I sat in the audience last night at West Park – but not, as I’d planned up until yesterday, to watch Week 2 of Twelfth Night, my son’s first show. Danny Friedland, who’d played Sir Andrew Aguecheek, was killed in a car accident on Wednesday night. The play’s director held a memorial service instead. Danny was 17, just two years older than my son.
The service was spontaneous. Anyone could get up and speak, and in addition to Danny’s mentors and fellow actors, many of his friends shared stories. There was a lot more laughter than tears; in that odd clairvoyance that often seems to strike people destined for a short stay, Danny had told several people that, when he died, he hoped people would laugh more than they cried.
Afterward, the kid and I walked back to the car. I told him I’d wanted to say something, but the evening had run long, and I was a little nervous that I’d embarrass him. He told me that I was wrong, and that he’d wanted to say something as well, but felt like maybe that was something that should have been reserved for people who knew Danny better. We both vowed that we’d trust our instincts in the future, and also hoped that we wouldn’t be in the same situation again.
On the first night of rehearsals, H and Danny were partners in a “Get to Know You” activity. H said that it was initially a little awkward, as meetings between adolescent theatre nerds can be. They resolved it by saying silly things to each other; Danny said that an interesting fact about him was that his shoes had toes, and H said that there was nothing interesting about him because he was a geek. As they shared with the group what they’d learned about the other person, Danny asked H, “Which is less insulting, geek or nerd?” H replied, “Geeks and nerds usually don’t even notice if people are insulting them, because they’re too busy being geeky and nerdy.” They got laughs, always sweet music to the male teen’s ears.
They didn’t become fast friends; they had only 1 scene together. But H watched Danny throw himself into his role night after night. This was what a 17-year-old could do, and it was impressive. Maybe, 2 years from now, this is what H can do.
I exchanged 4 words with Danny. Waiting for H after the show on Saturday, Danny passed me as he left the theater. “Nice work,” I said. “Thank you,” he replied. But I saw him in both performances and the dress rehearsal. In the fight scene, he would fall onto the stone apron of the outdoor stage, a face plant that he saved himself from at the last minute. The choreography was such that a pool cue – the setting was the 60s – became strategically lodged in Danny’s upturned butt. Night after night, he fully committed to the fall and the indignity, and consistently provided the show’s biggest laugh. To watch a kid that young throw himself, quite literally, into his work was a thrill. He had talent, and he loved what he was doing. I got to see that and be a part of it, and I’m grateful.
And to people who think that Shakespeare matters, that theatre is still alive, that young talent is precious and should be nurtured: You’re right, and thank you. The words of that brilliant, cranky Elizabethan cynic roll across half a millennium to change us with their beauty, with their truth that cuts to the bone. Many of us, Tosca-like, live for art and love, and even if we don’t achieve perfect expression of either, we still need every chance we can get to try. Danny’s vehicle to get there was acting, and for anyone who saw him, he was a vehicle himself.
Much too often, the price of meeting and knowing remarkable people is having to say goodbye too soon; to not pay the price, you must forfeit ever knowing the person. As sad and terrible and inexplicable as a death like this is, it is part and parcel of the life of Daniel Friedland. I know that no one attending the service last night would have exchanged their sorrow if it meant never experiencing Danny.
He didn’t waste a second of his too-brief life. H and I are deeply grateful to have spent time with him, and to his family and friends for sharing him with the world. His legacy is laughter and the gift of being fully alive and loving every minute of what you do. Powerful stuff in less than two decades.
Stay happy, Danny Friedland. Thank you for touching our lives.