Mark Collins on a death and a wedding: 'Love really is everywhere'

Mark Collins.

On his wedding day, the actor will be thinking of the woman who started the chain of events that changed his life.

By Mark Collins
Guest Columnist

Several years ago, Sarah Elizabeth Dwyer was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. I didn’t know Sarah then, but a friend of mine from grad school, Ingrid DeSanctis, did. Ingrid wrote a play about Sarah’s journey with cancer called Sarah and the Dinosaur.

I had given up acting in any serious way more than a decade earlier. Not because I didn’t love it, just because it was better to do other stuff for a while. I had been the theatre critic at the Boulder Daily Camera for the past 10 years.

One day in 2011, Ingrid called me unexpectedly and asked if I’d want to go to Virginia and act in Sarah and the Dinosaur. To my own surprise, I said yes. Spending a month in Virginia working on and performing the play sparked a change in me and I decided to get back to doing something I loved: Making theater.

Mark Collins. Melissa McCarl And that sparked a series of synchronistic events — each small and seemingly unrelated – that led to a big event in my life.

Here’s what I’m talking about: In early 2013, a year and three shows after I’d started acting again, I auditioned for a play called Jon that The Catamounts were going to produce in Boulder. I don’t recall my initial audition, but it must have gone OK because Amanda Berg Wilson, the director, called me back.

Before the second callback, though, I happened to go online and visit the Miners Alley Playhouse web site. There I discovered the company was holding auditions the following night for a play I’d never heard of called The Pitmen Painters. My audition skills were rusty, and I figured I should get out there as much as possible. So, last-minute though it was, I set up a slot. I did my piece for the director and was asked to come back the next evening. That night when I got home, I emailed Amanda and told her I was auditioning for another play and if cast in it, I’d probably take it. She thanked me for letting her know. The next night, I was offered a role for The Pitmen Painters and accepted before I left for home.

Rehearsals started soon after, but in the interim, the director had to step away from the job, and Rick Bernstein stepped in. When rehearsals started, it quickly became apparent The Pitmen Painters had the potential to be special – it’s a tight ensemble piece about a group of real-life, uneducated miners in Northern England who learned to be painters. A week into rehearsals, however, one of the actors announced that because of the demands of his day job, he had to drop out of the play.

From 2012: Two ex-theater critics having coffee

I spent the weekend wondering who might step in and fill the role on short notice – The Pitmen Painters is not an easy play, with more than a dozen scenes and some technical moments than need to be well-practiced. Late Sunday, though, in reply to a nervous query I’d sent him, director Rick Bernstein sent me an email that read: “I’ve got Paul Borrillo to do the role. We’re going to be OK.”

He was understating things, because Paul is one of the best actors in Denver, and we were more than OK. Paul served as a catalyst for what became a really good production. More important to me, however, was that his wife, Erica Sarzin-Borrillo, is best friends with Melissa Lucero McCarl.

I didn’t know Melissa then. I had seen (and ravingly reviewed) her Frida Kahlo play Painted Bread a decade earlier, and seen her hilarious turn in the musical Ruthless! The Musical a year after that. But I had never met her.

Erica invited Melissa to come to an industry night of The Pitmen Painters, the one performance during the run after which we had one of those ever-popular, but often-dreadful-for-actors “talkback sessions” with the audience.

At some point during the talkback, a woman asked a smart question of someone on the stage. Through the stage-light glare, I recognized the woman as Melissa Lucero McCarl, the woman who wrote that play I had loved, and who was so funny in that other play I saw nearly a decade prior.

After the talkback, Paul asked me if I wanted to be introduced to Melissa. (I would learn later, it was at her urging). But I didn’t need his offer. I was already making my way to her through the exiting crowd.

I don’t know what possessed me, other than a good mood and a genuine excitement to meet the woman whose work I had admired. But even before Melissa could get an introductory “Hello, I’m Melissa…” out of her mouth, I reached out my hand and warmly said, “I thought that was you.” (I know, pretty solid pick-up line).

That was April 2013.

On Sept. 9, Melissa and I will exchange rings in front of a gathering. She’s smart and beautiful and talented and big-hearted and we fit, and I couldn’t be more excited to be married to her.

But how in the world did this happen?

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Paulo Coelho has the famous quote: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I was lonely. I wanted someone to share a life with. And “all the universe conspired”: Ingrid wrote a play and asked me to travel 2,000 miles and be part of it. That sparked a desire in me to begin acting again. Eventually, Amanda Berg Wilson did not cast me in a play, and I happened to look for another opportunity the next day, and was cast in that play. The  dropped out of that project and was replaced by Rick Bernstein. An actor’s off-stage life caused him to leave the show, and Rick Bernstein happened to be friends with Paul Borrillo, who was available and took the job. Erica Sarzin-Borrillo happened to ask Melissa Lucero McCarl to the industry-night performance, and she was available and came to the show. And then we met.

What synchronicities must have been working their way through each of these characters’ lives in order for them to play a part in conspiring to affect mine so profoundly?

Bookended plays: One called Painted Bread. The other, The Pitmen Painters.

I’m always fascinated by coincidences and the mystery of them.

Of course I’ve left something out. Something from the beginning. A woman named Sarah got sick.

I got to know Sarah a little bit back in 2012 when I performed in Virginia. I stayed a week with her and her partner. They were kind and generous. Sarah was smart and fierce and the cancer was buried inside her in a way that she didn’t seem ill. She didn’t seem like she was living with a time bomb inside her body. But she was. That time bomb went off five years later. Sarah died Aug. 19, back in Virginia.

I had mostly lost touch with her, but occasionally read her writing on her blog or Facebook page. Sarah was nothing if not honest. Her penultimate post came June 2. It went like this:

“They don’t tell you how confusing it all becomes, how difficult. I can’t write because I cannot make sense of the words coming out of my fingertips … I’m not even sure they are spelled correctly. I can’t talk to you for long periods of time because my mouth is dry and my tongue is cracked. I vomit water, because even that is too much to keep down. And the drugs … so many drugs … there’s no telling what I might say. It could be funny; it could ruin a friendship. Sometimes it is both. I don’t have time for long visits, because I’ll only sleep through them, and I’ve accepted that some of you will just have to get over never hearing ‘I’m sorry.’

“There are many things I would like to tell you about dying … secret things that only dying people know. Mostly to warn you, to prevent you from being caught off-guard. But I think these are not your lessons to learn, not yet. It’s part of the mystery, the being surprised, the being shocked, the being scared.

“A few weeks ago I nominated my husband to receive love letters from around the world. We are up to nearly 300 and counting. I couldn’t write them myself, so I got 300 strangers from around the planet to do it for me.

“Old men, young children, teenagers, newlyweds, widows, nuns… they wrote to him. And in doing so, I am not so surprised, or shocked, or scared anymore.

Because no matter what… love really is everywhere, even in death.”

Sarah’s people have decided to hold a celebration of her life on Sept. 9. That’s the same day Melissa and I are to be married.

I would be grossly self-involved to make much of that coincidence. But there it is.

So I will be remembering Sarah on Sept. 9 as I get to spend time with loved ones, celebrating Melissa and our life together.

“Love really is everywhere …”

About the Author: Mark Collins

A Mark Collins 160Award-winning actor Mark Collins was the theatre critic at the Boulder Daily Camera for 10 years before returning to acting. He won a 2015 True West Award for playing five challenging roles for five different theatre companies that year. In 2016, he played renowned theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in Melissa Lucero McCarl’s ‘Lost Creatures’ for And Toto too Theatre Company.  Collins graduated from Boulder High School, earned his BFA in Acting from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his MFA in Acting from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Sarah Dwyer Poem



Selected previous DCPA NewsCenter Guest Columns:
Ann Morrill on Tapestry: A theatre company that applauds all abilities
BreAnna Romero on Skype with Curious Incident‘s set designer
Judy Craymer on the origins of Mamma Mia!
Douglas Langworthy on ‘translating’ Shakespeare: First, do no harm
David Nehls: Live theatre returns to Elitch Gardens after 24 years
Gillian McNally: Colorado’s oldest theatre celebrates Artistic Director Tom McNally
Margie Lamb on the Henry Awards: Something doesn’t add up
Bryan VanDriel on Lloyd Norton: A name that will live on in Greeley
Jessica Jackson on Creede Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season

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