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The Comet and the Colt

The Comet and the Colt

Arthur was special; that much was clear from the moment I first walked into his classroom.

My high school buddies and I, we talked a good game, but inside we were scared as hell. We didn’t know what we wanted to do or who we wanted to be, we just knew there were expectations pressing in on us from all sides—family, teachers, peers—and we felt the urgency to figure it all out every day.

Some part of that pressure resulted from the knowledge that we were privileged to attend an expensive private high school. On the flip side, one of the benefits of that reality was that it was a school where the arts were, although not central to the curriculum, at least respected and valued as something more than an afterthought. Every first-year student was required to take a course called Individual and the Arts, which cycled through multi-week subunits in music, ceramics, and other disciplines.

One of those subunits focused on drama, a.k.a. theater. My mother, who had acted in and written plays in college, had taken me to shows a few times over the years—notably a local outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that pretty much blew my seven-year-old mind—but as a young teenager I was an awkward introvert with zero urge to perform or knowledge of what goes into staging a play.

The rest of that sentence reads: until I met Arthur Feinsod.

Arthur Feinsod and friends, 1978

Some people simply teach a subject; others rocket through their classrooms throwing off sparks of purest enthusiasm, pulling students into their orbit along the way. Arthur was a comet blazing through our high school, a singular force whose passion for theater was more infectious than anything the CDC has ever measured.

Me, 1977

As a returning sophomore in fall 1977, I enrolled in Beginning Acting and began the arduous process of learning the craft. For all the positivity he radiated, Arthur—then a PhD student at Berkeley who taught us during the day before going home to work on his dissertation—proved to be a tough grader. His expectations were high, and I had my fair share of stumbles along the way. But I hung in there, learned what I could, and as a junior earned a modest supporting role in the spring play.

That same year, along with Advanced Acting, I enrolled in a second elective course taught by Arthur, who by then had become both teacher and mentor. Playdirecting was a course whose outward teachings I would use several times over the next 18 months and then never again—and it changed my life.

Playdirecting with Arthur Feinsod taught me how to see the forest (the entire play) and the trees (each scene, each beat) at the same time. It taught me that every detail (blocking, costumes, sets, makeup) mattered and made an essential contribution to the success of the whole. It taught me that nothing of significance is ever accomplished alone, and that I could achieve things I had never imagined possible if I committed my whole self to a goal and put in the work.

For example: the final project for Playdirecting required each of us to direct a one-act play staged for the rest of our class and anyone else on campus who cared to attend. Some combination of blind hubris and Arthur’s encouragement led me to choose a quirky play featuring an imagined convocation of half a dozen classic Shakespearean leading ladies (When Shakespeare’s Ladies Meet). This meant I would be directing a cast of six strong-willed female actors at a point in my life when I’d never been on an actual date. It should have collapsed into chaos, but thanks to a terrific and only occasionally squirrelly cast, and Arthur’s steady support, we pulled it off.

The real chaos arrived senior year: I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college or what I wanted to major in, my erstwhile best friend had been kicked out of school, my incipient love life was an E-ticket rollercoaster, and at home my mother’s third marriage was crumbling by the hour. My older brothers were caring and supportive, but also out of college and busy starting their own lives. On the day-to-day, what got me through was a remarkable group of friends—all of us neck-deep in adolescent melodrama—and theater. I signed up for a second round of Advanced Acting, and halfway through the year, for reasons only he could explain, Arthur cast me in a featured role in the spring play (Tony in You Can’t Take It With You). A few weeks later, I approached him about my ambitions for my senior project.

The latter was a requirement for every graduating senior at our college prep school, a major undertaking of some kind that would occupy the final month of our senior year. Many of my peers chose sensible options like volunteering at a local community organization or writing a thesis paper. Meanwhile, I fell head over heels for the frankly ridiculous idea of directing a well-known and complex full-length play—Sleuth, the long-running Broadway show that had already been made into a film starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

I still have the three pages of college-ruled binder paper on which I made my case to my appropriately skeptical faculty advisor, feverishly penciling out why and how I wanted to attack this white whale of a project. Arthur returned them to me a day later with this message scrawled across the top in his vigorous red script: “OK, Jason. Find out about royalties; if not outrageously expensive, it’s go to it!”

And he meant it; from that point onward, Arthur had my back all the way across the finish line. A thousand things could have gone wrong, and I could devote several thousand more words to describing the process of producing Sleuth—my director’s notebook is among the handful of souvenirs from high school that survives four decades later—but the short version is this: it was incredibly hard, a monumental effort that could only succeed with the partnership of two other seniors who made the play’s leading roles their senior projects, an all-volunteer production crew whose unflagging commitment propelled us over obstacle after obstacle, and the constant support and guidance of our faculty advisor.

And succeed we did, beyond any realistic hope. The audiences were modest, as were some elements of the staging, but thanks to the talent and hard work of every single person involved, the overall production shone as brightly as any hardy band of over-their-heads teenagers could ever dream.

Some like to criticize arts education by saying it doesn’t teach practical skills. My experiences in theater taught me the importance of planning and thoughtful project management, the intricacies of group dynamics, the pitfalls of tunnel vision, and the vital role of emotional intelligence, not to mention the value of sheer perseverance and a hundred other lessons that would shape my path in the years to come. (To offer just one example: while working for a series of public officials and organizational leaders, I developed a knack for writing speeches—not because I knew how to research and write about a topic, but because I understood the importance to a speech of elements like pacing and cadence and alliteration and assonance, and how to shape the text so that both the ideas and the rhythm of the language would build to a strong conclusion.)

Useful as they’ve been, though, the practical skills that theater taught me aren’t really the point here. The point is, as I put it in the acknowledgements of my debut novel Believe in Me, that “Arthur Feinsod believed in me before I believed in myself.” The power of that simple act is so profound. Every adolescent is vulnerable and riddled with self-doubt—those with a creative bent, maybe even more so. At a time when my life outside of school was a mess, theater offered me a second home, and that made all the difference.

After my senior year in high school was done, I never acted in or directed a theater production again—but every lesson learned from those experiences stayed with me and fueled my path forward. Almost 20 years later, I tracked Arthur down at the college back East where he was teaching and we traded fond emails. We did the same again when Believe in Me was published in 2011.

On a whim I emailed Arthur yet again a couple of weeks ago. At his invitation, 42 years since the last time we had laid eyes on one another, we met up for a Zoom call that lasted so long that he finally had to excuse himself to go help his wife shovel snow. After decades of teaching theater at the college level he’s recently retired from the faculty, which has given him more time to focus on his first love: directing.

Seeing Arthur bubbling with excitement about the major new production of Our Town that he’s staging—with a team that includes someone who worked on Hamilton—was a joy beyond measure. Witnessing someone doing what they are clearly meant to do is often like that; the sheer heat of their enthusiasm throws off sparks.

Arthur and me, 2022

We all need mentors, those transformative figures in our lives who believe in us more than we have yet learned to believe in ourselves, who both push and pull us closer to our potential. They might be a teacher, a relative, a colleague or a friend. There might be several of them, and they might appear in our lives at any point along our path. I was lucky enough to meet one of the important ones in my life at fourteen years old, awkward as a newborn colt, the first day I walked into Arthur Feinsod’s classroom.

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