Eight years ago this month a friend of mine died. Coincidentally, while cleaning out an old box in my office last week, I found a play I wrote, “Blessed Twilight,” which he directed. He was an artist in every sense of the word. In the same box was a copy of the following piece of writing I did just after his death. I am in the middle of a writers festival this week, and next week I’m headed to Florida to do the same. I am intensely lucky to be surrounded by artists, and when I found this I realized that has been the case since I was a teenager and became friends with such talented folks as musician Jonmark Stone and landscape artist Cole Young, the latter who died in his fifties.
Too young. So many artists die too young:
I saw “Witness” before I attended Penn State for graduate school. In one of the last scenes, Harrison Ford comes out of the barn and is going to be shot, but he’s surrounded by Amish. It has a happy ending–the dude gives up the gun, Harrison Ford walks away, and the Amish go home. One of those actors was Eton Churchill. To Ford’s left in the blue shirt and white suspenders, which he borrowed from Ford.
When I arrived at Penn State I was accepted for the Masters of Arts in Humanities, but since I wanted a double major to include one in Art History, I requested an active project in addition to my required thesis. The director asked what I wanted to do beyond my humanities proposal, which was the adaptation of prose into film and theater. I told him I wanted to write and act in a one man play about Vincent van Gogh. He sent me to Eton.
Eton Churchill published short stories, documentary films, and had plays produced around the country as well as having published a novel, “Mind How the Sun Goes.” Eton shared the power of storytelling, his compassion for humanity and his deep devotion to nature — in particular the islands of Penobscot Bay where he frequently sailed. In addition to his written works, Eton’s creative production included building wooden boats and playing the acoustic guitar. We became immediate friends, talked about sailing, about New England, played guitars together. We’d go for pitchers of beer and talk about writing and plays. He said he could get my project done, though something like that had not been done at PSU before.
He took my source, “The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh,” which is 2000 pages long, and helped me narrow it down to the less than 40 pages for the one-man show. Previously, when it was thinned out to 160 pages, he published it as a book. When I memorized the 40 page version, he drilled me on stage until I knew when to look toward the lights, when to fall on my knees, and when to keep going when I made mistakes. He was not concerned about our ability to pull this project off, but about people watching a play about a dead artist who kills himself at the end. “It’s real, but it’s real depressing,” he told me.
When rehearsals began, he told me in his less-than subtle way, “Don’t quit when you suck at something.” The writing was right on the money, he said. But my acting wasn’t working. “Just keep pushing it until you get through it.” I did, and 18 months later we premiered “Blessed Twilight” at the Olmstead Theater in Pennsylvania. The play did well, but it was his friendship which endured. He helped me get my job teaching in Virginia Beach.
He died at just 64. What I remember most about Eton is his passion about not simply talking about life, but living it, then writing about it. Talking about it has no destination. His plays have won awards, his directing has won more, including a nomination for the Pennsylvania Humanities Award for “Blessed Twilight.” When the first performance ended, the audience asked questions, and one person inquired who was my acting coach. “The writing is excellent,” this person said. “But your acting is, well, not beautiful.” After everyone stopped laughing, she asked, “Who taught you?” I pointed to Eton. Later that night while drinking beer at some Pennsylvania dive, he said, “You know, it wasn’t bad acting, it was the character. Van Gogh was psychotic–all over the place when it comes to emotion. They just didn’t get it, Bob. Nobody likes to see anything about a dead artist.”
No, I sucked. He knew that. But we didn’t talk about it. We pushed through it. When he read online a piece I wrote about artist Cole Young who had died, he called to say he was sorry and that he remembered me talking about him. “Another dead artist, huh?” he said, and we laughed. I heard from Eton after “Out of Nowhere” was released. He said, “Finally, you’re writing about yourself instead of dead artists.” He supported my writing more than any professor I recall. He knew it came from life, not from imagination, as his came from life. He wrote about humanity, about relationships, about sailing and music and the brief run on the reach when the trade winds come on. He wrote descriptive essays and plays with more imagery than most poetry.
Me, I’m still writing about dead artists.