It is hard to lose a member of your tribe. Learning of Jon English’s passing this week, was a stunning reminder that we are not as young as we used to be, and that all those people we have loved and cherished for so many years, are not going to be around for ever.
My ten years in Australia were the happiest of my life. I bounced from one show to the next, and spent my time on stage and off with some of the most intelligent, funny, loyal, talented, crazy, fun, loving people I have ever known. They were my family, and I loved my family. I still do.
My first day of rehearsals for Pirates of Penzance was like any other first day of rehearsals. It feels very much like your first day at school; you are excited to begin a new adventure, and your optimism is tempered by a healthy dose of insecurity.
I usually play it safe on the first day. I lay low. I sing with confidence but not bravado, I study the script and the score with a serious look on my face, and I am friendly and obliging with the other kids on the playground. I don’t know what prompted me to do what I did not that first day, but somehow I felt I could get away with it with this new group of colleagues.
During this time, there were a series of ads on TV, for a company that renovated kitchens. The ads showed actual customers giving testimonials about their new kitchens, and talked about how the “chappies” left the place neat and tidy upon completion. The kitchen, in our rehearsal space, was rather spiffy, compared to what you usually see in rehearsal facilities, and I somehow plucked up enough courage to do an elaborate improv, giving a similar testimonial in a broad Australian accent, which ended in me saying that all it cost me was my first born, male child. To my relief, it was rewarded with laughter from everyone but Jon. Jon just stood there, nodding his head, and said with startling seriousness, “You are funny. You are very fucking funny.”
Pirates was a great show. The audience loved it, the critics adored it, and no one had more fun during the show than we did. Jon, large in physical stature as well as legend, was our Pirate King on and off the stage.
The producers of the show were not the most generous I have ever worked with. In fact, there were times when they were just downright cheap. When we were told that we would receive no discount for any of the show memorabilia that they sold at the box office, Jon bought every cast member a T-Shirt. More than once, when attempting to pay a tab at the theatre bar, we were told Mr. English took care of it.
Since Jon and I both lived west of downtown Sydney, during our Sydney season, Jon picked me up on his way to the theatre, and also drove me back home. During this time, I was having relationship difficulties with the man I was living with, and Jon frequently provided me with a shoulder to cry upon when I needed one.
But there was also much laughter. One incident in Perth stands out particularly, when four of us were having breakfast in a local greasy spoon. The owner of the restaurant was a big fan of Jon’s and he kept bringing us more food than we ordered, and would not stop, even though Jon begged him to do so. At one point, he came over to the table with a massive box of baklava. The four of us laughed so hard, I spit my tea out of my mouth onto the wall of the booth. I will never forget the look on Jon’s face as he screamed, “Tea is coming out of your nose!” Another huge wave of laughter overtook us as we took in that information. We could not even finish the food we HAD ordered, we were laughing so hard. The laughter only slightly subsided when we realized we had been charged for all the food we neither ordered nor wanted.
A key plot point in Pirates has to do with the character of Frederick being born during a leap year. So this year, when we had that extra day in February, I immediately thought of Simon Gallaher, who brilliantly brought Frederick to life in our production. So when Simon posted a familiar photo of the two of them on his Facebook page this past week, I assumed I would be reading something fun having to do with a leap year birthday party. When I realized that Simon’s post announced Jon’s passing, I foolishly started googling to prove that he was wrong. Sadly, I realized that the report was accurate, and we had lost our Pirate King.
I don’t know how many times my fellow cast members and I have talked about how we should have a reunion. We have now lost a few mates from that production, so regret has hit sharply at our lack of initiative. I hope I do get a chance to see my Pirates family again, and we can pour the Pirate Sherry. It would be a glorious thing. Hurrah for the Pirate King.