IN 1978 I MOVED TO VANCOUVER to study at Regent College. I was fleeing a broken, toxic relationship. I wanted to live by the sea. And I had dropped out of an actor training program in Alberta, deciding (for rather flimsy reasons) to become a pastor.
The moment anyone heard of my theater background, it was always “Oh! You have to meet John.” John was a rarity then, a professional actor and committed Christian. I remember a long walk on a splendid fall afternoon, the two of us lost in conversation about the thrill of acting, the privilege of living inside worlds that Shakespeare or Seán O’Casey or Sam Shepard had created. Intimacy with God, the glory of doing precisely what you were created to do. John felt called; for him, this was a religious vocation.
The fire of that conversation didn’t fit with my shaky sense of calling to the ministry, but it took a couple years to sort that out. I did an MFA in acting at CalArts, then founded Pacific Theatre in Vancouver. John veered toward the Anglican priesthood, but repented of his backsliding and returned to his true calling.
When I brought him in to direct a show, our friendship got complicated. John had an artist’s intensity and a temper, and was unconcerned about whether any of us liked him. I hated conflict and wanted to be liked, while John expressed contempt for anything less than what he deemed excellent. I was trying to build a theater where treating people well was fundamental.
Once, I shared with John how CalArts had freed me from an overly considered approach to acting into something truer and rawer, but that I’d gotten all paraphrasey and that wasn’t serving the work. John rolled his eyes. “No, hardly.”
I was shamed. I resolved to be word perfect from then on, not a syllable out of place. It was a necessary corrective, but fired less by my artistic calling than by my drive to prove something to John. It ultimately proved a curse.
I had no idea at the time, but John was fighting many battles, and his inner conflict spilled into everything. Years later he told me about the “three Johns,” any of whom would be completely unacceptable in at least one of his other worlds: John the actor, John the Christian, and John the gay man. To step out of one closet required stepping into another. He was disintegrating.
But those days were passing, and it seemed Pacific Theatre might be a place where all three of him could find a home. I cast him as Mr. Lockhart in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. I would play Richard.
John looks back on that show with gratitude and nostalgia. He found his place: ready friendship, challenging work, and an easy acceptance of the whole John that was liberating. But it was one of the most agonizing experiences of my life. Over-stretched and sleeping badly, I’d worked for months on the difficult lines, shards of overlapping dialogue in a heavy Dublin dialect from a drunken character who is newly blind. The director, a trusted long-time friend, began rehearsal with a couple of notes that struck me as completely wrong. I said nothing, and my self-doubt, resentment, and defensiveness snowballed, while the lines kept eluding me. As I failed my way through rehearsals, the shame and paranoia compounded. And it’s a hard bloody play.
At the end of the final run before opening, the director gave the obligatory pre-show talk, general praise and encouragement to rally the troops for battle, warm and affirming and celebratory. All but one moment. Shaking his head, the director turned to me: “But Ron, you simply have to learn your lines.” Two hours before curtain.
He finished his remarks and I sat frozen, looking at no one. Once everyone had left the theater, I wept.
When that subsided, I found John in the dressing room, then broke down again. I told him of my fear and shame. He held me, prayed for me, kept checking in with me through the entire run. My priest.
In 2012, I began to write a play about the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. John came to the table reading of an early draft, and I asked him to read Tolkien. It was nothing like a casting choice; I just needed to hear my play come off the page, and John was a good reader. Halfway through the first scene, I knew I had my Tolkien.
Through eight drafts over six years, John was my cheerleader. With each new revision, he would tell me how the play had grown, how a character had been fleshed out, how the story was becoming clearer, how I’d finally solved a certain scene. The acerbic John of early days was gone; he was my advocate, my encourager. My Samwise.
As the script neared completion, John asked me to delay the final table reading and revisions until he returned from a trip. He emailed, “I’ve become very possessive of Tolkien, and I think, if at all possible, it’s very important for me to attend and read.”
I sent a couple scenes he could start learning over Christmas. John asked for changes. My first response was to push back: “That process is done,” I wrote. “Those scenes are production drafts. From now on, it’s all Chekhov; you just need to do your job.” But I thought better of it and didn’t send that email. Instead, I met with him, looked at things he was struggling with, and made some changes, as much to make him feel heard as to make the play better.
Still, his anxiety fed on itself and grew. I lined up people to work lines with him three afternoons a week—and realized he’d never worked that way. For fifty years as a professional actor, he’d gone it alone.
John started dropping little comments about how I’d promised him a completed script by Christmas but hadn’t delivered. Without quite saying it, he was saying that this was my fault.
A couple of John’s line helpers were concerned. He was testy, often bogged down. He’d get furious with himself when words wouldn’t come. He seemed anxious. Terrified, even.
I took John out for dinner, listened, praised, and reassured. It helped. A bit.
It’s day two of rehearsals, and already we’re in trouble. After a series of two-person scenes, the first Inklings meeting feels something like chaos: five very witty, slightly drunk Oxfordians flinging themselves into that corner of the week where they can sling their jokes and insults and arguments and ideas without restraint.
John is a dark cloud. Actors who aren’t filled with fear can accept a certain amount of chaos, knowing it will all make more sense as time goes by. “Hold onto your script for now. Ease off it over the coming weeks,” I tell him. Not John. He needs to be off book and word perfect, right now. It strikes me that he’s put himself under a kind of curse, and soon the words won’t come at all. Instead of quietly asking for his line, John shouts at the young assistant stage manager: “What?” She reads him his line, and he doesn’t catch it. “What?” he shouts with a little more fury. Then, “What?! What?! WHAT?!”
I call a halt. “Why don’t you pick up your script? Use it when you want.” Silence. “You’ll get there. But this approach isn’t serving us.”
John leaves the room. I wait for him to collect himself, but he doesn’t return, and it starts feeling like he’s lodging some sort of protest. I head after him, ready to fight if I have to. You simply can’t treat people like that.
I find John near the bathrooms. He is broken, small. “I can’t do this, Ron. I won’t make it.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, breathe, listen. “You’ll make it. We’ve all been there.”
“The lines won’t come, even the ones I know. They’re there, then it all goes sideways.”
By week two we’ve slowed to a line-learning crawl. “Okay, let’s work that half page for a while. Where do you want to start?” I’m just supervising memorization, monitoring panic levels, fending off meltdowns and explosions. It galls me to be a babysitter.
I empathize. I’m disgusted. I watch what could have been shrink away to what we’ll have to settle for.
John is not sleeping. He’s eating badly. I begin driving him home from rehearsals, buying him bags of groceries. I listen. We carry on.
On Saturday morning, six rehearsal days from opening, we’re ready to revisit the scene that grieves John most. It’s the climax of the play, a long confrontation between Tolkien and Lewis where everything that’s been covered over or talked around finally gets said. The wounds and distance that the Second World War brought are finally in the open.
And John is late. Which, in theater, is just not done. And it’s definitely not done by John; even under duress he always keeps utterly professional habits.
At last he appears in the stage doorway, shrunken. Plastic grocery bags slump to the floor. He doesn’t speak, then teeters and nearly falls—a melodramatic touch, I think, or maybe authentic exhaustion. I take him in my arms and we stand there in the doorway for an absurdly long time. He passed out on the bus, he says. He almost fell in the street. He hasn’t slept and can hardly think.
“Do you want to sit?” I ask.
On a couch in the greenroom, he half lies against me and weeps. “I don’t want to die, Ron.” I get him water. “I have. No. Friends. None.”
I hold him like a dying man—or a man in a scene about a dying man.
John has me tell the cast that he’s all right and wants to carry on. I mention that he passed out on the bus, but he contradicts me. “Well, I felt a bit faint.”
My unspoken skepticism and his (maybe) melodrama were almost beside the point. What was possessing him was terror, and that is real enough. John was approaching eighty, and under stress his health was failing; he knew that in his body. He barely slept. Food went right through him. He never knew when his mind would simply go blank.
The most chilling moment in John’s dark, remarkable performance came when Tolkien craved to write, needed to write, but couldn’t, and hadn’t for a long time.
LEWIS: You should be writing.
TOLKIEN: I should, should I? I hardly think the world needs another hobbit book.
LEWIS: It’s not the world needs it—it’s you.
TOLKIEN: And you think I don’t know that?
LEWIS: Then do it!
TOLKIEN: I can’t, all right? Now let me be! When I even think of writing, I feel sick. And I think about it all the time. If I could, I would. It’s just… empty in there.
I saw terror, but I saw courage. That thing we do when we believe the last thing we can possibly do is go on, but we go on. I saw Frodo in the dead marshes, then stricken by Shelob, then finally carried by Sam until the task was completed.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. John works steadily toward the Friday night opening. With his deliberate pace, the play runs horribly long, and I try to come to terms with the fact that the show will be a disaster.
This sounds like the usual backstage melodrama, as in the Cole Porter song: One week, will it ever be right? / Then out of the hat it’s that big first night! Only, it’s almost never that way. Thirty-four seasons of Pacific Theatre, and yes, there’s been the occasional scary show, but nothing approaching this. During the Tuesday night run-through, John abruptly leaves the stage with a muttered “excuse me.” Eventually I head out after him. He emerges from the bathroom with a cheery, “Seniors’ troubles.” We pick up where we left off and all is well. Except I’m thinking, that’s not going to happen during the show?
At the Wednesday night dress rehearsal, ten minutes short of the final curtain, John pauses—has he lost his lines?—then slumps to the floor. Someone laughs. It doesn’t seem real.
The paramedics say it’s not a heart attack or stroke, more like exhaustion, dehydration, and stress. An ambulance takes him to emergency. By the time I arrive, John is astonishingly settled, peaceful even. By three in the morning the doctors confirm that he simply needs rest, food, and fluids.
“But I need to be onstage. It’s our last day to work.”
I tell him no. I will stand in for him, script in hand, for the Thursday rehearsals and preview. If he bounces back, as the doctors expect, he’ll do a light rehearsal Friday afternoon, then open that night. I’ll line up doctors to check him before each show and at intermissions. I’ll be in the front row to feed him lines, to step in if he can’t continue. John acquiesces.
On Thursday afternoon, I am an actor again—without a single line to learn. There is a giddy energy in the theater, tangible relief. John’s contagious fear no longer haunts the cast. We shave a full half hour off the running time. And every now and then, though I know I should be thinking only Tolkien’s thoughts, I feel a sharp, sweet tang of joy and regret: I could have played this role. And after today, I won’t again. And really, this is all I ever wanted to do.
After the audience preview, approaching midnight, my cell phone rings. “I can’t do it, Ron. I simply cannot do the show.”
My voice is sympathetic, reassuring, understanding. My feet cut little dance steps. I pump my fist.
The day after opening, between matinee and evening shows, I go down to John’s Coal Harbour apartment. Glorious light reflects off the water as we look out over Stanley Park and the North Shore Mountains. His walls are covered with show posters and photos from Stratford.
He is the John I’ve not seen in months. Calm. Smaller, somehow, but stiller. Bilbo at Rivendell. Or Frodo after the ring was cast into the fires of Mount Doom: “pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away.”
God has been telling him that he is loved, reassuring him that he doesn’t have to do this thing, to prove anything, to succeed, to keep from letting anybody down. Particularly me. And, even more, God. I tell John face to face what I’d told him on the phone, that I love doing the role, that audiences have embraced the whole “director steps in, script in hand, to save the day” thing. His gladness is palpable.
He doesn’t ask how it’s been for me. I don’t think it occurs to him that this was painful and terrifying for anyone but him. And the question forms in my mind: can you love a narcissist?
But I do, if imperfectly. And he’s not, not mostly. The day will come when he’s recovered enough, the shellshock mostly shed, and he will ask. And I’ll tell him how it was for me.
I suppose that’s what I’m doing now.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.