leave them laughing: a tribute to Carla Zilbersmith


Yesterday I was talking with my mom on the phone (about my high school reunion plans this coming July) and suddenly, she mentioned - out of the blue - that one of my old drama teachers had died.

No, not my high school drama teacher. And not my elderly drama teacher from college, either.

Nope, the beautiful, young, funny drama prof who became the head of the drama department at College of Marin the last year I was there. Dead. Of ALS. At the age of 47.


Carla Zilbersmith. 

She transitioned to chair the last year I was there. It was an...  intresting transfer. The former department chair was an extremely strong willed man who had the department under his thumb. We did things his way and they were the right way. But then he retired. My friends and I all thought his replacement would be the understudy, that professor who'd taken over more and more of his classes and directing duties. We'd been cast by him, we'd taken classes with him. He did things the right way. We liked him and knew him. It seemed in the bag.

(Now I know department politics are rarely so easy, so it's not shocking at all that he didn't get the position. C'est la vie.)

So, here comes this brash, loud, funny as hell beautiful Canadian-turned New Yorker. But wait! She's not really that much into Shakespeare. She prefers improv! (I didn't really do improv - hadn't any training in it.) She shook us up, big time.

My memory of that year is a little fuzzy. I'm pretty sure she cast me in a play or two. She wanted me to do an impression at one point of Hillary Clinton and I hadn't seen enough of her (nor am I any good at impressions) so that was truly a bust. I do remember that Carla took over the directing class that year (which I was taking for the second year). And that I learned a lot that semester from her, from her willingness to dive into the heart of the piece and fall hard.

(I also remember her berating us for not being able to beatbox. She could, but she couldn't beatbox and rap at the same time and had a point to make and I don't remember what it was but I remember being slightly ashamed I couldn't beatbox. Oh well.)

I left the next year (to move to Davis with M and then to UCR, where I finally finished my degree after switching to the Creative Writing department) and held no hard feelings. It became clear the department needed a shaking up, and it got it, and it was good. I followed the reviews the program got for the next few years. It stayed great. Carla was great. She was department chair up until she got hit by ALS hard. It isn't a pretty disease, or even a slightly shitty one. It is a full on 'fuck you up before you die choking and have no control over your own muscles' disease.

And what hits me most about her untimely death is that she didn't really get to see her kid grow up (or even graduate from college - even though he was on an accelerated path). From what I've found out about him, and read from him, she was an awesome mom who raised an amazing kid. (He was a toddler the year she started in the department.)

Life is way too fucking short and not fair in the slightest.

Today I'm reading through the extensively archived blog Carla left behind. I'm remembering that last year at COM and trying to recall the classes I took and the plays I was in with her.

And in between the tears, I'm laughing. Because that was what Carla wanted.

She left us laughing.