Sunday, June 19, 2016

Flashback Father's Day: The Drama of Life

(This article originally was published by The News Herald in Panama City on Father's Day, June 18, 2006.)

The drama of life
By David Angier

Most parents cringe at the drama their teenagers bring into their lives, but Tony Simmons applauds it.

Even when his son, Nathan, is engaging in drunken brawls, kissing random women and acting crazy,

Tony simply smiles and watches - at times from front-row center.

In the years before Nathan, now 17, discovered acting, the drama he brought into the Simmons' household was nothing to smile about. But next weekend, father will join son on stage for a Shakespeare in the Park production of "Othello," in an activity that has drawn them closer together.

Admittedly, Tony Simmons' part is a small one - he has a few lines that he says he's struggled to learn - while Nathan takes center stage as the too-trusting and honorable Cassio, the unwitting tool of Iago's complex scheme of treachery and murder. Director Chuck Clay said he picked "Othello" - the tale of a war-weary general who returns home after defeating his enemies abroad, only to find his greatest enemy in his own home - because it seemed relevant to the times.

"Of all of Shakespeare's plays, 'Othello' is universal," Clay said. "It's something that's going on in our lives today. It has events and themes that we identify with, that we read about every day in the papers."

Act I, Scene I

Tall, lanky Nathan Simmons steps on the 25-by-12-foot stage at Gulf Coast Community College's theater lab and stops being Nathan Simmons. He's still dressed in jeans and black Chuck Taylors. His eyes are still nearly obscured by shaggy blond hair, but his mannerisms alter noticeably. He stands taller and speaks with a force that is absent away from the spotlight.

He's Cassio.

"Reputation, reputation, reputation," Cassio exclaims. "O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial."

The only time Nathan Simmons comes out is when he misses a line. He stumbles over his words, smiles, rephrases and exits. Off stage he jumps up and down in frustration, then darts to a chair to study the line.

Nathan Simmons entered his first theater class during his freshman year at Bay High School. Before then, he describes himself as "pretty anti-social." Nathan's entrance into the theater magnet program coincided with doctors finally determining, after years of misdiagnoses, that he had a seizure problem.

Doctors initially thought he had an attention deficit condition and put him on medication that aggravated his seizures. Doctors finally realized the problem when Nathan was in eighth grade, but the damage to his reputation was done. Nathan was an outsider.

"I didn't have a lot of friends," he said. "But theater is a big family, and as I got into it I grew closer to all those people."

In four years of theater, Nathan has performed in more than 20 plays. He's won awards, acclaim and found a goal for the rest of his life.

"When mom and dad see me on stage, they're really proud of me, and that makes me feel good," Nathan said. "Before I started high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Now I have a goal to shoot for. I have a plan. I would like to major in theater and go to New York and perform there. If I can't do that, I'd settle for teaching theater."

He said he enjoys sharing his latest project with his father.

"We connect a lot more," Nathan said. "Before I joined the theater program I kept to myself a lot. Since then, I've become a nicer person, a happier person. Dad and I, we get along really well. He enjoys watching me on stage. Having him do this show is great because he doesn't have to sit in the audience this time; he can see it from the inside."

Nathan said it's nice the roles have changed in this aspect of their lives. "He's come up to me a couple of times and asked me, 'What exactly am I supposed to be doing here?'" Nathan said. "I've helped him in memorizing lines, and he's said that this is a lot more difficult than it looks. Dad's been more than willing to learn, and it's nice that he's let me be the teacher for once."

Act I, Scene II

Tony Simmons, online editor for The News Herald, is having a hard time "loosening up." He has to remember where to face, what to do and, above all else, what to say - while making it all seem completely natural. At the same time, he's got to project.

Shakespeare in the Park is a physically demanding endeavor. The actors don't have walls to bounce sound out to the audience, and it's up to the actors to make their voices carry. Simmons doesn't have a problem turning to his son for advice.

"He's having to teach me how to loosen up," Tony Simmons said. "This is an alien thing to me; these other people are just letting go. There's no sense of self, or self-consciousness, I guess, and that's something I have to learn."

His only prior acting experience was his senior play in high school 24 years ago. He agreed to do "Othello" — "because they asked me to. They assured me it was a small role. I thought this is something that Nathan and I can do together."

Tony Simmons isn't the type of father who rolls his eyes or shakes his head when he thinks about his son pursuing a career in acting - a difficult profession to succeed at. He's seen too many positive changes in his son's life occur in four years of theater to be pessimistic about the future.

"He's got a lot of promise, and I'd just like to see him take it as far as he can go," Simmons said, noting that Nathan has talent as a playwright. For now, Tony Simmons is learning to loosen his control of his son's life as well.

"I have to be almost less involved than I used to be," he said. "Nathan's found a way to make his own way."

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