Editor's note: Illusion Theater is hosting a memorial for Camille at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 5.
A life like Camille’s defies the constraints of an elegya biography would be more suitable. Nevertheless, Camille deserves remembrance so I will work with what and whom I have at hand: a few hundred words, and Grieved Mnemosyne.
I first met Camille D’Ambrose in 1989. My wife and I had moved back to Minneapolis from New York City on the possibility of my doing a play called Hunting Cockroaches for Peter Moore’s New Classic Theater. I needed to meet and be vetted by the director Lou Salerni, former artistic director of the Cricket Theater. The meeting took place in the only-just-finished Minneapolis Theatre Garage.
When I walked into the theater Lou and Peter were sitting in the first row of the house seats. Seated next to them was a very striking woman who reminded me of a young Bette Davis. She wore a dark turtleneck, large circular turtle-rimmed glasses, and her silky dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail giving her the look of a dishy librarian. She was introduced as Camille D’Ambrose, the actress who would be playing the lead role of Anka. As the interview proceeded, I noted the frequent glances between Lou and Camille and experienced the creeping epiphany that even though I was there to meet the director, the final arbiter of the casting decision would be this mysterious woman sitting to one side. Apart from “Hello,” Camille said very littlewhich did not bolster my confidence. Lou and I chatted for about 20 minutes, then said “Thanks.” Camille smiled like the Mona Lisa, waved bye-bye, and I left the meeting feeling completely bewildered. What had just happened?
Surprisingly, I got the part. How much of that decision I owe to Camille I never learned. However, upon walking into the rehearsal room that first day, she greeted me as if we had been friends for decades and so commenced what proved to be an ongoing professional relationship and friendship that lasted 20 years.
Camille and I worked together a number of times. Her courage, vulnerability, and spectrum as an actress was so vast that our onstage relationships ranged from sexual assault to cradling her in my arms as she wept uncontrollably for a murdered husband. I never saw Camille give anything less than complete honesty onstage, even when that honesty was turned on herself with a raw brutality that was at times frightening, yet always compelling. Whatever vanity Camille held as a person, she left it in the dressing room with her other outside accessories before stepping on stage.
Not long after meeting Camille I read a wonderful novel by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus. In the novel Davies use the term "Friend of the Minimum" and its opposite, "Friend of the Maximum." Quoting Davies, Friends of the Minimum "have certainty and depth of belief but they buy it at the price of a joyless, know-nothing attitude toward life. All they ask of God is a kind of spiritual Minimum Wage and in return they are ready to give up the sweets of life."
Davies is less specific about the qualities of a Friend of the Maximum, which compelled me to draw up a list of my own. To me, a Friend of the Maximum is a person who embraces life and all its myriad possibilities. She remains open to new ideas, new experiences, and new events. She is ever learning, ever growing, and ever ready to examine a different perspective. She relishes discussion and debate and cannot help but lift people up with her passion and enthusiasm. By this definition, Camille Ambrose and her husband Allen Hamilton are first order Friends of the Maximum.
Camille was a brilliant actress, superb chef, intuitive teacher, witty conversationalist, and loyal, compassionate friend. The last time I saw her, in the Uptown Lunds where we so often ran into each other, she brushed aside questions about her health to ask about my upcoming acting work and to speak with infectious enthusiasm about her theater students at Minneapolis Community Colleges (MCC). As they had so many times in the past, Camille's impassioned eyes, devastating smile, and loving hand upon my cheek raised my spirits. She left me feeling better about myself, about my work and about the world, and I know I am not alone in this experience.
Te adoro, Cara Camillia, my Friend of the Maximum, and thanks for showing me how to work, love, and live well.