Sometimes grief hits you in unexpected places – like the grocery store

Tony Caselli, co-founder of The Williamston Theatre, had long shared a private joke with beloved, award-winning local actress/director/professor Terry Heck, who was hit by a car while out walking her dog in Ann Arbor on Friday, April 13th. (She died of her injuries later that day, at the hospital.)

Caselli and Heck once bonded over their shared affection for a “Saturday Night Live” character called The Ladies Man (played by Tim Meadows), who always mentioned Courvoisier as part of his faux-glamorous lifestyle.

“We’d have entire conversations as The Ladies Man and laugh our dumb asses off,” said Caselli, just days after the accident. “ … And this past weekend, I was at the grocery store buying food and some wine, and I spotted this bottle of Courvoisier. Never before has a bottle of brandy made me tear up. … It’s just this dumb little thing, … but I could just hear (Heck) doing that voice in my head and laughing.”

Heck had most recently appeared in Williamston’s production of “Taking Shakespeare” in 2017, and previous to that, Caselli directed her and husband John Seibert in “Sirens” in 2015. (Plus, Heck and Seibert’s son, Joseph Seibert, followed in his parents footsteps, acting on local stages before moving to Los Angeles.)

“If there was someone who embodies the phrase ‘full of life’ – that was Terry Heck,” said Caselli. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more universally loved in the theater community. … Her work was always so good, and she made the process a joy. She was one of those people who made you excited anytime you got the chance to work with her.”

As a testament to Heck’s talent, Caselli would, whenever he was in the theater during a performance of “Taking Shakespeare,” sneak in to see her perform a monologue near the end of the play. “It was just one of those moments that choked me up every time,” said Caselli. “She could make you love her character so much. And that was her gift. She had that ability to get to the heart of a character and make it connect with the audience.”

Pirooz Aghssa, who worked alongside Heck as a member of EMU’s theater department faculty for 27 years, said, “She understood the mechanics and art of acting more than anybody I ever knew. And she was able to communicate it to students in a way that was not intimidating or critical, but was empowering. That’s a tough balance.”

Heck and Aghssa joined EMU’s faculty at about the same time. “We shared an office for many, many years,” said Aghssa. “And when you share an office, you see each other in the good times, and you see each other in the bad times. When that happens, you become family. You just do. She knew all about my life, I knew all about hers, and we’d often finish each other’s sentences – which is part of what makes it so tough to process, in such a sudden way, that she’s not here.”

Though Aghssa normally deletes old texts on his phone, he found, after Heck’s death, that he’d kept an exchange from five years earlier. “I went through them all, and it’s such a chronicle of our lives in that moment,” said Aghssa. “There’s so much love and care in those messages. … I hadn’t realized I’d (kept them), but on some level, it’s like I knew I shouldn’t delete them. It’s got me thinking about the things we leave behind – which has been very rough, because she was always so aware of other people, and so caring.”

Caselli echoed this sentiment. “(Heck) was kind and gracious with everyone – from apprentices who supplied bottles of water to board members,” said Caselli. “They were all given the same respect and appreciation and interest. … She was so genuine. When you were in the room with her, she was in the room with you.”

Shortly after Heck’s death, a memorial page appeared on Facebook, and Heck’s former students, fellow theater artists, and friends began expressing their grief and sharing memories.

“The death of a teacher or mentor is always sad, but that thing went from zero to seven hundred in two days,” said Sarah Ann Leahy, an EMU grad (’12) now living in New York City. “ … I think we all tend to think, well, one person can’t possibly touch that many people’s lives. But then you saw all these people posting stories, and you realize she really did.”

Many former students on the page talked about how Heck challenged them in a loving way, and in many cases, encouraged them to keep going.

“If you weren’t in class, she wouldn’t get mad,” said Leahy. “She’d be concerned. If I wasn’t there, she’d say, ‘OK, who’s got Sarah’s phone number? Call her later and make sure she’s OK.’ And even though the person was usually just sleeping in, or didn’t want to go to class that day, that was her thing. She was always making sure students were OK.”

Leahy had the opportunity of sharing the stage with her teacher for her first professional job: the now-defunct Performance Network Theatre’s 2011 production of “Circle Mirror Transformation” – which was directed by Seibert, another of Leahy’s EMU instructors.

“I remember being so scared, even though (Heck and Seibert) are the nicest people you’d ever meet,” said Leahy. “I remember feeling really intimidated. I mean, I hadn’t done anything before, and all the sudden, Terry’s my colleague. But during the first table read, within the first ten minutes, she was cracking jokes with me. And I just remember thinking, ‘This is going to be fine.’ And it ended up being hands-down one of the best experiences I ever had.”

Of course, directing one’s spouse can get sticky, and as respected and adored as this “local artist power couple” has been, they were no exception. During the first week of rehearsal for “Circle,” Leahy recalled Seibert asking Heck questions about the choices she was making for her character – an earth-mother acting teacher named Marty – and Heck stood her ground.

“It was so funny,” said Leahy. “It was like watching an old married couple bickering about directions while they’re driving somewhere. But it was really cool, too, because they were both saying things that were so valid and genuine and intelligent. Watching the two of them together was like watching these two geniuses at the top of their craft have these debates. And you add in the fact that they’re married, and that they’d been madly in love for years and years – it was just a great dynamic. The rest of us just sat there with these stupid smiles on our faces, enjoying the show.”

“I’ll never forget, and I never doubted, how much they loved each other,” continued Leahy. “ … In a world of divorces and separations, they would have lasted until they were a hundred years old. Which is another reason this kills all of us.”

Leahy recently gathered with her fellow EMU alums in New York to mourn and celebrate Heck’s life, but she also decided to commemorate the loss in a more permanent way: an arm tattoo, in Heck’s handwriting, that reads “you+”.

“I’m so in love with this tattoo,” said Leahy. “One of the things she taught us, from an acting standpoint, is that no matter what character you play, everything has to come from you. So if I’m playing Lauren (in ‘Circle’), I have to be Sarah plus Lauren. … And in the real world, the idea becomes more about how, no matter what, you can’t lose you.”

Leahy felt that after doing children’s theater for a few years, she’d forgotten Heck’s valuable lesson, and she wanted to ensure that she never would again.

 “When those of us in New York got together, we made jokes about how, if Terry could see that some of us had done this, she’d laugh and probably give us a smack, like, ‘You’re a working actor, and you got a visible tattoo? What’s the matter with you?’” said Leahy. “But it’s one of the best lessons I took from college. … My old college roommate Stephanie and I were talking about how the world the so gross and mean right now. There’s so much meanness out there, and this person, this rarity who helped so many people, was just ripped away from us. … I think that’s one of the main things that’s hit all of us so hard.”

A public memorial for Terry Heck is scheduled for Saturday, June 9th at 10 a.m. at EMU’s Pease Auditorium, located at 494 College Place, Ypsilanti.

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