While entering my third year in the MFA program at Mary Baldwin University, I completed my internship requirement by serving as an understudy during ASC’s Summer/Fall season of 2011. My first task was to understudy the role of Gonzalo in their production of The Tempest. At this same time, my wife, Megan, and I were about to give birth to our son, Samuel. I had gotten to know many of the resident company actors over the past few years, but this was my first chance to make a strong impression on them and director Jim Warren, and I was not going to let that opportunity pass me by. So I took it upon myself to spend the weeks leading up to the start of rehearsals memorizing all of Gonzalo’s lines as if I was going to play the role myself, and I came to rehearsal on the first day completely off-book.

I attended rehearsal every day absorbing as much as I possibly could. I planted myself next to my “overstudy” John Basiulis, asking him questions about the text and about his performance choices, keeping detailed notes of the staging. I spent the rest of the time taking in every aspect of the masterclass of theater-making happening in front of me. The cast was on their A-games, of course, and Jim Warren displayed an amazing amount of trust in his actors, serving as both a benevolent guide and an enthusiastic cheerleader throughout the process. After only two weeks of rehearsal, The Tempest was ready for “prime time”, as it were, and I returned to my regular grad student life, needing only to attend performances from time to time and be available on performance dates. On June 15, 2011, Megan and I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy Samuel James at Augusta Medical Center, and we were over the moon. My story could have ended here, but it got even better!

In late July, Megan and Sam spent a week in our hometown of Pittsburgh preparing for Sam’s baptism. I stayed in Staunton working my summer job in the Mary Baldwin admissions office and attending rehearsals for my next understudy job in Henry V. On Wednesday afternoon, I was at home eating lunch and running late for Henry V rehearsal. My phone rang, and it was Assistant Stage Manager Natasha Solomon. I assumed she was inquiring on my whereabouts, even though I wasn’t running horribly late. “Hey, Jeff. We need you at the Playhouse as soon as you can get here. John has laryngitis. You’re going on for him tonight. We need to do a costume fitting and a quick put-in rehearsal.”

That evening, and the successive Friday evening, were the two greatest memories I’ve ever had performing on any stage in over two decades in the theater. I knew all of my lines, all of my blocking, including the carefully choreographed storm scene, and even all of my dance moves in the masque scene. I don’t like to brag, but seriously, I nailed it! Through this entire whirlwind, I knew I needed to get to Pittsburgh for my son’s baptism and even adjusted my travel plans so that I could perform a second night. After a brief celebration with friends following the Friday performance, I went home to catch a few hours of sleep, then hopped in the car at 5:00 in the morning to drive to Pittsburgh for Sam’s baptism that afternoon.

After that incredible few days, The Tempest became, and remains, my favorite play. I’ve gotten to be a part of two more productions since, including one I directed with Steel City Shakespeare Center in 2017. They are all great memories. Even now, I read the play and I hear James Keegan’s gentle, yet commanding voice reciting, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” It still gives me goose bumps. James’ performance embodied the love of a parent for his child to the point where Prospero’s love for Miranda and internal struggles to let go became the central conflict in a play many argue is light on conflict. Now as a parent of three children, the theme of learning to love by letting go resonates even stronger. A few years after this production, I discovered a passage about The Tempest in Ralph Alan Cohen’s book. While he makes a case for The Tempest being an underwhelming play, the passage perfectly sums up why it is my favorite. Ralph writes, “[Shakespeare] designed the play to show that life is better than magic—more interesting, more wonderful.” My experience in the summer of 2011 showed me exactly that.