Some mentors are easy to spot: they work for the Y, they have an office, a piece of paper that says they’re “allowed” to be looked up to and followed.
Often, they also have a specific connection to a vocation, like the apprenticeship model of ye olden days. A young up-and-comer with reasonable potential, a fair amount of chutzpah and a spark of fire in the their belly dutifully reports to the workplace of Ebenezer Scrooge to learn a trade (hopefully with more coal and fewer ghosts…)
In modern times we have less and less of these relationships. The internet has become our universal teacher and connect-er— an “apprentice” can learn almost anything from the world wide web— from make-up tutorials and de-husking corn, from tiling your own bathroom to the intricacies of complex computer fixes. We no longer look to others we know— but to helpful, anonymous strangers.
I’m not complaining. I’ve credited YouTube countless times for assisting me in getting shit done (thank you for helping my mom reverse flush her engine core The Internet!)
But what gets lost is palpable— a relationship cherished and nurtured since Ancient Greek times, ingrained deep in the mire of our culture: true mentorship.
And what, truly, is mentorship? Traditionally it is defined as a relationship in which a more experienced or knowledgeable person helps to guide a less knowledgeable or experienced apprentice (sometimes also called a protege—or, in contemporary times even referred to wryly as a “mentee”), so that the master’s knowledge and mastery becomes that of the protege, giving them a launching pad with which to create their own path to individual mastery.
A great mentor knows where to focus attention, how to properly challenge the protege; providing the most productive and meaningful kind of insight. Great mentors provide immediate and realistic feedback on the protege’s work, so they can refine their skills in a streamlined and often, transcendent manner.
But those are all big fancy words.
True mentorship is above all, an interconnection based on Ye Olde Human Interaction; a learning partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wishes to learn on a deeper level. One in which the tribal elder exceeds the practical role of teacher—that is to say, one who passes on factual information—but goes beyond to the highest reaches of human connection.
In essence: the way one can spot a mentorship is that in its presence, both parties are forever transformed.
Tyne and I
I first met Tyne Daly in March of 2010, when I was fortunate enough to be cast as Sophie DePalma in Terrence McNally’s Master Class at The Kennedy Center as part of a festival titled “Nights at the Opera”—a trilogy of McNally plays about McNally’s greatest passion.
A gaggle of beautiful actors were all gathered together in our Nation’s capital, and little did I know that what was to be a period of extraordinary personal change, transformation and adversity, was also a period of the same for everyone in our company, including our leader, Tyne. On day one I learned my first lesson from Tyne:
“Hey kid: breathe. It’s free.”
The details of that are unimportant, suffice it to say everyone (and I do mean every single person) was going in through it, looking-up-to-see-the-bottom kind of struggles. Heart-broken, grief-stricken, stupefied and God-oh-God: out of town, we all made the choice (lead by our fearless leader Tyne) to come together, rather than isolating ourselves in the hotel rooms of our individual miseries.
The climate of tenderness that surrounded that rehearsal process and run was a kind of an aperture into the deepest recesses of human vulnerability. It was then I learned my second lesson from Tyne: what does it mean to truly be a leading lady?
“Two things only: a leader, and a lady.”
We were brave because she helped us to be, and because she encouraged us to be and bring our highest selves to the process, it lead to our greatest work, a Broadway transfer, not to mention lifelong relationships.
But what happened between Tyne and I specifically was magical— we had a connection in our eyeballs that I lack language to express. We shared something on a deeply spiritual level. And as Sophie learned from Callas, so did Al from Tyne, and all the combinations therein.
The day we meet Sophie DePalma in Terrence McNally’s beautiful play, she has a great deal to prove—to the Julliard faculty. To her classmates. To Bellini. To that hateful ex-boyfriend we know nothing (and everything) about. But the day we meet her, all of that is secondary. That day Sophie has everything to prove to herself. And when I first met Sophie, so did I.
Tyne trusted me enough to bestow upon me the honour of truly playing with me. Playing in the fencing-master-tossing-a-rapier-at-the-student-who-has-some-potential sense of the word. She picked up her blade and challenged me with a valiant, open heart and a wry smile. To this day, it was the best match of my life.
She treated me like an equal (on and off stage), and I endeavored to deserve that honor. Her “game” improved mine, and what we alchemically created together is, without exception, my greatest, and most precious creation. We played the kind of “Deep Chess” Lawrence Ferlinghetti talks about in his poem of the same name:
“For you must play deep chessHer Callas was towering, tender, monstrous, human, vulnerable, honest, and ultimately, incandescentfr. As long as I live, I shall never forget it.
Like the one deep game sparky won from fisher
And if your unstudied opening is not too brilliant
You must play to win
Mentorship: Modern-day Alchemy
It is known fact that when we admire people, we become more impressionable to everything they say and do. We pay a fervent attention, deeper kind of regard, and because our souls are engaged, allowing for a more powerful kind of learning.
After the run of (the aptly titled,) Master Class in Washington, I was at a loss for what to do with my life, more specifically, where to live next. I had spent the last eight years in the United Kingdom, and did not have a base in any American city…
…What did Tyne suggest? Why moving in with her of course. What followed was (yes, as you probably dreamed) a series of Auntie Mame-like tales of absolute joy, friendship and epic learning—a back-and-forth dynamic that fueled us both. An electric spark that only burned brighter as I gazed deeply into her mirror.
Lessons like going for walks:
“How about we walk from the top of Central Park to the bottom? All we need is the right shoes and the right ATTITUDE. Which, come to think of it, is all we ever need…!”
Lessons like, believing in your own longevity:
“Long after the world has forgotten so many, I am going to come see you play Cleopatra. Just keep going kid.”
- day trips
- poetry recitations
- how to make ginger the perfect beer
- Countless trips to concerts and the theatre (naturally)
- Poker night
- Twelfth Night
- The listening of radio plays
- Discussions of theatrical greats of yore
- The moving of my 110-year-old Chickering piano to her New York apartment, where it currently still lives.
- Tarot card readings
And, when my heart broke recently in the presence of another theatrical life lesson, she offered the following:
“You are gonna be heartbroken, beaten to death, crushed to a pulp, disappointed and obliterated. But other than that? You’re gonna be okay.”
Life is ephemeral. So is the theatre. We cannot hold it in our hands. We all love that which vanishes. The play must end. The company shall disband, life will march on.
And just like the ephemeral theatre, thus is life: our time here on earth for learning and growth is finite. Nowadays we often think it is admirable to “become ourselves” all on our own, to DIY the apprenticeship phase of development and emerge fully formed as if artistry and mastery hatch out of an egg with no visible signs of effort or training.
I encourage you to humble yourself to the apprenticeship process, for without role models, teachers, parental figures and mentors, we can waste valuable time attempting to gain knowledge from unserviceable sources.
Further, be courageous enough to ask for mentorship. There is always a quivering ego involved in asking for help from those we admire, but trust that those with lessons to offer more often than not, truly wish to have the opportunity give back in a meaningful way, they are merely waiting to be invited to do so. Have faith that the process will be mutually beneficial, and remember: no matter what there is nothing to be lost by complimenting a master, and asking for their guidance.
Above all, while we must always strive to grow beyond those who came before us, we must revere and learn from those that broke the ground originally, and endeavor to honor their legacy; then continue it in our own vision.
Hours before our first preview on Broadway, Tyne asked me to come down to her dressing room to run our lines together in an "Italianne”— a run of the lines at increased speed. Italiannes are like calisthenic warm-ups for your brain, and with so much talking and nerves high, they are a great tool in moments such as these.
We settled down, placed our bags, zipped our cardigans, and sat down in her room—not yet moved into, not yet her own.
And then, without ceremony, we began.
There was no music. There was no one else. It was just us and the words.
Throughout this experience, I had accustomed myself to criticism—I needed Tyne’s feedback to be a realistic appraisal of who I was as a human being and actor; through that kind of evaluation, we all develop a confidence that is much more tangible.
One might think that in that dressing room—flourescently lit and unceremoniously dressed—that this little exercise of the run would be dry, hollow. But the words were so powerful, and our feelings for those words, and above all, for each other, so unutterably potent, we both directly went ”there."
Hands were grasped.
It was our own little theatre, our own magic, right there in that sterile little room.
It is in this sacred moment that I realize I have chosen, and been chosen by, the perfect mentor according to my dreams and Life’s mission—the future artist I aspire, endeavor, and dream to become. The mentor you choose must be allied in the same way.
"... I want you to imagine you are Amina. This is opera Sophie. You're alone on a great stage. Make us feel what you feel. Show us that truth..."
There was a silence and in it, we both looked away.
Then she leaned in, held my hand and uttered,
"I love this. And you."