Making a space for myself in the world of theater, and building a sustained career in it, was an all-consuming effort that lasted the better part of 20 years. I couldn’t afford graduate school or to gain experience via low pay, or unpaid, internships. I had day jobs and side hustles, paying my bills with jobs bartending and data management consulting. I didn’t have a steady paycheck in the theater until I was 40.
I was also married at 21 and had a son at 28. The peak years of my side hustles overlapped entirely with his growing up in our household. At some points, I was on the road six weeks out of eight. Even when I was home, I’d have rehearsals or performances at night much of time. I had ambition. I had passion. I had drive.
When my son was about 11, I returned home from weeks on the road with baseball caps from the cities I’d been working in. I was on my way out to rehearsal when I handed him the caps. “You know, Dad,” he said, sitting glumly on his bed, “you can’t just buy me things and think that makes it better.” My heart skips a bit even now as I write these words. It was a punch to the gut.
Another friend in the theater, an actor, whose career had suddenly accelerated, found herself out six nights a week for months on end. On one Monday night off she asked her 6-year-old daughter if she would like to play something with her before bedtime. “Sure,” Julia said. “I’ll be the mommy, you be the girl, and you go sit on my bed and wonder if I’m ever coming home.”
Here’s Hamnet, the 11-year old son of one of the most famous absentee fathers in history. His father’s long shadow is the only thing he knows of him. In fact, he’s here now to get our help in understanding his dad, and in the process, hopefully even coming to understand why his father’s career was so much more important than him.
At ArtsEmerson, we are always looking to create connection across our differences. In Hamnet, we have a story that will touch a tender spot in many of us. Regardless of our “come from,” we were children once. Some still are. Some of us have children now. Some have grandchildren and are watching our own kids wrestle with the challenges of building a career and raising a child. Listen to this boy and you very well may hear your own experience reflecting back at you. Kids say the darnedest things.