January 14, 2010

Applause for Jason Francis

As a freshman at Taylor University I was cast as Tom Sawyer in Big River. It was thrilling to be cast in a good role as a freshman and on opening night the audience was responding to very well to everything I was doing. It was electrifying.

At the end of our opening night performance, as the lights faded on the curtain call, I ran backstage to meet friends and hear praise. But before I could reach the stage door, a hand grabbed my shoulder. It was Jason Francis, a senior and gifted actor.

"Wait," he said. "Listen, do you hear that?"

"I don't hear anything," I said anxiously.

"That's right," his eyes widened, "The applause dies every night... Don't do it for the applause."

There was a moment and I finally said "Okay" feigning comprehension. I ran off toward the lobby lights and the kudos. But the moment haunted me, and haunts me still.

It didn't take long to learn that applause and audience praise is not only fleeting, but unreliable and inaccurate. My worst performances have received standing ovations and some of my best work doesn't result in a measurable response. But more than that, I have come to understand that there's more at stake in theatre than applause.

I learned in my time at Taylor that theatre has a foot in the spiritual realm. The movment of bodies and the portrayal of lives moves souls. Jason, in our short friendship, embodied the seriousness of this art form and its eternal implications on its creators and audience. With Jason, and ever since, my greatest theatrical experiences are those where I could palpably sense a "presence." When like-minded people put their hands to a work of art, it can be a transcendant experience, a holy moment.

Jason was all about holy moments on stage, and because of him, so am I.

I found out last night that Jason died of cancer this week.

Four months ago, I got this email:
I'm in my FINAL year of MFA. Class of 2010 baby! And it has been a great journey. I've learned tons - not the least of which BREATHE - and relax onstage - mind blowing concepts at the master level. We're doing Lear for our thesis show - I get to be Gloucester. Yay.
After not hearing from him for nearly ten years, it turned out we were both back in school for theatre! And he was still committed to exploring PRESENCE onstage.

He never got to perform in Lear and this May he will not get his degree, but he's a large part of why I'll be getting mine.

His generous spirit on and offstage was the first model I had for an actor who sees their life and work as a rehearsal for eternity. And as the theatre saying goes... "you perform like you rehearse."

Jason, I know you didn't do it for the applause, but you have mine.

Jason Francis 1972-2010


Chris Hansen said...

Thanks for sharing this, Dan. And I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.

Shannon said...

So sorry to hear about your loss. This is a lovely and articulate remembrance of your friend.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written Baby. It made me get all emotional. Love you.