I should like to say a few words about Mike Anslemi (1946-2012), whose funeral was this morning. Mike was a member of our THEATREWORKS Board for more than a decade, and he took a distinguished turn as our advisory board chairman. And he was our dear friend.
He was ill for many months and I was lucky enough to see him a few days before he went. I was hoping it would not be my last visit, but it was clear we didn't have much time, so we cut to the chase. I had a list of the top five regrets of the dying I had read in the Guardian recently. I am a teacher and there was time left for one last oral exam. I went through the list with him one by one; and he, once a teacher too, was happy to play. "Mike," I said, "Do you wish you had the courage to live a life true to yourself, and not the one others expected of you?" "No", he said. "Mike, do you wish you hadn't worked so hard?" (Mike was a hard worker, and this is a common regret). "No", Mike said. "Do you wish you had had more courage expressing your feelings?" "No". "Do you wish you had stayed in better touch with your friends?" "No". "Do you wish that you had let yourself be more happy?" "No," again. I asked him, "Are you saying that in your life you were true to yourself, that you didn't sacrifice yourself to your work, that you could talk about your feelings, that you stayed in touch with your friends and allowed yourself to be as happy as possible?" "Yes," he said. I told him he had scored a perfect zero on his final exam and I didn't know what to do with him.
There was a long pause, of smiles. Then he allowed that he did have one regret. He wished he had met his second and present wife Sue a little earlier, so they might have had children. He thought they would have been good kids, able to give something to the world.
I could only say that in some ways that the arts had been their children; that we were his kids, and that he had nurtured, encouraged, guided and worked for us all. And this is true enough.
There was one time when we nurtured him. Mike had expressed an interest in taking a small non-speaking part in our production of Treasure Island. I soon realized he was unsuited for a deckhand or smelly pirate. There was only one role he could play, Tobias Smollett, captain of the Hispaniola, and leader of the expedition to recover the buried treasure. Mike had not been prepared to be kicked upstairs to the bridge, but he accepted his appointment with characteristic grace and even enthusiasm. It was brilliant casting: in so many ways the role was the man himself. Like Mike, Smollett was a man of few words, and like Mike, Smollett was always logical: point first, point second, point third. Like a good captain, Mike was a made of discipline--but always ready to issue an extra round of grog when the crew needed one. Smollett never sought the limelight and neither did Mike--it was enough to know and do your duty. He had courage and tenacity. He would stick to his guns and you knew he never strike his colours. He could chart a great course--at the helm to Skeleton Island, or at the computer at Columbine Capital. He was not as idiosyncratic, as lively, or as attention-getting as his boss Jack Brush or Long John Silver, but he was a diligent man and he could hold his ground. And he had a twinkle, a definite twinkle.
At the end of the play, Long John Silver and Smollett momentarily step outside of the action to comment on the parts they have played. Silver says (and these are the words of Robert Louis Stevenson), "I'm the Author's favorite character. He does me fathoms better than he does you--fathoms. And he likes doing me. He keeps me on deck mostly all the time, crutch and all, and he leaves you down in the hold, where no one can see you, or wants to." Smollett replies, simply, and in character: "I know the author respects me; I feel it in my bones. I am a man who tries to do his duty and makes a mess of it as often as not . . But I know the Author's on the side of good .. and I'm glad enough to be Alexander Smollett."
It did not occur to me then that these words were as true of the actor as they were of the character. But it occurs to me now. Mike was glad enough to be Mike Anselmi, and that was saying something. He was a man of deep and resonant faith, a faith which he never imposed on others. It was clear he liked doing his duty, and could feel in his bones that his Author respected him. He was also a man, who, in one happy spark, could be touched by art into a brief, heroic life on Skeleton Island.
Thank you, Captain Smollett. We hate to see you go. Extra grog for the men. A twenty gun salute. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.