John McAdams, an actor and longtime company member of Tectonic Theater Project, died on April 30.
John McAdams was a company member of Tectonic Theater Project. It breaks my heart to write the word “was” in that sentence. Johnny was a brilliant actor, a brilliant collaborator, but above all a dear, kind, gentle man.
When I first met him, Johnny used his cool to help me out of a crisis. I was directing the first production of my play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and had lost an actor to a better-paying gig on the second-to-last day of tech. I frantically called friends who, like us, were working in the downtown theatre scene for recommendations. And somehow everyone I called mentioned “this fantastic actor that’s doing great work all over.” That was Johnny.
He came into Gross Indecency on the last day of technical rehearsals, and the next day was performing the tricky, wordy role of Edward Carson, the barrister who cross-examines Wilde. For the first few performances he held cards with his lines on them (which worked, because it looked like a lawyer reading from his notes). But it also worked because John was, even with two days of rehearsals, a pro, a man who served drama without causing any.
His castmate Michael Emerson, who played Wilde, recalled John’s unflappable nature, describing him as “spiritually durable. He was centered in a way that was contagious; I felt better just being around him.” The two would do delicious battle for many months with John offering up a wily but never monstrous Carson to Michael’s indelible Oscar.
Greg Pierotti, an actor who was in the show with them for the better part of a year said: “Those scenes between them were tiny master classes in acting—always richly alive and yet incredibly precise. “
One could always count on Johnny to keep everyone in the company grounded and focused on the big picture. He led by example with integrity and an unerring moral compass. This extended beyond our Tectonic family. Director Leigh Silverman worked with John numerous times, including her final production of Lisa Kron’s Well at the Huntington Theater Company. Leigh said, “John was one of the first actors I ever directed professionally, and he treated me with unending respect and generosity and love. I always use John as an example of how men could collaborate with young women directors. He was the most gentle, loving, and talented man.” In 2002 John received the Charles Bowden Award, which recognizes actors who have contributed substantially to the work of New Dramatists’ playwrights.
Johnny worked with Tectonic in the creation of The Laramie Project, playing (among many other characters) me. His portrayal of my Venezuelan accent in early rehearsals was too extreme, or so it sounded to my ears, so I complained. He smiled and made me understand—without saying so—that what I was hearing was the toned-down version of my accent. In fact, his portrayal of me was so insightful that I was told by several of the actors in the company (not always in jest) that I had a thing or two to learn about how to behave from him. They were right.
But of all the roles he played, the one that will always be etched in my memory is his depiction of Dennis Shepard, telling a courtroom in Laramie his reasons for not pursuing the death penalty for his son’s killers. That performance was one of the finest moments I’ve witnessed in my theatregoing life. It was an example of what a fine actor can do with simplicity and conviction. It’s not that John disappeared into the role—that’s not our aesthetic, nor would it have been possible in Laramie, where he played at least a dozen characters. Instead he found himself in Mr. Shepard: plain-spoken and complex, open and inscrutable, and above all, deeply generous and true.
John was married to Tectonic company member Barbara Pitts McAdams, another co-creator of Laramie and a long-time collaborator and beloved friend. John and Barb’s marriage made them, in my eyes, the embodiment of the camaraderie and love (and the occasional argument) that characterizes our artistic family. It fell to me to tell many in our company of John’s sudden passing on Apr. 30. And every person I called said the same thing: “He was the best one of us.”
Good night, sweetest of princes. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Moisés Kaufman is the founder and artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project.