Generous people don’t always realize they’re being generous. Likewise, what might feel like small concessions to those people, can actually be life-changing, and in the case of the host families of Festival 56, key to the long-term success of a small theatre.
I’ve been an actor with Festival 56 for the past two summers, and it took less than a month into my first summer to realize something special was going on in Princeton. At first, that “something special” was mostly something I noticed in a business sense. The host family experience at Festival is a crucial part of allowing the theatre to invest so heavily in bringing immensely talented people to Princeton every summer for the sake of creating memorable and meaningful pieces of theatre. So many companies have vanished because they didn’t have the kind of community support that exists in Princeton, which makes that ‘something special’ far less about business and more about heart.
Like many actors, I’ve lived a somewhat nomadic lifestyle for the last three years. Theatre is rarely glamorous, and the truth is, it almost always requires you to have at least one “survival job” you can count on to pay the bills. This is all to say, I literally can’t fathom taking care of other people. Not that I don’t want to, I’m just years away from having the means to do it. So people who can take care of others and are willing to do it impress me.
Weeks into my first summer in Princeton, I was saying to myself, “Who are these people I’m staying with? Letting me hog their washer and dryer, asking me to eat their food, gladly getting out of bed at 3 a.m. when I wake them up because I’m in so much pain I need someone to drive me to the hospital ...” And you know what? Every single time, it was met with a smile and “Not a problem” or “You bet.” Who are these people? They’re givers, and they have my utmost respect and admiration.
Now, I’m not a lucky person. The recent failures of the Dallas Cowboys are enough to tell me that. So I don’t believe for a second that I’m the only Festival member that experienced generosity from my host family. In fact, I know that’s not the case. From swapping stories with fellow actors and from interactions with other host families, I heard about the same selfless, giving attitudes ... and I saw the same smiles when people I hardly knew couldn’t wait to buy me a drink and talk about the shows. Who knows — maybe Princeton attracts these types of people ... maybe it fosters them. Either way, these people and their generous nature are an integral part of the theatre’s success and Princeton’s appeal.
All this made my summer stays memorable and enjoyable, but what didn’t hit me until recently, is the long-term impact these families are having. They’re not just being generous; they’re teaching generosity ... by example. For the most part, they’re housing cast/crew members in their late teens and early-20s, an impressionable time in their lives. Then again, I’m in my late 20s, and I know for sure that these families are affecting me in a permanent way.
I remember when I left after my first summer. I drove to Minnesota, and off and on during the nine-hour drive, I caught myself thinking about Gary and Rita Hanna – and the love between them. In every room of their home, it was almost palpable. Every word they said to each other was filled with it, and every action each of them made seemed to take into account how it would affect the other. No selfishness. They were a true team — a partnership — not to mention best friends who couldn’t get enough of one another. I was surrounded by that every day, and before I left, I made sure they knew I not only noticed their love, selflessness and generosity, but that it consciously made me want to have that kind of marriage one day. I want to be like them.
I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure Gary and Rita (and other host families) have their bad days ... and not just when the Bears lose. But it’s not about being perfect. Not at all. It’s simply about the willingness of these people to actively support their community, to generously invite strangers into their homes, and ultimately, for two months, invite them to be part of their families (and in the luckiest of cases, like mine, to act as life-long friends and mentors).
I hope with all my heart that the theatre and the memories we help to create for these families at least starts to repay the debt we owe them.