Andrew Leynse, artistic of director of New York City’s Primary Stages, died on Jan. 20. He was 53.
He was like a brother, a slightly older brother, and a kind of low-key mentor, though I doubt that he ever thought of himself that way. There wasn’t anything lofty or presumptuous about Andrew; he was approachable, and as a friend, a director, and a producer he led by example, with love for the art of the theatre and for the artists who make it.
I met him 20 years ago in the playwrights’ group at Primary Stages, where we would convene weekly and Andrew would sit in on the proceedings. He spoke softly, but with insight; he made suggestions, but not too many. With a wry smile and frequent bursts of amusement in his eyes, he seemed genuinely happy to be there. He was optimistic; he saw the promise in our pages. Primary Stages was beginning to offer classes, and he invited me to lead a workshop. As I taught one evening, a taxi burst into flames in the street below; another night I took a call on Andrew’s office phone concerning the contract for my first Off-Broadway production. I felt for the first time like I belonged in a theatre company in New York City. He trusted me. When I was done teaching and the students had gone, I would turn out the lights and lock the door behind me.
Andrew liked a play of mine, The Cherry Sisters Revisited, a comedy-with-music based on the true story of five farm girls from Iowa becoming briefly famous as vaudeville’s “best” worst act, and he asked if he might direct it as a reading for The Actors Company Theatre. During rehearsal he bragged to the table about a writer’s fellowship I’d recently received. He was uncomplicatedly happy for me—like that slightly older brother, again, or like a brother ought to be. At the talkback after the reading, we learned that a few in the audience had actually been alive when the Cherry Sisters made their bittersweet comeback on Broadway in 1936; one ancient gentleman claimed to remember their faces on billboards around town. There was a considerable amount of debate about whether or not it snowed in Iowa as heavily as it snowed in the Iowa of my play. Andrew could laugh about talkbacks because they were so often awkward and unpredictable. But he wasn’t nervous about the audience’s response, as I was; he knew that the response was part of the play—the response was equally the theatre.
As the artistic director at the Perry-Mansfield New Works Festival in Colorado, he suggested that we work on The Cherry Sisters Revisited there. “We can cast our wives,” he said, wriggling his eyebrows scandalously. We did cast our wives, and they smashed it. The four of us shared an A-frame chalet in Steamboat Springs for a week. We rode horses. Marc Masterson of Actors Theatre of Louisville saw the reading and wanted the play for an upcoming Humana Festival. Michael Friedman was hired to write music. We had to part ways with an earlier composer, someone gifted but young, and Andrew insisted that we call and explain our decision to him. This was a lesson for me: not to run away from difficult artistic conversations, but to speak plainly, with humility and honesty.
The Cherry Sisters Revisited was a critique of America’s anti-intellectual and misogynistic entertainment culture, but in its structure and its style the play reveled in an earthy, almost childlike theatricality, and Andrew brought his natural sweetness and showmanship to his staging. In rehearsals we’d laugh until our faces hurt. Our experience at the festival was challenging too; the schedule was frantic, and producers, as producers are wont to do, wanted cuts. One cut in particular pained me, but the play improved. At the stage door Andrew said he was proud of me. On opening night I gave him a silver-plated hip flask: “For courage,” I said.
The production had its fans, but it didn’t quite click. We sat in the theatre bar after a matinee eavesdropping on a middle-aged couple as they discussed what they disliked about our show. I panicked, as usual, but Andrew was calm and curious. He understood that a play can’t please all the people all the time, and probably shouldn’t.
When my play The Body of an American was receiving some attention, with productions in Portland, Ore., Philadelphia, and London, Andrew called to say that he wanted to bring it to New York; with Darko Tresnjak and Elizabeth Williamson, then at Hartford Stage, he co-produced the play at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2016. My wife was in treatment for breast cancer at the time, and I felt lost. But as he’d done so many years before, Andrew would offer me a chair in his office and we’d sit and talk. Not about our production, necessarily, but about our lives, his young son, and my slightly younger daughter. This was when I noticed the silver-plated hip flask from Louisville there on his bookshelf.
I didn’t see much of Andrew these last few years, due mostly to COVID and living on opposite coasts. I would send him my new plays and books, and he was unfailingly gracious and complimentary about them. He wanted me to know that he kept my little book of essays about playwriting on the bookshelf in his office—next to the hip flask, I like to imagine.
This long week since Andrew passed away I keep thinking back to 2016. Our production of The Body of an American had opened, and I flew home to Los Angeles where I found myself suddenly diagnosed with colon cancer. People who have experienced cancer, or any similar catastrophe, know that some friends may disappear, out of fear or whatever, but Andrew was the first to call. Here he was again choosing to have the difficult conversation because it was the right thing to do. But I didn’t pick up; I was overwhelmed with confusion, and I was ashamed. It doesn’t make sense—shame for being human, for being mortal? Andrew accepted, even honored imperfection.
What I wouldn’t give for a call from him right now. I would not hesitate to answer.
Dan O’Brien (he/him) is a writer whose works include the play The Body of an American, the book A Story That Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas, and the poetry collection Our Cancers. His most recent play, The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, won the 2018 PEN America Award for Drama.
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