One of the greatest directors I have ever had the good fortune to work with has died: Judith Antill.
Judith directed a show-within-a-show at the Faire where I performed the longest, called Kids' Kingdom. When she joined the Faire world back in California, before I knew her, she saw that most Faires were very adult places - since the genre grew up in California to begin with, partly as a reaction against Disneyland, Faires were and mostly still are extremely bawdy. Some shows make some effort to be family-inclusive, but Judith had a vision of a neighborhood in the show where families with children of any age could be sure they wouldn't encounter anything nasty. Bristol had brought her in to create this space in the heart of town, and it was a force unto itself, with its own microcosm cast, its own stories, its own zeitgeist.
I had wanted to do a puppet thing - being a Muppet myself - and she took a chance on me and let me direct. I wasn't ready. I made mistakes; she lovingly but firmly held me accountable. I learned so much in that fateful year - Jigginz and I and Jonathan and Daisy and others whose names have slid out of my brain after 20 years did, what, five, six puppet shows a day on that stage? And then between those I was racing back and forth across Shoplatch Lane to the Midsummer Stage to be in three shows a day there, changing costume pieces in the middle of the street to make all the starts on-time.
That was the summer I blew up Brian Posen, literally, with an incendiary device, but not on purpose. I mean, I may have wanted to blow him up with an incendiary device, and I may not have been alone in wanting to blow him up with an incendiary device, but that particular incident was a culmination of a few happy accidents. That's for another blog post.
Judith was a mom I didn't have and a mom I needed. She was powerful and intense and right about people. I saw her counsel so many in trouble, so many who were so lost; they ran to her, first.
There is a bit of business that Judith gave me that is still in my Jane the Phoole act and will be forever. I want to describe it to you. I want to share this little ritual, this little piece of magic that ignited thousands of powerful little moments with guest children at so many events. But that's the thing - I can't. Or, I can't unless I know you've earned it, live, in person. If I've seen you work and I think you're ready for it, I can share it with you, and you can add it to your repertoire. It's not a hazing situation - it's not a show-biz snobbery. It's just a bit of schtick, a lazzo, that is for a certain kind of entertainer, or storyteller, or interactive performer, or someone who walks around talking to people, and it's not for everyone. Judith didn't share it with everyone. You had to earn it. I'm honored I was allowed to learn it and adopt it. It has meant worlds to so many.
Against a backdrop of bombast and bellowing, Judith was a voice for the quiet, small moment - the moment where you sit with a guest, and maybe you don't even talk. Maybe you just sit. Maybe you talk a little. But there's no big BIT, no schtick, no schmaltz, just you and a guest being people, being quiet and real. Maybe you share a small activity - maybe you carry a small fascinating prop that draws the guest in, maybe the guest draws you in with a small fascinating object or activity of their own. Those moments resonate powerfully and build memories. Judith was a storyteller, but she also taught listening, powerful, quiet listening.
I lived at Kids' Kingdom for a summer. I couldn't live at home, and I'd run myself out of my drifter lifestyle in Chicago; Judith let me stay in the loft over the Kids' Kingdom puppet stage. I had a sturdy ladder and a trap door, and access to electrical power, and a bathroom and shower not too far away. Some nights we would congregate at Judith's camp on the east edge of the show's outer ring road, sitting around a fire on her spacious deck, listening to the mystery of the wind in the tall oaks and the frogs croaking away in the bogs to the north. We'd listen to her stories and share her loud belly laughs about so many adventures at our show and beyond.
I wanted to be her when I grew up, for a while. I wanted to live on the road in a trailer and change people's lives in a weird and wholesome way and seem like a freaky magical old lady.
I turned into a Muppet instead, and that's great too. But without Judith in my life, there is no way I'd have the ability to do what I do with a live in-person crowd, one person at a time, one laugh at a time.
One summer, our show decided to open another Faire on the east coast of the US. Jigginz will have to correct me if I'm wrong on this, but I think Judith deputized her to direct Kids' Kingdom in Virginia that first year, and Jigginz asked me to join her in running the show-within-the-show. So with Judith's blessing we ran away and joined the Dirt Circuit, taking Judith's teachings to Virginia, and we had a good little run out there. Jigginz recruited incredible talent for that initial crew, and Cornelia "Corny" Rutherford, who was part of that experiment, ended up keeping the torch lit with that same fire, and when our show pulled the plug on the original Virginia faire, Corny assembled her own crew and made her own damn show, and it is the best little show out there, smashing attendance records in a market that was already over-saturated way back in the 1990s. They succeed because they keep Judith's teachings. They keep it small and keep it real. They connect.
I fell out of touch with Judith. I'm so sad and sorry to learn she's not alive anymore.
When I give away that little gift that Judith taught me, that little secret gift she gave me permission to give, I will do it with more fire and love than I ever have before. If she gave it to you, I hope you will too, when it's safe and not before. Thank you, Judith.