Financial troubles, a dad with cancer, and the weight of the past didn’t discourage Phil Williams.
Photo by Dave Ron via Mediatycoon
The first play Phil Williams ever saw was a production of Les Miserables. He was about four years old when he now remembers thinking to himself, “What is this craziness?”
Phil’s father, George, had been a classically trained Shakespearean actor working off- and off-off Broadway, apprenticing at the London Academy for Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) and acting in the Boston Shakespeare Company. When Phil’s younger sister was born, their father had to quit acting to focus on raising his family, settling in Queens where he got a job at a wine and spirits shop.
So when Phil started college in 2008, the year the U.S. housing bubble burst, the stakes were higher than anticipated: Would he pursue a career in the arts or choose a more financially-prudent path?
“My parents made it very clear that I needed to get a degree no matter what,” Phil says. Wanting to stay close to New York City, like many others of his generation, he decided that the most feasible option was to live at home with his family.
The repercussions of his decision became weightier in 2009, when George had a brush with cancer, about which Phil says, “By the grace of God, it was nothing more than a little brush. He was able to get through it, but his job at the time kind of decided they didn’t need him anymore.” As a result, George started working at a Nordstrom department store in Garden City, New York, with his wife and Phil’s mother, Willy.
George Williams, photo by Willy Williams
In the midst of all of the financial uncertainty, Phil made a counter-intuitive, but courageous choice: He switched his college major to theater. Juggling school with work at a few retail stores, he did whatever he could to pursue the path he had learned to love. He was animated by a certain drive that came from living at home with parents working hard to keep their son, and soon their younger daughter, both in college, while also keeping food on the table.
“They just put us first and never let us waiver,” says Phil. “How hard they worked, I felt like we’d have to match that.”
In 2012 Phil graduated from York College at the City University of New York State, around the time his retail jobs dried up. He was unemployed. His father became adamant that Phil not give in and let a day job get in the way of his craft. George stressed the reality of struggle innate to a career in the arts and encouraged artistic discipline while creating an environment in which Phil could remain at home, contribute financially when he could, but gear himself predominantly toward chasing his dream.
Today, Phil is an actor, director, and founder and artistic director of the Minefield Theatre Group and George is the executive producer for Phil’s most recent production, Release the Kraken (aka The RACHET Play).
“It’s weird, but I kind of feel like I’ve come full circle,” says George.
Twenty years ago, George gave up acting to put the dreams of his children ahead of his own, which makes his work with Phil that much sweeter.
“A new dream has emerged,” says Phil. “My father wants me to genuinely succeed and wants me to genuinely change the world.”
It seems that dreams can be a family affair.