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.

Friends Zone at 20

In early 1994, I was the Manager of Dartmouth’s Computer Resource Center, an artisanal pre-sales and consulting office in Dartmouth’s Computing Services. One morning, the Director of Computing stopped by my office and handed me a floppy disk and told me to check out what was on it. I popped it into my computer and saw that it contained a single application, Mosaic 0.9b. Curious, I launched it and thus began my experiences with the World Wide Web. Within a week, I had created Dartmouth’s first Web site (and one of the first 50 college web sites in the world, near as I could figure at the time). By fall, I created my blog (one of the first ever) and was looking for new, higher-profile projects.

I noticed that TV show websites were becoming a popular and I sought out a show I could get in on. My big obsession at the time was The X-Files so I reached out to the webmasters of one of the better sites offering my help. They told me they had things in hand and didn’t need any help so I cast about looking for other things I could do.

In the fall of 1994, Friends premiered and I noticed that since there was no USENET newsgroup for the show, people were talking about it in, much to the chagrin of the folks there who didn’t care for Friends or who were just OCD about things staying on-topic. It had no website, no mailing list, no newsgroup. And, hey, I really enjoyed the show. So, I sprang into action. I created, a LISTSERV mailing list, and a website.

Soon after, a supervising producer of Friends reached out to me to start providing some information back to us fans on the list. He told me that they put the Episode Guide and FAQ up outside the writers’ room to help with continuity. A thriving fandom had been born.

But by around January 1995, as people on the mailing list began to get to know one another more, topics began to stray from the show to talking to each other about anything. Friends were being made. This upset those people who preferred the list stay on-topic and there began to be some anger running around. I decided to split the list into two lists: Friends-TV for discussions only about the show, and FriendsZone for folks to just hang out.

On February 6, 1995 the list was created and the first subscribers began to appear.

The history of this virtual community is long and storied but the short version is that, 20 years later, it is still around. While there is still a mailing list, it is almost never used. Instead, a Facebook group now carries most of the conversation.

And this weekend, in Las Vegas, a group of these folks are getting together to celebrate the 20th anniversary. I wish I could be there with them but it just wasn’t in the cards for me. I hope they all have a great time and post a lot of pictures.

Happy Birthday Zone!