Picture this scene in your head for a moment… You’re going about a normal Sunday morn. You’re enjoying breakfast, contemplating how to make the day productive, thanking stars above that the pre-school next door is closed for the day so no screaming critters are disrupting your zen. As your sip your beautiful java with breeze and trees outside your Brooklyn window, you see that an email has arrived with a very rare and surprising invitation: “Would you by chance be available to hang out with one of your biggest heroes for the day?”
This happened. To me.
In my three and a half years in New York, I’ve had the fortune of working several times with New York Shakespeare Exchange. The relationships that I’ve formed there are ones that I hold very near and dear to my heart. And it is well known to a few members of the clan that I am a great admirer of one Ms. Harriet Walter. Sorry…. now Dame Harriet Walter (though she might cringe slightly with cool embarrassment at the correction). To give you a better idea, NYSE Associate Artistic Director Cristina Lundy referred to Henry IV at St. Ann’s Warehouse (in which Ms. Walter appeared) as my “Walterpalooza.” While I applaud my friend’s clever play on words, I must say that I find labels to be immature. Even if my iPhone screen in the weeks that led up to our attendance may have been this…
The situation was that despite her busy schedule, Ms. Walter agreed to shoot a short film for the Sonnet Project the weekend Henry IV closed, and I was brought on board as Associate Producer. At the prospect of meeting a hero, everyone hopes for virtually the same thing: That you’ll be cool and controlled, that you won't stutter like an idiot or say anything which would indicate you’re actually an imbecile in business-casual clothing. Upon seeing pictures from the day posted on social media, several friends and colleagues commented immediately, “Did Ruttle Die?” “Ruttle, are you still with us?” I’m proud to say that Ruttle was a little more quiet than usual, but proved to be calm and quite useful on set. Nothing asinine came out of my mouth, and watching Ms. Walter work and hearing her stories made it quite a magical day.
In addition to the numerous performances that give reason to the deep admiration and respect I feel towards Harriet Walter (I’ll never forget her “Kill Claudio” in Much Ado at the Royal Shakespeare Company… every sphincter in the audience puckered in dismay), I have also read both of her books and listened to her interviewed a number of times. And I’ve always found her to be so… well, for lack of a better word, cool. In Other People’s Shoes, she’s as quick to delve into her unique insight regarding Hedda Gabler research as she is to share the story of when she accidentally got drunk while shooting a French film. She explains how to maneuver your way through dealing with a difficult director, but acknowledges at the same time that what we as actors need and desire from a director is practically undeliverable. Here’s this marvelous mountain of talent, and yet one feels that they could share a lovely unpretentious cup of coffee with her. It’s as though she’s mastered the fine balance of taking the work seriously but not herself. What incredible wisdom and energy to aspire to.
So… why now? Why the random gift of Harriet Walter falling into my lap right now? One lesson from the day was the reminder of how energy can be infectious. Upon my arrival, there was this beautiful spread of food and drink, and one of the director’s friends kept insisting, eventually with ferocity, that I partake. It got to the point where I wanted to grab this lovely woman and yell, 'That is Harriet…. WAL-ter in that chair. I can barely breathe right now, and you think I’m going to digest some smoked FISH?! You’re out of you’re mind!' But Harriet was kind, calm, friendly, and lovely… answering questions about Henry IV, sharing the story of accidentally getting lost in the Bronx a couple of weeks prior. And because of this warm energy, my breathing regulated within a surprisingly short period of time. Something else I remembered during that day was the fact that she’s always been very open in her books and interviews in regards to what is referred to as her “slow burn” or “circuitous route up the ladder.” As I find myself in the middle of transitioning from the stallion out of the gate post graduate school and settling into a steadier climb up my own ladder, I will be honest and say that I find myself momentarily overwhelmed and worried at times for what I know in years to come will be little reason, yet the reasons can feel quite big in the here-and-now. But Harriet mentioned that day, in regards to her own professional journey, how long she'd been doing Shakespeare, and it made me realize something that I hadn’t really thought of before... Upon doing the math, I deduced that her more mainstream work on stage and screen really only started to take off when she was about my age, even a year or two older. And yet she doesn’t strike me as someone who ever worried whether or not a break would ever come. She just trusted that it would, did her work, and kept going. And what a cannon of work it's turned out to be. I met a French lady on the streets of New York a few months ago who was telling me of her new apartment that she'd just moved into in Brooklyn. Her favorite thing about it was the tree in the front yard. “I love trees,” she said. “They remind me of something beautiful. Well, first of all, they are beautiful. And, meh…. they’re in no rush. But they do grow.”
What I ultimately gained from the paths of Harriet Walter and I intersecting at that moment in time, she at her end of the spectrum and me at mine, was a cosmic pat on the shoulder reminding me that she, this artist and this person that I admire so very much, had a slow burn… and things turned out pretty ok for her. And even though I may get frustrated at times that I will probably be a slow burn myself, I should trust that things will be ok for me too. My Music for the Prose colleague and dear friend Daniela said to me at one point, “You’re going to be on set one day with someone looking up to you like that.” And I said “And I will be as kind and generous to them as Ms. Walter was to me.” Just keep going, Ruttle, and don’t worry. Play it cool… like Dame Harriet.