In For a Penny: Not a Family Matter

Charles Lewis III, on family.

seal of approval

“The last collaborator is your audience, and so you’ve got to wait ’til the last collaborator comes in before you can complete the collaboration.”
– Stephen Sondheim, interview with Academy of Achievement

I’m one of those actors who will sneak a peek out at the audience. Not just from backstage through a hole in the curtain, but also on stage in the middle of a performance. Mind you, I’m not Jimmy Fallon – I’m not doing full-blown character-breaks that ruin it for the rest the cast. But when my character isn’t the focus of the scene and two actors are having their big melodramatic moment, I’ll do a half-second scan of the audience to see if I know anyone.

Even for a half-second, I’m usually good at picking out faces. A normal crowd will often consist of former castmates (the one and only time I came close to “corpsing” was when my former Crucible castmates came to see me in Pastorella, which jokingly references the former play. The Salem folk laughed their asses off and nearly broke me.), tech people, maybe the occasional non-theatre friend, the woman I’m dating (if she can make it that night), and a healthy collection of complete strangers.

The people you’re least likely to see are members of my family.

I’m used to meeting family members of my castmates, directors, etc. In fact, there are many whom I’ve seen so often that I’m on a first-name basis with them. And anyone who’s ever tried their hand at any art form will tell you that family members can easily be your biggest cheerleaders or the most vicious trolls you’ll ever encounter. They can talk up your most minor accomplishment with world-changing importance or they’ll lament the fact that you’re still “doing plays like a little kid instead of getting real work”. Everything is either too much or not enough.

I tend to avoid the whole mishegoss of family all together. I never tell them when I’m acting, directing, or writing something that an audience will see. They haven’t seen a play I’ve been in since high school. This helps me avoid the backstage anxiety you’ll see on an actor’s face when they suddenly realise “My parents are in the audience tonight”. I’m all for an actor taking their role as seriously as possible, but when the thought of performing in front of one’s family suddenly turns the role into an unnecessary tightrope walk, then it’s a distraction. I’m someone who believes you should do your best every performance, no matter if it’s an audience of critics, kings, or your third-cousin, twice removed.

This policy doesn’t arise out of animosity so much as a means to protect my privacy. I know, I know: performing in public is the antithesis of “private”. Still, time to myself has always been a luxury for me where my family was concerned. I grew up around people who would barge into my room unannounced, go through all of my journals & bags, make important decisions (to which I objected) on my behalf, and generally feel that every intimate thought that went through my head was meant to be a matter of public record. Before anyone reading this chimes in with “Be glad they wanted to be such a part of your life,” let me stop you right there and say that your life experience is not my life experience, so don’t assume you know me.

The funny thing is that not only has the Information Age made it easier for my work to be found on-line, at times it will be my family who finds it before I do. As a longtime fan of the Golden State Warriors (SF-borne native here), I’ve been following the progress of our boys as they inch their way to a possible championship. I’ve kept up with Monty Williams (New Orleans coach) bitching about the Oakland Coliseum being too damn loud, and I’ve watched as Steph Curry dunk his way towards a well-earned MVP title. Y’know what I haven’t seen? Me.

I’m not kidding. Last year I shot a tv spot outside of the Coliseum wearing a Warriors hat and grinning like an idiot. It was a quick shoot that paid well and I completely forgot about it as soon as it was over. Cut to this past November when my shit-eating grin is apparently showing up on tv screens all over the Bay Area. Friends saw it. Colleagues saw it. And yes, my family saw it. I can’t find the damn thing on tv or the internet for the life of me, but my family has seen it multiple times. Mind you, I’m not ashamed of it or anything, I just don’t want to talk about it.

I almost never like to talk about my acting. My original idea for this week’s entry was for it to lament the necessary evil that is making an actor write their own bio. I’m proud of a good percentage of the work I’ve acted in (meet me for a drink and I’ll tell you which ones I’m not), and usually even prouder of what I’ve written and directed. But getting me to talk about it is akin to pulling teeth: I see how it’s necessary, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable for me. That’s true for me whether you’re a relation or not.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that I’ll one day invite family to one of my shows. Some would argue that it might be inevitable. But as someone who’s spent a lot of time trying to hold onto something all his own like a squirrel hoarding for the winter I don’t like the idea of being forced to share with someone who’s often never honored my privacy to begin with.

Practically every acting school and coach will tell you to never make eye contact with the audience. Well, I do. I do during auditions, I do during curtain call, and – for that fleeting half-second – I do during the show proper. The only way it’s possible for me to do my best is for me to look out and not see someone whose mere presence reminds me that I’m walking a tightrope.

Charles hasn’t acted in anything since last November. As such, he has nothing to talk about.