Jonathan was stellar today as Theseus, Oberon, and Caesar, his cast mates were stellar, too, and the productions themselves introduced singular aspects to the lifelong narrative of Shakespeareances that I'm pursuing with this web site. I learned two years ago that you can take the father out of the journalist; today I learned you can't take the journalist out of the father. Before the day was half done, I was once again the journalist and writing my reviews of both plays, which I will post here in the next week.
But I'll take this opportunity to indulge myself and consciously put on my arrogant father's hat and say, simply, "Let me tell you about my son. Having now seen 22 stage productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I must say that Jonathan achieved the best Theseus and Oberon I've ever seen."
Good to get that off my chest.
March 8, 2014