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    This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine click here. To find us on newsstands, click here.
     

    Photos By: Chris Witzke​

    “And from those human creatures a new
    species came into being 
    the cicadas 
    and they were given this special gift from the Muses:
    that from the time they are born
    they need no nourishment
    they just sing continuously
    caught forever in the pleasure of the moment
    without eating or drinking
    until they die.”

    —from the play "The Glory of the World," by Charles Mee

     

    “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” 

    —Thomas Merton 

     

    “The noblest answer unto such
    is kindly silence when they brawl.” 

    —Tennyson

     

    This was his idea. He’d chosen to wait backstage, listening to the growing crowd mumbling in the auditorium. He’d chosen to submit himself to their gaze, to the scratch of critics’ needlepoint pens. He’d promised himself to the desolate stage — its desk, its chair, its creamy dark. 

    Playwright Charles Mee wrote the script for "The Glory of the World," but Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters formed the structure. About a year before the March premiere, Waters asked about commissioning a play from Mee for the Humana Festival of New American Plays, which has introduced some 450 new works, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, to Louisville over the past 39 years. The late philosopher/theologian/writer Thomas Merton, who served as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani south of Bardstown, would have turned 100 in 2015. Waters proposed a celebration set for the stage. It would begin and end with Waters and silence. The middle: a birthday party.

    Mee, an ex-Catholic, furrowed his brows. “I’m not sure I could be very complimentary to a guy who lived in a monastery,” he said. “Maybe it’ll get you kicked out of Louisville.”

    “No, no. It won’t,” Waters said. 

    He didn’t intend to neatly define Merton; rather, he wanted to explore the depth of personhood, all its contradictions. Each character would think of Merton differently. They’d laugh, argue, fight. Only Mee, a writer known for his use of collage, could provide the jagged edges Waters needed. Talking to Mee, Waters could see the play forming — not a solid arc, but a carefully arranged heap of broken glass. In the play, characters dance, kiss, duel with swords, lip-sync pop songs, shatter bottles in a box and do headstands in the shards, strip a friend naked and chase him with a chainsaw. Today, Mee marvels at Waters’ idea. “Rare that somebody really, in the first five minutes of the conversation, said something like, ‘That’s obvious to me. That’s the structure. That’s it. Done,’” he says. “The sort of architectural design of the entire 328-story-high building just occurred in the first few minutes.”

    But backstage, as the crowd thickens and its many conversations crescendo into one sound, Waters worries. 

    Then, as the script says: SILENCE. It’s time.

    His first step drops 328 stories. 

    Hundreds would see if he fell. They’d watch his skinny body crumple, the ornamental Victorian ironwork tattoos on his forearms wheeling over his simple black shirt and pants. They’d see his beard splay on the floor, his Ray-Ban eyeglasses skitter toward the edge.

    This was his idea.

    The stage catches Waters’ bare feet. His weight centers. An auditorium of eyes lasers through him, but the boards on his soles keep him steady. The room goes so quiet the SILENCE seems tangible, suffocating, a soft pillow pressed firmly into several hundred faces. No one says a word. Every breath climbs to turbine volume. Thoughts firework in the SILENCE, then choke out. Fire without oxygen. All those wide eyes shine a kind of text in the dark:

    Is that the director?
    That’s Les Waters. He directed the play.
    Weird for him to be onstage.

    Weird? The sparse set proves Waters’ appreciation for understatement, but weird doesn’t cover it. He hasn’t attended one of his premieres in, what? A decade? Doesn’t like firsts. Doesn’t like the first day of rehearsal, the first day of tech, the first preview, opening night. He wants to say the lack of control bothers him, but why should he get to control everything? Hypothetical reactions churn in his stomach. 

    They hate it. 
    It sucks. 
    Even if it doesn’t suck, it should be better. It should always be better.

    Noxious fumes. He channels them into opening night so he can breathe as he directs. And when the night comes, he almost always avoids the performance. On the opening night of "10 out of 12" — a challenging Anne Washburn play about a tech rehearsal for a play — at SoHo Repertory Theatre in New York, he took a walk. Thought about seeing a movie. Took a walk. Sat in the theater’s green room, thinking about his next project. Took a walk. "At the Vanishing Point" premiered at the 2004 Humana Festival, and returned to Actors Theatre in January 2015. While the audience saw its past alive onstage and the cast conjured old Butchertown and Ben Sollee’s cello hymned dry as an old well, Waters bundled his coat against January and walked the four blocks downtown on Main Street between the theater and 21c. And walked between 21c and the theater. And walked between the theater and 21c. Ten times. He doesn’t drive. Learns cities with his body, gets the streets in his feet. He often walks for hours, sometimes trekking several miles from Actors Theatre to Carmichael’s Bookstore on Frankfort Avenue and beyond. 

    One morning in California while working on "Marjorie Prime," a Pulitzer finalist about an elderly woman and a hologram that looks like her dead husband, Waters woke with a bad pain in his leg. He limped through work, thought it a sign of old age. When he returned to Louisville, he found out he’d fractured his femur and developed a buildup of fluid in the bone marrow. No idea how he did it. But it’s healed well. He can take walks again.

    Just not tonight. Waters sits at the desk onstage, his back to the audience. The rules of theater break behind his head. 

    Really? He’s facing away?

    The quiet settles on him, and his ears fill with the familiar sensation of . . . not nothing, exactly. Not emptiness. What is SILENCE, really? When this is over — or maybe after the next festival, or the next flight to California or New York to direct a production — he should go back to the silent retreat in the San Francisco Bay area he loves. At Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, he reads in gardens and walks among thicker-than-the-human-body trees, and when he eats he can hear the little arias teeth and throats make.

    Why does he like the SILENCE? He works in a noisy profession, and even when he spends much of rehearsal with his eyes down and his ears up, he has to field a lot of questions. He wants to say he likes his own company, but he doesn’t. What’s that Sartre quote he read the other day? “If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” Oh, fuck off. So sneery to everybody. Like, if you can’t take punishing solitude . . . . 

    He finds meditation difficult at the best of times. No matter. He’d rather stay focused on this moment. Waters wants to be Waters right now. He wants the audience to sit with him and listen. Just listen. The desk roots his hands to reality.

    He doesn’t see the projected words on the walls beside him, but he feels the room’s hush shift like a submarine current. The script lists the luminous lines as his thoughts, but he thinks other things. Like how he has to exit stage left when the garage door before him opens onto a bright room and his cast of partiers. He thinks: It’s been 20 seconds. He thinks: It’s been 20 minutes. He thinks: It’s been 90 seconds. He thinks: Oh, no, the garage door will malfunction, the play will fall apart, the hours with the dance and fight choreographers and those four weeks of rehearsal will be for nothing; the quiet will crash and erupt into boos and anger and reviews with all the nuance of middle-schoolers calling one another fat, or badly shoed. 

    No. Stay present. A few hundred pairs of eyes swivel from his head to the text on the walls. He can almost hear the orbs brushing their sockets.

    Listen, it’s raining
    All of this ambient and low, all of it
    far away
    There is a bubbling — metallic —
    behind me
    Something whispers, slithers and then stops
    Crunch of shoes on sidewalk
    Like sound of peanuts being cracked

    Door clicks behind very near

    Door slam to the left
    Door slam to the left
    Car starting up on the left
    Car driving away

    Behind me a bike or an insect

    When the garage door opens, Waters slips offstage and the madness eclipses him. He listens from the dressing room as the cast argues over Merton. 

    He was a Catholic. 
    No, he was a Buddhist. 
    Well, really, he was a bohemian. 
    Remember, though, he was foremost a writer. 
    No, a philosopher.

    None embody the empathy Merton spoke of. None mimic the famous epiphany about the unity of man Merton had in 1958 on the corner of what is now Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Fourth Street. “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers,” Merton wrote after walking through a downtown crowd. “And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” 

    Early in the rehearsal process, Waters planned to sit onstage for the whole play. The men carried him and his desk and chair over to the aquarium, where he faced a wall for 17 minutes. Glinting swords, breaking bottles, murderous drunks quoting Lenny Kravitz and Lady Gaga and Kafka and Wittgenstein and Chuck Palahniuk and Björk and Cameron Diaz and Lao-Tzu careened across his periphery. 

    He can’t always tell when the seizures will hit. Sometimes he worries at crosswalks. I could cause somebody else’s death, let alone my own. His actor friends know what to do when he goes suddenly vacant, how to coax him back to the world when he feels most vulnerable, but they can’t help him while performing, and a seizure could ruin everything. He tries to remember the science. Something like: sodium neurotransmitters transmit electrical impulses, 60 a second. That’s what you’re doing right now. During a seizure, they can go anywhere from 670 to 1,000. His brain literally burns. Getting worse as he ages. But it’s part of him. Maybe it contributes to the way he thinks and works. His brain just jumps. The visual research he gave one set designer: a photo of a Japanese rabbit in snow. He has problems with narrative in plays. Actors Theatre associate director Meredith McDonough breaks everything down, catches plot inconsistencies. Dumbfounds him. He’d just thought it bad, or stupid. He thinks one of his kids thinks the same way. He can’t keep up with mystery novels, but jokes that he reads those for the violence. If he saw a movie, he could describe the first 20 minutes; then he’d say, “Oh! And then there’s this amazing scene where there’s this guy wearing a shirt like I am, but he’s standing up against wallpaper which is exactly the same.” Poetic worlds makes sense. 

    Like what? 

    One example from Waters: “Scene three: A grand piano onstage suspended upside down. There’s water dripping out of it. A crocodile crosses the stage.” Makes sense to him.

    During "Glory of the World" rehearsal, the flashes at the edge of his vision grew bright. I just can’t do this, he thought. This will induce a seizure.

    Now he’s happy with the decision. Why undercut all those contradictory understandings of Merton with a representation of him? Better to open the audience’s ears at the beginning. The middle can dazzle — yes, there’s the laughter licking across the stage, over the two swimsuited men playing in the sprinkler and backstage to Waters, thank God — concealing his directorial choices. When actor Conrad Schott sits down and endures the eternity of two air mattresses being blown up, everyone chuckles, but no one knows Waters decided to make it two. One just wasn’t painful enough. He wants to test the audience’s endurance. When Schott leaps onto the mattresses again and again in mock frustration, the crowd laughs but doesn’t see Waters making Schott leap, nodding, saying, “Again” and “Again” and “Again.” And when Schott delivers a beautiful monologue about cicadas, no one knows that the pauses, the silences, the subtle impacts came from Waters’ finely tuned ear. “Stop there,” he’d say. “Do it again.”

    Neither will most notice Waters’ trademark minimalism through the bacchanal. Sure, they see the sparseness of the beginning. But look: During the party, when these guys chug drinks and joke about nihilism and capitalism and religion, they stand in a line. Or an arc. Or they sit in tiny armchairs, knees hair-pinned to their chests. In his production of "Our Town," the cast sat at the back of the stage in a row of blue chairs. It’s the first rule in directing class: Don’t put your cast in a line. Waters doesn’t care. The line provides simple organization. As one actor says, “Just stand there and say the words.” 

    Waters always focuses on the words. Andrew Garman, who played the lead role of the pastor in Lucas Hnath’s "The Christians" at Actors Theatre, says Waters mostly listened during rehearsals. He wondered if Waters would ever open his eyes. 

    People like to ask him what he does as a director. “Do you tell people where to stand?” Sometimes. But really, he facilitates process. Been reading John Cage. The Buddhism doesn’t make so much sense to Waters, but the way Cage talks about art? It’s not an object, more like the weather. What does that mean? Hard to say. He tries to create a space where actors can try new things, let winds blow. At this stage of his career, he likes to edit. Takes trust to ignore your own grand vision of what must happen. But the actors will act, the designers will design, the writers will write. Waters will step back and make sure the breeze lifts the right hair at the right time, and that when the follicles drop back down, they’ll shatter you. 

    Hnath talked to a few of Waters’ colleagues before working with him. “The word on the street was that he’ll — and this is what you often hear about British directors — he’ll say very little. He’ll just have the actors do the scene again and again, say one thing, one small adjustment. Very light touch, very minimalistic,” he says. “And that was sort of what I got from Les, but Les does something a little bit different, too. He talks quite a bit more than I had expected, given what I was told in advance by various people who knew him or worked with him. One of the things that he does that’s so interesting is he’ll sometimes just sort of tell stories. And they’re often hilarious stories. They’re just utterly off-the-wall, you-can’t-believe-what-you’re-hearing stories. People are laughing, people are enjoying it. But there’s a general air of storytelling in the room. And Les might tell a story, and it might be just completely random. Sometimes it’s to kind of illustrate something that’s in the play but often not that pointed. Often, it’s just some random story. And he’ll talk a bit about if there seems to be something not quite right in the scene that we’re running. Somebody’s not getting something quite right. He’ll just sort of say, ‘This is one of those situations where . . . ,’ and then he’ll start talking about what’s happening to the characters — another extension of just storytelling, right? And I find him to be such a compelling storyteller, it’s infectious. And the actors sort of catch it. It becomes a way that the actors understand, ‘Oh, so really what’s happening is basically this. I get that; I can do that.’”

    “His casts are always attached at the hip. And you’re like, ‘That’s not a mistake.’ He has a very subtle way of creating environments that feel very safe and challenging,” says McDonough, who studied under Waters in graduate school in San Diego. “A lot of the notes he gives to actors he gives to them one on one like three inches away from their face. So it’s not a public event. It’s more about the privacy and the intimacy between the two of them at that moment. Which I think is true of him in life too. He’s a person who just walks down to the marketing department to sit down in the morning and be like, ‘Hey what’s going on?’”

     

    One is tall and rigid and mineral. The other is tiny and terrified and meat. He has just finished singing in the choir at Lincoln Cathedral, where the congregation’s gaze makes him nervous, and has come outside to see the big man.

    Sometimes snow stacks on the man’s stone shoulders. He never looks up from the leaf in his hand. The little boy eyes the frozen Irish wolfhound by the man’s knee. What a beautiful creature. It cuddles into a fold in the boy’s brain. 

    The plaque below the big man reads: Tennyson. The boy has never seen someone so large, cloaked, bearded. He has never noticed before just how small he is. 

    Decades later, a tall man will see an Irish wolfhound on one of his long walks. He’ll snap a picture with his phone and send it to his former student/current co-worker. A synapse will fire and wake a dog. A dog will drool happily.

    Outside the cathedral, the boy shivers. Before his fear can send him scampering away, he looks up at those still eyes and thinks, I want to be famous, like him.

    Waters remembers this when he looks at his photo of the statue in his NuLu apartment. Books stack along walls and completely cover a never-eaten-at dining room table. He’ll need to install shelves. But the open apartment appears tidy; no papers stick out from the black kitchen counter or the table, ready to grab hold of you like those in Waters’ office. The famous Tennyson presides over the neatness. That and the caribou head stuck to the guest bedroom wall. Prop from "Glory."

    “You want to be like him?” I ask. “Stone?”

    “Yeah,” Waters says. “Not really.”

     

    *

     

    Sometimes their son disappeared. They’d come home one Friday afternoon and find their tiny house in eastern England empty of life. He’d stay off for the weekend. They knew that from the last time he’d run off. And the time before that. And the time before that. But sometimes Monday would pass without sight of him, sometimes Tuesday.

    Fens stretched and sopped around them. From above, the marshland formed a patchwork of flat sedge and shallow pools stitched with whorl grass. From the ground, they offered a sky so big you could lose yourself and trip into puddles.

    They hoped Les hadn’t lost himself. That’s why they’d fight when he got back. If he got back. He couldn’t keep running off. But what leverage did they have? No money to withhold, no information with which to appeal to his sensibilities. Les kept his adventures from them, hid his interests away. 

    When he grew up, he’d call his secrecy by its real name: insecurity. What would his parents do if he shared his interests? Rip them away? Did he really think so?

    Years later, no. Back then, yes. And maybe he worried he’d rip them away from himself somehow. Why’d he gravitate away from archaeology to art history? From art history to theater? No matter how long he lives, he will not understand. The boy knew this, or almost knew it. It compacted beneath his youth like a sharp-faceted diamond. 

    He practiced disappearing. It was the late ’60s, and he had the youth movement on his side. Each step he took away from home stacked into his identity. Each minute his parents spent wondering about their son ticked inside his ear like a name. 

    Les. His own being, with its own head, its own secrets. No one knew his plans before school that morning. Maybe he waited until his parents forgot his last vanishing to vanish again. Who knows the mind of a teenager? Who knows how long he’d saved up money? Who knows where he even got money? Surely not through his father’s meager pay from the steel mill. When he’s grown, he won’t remember. But just know, he knows, and the pounds rest in his pocket. 

    Les. So independent that not even his future self will know how he slips out of school after lunch without his hands trembling. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was the youthful naiveté, maybe it was the hum of traffic that kept his nerves from fraying like they should have. 

    The boy strolling across the school soccer pitch doesn’t worry himself with such thoughts. He heads over the hill, lingers by the side of the road. His shoulders, the shoulders that belong to him and no one else, hold his backpack straps against gravity. The sky opens wide enough to lose yourself. This road stretches toward the A1 motorway. From there, it’s 200 miles to London. Or 300? He doesn’t know for certain where the road ends. Doesn’t matter. He can sleep against his backpack in a ditch, if need be, or haunt the gas stations. He can find a baggy-eyed businessman with a slack tie who needs more than the radio to stay awake. Les keeps eyes open with his story: I’m hitching to the theater. He’ll see Peter Brooks’ version of Seneca’s "Oedipus," a Spanish production of Lorca’s "Yerma." He can find a trucker who’s driven down the lonely road for hours, a guy who needs talk like water.

    Les prides himself on his ability to listen. 

    A truck bellows from down the road. 

    Les sticks out his thumb.

     

    *

     

    Sometimes Les Waters would like to disappear. He can’t. The Chucks, specs, tats, swirls of silver hair and that badass beard make him hard to miss. So hard to miss that someone saw him walking around Yale and asked him to model for a Gant fashion shoot. Which he did. People stop him on the street, intrude on dinners at Decca and Proof on Main, hungry for a piece of him — a nod, a photograph, a smile, a handshake. God knows how celebrities deal with it. Who wants anything close to fame? It makes him “nerdy,” he says. Sends him shuffling away — if he can — in a smokescreen of blushes and thank-yous. 

    One morning, about 6 a.m., Waters sat in the Louisville airport. “I’m not a particularly delightful sight at 6 in the morning at the airport,” he says now. A man approached just to tell a hoodie-clad Waters how much he hated something at the last Humana Festival.

    “How do you deal with it?” I ask.

    “Acknowledge it. Don’t dismiss it. You know, try and protect one’s privacy. At 6 in the morning,” Waters says, reclining in his third-floor office downtown. At least he calls it his office. McDonough calls it “nut-bag crazy.” Books conceal his desk, fill shelves. Infinite postcards stack in corners. Photos juxtapose disparate people and places. Paris meets Mexico. Waters collects images all the time, catalogs potential grist. A single snapshot could inform set design, color story, send actors into song or sword or leap. He’s amassed so much paper you could lose yourself in it.

    Plus trinkets. Waters paces along one wall, names off bits of his collection: a photo of the curtain of the Paris opera. “Just a beautiful thing,” he says. A card from a production of "Red," a play about painter Mark Rothko that Waters directed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. A photo of “a man with a very good beard,” next to “a book about beards,” next to the little dove Hnath gave him on the opening night of "The Christians" in 2014. The bird rests atop a small black book titled "All Known Metal Bands." “Which is a list of all known metal bands,” Waters says. Three plastic dinosaurs that belonged to his son as a child. The back cloth from "Long Day’s Journey Into Night." A tiny blue bear and red rhino, both erasers. A black ball. A piece of wood from somewhere. A ghost. A diorama for the Mexican Day of the Dead. A weird figurine Waters bought at a yard sale; he doesn’t really know what it is, but it has eyes. The picture he took of his family during a sandstorm on the Oregon coast, his three children still small, their mother standing before them, an apparition swathed in gusting earth. Tiny models from various productions: trees and a sphinx from "Gnit" — a reimagining of "Peer Gynt" — blue chairs from the model for "Our Town," the aquarium from "The Glory of the World." 

    Light spills through the window behind Waters, but it’s this miscellanea that sends shimmers across his eyes. The past does not fit neatly onto shelves. It seems preposterous now that his parents took him to the theater as a child. Sure, they’d seen the Christmas pantomimes in town, but theater? 

    They went to Stratford for a “day out.” Somehow, for some reason, they had tickets to "King Lear," directed by Peter Brooks. Waters doesn’t remember what kind of car they drove, but actor Paul Scofield’s King Lear still smolders in his memory. Irene Worth played one of the daughters, and Diana Rigg, well before achieving "Avengers" fame, played Cordelia. 

    “And it was the scariest thing I had seen in my life,” Waters says. He can still describe about half of the play several decades later, though he may owe that ability to the books he read about the famous production. “It’s like family memories. Can you actually remember it, or were you told it? Or somebody will say, ‘That was the Easter your cousin threw up all down the drapes.’ And you kinda think, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and underneath it: ‘I don’t remember.’”

    McDonough uses Waters’ office as a pathway to her own. Their closeness proves practical; they keep within yelling distance. 

    “’Dith!” Les screams, using his truncated version of “Meredith.” “Come watch this YouTube video!”

    “He’s obsessed in the best possible way with things on YouTube,” McDonough says, her voice rich with rasp. At one point in "The Glory of the World," the cast performs the lip-synced dance Future Islands played on Letterman. An actor sent Waters the clip. “It’s going in the play,” Waters said.

    Not so much YouTube right now, though. No rehearsals, no meetings with designers, no workshops for new plays. From outside, the empty box office makes late July seem like a quiet time for Actors Theatre.

    It isn’t. In preparation for the next Humana Festival, Waters, McDonough and the Actors Theatre literary department will read 500 to 700 scripts between mid-June and mid-September. “I think last year I read a total of 45, but I read the tip of it,” Waters says. He has two to read tonight. Reads constantly. Just finished a crappy book about David Bowie’s time in Berlin, which made him wish he hadn’t lost his collection of Bowie records. Actor Bruce McKenzie got Waters into poetry. “It’s really useless,” McKenzie said. “It’s not about anything other than poetry. And nobody buys it. And people write it because they want to. It’s somebody’s attempt to describe something.” So Waters brought poetry collections by Maggie Nelson and Susan Howe on his last flight. His new taste for poetry complements his taste in theater. “I like going to see stuff where I will watch it and think, ‘What on Earth is that?’ ’Cause that seems to (have) no category. And I was looking at those (books of poetry) and thinking: What on earth is this? That is — is that poetry? That’s poetry, cultural theory, the way it’s laid out on the page.” Howe experiments with overlapping photocopies of text. “That stuff gets me going,” Waters says. “I love all of that.”

    The corkboard hanging by his window features print-outs of his tattoo designs, a portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein. “If I ever need to see someone clever, there he is,” Waters says of the philosopher. “So, some point this week, this board — something will start to appear on this board made out of that stuff down there,” he says, pointing out one stack of papers in the multitude. While researching "Glory," Waters put up pictures of drunk men with lampshades on their heads. His next and eighth Actors Theatre production, "Luna Gale," follows two young meth-addicted parents, a social worker and a grandmother as they battle over custody of a baby. It will show this October. 

    Waters pats a book on his desk: "Methland," by Nick Reding. “I need to do my homework on that. And a lot of reading about fostering children. How does that work? How does it work from the viewpoint of social services?” he asks.

    A week or two later, he sees the pattern, the new shape in the old ones. Hey, that’s a lot of 19th-century portraits. How does that relate to these pictures? Patterns converge, transmogrify, collapse.

    What pattern would he see if someone drew the routes of all his plane trips on a map? Crosshatched parabolas covering the United States. The dense, multilayered, trans-Atlantic line would probably bring him back to the early ’70s. Manchester University. 

     

    *

     

    “How do you say ‘Bah-th?’”
    “Bath.”
    “Bath.” 

    The kid from the fens lost his accent quick. Got tired of people hearing him and thinking him stupid. His lilt dropped almost as fast as his second area of study: English. He revolted against "Beowulf." Why waste time studying ancient Saxon?

    He focused on drama. He married his high school sweetheart and then his marriage fell apart. He directed plays. Third year, preparing to graduate, he took on Edward Bond’s "The Sea." Annie Smart, a younger drama student, had acted since age seven. The university appointed her as Waters’ stage manager. She fetched his props, warmed to him. One night, she carried oil lamps to rehearsal. When she got there, Waters was talking to an actor. She couldn’t enter without destroying the moment. She watched through the window. Smart knew how directors worked, but she had no idea what Waters was doing. He asked the same actor to do the same scene over and over and over. Smart lost count. She didn’t know how, and maybe the actor didn’t know how, but somehow, Waters found what he needed. 

    Waters and Smart didn’t date, exactly. People didn’t date back then like nowadays in America. No, they just bent one another’s ears. Became friends. Became more. Then became parents, had three kids. Jacob, Nancy, Madeleine.

    Waters moved to Cambridge after college. Eventually, he got his dream job, becoming the associate director of the Royal Court Theatre, the same theater he’d hitched to as a teenager. But by the time Madeleine, their third child, was born, he’d left the Royal Court Theatre after an argument with the artistic director, worked freelance, labored in factories to keep himself alive, built his life with Smart, started work in the United States. They kept their ears open to New York.

    “If one of us got a visa, the other one wouldn’t be able to come if we were unmarried. So we got married,” Smart says. “Oh, my goodness, Nancy would have been about a few months old, and she was born in ’91, so we must have got married in ’91. So if we were together in ’76, it was — whatever it is, you do the math.” Waters has to try to remember when they got married too. Both were “baby hippies,” Smart says, and didn’t really believe in marriage. They went to the registry office, wedded, grabbed Chinese food with friends.

    In ’95, friends from California asked Waters to interview at the University of California, San Diego. He became the head of the MFA program in directing. Smart, a costume and set designer, had to give up her teaching job in London. “By that time we had two children and one on the way. It was like, ‘This has to be the sensible economic decision,’” she says.

    The family grew used to Waters traveling. He worked at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before taking the job in Louisville but also directed plays at other theaters, as he does now. When he was home, he’d walk the beach with Smart. Then he’d take to the skies. He’d directed at the Humana Festival before, and his reputation as a director of new work made him a perfect candidate for the artistic director position at Actors when Marc Masterson left in 2011 to work for the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California.

    “I wanted him to take the job because it’s the job he’s always wanted,” Smart says. “When he first worked there with Jon Jory (who was artistic director before Masterson) I know he did two shows there, or maybe even three. But the first time he worked there, he just came back going, ‘This is where I really would love to work.’ New plays. He really loved everything that Jon had set up. When he got the job, it was like, ‘You have to go and do this.’” 

    No equivalent job emerged for Smart in Louisville. She still lives at the family home in the Bay area, where she teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. Waters moved out just before their youngest child went off to college. Smart put new time to good use; she juggled seven shows and teaching one year. By the time Waters moved to Louisville, the kids had grown accustomed to his busy schedule. He says balancing career and family life gets challenging. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “It’s day to day, really.” Maybe today he’ll exchange emails with Smart. He doesn’t Skype; she doesn’t like to call. “It’s very difficult to negotiate; it’s very hard on everybody,” he says. “I missed chunks of the kids’ childhoods because we were living in England and I was working in the States. Or we were all in San Diego, and I would go direct something in Chicago. Six weeks is long to me, but not that very long. But enormously long for a five-year-old. I think like anybody who has a career, or couples where they both have careers and have family, it’s hard. It’s just a complicated thing to work out, and I’ve no idea if it’s resolvable. I’ve been asked that before, and people ask, ‘How do you resolve it?’ I don’t know. I actually think very little is resolvable. You work something out that makes sense at the time, but you work it out, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense and it’s just rough going.”

    The kids are grown now. Madeleine studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but just began her acting career. She performs with Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård in a new movie called "Diary of a Teenage Girl." Jacob is in D.C., and Nancy — whom Waters calls Nan — works in social media in the Bay area.

    A wooden staircase climbs a narrow alley to Waters’ second-floor apartment door. He leans on the railing, tattoos on his arms bold in low light. The kids send him new bands to listen to. He tries to keep up. Loves Slint, Will Oldham. But at 63, he doesn’t get out as much as he used to. “I used to hit New York until fairly recently and see a show, and then have drinks with somebody — the people in the show — and then go and have something to eat with people, and then would probably go and meet somebody later. And I would be quite happy saying, ‘I’ll meet you at 2:30 somewhere in the East Village.’ And now, it’s like, no, no, no. And I sort of miss it. Then I don’t.”

    Maybe it’s easier for people to make up notions about him since he sticks to himself. For instance: someone bumped into him on the street in New York recently.

    “Still wearing Chucks?” the person asked.

    “Yep,” Waters said.

    “You know they’re bad for your feet?”

    “Yep.”

    “I’m surprised you’re not wearing red ones.”

    He does not usually wear red ones. Whites, falling-apart blacks, pinks with secret sentimental value. People read him wrong, like the young actors in the apprentice company. Sometimes he uses playing cards to teach them. Works like this: draw a card, ace through 10. If you get a 10, act confident. Shake your neighbor’s hand firmly, introduce yourself with a smile. If you get an ace, act insecure, like the very idea of introducing yourself could send you running from a room. 

    No matter what card Waters draws, people project a 10 onto him.

    “I have, kind of, status within my profession. And my job gives me status,” he says, trying the word both ways. Stay-tus, Stat-us. “I think there was an instance this Humana (Festival) where I was introduced to some young writer from New York and realized that — I thought I was being very open and generous. But I’m, like, a senior figure in new work in this country. And I think they were giving me a status of 10. And I was trying to drop it all the time. Because I think I was perceived as being intimidating. I am the artistic director of the theater, and I am the artistic director of the Humana Festival, and I have done a lot of work with big names of the theater. But I’m sort of in it with everybody else. And I don’t get a kick out of it. Do you know what I mean? I don’t get a kick out of the, ‘Ooh, he’s a big deal.’ It’s not much use to me.”

     

    *

     

    He tiptoes around the mess they’ve made onstage. The weapons. The bottles. The trash. The quiet returns, but heavy now. This is not an expectant silence but the sound of absence, ending. The cast has quit its crazy party. Waters sits in the chair, faces the crowd this time.

    Some look at him. Some squirm, embarrassed. One man unhinges his maw to yawn. Come on, dude, I’m not invisible, Waters thinks. One woman chomps a bag of celery. Extraordinary.

    When "Girlfriend," a musical about the romance between two young men in a small Midwestern town, picks up for a run in California, Waters will actually attend the premiere. He won’t let his daughter watch it alone. He’ll get roses. He’ll rub shoulders with Courtney Love, take a few photos. But he’ll sit on the aisle, ready to bolt.

    Just now onstage, he sits still, calm. 

    Well, what is silence, anyway? The thoughts that are not his thoughts light up behind him. Did you really think you’d get out of the near-stone prison of your skull and into his? Did you think you could define him so neatly? 

    What do you mean by contemplation anyway?
    Does the silence scare you?
    How do I live? 
    Who could tell where I would have ended?
    Is nothing sacred?
    Is everything sacred?
    What is the question? Salvation, damnation?
    Who can explain those things?
    Or is it the question: What is serious? 
    What is to be taken seriously? 
    What is the
    meaning of seriousness?
    What is to be doubted?
    What is to be dismissed as not serious? 
    Is there anything serious?
    Is there anything not serious?
    Yes, but don’t you think...?

     

    This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

     

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is an award-winning poet and essayist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine.

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