2012: A Strife Odyssey  // By Jack Cummings III

Artistic Director Jack Cummings III recounts a year he’ll never forget…though he wishes he could.

As an Artistic Director, every Transport Group show over the last 20 years lives inside me, each occupying its own special room that is unique unto itself.  I mentally call on them often for various reasons.  I may be trying to solve a problem—or I may be trying to assess a difficult situation—or I may just want to take a moment and appreciate more deeply an artist’s voice now that time and age have given me the tools to better do so.
In the spring of 2013, Transport Group produced a musical called The Memory Show.  When Lori Fineman (TG’s then Executive Director) and I initially decided to do the show, I had no idea the important role the show would play for me personally.  Had I paid more attention to my first reaction to the material, I might have guessed what was ahead of me.
It was September of 2010.  My friend Director Joe Calarco and Barrington Stage Company Artistic Director Julianne Boyd invited Lori and me to a reading of The Memory Show, a new musical they had done earlier that summer.  Joe had previously directed a thrilling production of Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead for us in 2008.  And while in graduate school, I was Julie’s first assistant at BSC during its inaugural summer in 1995.  Joe and Julie were looking for a theatre to give The Memory Show its New York premiere.  To be honest, I was only going to this reading out of pure loyalty to Joe and Julie.  Nothing else.  Lori and I arrived that muggy day and took our seats in the small stark rehearsal studio.  I looked around.  There were many theatres represented in the audience.  Joe and Julie are very well respected and so I wasn’t entirely surprised with the solid turnout.  The room grew quiet as the two actors took their seats behind the obligatory music stands.
The Memory Show tells the story of a young woman returning home to care for her mother who, at the age of 60, is experiencing early onset Alzheimer’s.  Book writer/lyricist Sara Cooper along with composer Zach Redler deftly detail the complex, battered relationship between a mother and daughter that is put to the ultimate test.  Under Joe’s direction, Catherine Cox as “Mother” and Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer as “Daughter” gave harrowing performances that have never left me.  Within the first thirty minutes, I looked around the room at my peers and cynically assessed who would realistically consider picking up this show.  I know, not my best look, but here I am in all my cynical glory: (eyes scanning) “They won’t do it, they’ll want a less than talented TV star—They won’t do it, their audiences would riot—They won’t do it, they’re too scared of it—They’ll actually want to do it, but ultimately just…won’t.”  As my admittedly judgmental inner monologue came to an end, my attention shifted back to the actors.  As the story wore on, I began to get deeper and deeper invested.  By the time it ended, I was a crying mess.  I looked over at Lori.  She was crying mess too.  I remember we just looked at each other for a few minutes with our tearstained faces, not saying anything.  Finally, Lori, said, “We have to do this show.”  I said, “I know.  If we don’t, nobody else will.”
Lori and I met with Sara, Zach, and Joe and made our intentions known.  They were excited as were we.  We already had the following season planned so we slated it for the season after that, putting it on the calendar for spring of 2013.  One of our biggest priorities was doing whatever was needed to keep Catherine and Leslie—they were integral as anything else to the past and future success of the show.
Fast forward to 2012 as we started to firm up our plans for the next season, culminating with with The Memory Show.  My Transport Group Artistic Director life was going along more or less fine.  There were the usual struggles of fundraising and bills to pay that every theatre goes through but nothing out of the ordinary.  But in terms of my personal life, I’m now convinced written on the calendar page of January 2012 in invisible ink was the word “BEWARE.”  As human beings, we all, at minimum, experience “that year” (remember this is pre-2020!).  And as we age, we pray every night, “Please God, let me never again go through a year like “that year.”  2012 turned out to be “that year.”
Bad years always start rather innocently—that is their secret weapon.  The first sign for me that 2012 might be a little problematic was when my best friend of 25 years (since we were 18) one day decided to cut me out of his life without a single word.  No event.  No explanation.  Not a peep.  Just gone.  Vanished.  I later learned the proper term for this sort of thing is called “ghosting.”  To say this not only confused me but absolutely wrecked me is an enormous understatement.  Next up in 2012 was the most dreaded of all New York maladies: bed bugs.  The last thing I wanna do now is drag you through any details related to bed bugs.  Suffice it to say, I never want to look at a plastic bag or a dryer on high heat for the rest of my life.  Barbara (my wife) and I joked during this time, “Well, at least it’s not cancer!”—a joke that would come back to haunt us.  Barbara and I both consider surviving bed bugs one of the greatest triumphs of our marriage.  Any married couple who has lived through bed bugs would concur.
After celebrating our bed bug victory, we noticed our 16-year-old beagle Maddy was entering the “declining phase” all older dogs eventually enter.  Barbara and I don’t have kids.  We are one of those classic childless couples whose dog is their child.  And we don’t deny it.  We got Maddy at four months old in 1996 when we were first engaged.  Barbara was doing Big on Broadway at The Shubert and decided to bring her to work one night.  This quickly proved to be a disastrous idea as during her second act ballad, “Stop Time,” Barbara could hear Maddy loudly barking from inside her dressing room.  Over the summer, Maddy got worse and worse.  We had to face what all dog owners dread from the moment they get a dog: it was time to put her down.  The night before, we prayed like we had never prayed in our lives for her to just go peacefully in her sleep.  Life doesn’t work that way and so the next day, two uncontrollably sobbing dog owners made the trip to the vet for the “final goodbye.”  After we left the vet, we both cried our way home through Riverside Park, leaving remnants of Maddy’s hair in all her favorite places—our own version of a memorial service for a dog we will forever cherish.
As the fall hit and it looked like the worst was behind us, Barbara felt a lump in her left breast.  Within days, like so many thousands of women everywhere, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.  The world stopped.  I remember walking around feeling trapped in a glass booth that was continually fogged up.  To make matters worse, for the first time in her career, Barbara had lost her health insurance.  Being diagnosed with breast cancer is bad enough—not having health insurance takes it to a whole new level.  While I lumbered about in my foggy glass booth, Barbara turned into an instant warrior, making what seemed like 1,000 calls a day to figure this nightmare out.  Our dear friend Ellen Weiss stepped in and pulled every special connection she had in the New York hospital—cancer—HELP ME—doctors’ world.  The early test results were not encouraging.  Every interaction we had with a doctor seemed worse than the previous one.
While all this was going on at home, behind the scenes at Transport Group, our fall production was turning out to be a tumultuous and incredibly stressful experience.  Then, during the run, Hurricane Sandy hit.  As a result, not only did we lose tens of thousands of dollars due to cancelled performances, but we also had hundreds of our upcoming gala invitations lost at the post office, never to be recovered.  At this point, it felt like 2012 was swigging back a beer and laughing in my face.
The day of Barbara’s surgery (a lengthy lumpectomy) was also the day of Transport Group’s annual gala.  I got Barbara home safe and sound.  The surgery had gone well.  Our friend, Mary Elizabeth, came over to watch her while I ran back to the east side for our gala already in progress.  The whole thing seemed like a blur.  While I was onstage asking for money, all I could see was Barbara and how what I really wanted to do was run off stage, hop in a cab, and race back home to be with her.  The evening mercifully came to an end and thanks to Lori, our incredible staff, and board, I was able to sneak out quickly and get home.
About a week later, we had an Executive Board meeting.  Things were not looking good.  The hurricane had hit us hard at the box office which was having a grim effect on our cash flow and overall bottom line.  This situation was made even worse when a temporary development manager we had hired failed to tell us she hadn’t submitted a key grant on time.  We were now out another huge amount of money we had been counting on.  Lori and I were devastated.  As the meeting went on, the outlook got darker and darker.  We all left feeling there was a true and extremely real possibility that we would not be able to do The Memory Show.  And all this right in time for Christmas.  Joy to the f#*^*#g world!
Personally, I felt lower than low.  Professionally, I felt lower than low.  Low was basically written across my forehead whenever I looked in the mirror.  Months prior, I had committed to directing a big musical at a college several states away.  It was too late to back out.  And I really needed the money.  While the students were wonderful, the school itself was ill equipped to handle such a large musical—something I hadn’t really understood before accepting the job.  The stress was mounting daily.  Every Monday morning, I would fly back to New York for Barbara’s chemo treatments (I made a vow to her that I would be by her side for every chemo appointment).  I would then fly back the following day for the next day’s rehearsal.
While Barbara was always front and center for me, I was also in a constant state of panic about Transport Group, and especially The Memory Show.  Despite having very few brain cells left at this point, I couldn’t fathom calling Zach and Sara (and Joe and Catherine and Leslie) to tell them we couldn’t do the show.  I think it’s a safe bet that this is every Artistic Director’s worst nightmare.  As I muscled my way through my terror, with Lori’s always grounded hand, flecks of light started to slowly lift the fog.  We put together an exhaustive list of people with means and embarked on what I privately called “The Begging Tour.”  Every day in my small “guest artist” apartment, I got on the phone like a PBS telethon caller and begged every single person I knew for help.  The more calls I made, the more determined I was The Memory Show would happen.  Back in New York, Lori was doing the same.  The two of us must have conferred no less than ten times a day during this period.
People stepped up.  Over time (complete with its own maddening combination of victories and setbacks), we were able to raise enough money to responsibly produce the show.  I began to focus on reaching opening night the way Rafael Nadal focuses on reaching the finals of The French Open.  By the time that night arrived, my heart was about to burst.  Watching the show, I was determined not to forget this moment—a moment in my darkest days I felt would never happen.  And then came the show’s final moments, which for me were its most stunning.  In her very last seconds of being able to remember anything, the Mother reveals to the Daughter a family secret that changes their relationship entirely.  The Daughter, who had blamed the Mother for everything, realizes now that she had been innocent all along.  But because the Mother now has no memory of what she just revealed, the Daughter cannot make amends.  Feeling completely helpless, the Daughter goes over to her mother on the floor, holds her in her arms and sings her a lullaby:
If I could, I would give you your memories.
But I can’t bring back your memories,
No matter how hard I cry.
Memories wander off.
Memories roam.
I can’t give you your memories,
So I’ll give you what I can:
I’ll give you a home.
Sha, sha, sha.
Sha, sha, sha.
As Leslie’s searing voice rang through the theatre, I was overcome with emotion.  While I naturally thought about all that had happened over the last year, what I started to focus on was how lucky I was.  How lucky I was my wife was beating breast cancer.  How lucky I was to be sitting in that theatre listening to Lynne Shankel’s gorgeous orchestrations.  How lucky I was to be witnessing Catherine and Leslie’s heart wrenching performances.  How lucky I was that generous people had stepped up in a crisis so that Transport Group could produce this important show.  Afterwards at the opening night celebration, Lori and I gave each other a huge hug, both of us knowing intimately what it had taken to be standing at this party.  We had made it.  We had survived.  In more ways than one.

During this pandemic, I have thought often of that tumultuous time in my life and how close friends and colleagues lifted me up when I needed it most.  But what I see clearly now more than ever, is that what ultimately got me through all of it was an inner determination inspired by my beautiful wife.

And so, I will always hold The Memory Show close to my heart as a treasured source of strength—a reminder that art is the biggest gift.

About the author:

Jack Cummings III is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Transport Group.  He and his wife, Barbara Walsh, live on the Upper West Side with their rescue mutt, Gracie.