Remembering Kathy Ruback Sponseller

This past Wednesday, we lost Kathy Ruback Sponseller. I need to let that thought just sit there for a moment because it is almost too large for me to fully comprehend.

If first met Kathy thanks to Ed Robinson. Ed and I were in The Pajama Game at Fordham Prep and Ed encouraged me to join him in auditioning for Carousel over at Preston High School (an all-girls Catholic school) over on the water between the Whitestone and Throgg’s Neck bridges. That’s where I met Kathy Ruback (Sponseller came later). She was the director of the play and she was and remains to this day the best director I ever worked with. I only appeared in three of her shows, Carousel (Mr. Enoch Snow), Oklahoma (Jud Fry), and The Fantasticks (Matt). But in those three shows, I learned more about acting and theater than any other time outside of a single college course I took on acting.

Kathy was a force of nature. She had no trouble leaping up onto the stage to demonstrate what she was trying to tell us, she’d shout at us from somewhere out in the house, and she’d make jokes that put everyone on the floor laughing (once so much that she just let us all go home early as she knew there was no more getting anything done the way we’d all lost it), and she really understood the shows she directed.

Up until Oklahoma, I had always played the comic relief character. I was always a cut up (this may come as a surprise to some of you, he said sarcastically) and I just assumed I’d be cast as Will “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” Parker. But no, Kathy cast me as the villain, Jud Fry. I was actually a bit freaked out about this and asked her why on Earth she had done that. She told me that there was something very dark and chilling in my reading, something she had not known was there, and she was going on instinct. I decided to run with it because it was a challenge and Kathy believed in me (and I had already done two other shows with her so I trusted her implicitly).

Kathy gave me a copy of the book, The Collector by John Fowles. This was a deeply creepy book about a man who kidnaps a woman and traps her in his basement. The central idea of his character, and the point she was making to me, was that Jud was not evil. He was a man who could not comprehend that feelings need to be reciprocated. The protagonist loved the woman and just needed her to realize this and she would love him back. Jud loved Laurie, plain and simple. Therefore she would eventually love him back. It did not make any other sense to him.

The very first time I came on stage in rehearsal after having read the book and talking to her about it, I did the ham-actor thing of playing him as a villain and Kathy YELLED at me. I don’t remember the exact words but it was basically, “No. No. NO! NO! NOOO! What the HELL are you DOING?!” And that, right there, was probably the biggest lesson I ever got about acting: remember who your character is, what motivates him, what he believes, what he desires. Do not turn them into one-note cartoon characters. I turned it around and I remember after the show my mother was very quiet on the drive home. Finally she said, “You did something I didn’t think was possible: you made me feel sorry for Jud.” Playing him as a tragic person rather than a bad person opened up the show in so many interesting ways. That was Kathy’s genius.

A contact sheet of photographs I took during a rehearsal of Oklahoma. Oh, and two of my baby nephew too.

When she was casting for The Fantasticks, I desperately wanted to play The Boy, Matt. I grew up on the soundtrack (Jerry Orbach as El Gallo!) and had seen the show at the Sullivan Square Theater where it played off-broadway for decades more than once. I got the part (eventually, it’s a long story that’s not really important here). Kathy deeply understood this show. The first act is entirely fantasy and every character is living in an unrealistic world with over-simplified views. The second act is harsh reality where things are complicated and confusing and people get hurt. And also people heal. (Doug Kostner, our music directory, pointed out to me that in the score, every time Matt and Luisa sing the word “love” there would be a dissonance in the music until the final time after they come back together and have a realistic and grown-up love.)

I loved all the little touches she put in to the show. For example, at the end of the song Metaphor, she had Luisa and I run from where we were sitting at the base of the wall back to our ladders going over the wall in such a way that, from above, it would look like a heart. She said that she knew no one would actually see that, but she believed that it would register on some level. I loved that way of thinking.

The Fantasticks was my first and, to date, only stage kiss. Danielle Harris played Luisa and I had a huge crush on her (this is relevant). When we finally got to the rehearsal where we could no longer avoid the kiss, I was beyond nervous. I wanted to do it so badly but I was terrified of it as well. But the song Soon It’s Gonna Rain was ending and we end the song with a kiss. We sang the final bars, moved in, and as our lips met Kathy shouted out, “No tongues!” Needless to say, everyone lost it and Kathy let us all go home as I mentioned above. But that very much broke the ice and we never had any issues with the kiss after that!

I made many friends during these shows. Of course, there’s Ed who I still see mostly every year as he and his family visit Stonington, CT every summer and that’s not too far away from me. Pat Shanahan, who I have seen once or twice when he joined us all on one of Ed’s Stonington trips. Doug, who I have not seen in person since forever. Leslie Lopez, who I speak to on Facebook from time to time. David Fitzgerald, my partner-in-crime for just about all the shows I did in High School. And others who I have lost touch with over the years (and would love to hear from, hint hint!)

But it was Kathy who brought us all together and who made everyone wonderful. There was such talent in the various casts and shows (and even one person who went on to become incredibly famous but I can’t recall her name at the moment) and Kathy knew how to draw it out of all of us.

Kathy Ruback Sponseller directing Oklahoma
Kathy Ruback Sponseller directing Oklahoma

Aside from a reunion party Ed held, I had not seen Kathy since Oklahoma wrapped. Not until this past January. Ed had his annual holiday party online in Discord thanks to COVID-19, and Kathy was there. I blithely forgot that she might not have a clue who “Andy Affleck” was since she knew me as “Andy Williams” back when. So I hung out in the video room that she was in talking about old times with the other actors from those days. About twenty minutes into the conversation my wife quietly said to me that she didn’t think Kathy realized who I was. So I made sure to reference the story of how Kathy drove us from Fordham to Preston HS on rehearsal afternoons and we would goof around. When we would drive on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I would always say, “Hey! It’s the New York School for the Deaf” and the others would say, “What?” So I would say it again louder, and they would respond louder. Finally I would yell it and then they would say, “You don’t have to shout, I’m not deaf!” Utterly tasteless but we thought it was hysterical. Once I mentioned that I could see the dawning realization on her face that she finally figured out who I was.

I did not realize that I was saying Good Bye at the time. If I had, I would have told her how much she changed my life in just one-and-a-half years, how she was the greatest teacher I’d ever had, and how, even though I did not act again after High School until I once again got a chance to be in The Fantasticks in 2010, she taught me all of the most important things about being an actor and a director.

Thank you, Kathy. Thank you for everything. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Harry Potter and the Half-Baked TERF

It was December 3, 1998. I was driving home to the apartment that Ann and I shared in Cambridge, MA. The late Margo Adler, NPR correspondent and author of the wonderful book Drawing Down the Moon was doing a review of a book on All Things Considered. I remember arriving and parking and staying in the car to hear the whole thing. I was mesmerized. I went inside, spent a few minutes looking online and finally finding a recording of the show (no small feat in 1998!) and playing it for Ann. She was equally spellbound. We agreed that we should give this to lots of people that Christmas and so I ordered 6 copies from Amazon to give to friends and family. My 11 or 12 year old niece was deeply offended that we gave her a children’s book that year (she had been reading Black Ice at the time) but then read it and understood why. The book was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

23 or so years since its debut, we own complete US and British hardcover series. We own most of a different UK hardcover series (more serious with woven covers), all of the extra books and the start of the picture book series that is currently coming out roughly one per year. We also own all eight movies both on DVD and iTunes (where I got lucky one day and got all eight for $20 when the price was mysteriously that low for a few hours one morning). And we own all seven books on audio, read by the delightful Jim Dale. When Ann was pregnant with Marci, I read the first book to Marci in utero. We went to midnight releases and took turns reading each book as it came out. The Potterverse has been a large part of all of our lives. But that was then.

J.K. Rowling has been saying some truly awful things. And it isn’t all that new. Marci has been telling us for more than two years that Rowling is transphobic, that the books are actually quite problematic with some thinly veiled racism and antisemitism. We always brushed it off as interpretation, or, later, that she was misguided and would come around. It wasn’t interpretation. She did not come around. This week she doubled down spouting long-refuted nonsense, right-wing transphobic talking points, and general ignorance. That was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

This weekend, we’ll be taking all of the books and the DVDs and putting them into a box and storing them away. Maybe Rowling will get educated and realize she was wrong and make amends for the horrible things she has said and the attacks she has levied on one of the more vulnerable groups out there: trans-women. Our own daughter is a trans-woman and we cannot continue to make excuses for Rowling, nor can we separate the artist from the art. And it feels like a death in the family. I know this emotion, this is grief, this is mourning. But there is just no way to justify holding on to all of this with the artist who created it spouting so much hate and stupidity. So, while it may break our hearts, it is time to let it all go and to move on.

If you aren’t aware of any of this, I strongly suggest the following article by Aja Romano over at Vox: Harry Potter and the Author who Failed Us. It is very powerful and says everything I would want to say but far better.

And I will be on the lookout for a new series that gave me what this one had over the years. Until then, might I suggest the Prydain Chronicals by Lloyd Alexander?