Every little girl has the right to believe that her daddy is the most brilliant mentor she’ll ever have.
For the lucky little girls, this is true.
I am one of the lucky ones.
My daddy was the greatest influence I had in my life, in my career, in the theater.
My daddy, Dr. Eugene Nelson James, was recognized internationally as THE authority on George Farquhar, the great English restoration playwright. When the Royal Shakespeare Company did one of G.F.’s plays, they used my father’s theories and scholarly work. So did many other theater companies and universities (not everyone produced “The Beaux Stratagem” by the way). His knowledge of the scholarly world of western theater, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Stoppard, was not matched. From the time I could toddle, he taught me about the greats who came before us – who they were, why they wrote the way they wrote – what it all meant. My love and reverence for the theater is all Daddy.
My daddy E. Nelson James wrote plays. He was produced in theaters from The Goodman to universities to his own favorite playhouse, The Stagecoach Players of DeKalb, Illinois. He taught me that there was always time to write, that if you write roles for the people you love that they will work hard to fulfill them (what amazing roles he wrote for me!). He would say to me, “Look at your first page! How do you do that? You are amazing – you have them spring to life right away!” My belief in myself and my ability to find time to write my plays is all Daddy.
My daddy Nelson James was a nurturing director. He directed lots and lots and lots of plays – from the classics to modern light plays to his own plays. He was my first director – when I was five years old – and I worked in shows he directed until I left for California after college. Anytime I was directing a show and ran into a problem, I could call on him. Daddy always had my back.
My daddy Nelson James loved to act. Before I acted (so since I started when I was five years old we are going back) I remember how astonishingly brilliant it was to see him change at rehearsal. First he would be Daddy – talking with the other actors and the director, laughing and having a grand time…and then he was magically Reverend James Mavor Morell – George Bernard Shaw’s uptight husband of Candida in the play of the same name – and not my daddy at all. And then the scene was over, or they stopped to discuss the moment during a work-through rehearsal, and he was Daddy again. It took my breath away, that transformation. Daddy first brought me into that world of art where artist uses self – literally – as the interpretive medium. Acting.
My daddy was the best audience member you could ever want to have. Ever. I loved sitting next to him in the theater as he experienced every moment of the play as if he was a part of the action himself. I thrilled when he watched my performances with the same intent – I could always feel him there. Daddy taught me how to be alive in the theater, even from a seat in the house.
I miss him. I miss him every day. I don’t imagine there will ever come a time when I don’t want to turn to him and ask him what he thinks so I can soak it in. But he is inside me. He helped shape and mold me as an artist. And for that, I am eternally grateful.