THE TALKING STICK

I lost someone recently, someone I tried in my way to support, to help, to convince. I believe that his life tells us something about how we exclude ourselves. I want to share some of his life with you. I want you to know that his life had meaning.

I met Brian in college. He was a theatre major like me. A peer, and a friend.

He had a deep rolling velvet voice, resonant and strong. He had that strange dichotomy you sometimes find in the theater, an individual with great talent and presence on stage, but quiet, depressive and shy everywhere else.

Brian saw himself as a beggar at the gates of life. There is a boy, face pressed against a huge iron gate wrapped in chains, held with a giant padlock. This boy was Brian. To the sorrow and frustration of everyone around him, he never stepped back far enough to notice that the lock was open. The way in was waiting for him.

I directed a lot in school and I found a way of casting Brian, as often as I could. Thereafter I would cast him at the Sterling Renaissance Festival where I am Artistic Director whenever he asked, and even when he didn’t. I’ve done so since 1980.  In short, he was brilliant. His characters were funny and quaint, open-hearted, and paradoxically very inclusive.

He would come early to the site, before the company arrived for rehearsals, and clean the actors’ kitchen. He would do it every year. I long thought it was because he was a kind person and a helper. I later realized it was his way of offering something in return for what he felt he didn’t deserve.

Not everyone in the company understood him, but those who did had a great admiration for his talent, his compassion, humility, and kindness. Some cast members, confused by his outward shows of self-deprecation called him Eeyore, from Whinny the Poo fame. It was an insensitive moniker, but apt. It wasn’t uncommon during Festival rehearsals to turn and notice Brian lying flat as a plank, face down, nose in the gravel aside the stage.  We would just turn back and continue our work. “Mental note: Brian is feeling down today, must have a talk with him.”

In the late 80’s I gave Brian the first book on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The next season he was in excellent spirits and told me that the book had changed his life.  It did, for a while. But the demons returned.

Brian was a true kinesthetic personality. This means that his main modality of perception was feeling. Kinesthetics generally speak very slowly, because they feel each word as it passes through their mind and lips. Brian was a very very slow talker. He spoke as if another voice inside him was always trying to talk him out of saying anything at all. It was slow, distracted, stuttering, and convoluted. At times it required enormous patience to hear him out. So most people did not, further feeding his sense of being an unworthy outsider. Those who did hear him out were rewarded by the most creative and insightful things, beautiful thoughts, and grand ideas.

He was a very funny man when he wanted to be, the rest of the time he was mostly solitary and sad. He would effortlessly waive off all compliments and encouragements as if they were intended for someone else, or that the giver mistook him for another more worthy recipient.

After a girl he was sweet on in college turned him down as gently as she could, I watched him calmly buy a can of soda from a machine by the theatre door, pop the tab and quietly pour the entire contents over his head and walk away. It was the last time to my knowledge that he ever asked a girl out.

But so many women adored him!

One in particular was Barbara “Baj” Burinski.  Baj was an actress who portrayed Queen Elizabeth I at the Festival for many years, and was a dear friend of mine. Baj was arguably the most compassionate human being on the planet. Those who knew her would not argue the point. Baj was also a huge believer in Brian. On her death bed she asked me specifically, and made me promise, to “look after Brian.”

Numerous times over the years Brian would pull me aside at the end of a festival run and say that I didn’t have to worry about having him back to Sterling, that he was done with it and didn’t want me to feel obligated to hire him. Then a few years would go by and he’d be back.  He surprised me one time by saying, “I know you promised Baj that you would look after me. I want to let you know that you don’t have to do that anymore. I want to release you from that promise.” I said, “She never had to ask me Brian, I’ve had your back since college and I don’t intend to stop now, but as for that promise, consider it released.”

In those days we had a wonderful habit as a company to go to the shore of Lake Ontario, and in a hidden cove enjoy a campfire and beers. We also had a habit of conducting a sort of witnessing ritual mirroring an ancient American Indian practice of passing a Talking Stick.

Whoever holds the talking stick has within their hands the sacred power of words—only the one who holds the stick may speak, but must speak the truth about personal understanding and experience.

Brian was the self-proclaimed keeper of the Talking Stick. It was always him who would suggest it.  Always him to bring out the stick and explain the tradition.  Perhaps nothing better illustrates the contradictions of Brian than this, that a man who could barely speak and constantly counted himself out in life, would be the one to willingly stand before his peers and bare his soul, then pass it on for others.

Whether it was by nature, circumstance, choice, or something he brought here with him, he could never completely get over the strange burden he carried.  Brian carried this burden his whole life. It would crush him to the ground, but he’d get up again, his entire life he did that.  He’d just get up again. He had such value, but he could never accept that. The hardest people to reach are the ones who don’t believe they deserve love.  Self-exclusion is the very worst poison.

The note that Brian left asked of his mother not to have a public service, and that there be no public announcement of his death. His mother is respecting his wishes. It’s fitting I guess, and so unfair, that he chooses to leave so unacknowledged. But what an intelligent, kind, compassionate, silly, entertaining, and endearing mystery he was.

Brian was a lost soul. No one should be lost. Everyone deserves to belong…somewhere. I did what I could, offered what I had, since we were 19. The truth is, some never find their way. And now we’re supposed to let him just back away into the darkness and be forgotten? I am sorry my friend, I don‘t know if I can do that. Final request or not.

My friend Brian Pringle has passed on from this world. He was an amazing man! I and those who really knew him will miss him terribly.

The last time I saw Brian, I was walking through the festival site with my daughter, before this past season began. We encountered him raking leaves along the path, helping the pre-season volunteers. He looked old and beaten. I asked him how he was, told him how glad I was to see him, and hoped I would see him visit this summer. As we parted my daughter asked, “Who is that guy?” I told her, that he was an old actor at the faire, and long time friend of mine.

“Oh,” she said.

Then I turned to her and said, “He is also the bravest man I ever met.”

 

17 thoughts

  1. I started at the faire in 1978, Young, wide eyed with the magic, and stayed for a very long time. We have lost people over the years. but when I am alone I can still see them, hear their voices.. Forever a part of Sterling Forest, forever a part of my soul. Those of us who grew up together in the woods by the lake. I wish you peace Brian, “fair thee well”.

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  2. When i was an undergrad Brian was one of my favorite grad students. He was hilarious, knowledgeable and very helpful in everything.
    It breaks my heart to read this…but thank you.

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  3. Brian was one of the most talented and genuinely hilarious actors I’ve had the privilege of enjoying. I’m very sad to know that he had no idea of his ability. I think the last time he was on cast was 2015 or 2016, and I know I made a point several times during the gauntlet of telling him how much I’d enjoyed his performance. He probably figured I said that to everyone, but I didn’t. I certainly remember him raking leaves with us most years since we started the pre-season cleanup in 2014. What a tragic loss. I’ll miss him, and I’m glad I got to enjoy his performances when I did. I wish I’d known him better.

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  4. Brian and I were friends since high school. He was one of my favorite people. We worked together at the Oswego players on several shows… some he starred in. He came to all my parties and always made me laugh. I cannot find the words to express my love and appreciation for this unique and beautiful soul, but you did and I am forever grateful to you for this tribute. He leaves a void in my life.

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  5. Brian and I worked side by side this past year on projects for the Oswego Players. This tribute captures the Brian I came to know perfectly. He will be missed.

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  6. I knew him and worked with him on occasion over the years but I wish I had known him better. He was a brilliant actor. As a director, I never felt worthy of his talent. My heart goes out to his mother, his family and friends who will miss him even more than I will. Thank you for such a beautiful tribute!

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  7. Thank you Gary Izzo for sharing this insight, tribute and testament to the life of Brian Pringle. He certainly touched many hearts at Syracuse Shakespeare-In-The-Park as well. We have posted a pictorial in memoriam to him on our website (https://ssitp.org) and I have shared the pics with Deanna who will share them with your Ren Faire people.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was so sad to hear of his passing. I didn’t know him well, I met him through my daughter Molly’s involvement in theater. He was such a wonderful person, thank you for sharing this ! The world seems a little….less now.

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  9. I have many fond memories, and an enormous amount of gratitude regarding Brian Pringle. Of all of the people at Sterling, none had a way with Puns like Brian, and that’s really saying something. But perhaps most of all was that he was the first person that I ever heard the word dramaturgy from. Meeting him put me on the journey to finding my niche in the world of performing arts as much as working with Gary Izzo and Jim Greene. He really was quite brilliant, if you took the time to listen. Many of the younger members of the community would, as Gary points out, become impatient with his slow way of speaking, but those who had put in their time always seemed to hold him in a quiet, but very high regard. I will miss my friend, and always remain unspeakably grateful for having known him.

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  10. Dear Gary, I am thanking you so very very much for providing us with the link about what has just passed. Oh My Dear God. You have given us a link from Here to Heaven. You have reminded us of how we can continue to be of help to others. I wish we could have been of more help for dear Brian, and have been thinking about this failure of ours non-stop since we heard the news. Learning, Growing, and most of all, moving to the next steps of doing better on our part to reach out.

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  11. Thank you for this tribute to Brian. I befriended him when he attended graduate school, and recall his visits to our house for parties and barbecues and things like that with great fondness. I saw him perform several times at the festival, and always considered it to be his true home and natural habitat. It was so clearly a supportive place to which he had a deep connection, and to which he contributed his talents, his kindness, and his wonderful imagination. I will remember him – dressed both in rich black velvet and in brown monks robes, bearded and jovial yet with a far away look. He was a kind soul, a true and lasting presence, and a deeply good man.

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  12. I was glad to meet you yesterday at the memorial. Brian’s friends all seem to be wonderful people and I truly appreciate all the memories that were shared.

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