Horton Foote was the first playwright to shut me up. I had a notion of what my theatrical tastes were: I had hip taste, trendy taste; I preferred the young and daring to the, old, dead, or tired; and whatever your play was going to be, it damn well better not be simple. And then I read Trip to Bountiful: simple, honest, and beautiful. That shut me up real quick. I went around the Goodman saying, “I have no business liking this play, but I do!” which was itself disingenuous. I was not special for adoring it; everyone should love that play.
When USPS lost one of the nine boxes of books I mailed myself from Chicago to San Francisco, the first book I noted had been lost was a compilation of Horton Foote’s plays. I keep waiting for it to show up.
Horton was my first paying job in the theater, when I was hired as the assistant to the company manager for the 9-week run of the Goodman’s Horton Foote Festival last winter to help out with the 91-year-old playwright, who would be in town for the majority. Friends congratulated me on nailing my dream job, and they were right for the wrong reasonings. They meant that it was an amazing opportunity for an aspiring 26-year-old playwright to learn from one of the masters, and in that respect it wasn’t. I didn’t help Horton work on the plays he was writing out on note-pads during his stay, and our discussions about theater rarely elevated above pleasantries. I drove him to interviews and to and from the theater, watched runs of Bountiful at his side, and navigated him through adoring fans down to the dressing rooms. We chatted as two men separated by six decades chat. Fun, certainly, but not glamorous. But they were right that it was a dream job because I got to spend nine weeks with a man who I hope to be very much like when I reach the young age of 92: good-humored, funny, sharp, curious, and addicted to chocolate. And active! I had nights off because he was skipping the performance to work on the plays that he was just this month producing in Connecticut.
For a person who never had the privilege or pleasure of knowing his own grandfathers, it was a dream job indeed.
Tucked away in my memory I’m sure I have gems from him about playwriting and a life in the theater that would be appropriate for me to share on this blog, but they’re overshadowed by all the memories I have of him as my passenger in the Goodman’s minivan, the one with the window that never closed properly.
From my old Old Man Ira Blog:
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Lois and Hallie hold their stare a little longer tonight. The audience probably doesn’t notice, but this isn’t their third time seeing Trip to Bountiful in as many days. The staredown itself is a rather new, rather lovely, invention. It is a moment of reconciliation. It is a careful negotiation of power. Mrs. Watts offers her daughter-in-law the pension check — the object of much consternation; her daughter-in-law takes it only to hand it back to her.
Oh here, you hold the check; but don’t go and lose it before we get back home.
Sometime last week (or maybe it was only Friday?), Lois began teasing Hallie with the check in this moment. Ever so slightly. Almost lovingly. Maybe lovingly. Since the success of that experiment, it has tempered slightly but the stare remained. And today — closing — Hallie held it. A second maybe two. Not wanting to let go. Not wanting this amazing run of an amazing show to be over. You would only notice it if you had seen the show about ten times. Or maybe you had to be in the van on the ride from the rental apartment to the theatre when Hallie laments the show’s end and becomes — some suggest uncharacteristically, but I don’t know her well enough — sentimental.
I found myself getting uncharacteristically sentimental during this afternoon’s performance of a show I’d seen twice already this weekend and close to a dozen times over the course of its run. Every moment was final. I would not hear these words I had come to memorize any time soon. All the old heartaches that broke during the opening resurface: when Meghan talks about Robert (I guess any name he had I think was nice), when Devon acknowledges that he thinks his life is a failure, when Lois says goodbye to her house. These aren’t characters anymore. They’re friends. And then it is over. Lois gives a quick hug and is in a car to the airport, where she will catch a flight to LA, where she will be picked up by another car and driven to some HBO set. The crew immediately begins taking things down. We go to a brief closing party, and then it is goodbyes.
And earlier today I started moving in to my new desk in the Education Department for a 10 week stint as Education & Outreach Coordinator. I am the cheerful nomad of the Goodman’s 4th floor.
I’m in the hallway outside Horton’s apartment, walking with him to the elevator. He has more spring in his step than when he arrived in February; Hallie found him a damn fine yoga instructor. He forgets his cane, not because he turned 92 in March, but because he doesn’t use his cane in the apartment anymore. I joke with Frank’s 5 year old daughter that I’m aging backwards, but with Horton it might actually be true.
We’re on the way to the theatre for one last show. He begins to get nostalgic, sad that his gem of a play will soon be over.
I say to him, all things must end, with a pleasant smile.
So they say, he replies with an equally pleasant smile.