Sunday, August 07, 2011

Note to Self: Remember Denny Mays

A colleague of mine from my Illinois State University days, Dennis Mays, passed away a few days ago at the age of 68. He didn't design sets, he wasn't the technical director, but he supervised the scene shop for several decades, teaching legions of young theatre majors how to pound a nail and build a flat. "‎"If you're not willing to drink the water that comes out of it," he told them after they had finished painting scenery, "your brush isn't clean." That's a lesson that sticks. Chris Goumas perhaps gave the best sense of Denny: "He let us be stupid enough to learn something, but not enough to get hurt. But if you did, he'd take you to the hospital buy you lunch and with a grin tell you to "try not to be such a horse's ass next time". He kept us on the rails with a bit of a bark and a simultaneous twinkle in his eye. I'm glad I knew him. He made an enormous amount of impact in his students lives. I was lucky to be one of them."

As a graduate student working on a Master's in theatre history, I didn't spend much time in the shop, but when I did venture down there, Denny always made me feel welcome. Over the past few days, I've been thinking about him quite a bit, because despite the fact that I didn't spend much time in the shop, I had a sense that I really learned something from him. Some of it was about how he really cared about the students. But as important as that was, what I learned from him that was even more important was this: he went home at 4:30.

Denny wasn't on the faculty -- he was a state employee who started in the Physical Plant before coming to the Theatre Department, and he supervised the shop. He put in a hard day of work twelves months a year, and there weren't many who cared more than he did about doing a quality job, but when you went down to the shop around 4:00, the place was being cleaned up, and tools were being put away. Oh, sure, there were grad students still working -- that often went on until all hours of the night -- but for Denny, tomorrow was another day. And looking back, that was an important lesson to be learned.

In our always on, 24/7 American culture, where works weeks are getting longer and longer for salaried employees and entrepreneurial "free agents," where we keep in touch with our friends through Facebook because we sure as hell don't have enough time to see them in person, where Malcolm Gladwell points at the 10,000 hour "rule" as the prereq for success, and a legion of educators blame summer vacation for "learning loss" among young people, the kind of balance Denny exhibited is much needed.

In theatre departments across America, we drill into students the idea that they should "eat, drink, sleep" theatre, telling them that the ones who "make it" are the ones who work at it hardest. But few of us tell them about living a balanced life, a good life, the life Denny led. "The show must go on" is the slogan of an obsessive, not a human being. And if we, as faculty, are putting in 60-hr weeks, we're setting a lousy example.

A recent book by arts consultant Anne-Marie Quigg, entitled Bullying in the Arts - Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power shows that bullying is more common in the arts than in any other employment sector. It may seem that the connection between this finding and what I was writing about above may not be obvious, but in an interview with The Stage, Quig said: "“I think in some ways those of us working in the arts have ourselves to blame. Often, there’s a passion attached to the kind of work we do, a commitment to it and great admiration for good art. So, I think we actually tolerate behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in other sectors, because we are committed to the end result being great." In other words, we lose perspective, a sense of balance; we think that the ends justify the means, and that sometimes you have to bully people to get them to excel. This is nonsense, pure rationalization used to support obsessive behavior.

I happen to think theatre is important, and God knows I've thrown my share of tantrums, but when I look back, I wish I had remembered Denny Mays's example. The directors, designers, and stage managers of every show that came through his shop thought that their's was the most important show in the world, but Denny knew that there was another show being built in another part of the shop, and a couple more on tap, and dozens and dozens in his past that all were of earth-shattering importance and that were all long-forgotten. But what remained were personal friendships and memories. As my friend Billy Clow remembered, "Early morning coffee, too many lessons learned to count, Halloween's at the farm (infamous pumpkin carving contests), vats of Denny's spaghetti when we all needed a home and a dinner, teaching us how to "not" log materials when the budget was short, Friday happy hours in the shop, whad'y mean my stairs are too short, but always respect for the students who worked for him."

Respect, humor, and a sense of perspective. Maybe those of us who teach ought to include those in our syllabi, and make sure that our students graduate with those skills more than any others. Because we sure could use a lot more people like Denny Mays.