Up at the Cabin

The phrase “up at the cabin” now rings metaphoric to me. The cabin is a real place, its denizens over the Thanksgiving weekend were my middle brother, Duck and his wife, Bunky, whose cabin it is, my son and his wife and their two children, her Dad, and her best friend. It’s a beautiful wooden house/cabin purchased by Bunky’s Mom and Dad back in the 70s, where they vacationed with their family and friends. I’d call it nouveau rustique – the nouveau parts are rustic, too, so I don’t intend to freight it with the value judgement normally ascribed to nouveau. There’s nothing riche about the cabin, except it’s history, which wears a thick patina of familial experience that still echoes within its walls. A big bookcase in the corner holds brother-in-law Bruce’s AV Extravaganza, which fortunately he had the foresight to write instructions to before passing away a few years ago. Even so, it took several of them to figure out how to play the video of Lady and the Tramp on the DVR, while the picture of Bruce gazed indulgently down at us from the top of the shelves.

The original wood burning stove has been replaced with a propane remote-controlled red stove, which takes a minute to get started, or so said Duck, when I asked him to walk me through the opening instructions for the cabin. This was Grandma Dorothy’s decision, after watching the aging cabin denizens split wood to feed the fire. After a day or so, I suddenly realized that no one had been fetching wood. Duck shared the history of her decision to change out the fireplace and Grandpa Dan, who has one of his own up north, suddenly looked interested. We’d been discussing what people wanted for Christmas, and as his interest warmed, I nudged his daughter with, “sounds like we know what to get Dan for Christmas this year!” Gulp. I love being helpful.

Other improvements to the cabin – a brand new Kenmore range, which did a great job of cooking the turkey, after hours and hours of discussion about the stuffing, much perusing of the Chronicle recipe, calculating the correct time and temperature to cook the 22-lb. bird, and many attempts at inserting the meat thermometer judiciously to get the most accurate reading. That followed on the thesis we wrote on brining the turkey and making the stuffing. Bunky led the charge on both of those efforts.

I should explain that my brother and his wife both have real, parentally-prescribed names, and that the above names are their professional names, being well-established commercial fishermen for the past 20-30 years. Their conversation, especially when they were in the company of my son Chris, aka Duckling, who shares history with them as a fisherman for three years on Duck’s boat, was peppered with colorful names which my failing memory now won’t allow me to retrieve. Names like Blind Bob, Stumpy, Red Ryder, etc. Knowing full well that these names are endowed on fishermen not chosen, I nevertheless made idle conversation asking those of us never-to-be-named to think about what our names would be. I decided mine would be Miss Manners, but the others eschewed the game and it died quickly.

The cabin nestled all eight of us comfortably over the Thanksgiving holiday. It chuckled as we donned the adult-sized onesies that my daughter-in-law had picked up at Target on the drive from Tahoe. Clad as Olaf, she had a goofy carrot sticking out of her head like a maniacal unicorn; her nearly four-year-old daughter sported the bobcat suit, sans tail, and her best friend, Beth, a Bunny; I rocked the Deer. Except for Skylar, our tails all jiggled a lot when we played Twister. One thing I can tell you: Twister is a whole lot different at 60 than it was at 16.

So many times over the weekend, my brother, Duck, covered his eyes with his weathered hands and just shook his head in disbelief at our shenanigans. Then he snapped pictures of the Twister game, which will no doubt become part of the cabin’s voluminous photographic history.

We played the antique ivory dominoes that belonged to our maternal grandfather, which I remembered playing with on the floor of their den on wintery visits; Duck shared how much he loved the game, teaching me to play again, and sharing how much he’d enjoyed playing with Grandma Dorothy, who was apparently killer good at Dominoes. Duck bemoaned his dearth of play since she’d passed away and I remembered the bloodlettings he’d given our older brother Don and I on Christmas morning as we played Monopoly from about 4AM until a reasonable time to get up. Somehow, he’d bank all his thousands under the board then whip them out and buy a slew of hotels just as we were coming around the corner into his zone. He was strategic, frugal, then funded the capital need as it arose. Sort of like he’s become as the president of the San Francisco Community Fisherman’s Association. I understood why no one else wanted to play dominoes, and in spite of fearing for my reputation, I played a few games with him.

The snow fell consistently pretty much the entire time we were there, piling up a foot and a half on the railings of the deck, where I’d spent summer evenings about 13 years ago with our Dad and his wife, and my uncle and aunt and my niece and her boyfriend at the time. Back then, too, Duck managed to feed the troops, while the rest of us recreated and enjoyed each others’ company.

This visit, before I got there, Wednesday, mid day, my granddaughter had built a snowman, made a pumpkin pie, and made two cheese balls, or so went the legend when each of those items was presented and eaten. Ultimately, my granddaughter also cooked the bird. She is turning into quite the little chef. Such is the lore of the cabin. By the time we left, the snowman was buried up to her waist in fresh powder, her eyes and nose gone from her face.

The snowman before the real snows came.

“Up at the Cabin”.

I was so aware while there, napping in the afternoon, pulling up the shade in the upstairs bedroom at the end of my nap to see three full-sized deer (gender identity unclear through the branches of the surrounding trees) gamboling through the snow up the hill, that these are the moments that make up our lives. A phrase resounded through my mind all weekend was one my coach recently shared with me: “How we live our days is how we live lives”. Not that I want to spend my days napping, dressed as a deer, or even watching deer through a cabin window. And god knows I did enough dishes to last me quite a long time, thank you very much. But being in the breast of family is sweet.

“Do you think you’ll want to come up to use the cabin by yourself?” Bunky asked me on the last morning we were there.

Bunky, Yes, I intend to come back up to the cabin. Both alone, and with our family – to sop up the experiences, and to hang out with the people with whom I want to make a lot more memories.

The Turkey Enterprise – A Collaborative Exercise

You know, I used to be a whole lot better at logistics than I seem to have been in the past few weeks. A week ago, I made a car rental reservation for my trip to the family cabin – my brother’s family cabin, in North Fork, just west of the western entrance to Yosemite. I was very excited to reserve a midsized SUV, which sported a picture of a Ford EcoSport. I was unable to ascertain from the website whether the car had 4 Wheel Drive, which I knew I needed because of the major weather belt which was tightening around the entire region. So I googled Ford EcoSport, and discovered to my pleasure, that indeed it did have 4 Wheel Drive. Ah, I sighed. “That’s accomplished.” I’d even felt pretty smug about reserving the car at the on-campus car rental office, located in the parking and housing office just at the end of campus. So convenient!

And then I went on about the rest of the week, which foamed with activities, such as publishing spring design assignments, meeting with colleagues, and planning my classes. Saturday I shopped, gathering the plumpest, most luscious looking 22 lb. turkey at the store, and had a conversation with the butcher because I’d thought I’d be bringing up a frozen bird in a cooler to the cabin. There wasn’t one big enough, so this 22 lb. monster was fresh, and I had considerable trepidation about carrying it in the car thawed. The butcher assured me, as did another fellow shopper, that my turkey would make it salmonella-free to my family. My office mate, Hannah, kindly brought me one of the prop coolers from the props storage, so that Tom and I could make the trip to North Fork.

Tuesday morning began with our wrap up THTR 130 class about collaboration, all the faculty collaborators there. We did exercise designed by Tina, the Costume Design Faculty member. The room was divided up and seven groups came up with seven scenes, which they discussed scenario, characters, setting, lighting and costuming the two characters from what the group was wearing, and final dramatic moment of the scene. The room was quite intense as they worked on their scenarios, huddled over the sheet, writing down their ideas, which were coming enthusiastically, ending after about twenty minutes by naming the scenes. At the end they took turns pitching their shows, freshmen actors, all of them, eager to perform in front of their classmates (in a technical production kind of way). The five faculty members sat in seats in the center, to listen to their pitches.

Here were two of my favorites:

A Quiet Ruckus – 14-year old Russell plays baseball near the barn, finds the dead body of Wrangler. Cue opening song – Finally a Friend!/Lights come up – there are movers and gobos…/3 mice and a raccoon scurry in. /Setting – unit set – Winter inside the barn of Russell’s family farm in the south– pretty realistic setting. /Winter – chilly fog intensifies as the 14 year old boy continues to lose his mind. Sound – 30’s style hoe-down music. Wrangler (the dead man) has a Johnny Cash voice. Basic sound effects – “Danny Elfman-esque” score– wintery soundscapes/Very lighting heavy show – heavy side lighting. Sirens flashing on the duo.

The Not-So-Nice-Pumpkin-Spice– Intern brings boss wrong coffee/Characters are Dean, the mean boss and Samm, the under-qualified intern/Setting – present day in NYC 23rd floor – big sleek black desk, two large windows, big black leather chair, white shag rug. 2 mac books/Low budget student film /Costumes from within group /Lighting – colors of the scenes – black and grays. Using fluorescents from above. Gloomy outside. Not too much warm light/Sound – elevator music in the background (cue played on one student’s Iphone to very appreciative laughter from all)/Shouts and honks from outside/Final scene – sounds are getting louder/Boss throws coffee onto the intern who drips in pumpkin spice as the lights fade to black.

You get the picture. It was a great exercise and we all left the classroom buoyed.

Later that afternoon, I extracted myself from a meeting at 4:15, rolling my red cooler with the big white handle, across campus to McCarthy Quad where the car rental office was. The empty cooler groaned its way across the varied brick and concrete sidewalks, tracing the tracks of thousands of fuller, though hardly less celebratory coolers from game days gone by. The plastic wheels rattling against the pavement was driving me nuts, and people were looking at me as I passed by as though I’d only missed the USC/UCLA rout by three days. I steamed into the office, with my little friend behind me to discover a sign. Uh oh.

The Car Rental Center employee did not come to work today. Please call 213-XXX-XXXX to follow up on your reservation.

There was a young Chinese student in the office on her phone and as I looked blankly at the empty desk, she kindly wagged her finger at the sign, then walked outside to join her friend.

I fumbled my phone out of my pocket and dialed the number, navigating the menu to reach a live person who chirped, “We have someone coming to pick you up.” So I wandered outside and encouraged the other young women to walk with me, again, behind my tethered turkey trolley to the corner of Figueroa and McCarthy Way, where within about ten minutes, an unmarked white van pulled up and a young man named Jamal recited our two cell phone numbers and assured he was with the company. We hopped in.

It was now about 5:00PM, and we arrived at the rental car place near DTLA. I retrieved my cooler from the back of the van. I checked in after the two young USC students got their car squared away. The store was very busy, with a festive air – off for Thanksgiving! I chatted briefly with a man about the drive to Yosemite, which was currently listed as 6 plus hours, and I knew that I’d be racing against the snow.

Finally a clean cut young man with hand held computer walked out to show me my car. The first car we look at was a large heavy looking grey Dodge 2019 Journey. I asked him, “Does it have 4WD?” He didn’t know, nor did the other man in the lot who we went over to talk to. While we were about 20 feet away from the car, another man came over and started to get into that car as my sales rep was showing me a much smaller mini SUV.
“This one is the same size as the other one.”
“But it’s patently not,” I said beginning to see how this was going and beginning to tear up a little that the turkey that weighs as much as my granddaughter was now in danger of not getting to North Fork, or anyone’s fork at this rate.

Eying a large black Chevy Tahoe, I said, “I’ll take that one. That looks like it has 4 Wheel Drive.”

Rep: I’m sorry, but that is reserved for someone for tomorrow.

Me: But what about the Ford EcoSport I reserved for today? Atypically petulant now Scuffing the bottom of my faux-fur-tufted snow boots on the asphalt of the lot for effect. What effect, I’m not sure because it seemed to be having none on the two stressed-out employees.

Rep: We’re in Los Angeles. We rarely have a need for cars with 4 Wheel Drive. And the website says “or similar.”

Me: (I must have missed that fine print.) And yet, here we are, in need of one. Not proud of my attitude, and turning immediately penitent. Softly: Can we please ask about the Tahoe?

The Rep and I walked back into the store where the manager was busy checking out another customer. He informed my customer service agent(loudly so I could also hear and looking back and forth between me and him) that “All the reservations for our customers have been confirmed with them.” (“That’s the way we do it at this fine establishment, lady!” implicit.)

Churlishly, now, I leaned over the counter to my rep: “Tell me, what good is it to be a “Plus” customer?”

Rep: Trying desperately to please a customer who can only be pleased in a way not available to him. “I can still rent you the Nissan Sport that’s outside.”
Me: “But we’ve already established that it wouldn’t be safe to drive it in the snow, right?”
He shrugged.

I felt the hot tears of disappointment resulting from poor customer service beginning to spurt, and I turned from the counter, weakly, over my shoulder, “Never mind. I’ll figure it out.”

Then I toted my turkey cooler out to the sidewalk and plopped myself down right in the middle of the sidewalk in view of the side window of the car rental manager to try to find another rental company on my phone. I was breathing hard, not thinking clearly, angry, upset that I wouldn’t get to see my granddaughter who’d earlier squealed “Nana!” on the phone in her most exuberant voice.

I called Midway, which it turned out was directly across the street from where I was perched on the cooler.

“Hold, please.” The very friendly man came back a moment later. “We have a Ford Mustang.”

“Is that a 4WD?” I asked, imbecilically.

“No, it’s a sports car.”

I stabbed at the Uber app on my phone, and waited three minutes for Hugo to arrive in his Silver Toyota to take me home. I figured going to home base was the smartest thing right now.

Once in my apartment, the sobs erupted, I’m embarrassed to say perhaps worse crying even than when I lost my husband a year ago. Heaving and hiccoughing, I couldn’t think even where to begin. As a planner of the Type A variety, I was absolutely stymied by suddenly not having any plan at all along with the responsibility of the 22 lb. turkey for my entire family snowed in up at the cabin. I envisioned my 4-year-old granddaughter gnawing on the forearm of her baby sister while the adults sat around eating the last of the cheese balls and looking forlorn.

So I texted my son.

Oops. I guess the secret is out. Anyway, soon my phone rang, while I was in the middle of maniacally dialing the rental company again. It was Chris. He said the magic words.

Think further along the line.

Honestly, sometimes he is Yoda-like. Right! If they don’t have 4 WD in Los Angeles, they might have one in Fresno. Then the collaborative exercise began. Through my tears, I opened my laptop, booking a hotel room in Fresno, because by now it was 7:00PM, and there was no way I was going to get to North Fork by the end of Tuesday as originally planned. Chris remembered that his wife’s father was flying into Fresno on Wednesday morning and driving out. In an SUV. We quickly arranged for me to accompany him to North Fork. He graciously said he’d love the company, though if he’d seen me at that moment, I’m not so sure he would have felt that way. So I ate some food, and packed my cart with Tom in the Trolley.

Tom the Turkey in his cooler with all the gear to go in my non-existant rental car….
Tom tucked into his turkey trolley.

The drive to Fresno was about 4.5 hours, and I listened to podcasts, munched on potato chips and stopped once at one of those roadside food courts with the central bathrooms bereft of toilet paper, to pick up another sack of ice to ice down Tom and the other perishable food. I arrived at the very nice Holiday Inn Express in Fresno at midnight on the nose, and after checking Tom, checked in, just as the rain began to come down with increasing ferocity. I fell into the downy white bed and slept hard.

This morning, Dan will pick me up and we’ll go on to put Tom on our forks in North Fork. Picture Norman Rockwell-esque scene, lots of heavy side lighting, steam rising from the golden turkey, the tinkle of children laughing and the fire crackling in the stove. Fade to black.

Jimmy Tomorrow

Today marks a year since the death of my partner-in-life, our son’s father, accomplished actor, life-long Red Sox fan, and so many more qualifying roles he played during his 92 years on the planet. I’ve been warned by many loving friends of the unexpected tsunami of grief we who lost Jimmie may experience today. But throughout the relatively calm day, I’ve been reminded of the power of time as balm, the healing power of our life’s work and the loving remembrances of friends and family whose lives he also profoundly touched.

When I woke this morning, as every morning, I locked eyes with “Jimmy” in the distinctive black and white photo taken during The Iceman Cometh back in Washington, DC. at the Kennedy Center. It is a searing portrait by Joan Marcus, of Jimmie Greene as Jimmy Tomorrow, Eugene O’Neill’s Boer War veteran and denizen of Harry Hope’s Bar he played not just in 1985, but also back in 1967. Pipe dreams and all, Jimmy in the photo has a Rembrandt quality, his face emerging from the surrounding darkness; the photo is slightly water-damaged but still sits in the white matte frame it came in back in 1985.

The morose sorrow of Jimmy Tomorrow is palpable, the angle of the photographer’s lens, just below his eye line, allowing his eyes to follow me around the room. How does that work anyway? Of course when I looked it up, “how to make eyes follow you in a photo” – it’s straight forward – make the eyes or anything face straight out. The other 600,000 links were how-tos for wannabe social influencers. Of course.

Anyway, Jimmy Tomorrow is present, focused, stern and intently loving. I can’t tell you the number of times this year that he’s listened to me as I told him the terrible and wonderful things that have befallen me over this first year flying solo. He’s watched as I stripped our marital bed every two weeks to change the sheets, he’s watched as I sorted socks and underwear on the bedspread, back turned to the portrait, often regaling him with the benign details of trips to the gym, dates with friends, challenges at work and emotional setbacks. I’ve tried not to blame him in these “Jim Sessions.” He watched my back as I packed my suitcases for this summer’s European adventure, and again when I returned to unpack and sort them into laundry and dry cleaning, all the while as I gabbed about who and what I’d seen abroad. Was he glad I was home?

Sometimes before I turn the light off at night, I’ll try to achieve a Vulcan Mind Meld with Jimmy Tomorrow; the other night so successfully that when I turned out the light, I retained the negative image, face silhouette, frame and all in my mind’s eye for a good five minutes. During those intense stares, he almost seems to move, and his gaze responds to whatever cue I’m throwing his way. I know this is classic projection. I know I am alone and he is gone, but somehow it has been comforting to imagine his presence still in the room as he’s very much still in my mind and life.

Its been a busy year, with its share of exciting events and devastating ones. I’ve progressed through the phases of seemingly intractable grief to the promise of more mindfulness in my teaching and in my life. Whatever comes with Jimmy Tomorrow, here are just a handful of photos that remind me of Jimmie Past.

Adding Laughter Back In

I yearn for the laughter of my previous life. Seven months ago, after watching my friend Susie’s show at the Geffen, we met for dinner between the two shows. In the theatre, these interstitial social moments are the ones you tend to remember, not the slog of the eight-show week, but the human interactions that the intimate theatre process allows. Nearly every project I’ve worked on in my life includes these memories. This time, Susie and I retired to CPK in Westwood to eat. Two rawly recent widows, finding our new way in the world. Somehow the conversation came around to David Sedaris – seeing him live has been on my bucket list for years. I knew he was coming to UC Irvine on Nov. 6th, and I offered to get tickets for us both to go.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to go – I might be on a show,” Susie said.

“I know, but I’ll get the tickets and if you can’t go, I’ll find someone else to go with me.”

Little did either of us know that Susie would be unable to go for entirely different reasons. Later that summer, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The last time I sat with her at her hospice bedside, I said, “Well, I guess you won’t be up to going to UC Irvine next week to see David Sedaris.” This probably sounds like an incredibly callous thing to say and in fact, had I known she’d be gone by the following week, I probably wouldn’t have said it; but if you knew Susie, you’d know that that kind of sarcasm was right up her alley. “Sorry, don’t think I can make it.” We laughed easily, the way two old friends do, and the way in retrospect, I now know Susie did with all her old friends.

It’s vital to make plans in your life to keep your family ties and friendships alive. Stage management is an incredibly grueling path. The marquee is always emblazoned with “The Show Must Go On.” And yes, the show will go on, and you need to find ways to jump out to experience your life. This is probably not what you might hear in your training program, but make the plans, buy the tickets, build the future into your current work. When the job comes up that won’t allow you to go see David Sedaris on a Wednesday night, talk with your producer and say, “I’m not available on Nov. 6th. That’s the only day. Do you think we can work around that one date?” Not surprisingly, they will find a way. Your assistant can cover the rehearsal, you may be able to have them hire someone to cover your calling the show. If not, perhaps you don’t take that job. The most important thing is that you communicate your needs. This is part of the negotiation part that stage managers, especially women, shy away from. And God help me, brace me for the onslaught of requests.

So, last night, I went to see David Sedaris perform at the Barclay Center in Irvine, CA. Leaving USC to drive down there with my friend and colleague, Melinda, at 6:00PM was insanity. The freeways were jammed, headlights blazing across the median strip, through the newly adjusted standard time darkness, which lowers the curtains now around 5:00PM. What I know almost a year after losing my foundation with the death of my husband is that my life is still as busy, but I now appreciate more the process of being present. Melinda and I chatted the entire way down, then stopped for some salads at a Chinese fast food place near the venue, risking missing the start of the show. Fortunately, or unfortunately, “traffic is a thing” in Southern California. The show started about ten minutes after its published start time, and with the humorous and disarming grace I’ve always loved about David Sedaris, he emerged from the wings in the most amazing “costume” that we only got a brief glimpse of on his way to the podium. Was that a kilt? Arriving at the podium, he confessed that we were starting late because he’d been doing his laundry down in the basement. “It’s been a long tour,” he drolly intoned, instantly relaxing the audience and providing just what we’d come for, a deep, belly laugh of recognition of one aspect of our shared human condition – when will my event-filled life allow me to do my laundry?

The evening proceeded to deliver more of what I’d come for, deep guttural laughs, incredulous scoffs, gales of the easy kind of tears that swept through the hall from the twenty-somethings who sat to my right to the sea of NPR-loving-graying-wordsmith-appreciating sixty-somethings who made up the audience. Anyone who loves words and their sly misuse can appreciate someone like David Sedaris. He read several of his CBS Morning commentaries, including one which dissected the N-word and reeled through the alphabet, helping us to laugh about our political correctness by shredding it; the face of having the L-word be Love, and the C-word commitment.

His humor relies on the knowledge that we will head full tilt to what we assume he’s going to say, then roar with laughter as he pulls the rug out from underneath us, landing us on our butts. A lot of his material was about his childhood vacation home, in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. His writing is so dry as to almost ignite the pages he methodically pulled and unclipped from a manila folder on the lecturn. His delivery is so divorced from his own wit that sometimes you need to go back a sentence to catch up. There were several times I was puzzled for a good minute before I understood what he’d said.

At any rate, I could go on for days about David Sedaris. Suffice it to say, find the laughter in your life and routine, your own food for your imagination, that which nourishes your soul and consciously, actively build it into your life.

Sometime late in the program, he said something about friends which I can’t even remember specifically what it was, but it full-throttle invoked Susie for me, and I shut my eyes, (forgive me Melinda) imagining her beside me in the dark of the Barclay Center, sharing a moment of respite from the work and the world. Sharing a laugh with a friend.

Nanas on Scooters – What’s next?

Since Nanas are the ones driving Facebook, it wasn’t such a stretch to get to Nanas driving Scooters. It seemed appropriate for me to utilize the tools available to me to get to LATC yesterday, where our MFA Y2s are beginning to tech their fall productions, The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and The Minotaur by Anna Ziegler. About a year ago, I’d bought myself a bicycle helmet, with the strong intention of getting a bike to go with it. I figured I would reduce my carbon impact on Los Angeles. After I shared my plan with several friends and watched each of their faces contort into a grimace of concern and incredulity, cooler heads prevailed, so I’m taking the Dash or Metro to and from work, thanks to the reinstatement of a USC discount for using public transport. This new practice has afforded me about an hour of time to read, answer emails, and listen to music. The helmet has sat on the bottom shelf of my foyer table gazing sadly up at me with disappointment.

When my friend Caro was visiting, I thought we’d go out and try the scooters, more because I wanted company in my first outing, but alas, time did not allow for us to try. Knowing I had this all day rehearsal at LATC yesterday, I’ve been checking out the scooters as I walked home from the bus. Now I am going to get myself in trouble, because the scooter I chose to ride was not the one my nibling is the spokesperson for in SF. (Sorry EV – they look so tall!). I chose the Bird because it looked geared for smaller Nanas and I’ll work my way up to the citrus fruits later. Friday night, I downloaded the app to my phone, happy to discover that part of the process was pretty standard for someone with experience with Uber.

Yesterday morning, I shuffled everything from my purse to a backpack, grabbed my very excited little purple helmet from the shelf and headed outside, where the app told me a Bird was waiting for me in front of my building. Sure enough, there she was, and I stood over her, looking at the handles and trying to figure out how to turn it on. Pretty easy, and she chirped a few times, before I scooted her away from the restaurant where she was parked, and headed out onto Ninth Street. Scooting past the Grand Hope Park, I could almost imagine Jimmie in a Munch-scream-like pose sitting on the bench watching me pass, but couldn’t raise my hand to wave because it would have been too perilous. I’m such a damn goody-two shoes, so had watched the little instructions of how to ride twice, and I was damned if I was going to ride on the sidewalk which was not allowed. Because it was Saturday, there was a lot less traffic, but I learned first hand that the scooter ride is not smooth – there are about a dozen sewer covers on each block, and as I turned left onto Main St., the traffic crawled to a halt because they were paving the street. Bad choice, so I did ride up on the sidewalk until I could get to an east/west street to dart over to Broadway. This involved negotiating the still clumpy asphalt around the sidewalk crossings and eventually I was back on my way up Broadway, then a right on 6th, and I still walked about a block to the LATC building. Bird insists that you take a family photo of all the other little scooters parked on the sidewalk before she chirps a brief goodbye to you. This, an attempt to make sure you’re not leaving her lying face down in the path of another Nana to trip over. (Have you noticed how many Nanas there are in DTLA?)

At ten PM, as I left LATC after the day’s spacing rehearsals, I found a Bird right in front of the theatre, but she wouldn’t play with me, so I walked a little further south, finding another, which chirped happily at me and off I went.

I got home, and in my excitement, called Chris (at 10:30).

Mom, are you okay?

I became a scooter rider today! Love you, bye!

What’s next for Nana? Stay tuned. Anything’s possible!

R.I.P. Susie

We lost a great human being this week, Susie Walsh, stage manager, friend, my reluctant widow pal. There have been so many heartfelt posts about what made Susie special. I’m late to the tablet. People have noted her great sense of humor, her biting but loving wit, her talents as a stage manager to anticipate and solve problems as they arose. The length and quality of her practice as a stage manager, the depth and breadth of her friendships and impact has wowed me. Susie was very private and would probably have hated the attention she’s getting, except not really, because it is so heartfelt, and irreverent, just like Susie was. Loving, subversive, disarmingly direct sometimes, she said what she meant and rarely sugar coated it unless needed to stay within professional boundaries.

I’ve known Susie for twenty-five years, but hold her dearest in my heart for her role as PSM for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Spring of 2016. It was my hub’s last show. Having worked so many times with Susie over the years on shows, and seeing her shows, I took enormous comfort in knowing that she’d be monitoring the halls outside of the three 89+ year old actors dressing rooms. Just making sure they were behaving. Which they were, I think, for the most part.

Jimmie in his cap
Susie having a laugh at the closing night party with Jimmie and Charlotte Rae.

She let me come to a rehearsal one time upstairs so I could see how Jimmie was navigating the work as his best 89-year-old self. I’d visit Jimmie on his two show days; In the bathroom across from his dressing room, Susie would be putting on her togs for a run or bike to the beach. A runner and a complete jock, Sueis loved sports and people who loved sports and some of us who just pretended to love sports to witness her love of them and us. I went to watch a football game at her house earlier last year and feigned interest, grazing instead on the snacks, and enjoying the company of her college friends who really were invested in the game as I would never be.

Susie and I shared a secret affection for our “old men.” She and I were about eight years apart in age, and both our partners were about 30 years older than us, give or take a few years, and after all, what’s a few years when you already have 30+ years difference? Though she and Ken never married, she was loyal to him like a spouse. We shared a pretty unique set of concerns for our old men. Our stage manager, old man Venn Diagram really was fairly rare. We added a widow circle on Dec. 1, 2018.

Sure, other couples of similar ages have illness arise that they have to deal with and it is no less impactful than what we did, but ours was expected. We knew what we signed up for. It was dreaded and yet routine, and when we had lunch together after seeing her show at the Geffen about a year ago, we spent twenty minutes or so chatting about their bad knees, their home care workers. It was our dark bond, one that we shared easily like a special shared language.

When Jimmie passed away, Ken was in his home receiving carefully organized care that Susie had put together. She texted me some photos of her battle station at Ken’s.

Hey, who do I know who would appreciate my organization?

She was right, I did appreciate seeing it because the quality of her instructions was so personal, so tangible. Seeing them brought back my own diligence, and the urgency of caring for someone you love so much in decline. That was Nov. 24th, and Ken was gone by Dec. 1st, Jimmie’s birthday. We made plans in January, to go see David Sedaris on Nov. 6th this coming week at UC Irvine. It seemed so far off, and I knew we’d both need a laugh as we approached the anniversary of our shared loss. This was the perfect reflection of Susie’s sense of humor.

Susie was the fittest over-fifty person I knew, running races, inspiring us more sedentary types to exercise more. The photo above is from New Year’s eve in 2016. That morning, we took a hike in the rain and mist. At the end, I was tired, and sore for days, a fact I shared with Michele and Susie via our ongoing shared text message. We made plans for a few more hikes, each of us taking the role of organizer of the day. My go to spot was the Huntington Gardens, Michele organized a Christmas light walk in Pasadena. In each of these walks, we shared the easy comaraderie of long time colleagues and friends – the stories unfolded, with the trails. In March, 2019, it was Susie’s turn to call the walk and we’d agreed to do a hike in a spot I didn’t know about. Susie knew all the trails – we’d done several in Griffith Park and I’d seen more of Los Angeles than I dreamed existed. We followed her trustingly, sometimes discovering that the distance was more than we’d planned for, but always feeling accomplished at the end. This time, however, in the car on the way over, Susie said, casually, “I’ve got to tell you a story – I had to go to urgent care last night.” We leaned forward to listen expecting a typically light story about food poisoning, or something like that. We arrived at the spot, got out of the car and started across the parking lot. Susie was lagging a little, then she stopped and said, “Hey would it be okay if we didn’t walk? I’m having a lot of pain.” And so instead, we went to breakfast. And began to hear the ominous start of what became the beginning of her cancer odyssey. The way was unclear, and as the future unfolded, Susie met each bend in the very uneven road with her usual fierce integrity and grit and eventually resignation and grace.

In the recent weeks, when I was able to visit her, either in the hospital or the one time I was able to get away to visit her bedside, we rarely talked about death, though he was obviously in the room, shadowing the conversation, evident in the clear oxygen tubing that snaked around Susie’s ears and under her nostrils; the propulsive wheezing of the tank that spooked Maddox, her cat from sitting on the bed with her. In her living room, the room had been torqued 90 degrees from the way it liked to be, the alien hospital bed facing the door, the coffee table and couches hugging the walls, pushed aside as if to make room for the last dance of life. The photos of family, and young Ken faced her bed, her sister Katie sitting in the chair, back to the front door, her comrade in arms, as so many of Susie’s many brothers and family had done since late summer, when Susie began her chemo. I was hopelessly inept at saying what needed to be said in what turns out was the last time I saw my friend. I’m kicking myself about that and all the loss of recent weeks makes me want to rail against the gods or something. But for what?

Friday, my colleague brought me a little pink rose bush, and said how sorry he was for my loss. Thursday, the day we all lost Susie, my coach had given me an exercise to do called Roses and Thorns. As I lay in bed last night, just before I turned out the lights I documented the Good Things (Roses) vs. the Bad Things (Thorns) I marveled at the literalness of the day. Aside from literal roses, I thought about the happy reunion of Ken and Susie, Susie and her recently departed Mom, and the very happy actors, Jimmie Greene and Charlotte Rae, who now can begin rehearsals afresh with Susie monitoring the hallways of heaven.

Meet Susie, who now lives on my balcony overlooking downtown LA.

[Boys Off Sobbing] Bouts of Sobbing –

Here in California, and at USC specifically, we recently practiced for “The Great ShakeOut,” a state-wide Earthquake Preparedness Drill. Under the guidance and leadership of the university’s Fire, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we performed the drill, each school setting up it’s Emergency Response Team and executing well-defined plans.

Thursday, October 17 2019 began with a triage drill at the Health Center. My overacting ended me up in a neck brace, but I was next to a guy who had “lost his hand”. We were sitting waiting for the “ambulance to pick us up to take us for further care,” he holding his hand in a bag, me wearing my brace. (Though his right arm had been treated, he carried a left hand in his left hand, which made us laugh for a minute. I had to be discharged early from the drill so I could join my team to set up our Departmental Operations Center to be ready for the 10:17 Earthquake. While the idea of a scheduled earthquake is absurd, the scheduling of practice for the inevitable earthquake is anything but. It offers us a way to get it into our bodies, so that when the real one happens, we are ready.

At 10:17, we dropped, covered and held under the flimsy table which was our Departmental Operations Center, where you can see me ready to enter the data collected from our Emergency Response Teams and our Building Emergency Response Teams on our Status board. We use WhatsApp for that communication.

Also on my WhatsApp chat list is the chat group composed of just myself and my two dear college friends, Susan and Bob. That Emergency Response Team is entitled “Loving Jimmie and Els” and was started by Susan about a year ago when my husband had a fall that ultimately quickly ended his life.

We started it in the days after we’d returned home for hospice, a brief three-day period that was insular and emotional, of course, as brief hospices are, and over those days, my friends sent me so much love via this emergency friendship group. Unlike messenger, WhatsApp allowed me this morning to roll back to the beginning of the chat quickly, and to see the real-in time responses to what we were going through right at the end of Jimmie’s life, including a photo of Jimmie in the hospice bed which I’d impulsively deleted from my photos because it wasn’t how I wanted to remember him.

Over the past year, Bob and Susan have supported me on every front, nearly every day via this Emergency Response Team message platform. My earthquake was personal, one that we’d prepared for through many many iterations of hospital care over the years. But critical to the success of surviving the actual incident was having people to share it with immediately and in the aftermath. Looking back on our messages, we shared pictures and memories and plans for future travels together and past travels. At one point, I referred to the chat as a “life feed for me.” We arranged Skype chats to check in and see how each other were doing. Like typical digital tourists, we spent a good five minutes at the beginning of each of our chats figuring out the technology. Honestly, it was ridiculous. But hey, that’s why we practice. To get it right when we need it.

On the other coast, Bob and his son just concluded a similarly quick hospice for his partner and his son’s father. We used the same Loving Jimmie and Els chat over the past ten months as he tended to his loving partner, Mitchell. In honor of Mitchell we need to change the name of our group to Loving Bob and Mitchell. Otherwise it’s hard to be helpful all the way from Los Angeles. I’ve been thinking about him and their son Nate, and also reflecting back on our own hospice with Jimmie as we approach the year mark.

The waiting is the easy part. That’s not to say it’s emotionally easy. Of course it’s not. But while you are in the cocoon with your loved one, you have supportive nursing staffing (if you’re privileged to have health care and resources) and most likely you have family visiting to pay their respects and to say goodbye. You have a solemn intimacy couched in the shared love of your partner/parent/child. I remember on Jimmie’s last day, one of Chris’ best childhood friends, now a cop, dropped by to pay his respects. The two of them laughed at the foot of Jimmie’s bed about all the trouble they’d gotten into when they were younger, and under his watch. Having him visit normalized the process of dying.

Those visits are so critical to the family as they grapple with their emotions. Tugged by the undertow of their loved one’s leaving, it is easy and normal to want to follow them into the afterlife. The visits by friends and family remind you that it isn’t time for you to die with your loved one even though you feel like you want to. There is more life to live and loving family and friends to support you on your first unsteady steps away from the tumultuous surf.

The end of life scene is different from other social settings where people come to visit. It’s purer, somehow. No one expects you to serve up food for them. The visitors do that for you. They are there because they want to be there. Why? To let the person who’s dying know that they love them, and care enough to come and sit facing their friend’s death, but also their own mortality. Because you can’t sit with someone who’s dying without thinking about your own exodus and the remaining purpose of your life were you to be in their position.

Sitting with your loving and dying friends where you all know that time is running out, frames everything in this context. I’m a pretty touchy feely person, but even with repeated experiences, I find my words choked and unavailable. How do you summarize a twenty-five year relationship in a fifteen to twenty-minute visit? This is part of the earthquake drill I still need to rehearse in order to be ready.

What happens immediately after is a frenzy of arrangements, people coming in to what had been a few minutes or hours ago the hallowed ground of your loved one’s departure. Now, your home is the workspace for mortuary workers, hospice care personnel clearing out their equipment. Then there is the silence. The part where no amount of sobbing or screaming or pounding your fist into pillows or walls can bring your loved one back. After you’ve tired yourself out with expressions of anguish, there follows a cavernous silence, an emptiness of loss that feels insurmountable. Simply, what was is no more. The love you had for them is still there, but it echoes back at you in terrifying starkness. Thirty plus years of intimacy and friendship and love gone in an instant. When it happened to us, Chris and I had to get out of the house. We went for a bike ride, of all things, grabbing metro bikes and riding from our condo to Little Tokyo, where we ate sushi, then walked miles back to the empty apartment. And the feelings were epic – guilt (did I do enough? Why didn’t I spend more time at the end at home?), fear (how will I survive without him?) rage (against the disease, the loneliness which you already are beginning to feel, the pain), and eventually, exhaustion, as all the days or months or years of staying vigilant collapse onto you like weighted plates, threatening to crush you. And frankly, you sort of wish they would. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with all of the niggling details of death – the acquisition of dozens of death certificates, of stationery to respond to people who will write in sympathy, the faces of the people who come to see you expressing their love and sorrow for your loss. And may continue to do so far after you need or want them too. Bob expressed it well in one of the messages – Bouts of sobbing – which Siri had helpfully translated as Boys off sobbing. Equally appropriate.

This year, on the anniversary of our return home from the hospital to hospice, I have two tickets to see David Sedaris at UC Irvine. I can’t imagine a more comforting place to spend the evening. I’d booked the tickets a year ago intending to go with my dear friend. During my recent visit, we talked about the fact that she wouldn’t be going with me. It was a bittersweet moment to acknowledge the rapid change in our fortunes.

Not to sound like a modern Cassandra, but like the catastrophic earthquake in Southern California, loss is coming to all of us. How we prepare ourselves to weather those losses is a personal choice. I’ve preferred to suit up and practice going through the motions of it with others. My recommendation to you is that you create your Emergency Response Team now, utilize the tools of communication we are so lucky to have to do it.

Amsterdam and Venice – Canals, Water under the Bridges and Tiny Steps

I drove my friend Caro to the airport where I bade her goodbye as she went off on the next leg of her trip to Sidney, Australia. We’d had an amazing five days visiting; the last two, she’d accompanied me twice to campus, where she observed a production meeting Monday evening, a quick dinner in the Tutor Student Center courtyard, then a workshop on Post-Dramatic Theatre with our Israeli guest director of Amsterdam, Lilach Dekel-Avneri.

Caro lives in Venice, Italy, where I visited her and her husband, Alberto, for about five days this summer. Over those days, she patiently helped me to reconstruct my geographic synapses of a city that I had known well enough to make it home late at night intoxicated, but which thirty-three years later, greeted me as a bewildering maze of indiscriminate streets and courtyards. The canals teamed with water buses and ambulances as we strode around, crossing the arching bridges to stop at shops and galleries sampling the fruits of the Venice Biennale. One of our favorite stops had been at the Lithuanian Pavilion, where we voyeuristically drank in the performance of the actors romping on the faux beach while singing the modern opera about life’s vicissitudes in a warehouse near the Arsenale.

And we laughed. We laughed about the silly things, Caro’s bright Australian accent piercing through the afternoons and evenings. I marveled at how she’s managed to keep her youthful sense of humor and life appreciation even as she’s matured into a wise, insightful woman. When I left them in Venice, we made tentative plans for her to stop in Los Angeles on her way to Australia to see their daughter.

Between then and now, classes resumed, the seven undergraduate plays were cast and rehearsals began, designers collaborated, directors directed, and we already have closed one of the shows and opened the second. The fall has been a blur of activity, and the impending anniversary of my husband’s death has begun to rattle my cage.

The other night, the night of October 3rd, I had a dream, where Jimmie and I were traveling. We were at the airport, which was clean and modern, white shining subway tile in a hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jimmie emerged from the bathroom, standing tall, no walker or scooter, shock of neatly combed white hair. I walked to his side and we began walking, but I couldn’t keep up with him and said, “Hey, I can’t keep up with you. You’re walking too fast.” He turned, and with the twinkle in his eye I always loved, he said, “I owe it all to you.” And with that, he was gone. It was only later when reviewing some photos and some writing I’d done that I realized October 3rd had been a momentous day for us. Nearly 28 years before, it had been the day we had the call from our adoption social worker, with the news about our soon-to-be son. Also, last year, Chris had been visiting us and I’d snapped this picture at home, before our last dinner out together before Jimmie’s rapid decline. October 3rd had returned to remind me of its power and the power of our love for each other. Later that morning, poor Chris called me to say hi, and I blubbered for about ten minutes.

It was in this emotional period, when I picked Caro up at the airport on Friday afternoon, the beginning of the only weekend of the semester when I didn’t have a tech rehearsal. I marveled at how we’d somehow scheduled her visit for a pocket of my life when I could pull in my PM shingle and just play for three days. We’d opened Amsterdam just the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Amsterdam has been an unfettered learning experience in mounting a non-hierarchical production. Working with Lilach has been challenging, and exciting and instructive as to how to create a play and environments through the sheer creative drive of a team. You should try to get over to USC to see it this weekend. It plays three more times this weekend. It closes Sunday 10/20.

Friday, after kidnapping Caro from the airport and driving her to Malibu, we had dinner at Gladstone’s, sitting outside, smelling the seasonal fragrance of the local fires, and watching the blood-red sun sink into the Pacific Ocean as we waited for our dessert and coffee to arrive.

There’s truth to the idea that the friends you make in your twenties are the ones you keep closest. As we looked out over the sand, I reminded Caro of the silly game we used to play at the beach at the Lido – find your physical twin. I remember my eternal body dysmorphia and how I always selected someone who looked well…. hmmm… sort of like I look today. Not as we looked then, svelte, and carefree and…twenty-two. I feel so fortunate to have managed to keep my friends close at hand.

Tonight, as I sorted through some of Jimmie’s residuals, finally made out in my name after almost a year of back and forth with the lovely folks at SAG-AFTRA, I thought about my new competencies. I’ve learned out to grieve as I need to, to pull it together when life calls for that. I know how to weigh the value of time spent with dear friends versus an extra hour of preparation for work. I’ve learned how to calendar my time to do the things that matter to me, and to keep committing to the forward actions that will make my future. I’m learning that I can be quite satisfied with a fried egg for dinner and I don’t need to beat myself up for not cooking. Or cleaning, or tidying the pile of mail before I sit down to write. When someone says they’re coming to stay, I don’t need to launch into a worry-fest about how I’ll manage house guests in the busy days of November, including November 9th, the anniversary day. Instead, I’ll think about how wonderful it will be to be surrounded by family at that time, fantasize that they might have dinner on the table when I come home, then proceed to take it one day at a time rather than drifting into a miasma of martyrdom.

I’ve spoken to several students this week who suffer from depression, anxiety and OCD. And the cold or the flu that’s going around relentlessly. I want to tell them it will be okay. Emotions are emotions. They won’t kill you. You have the power to control them. And even if you can’t for a moment, this too shall pass. That’s what they made Kleenex for. Lord knows I’ve developed a competency with Kleenex this year.

This fall, I have an amazing class of GESM 111G students. We’re learning how to read plays together, how to look at plays, how to sit and experience each dramatic outing and then come together and share our more and less favorite parts. They’re so enthusiastic and willing to share. I tortured them with an exercise this week. I’d had them do the Creative Autobiography from Twyla Tharp’s terrific book, The Creative Habit weeks ago, then carried around their little bits of heart in my bag for weeks until I finally read them. Each of them shared their creative successes and failures and aspirations with me. Across the board they all want to make a unique contribution in their field that helps people. So I thought that was worthy of some torture. I had them write what they thought that unique thing might look like, and after several iterations of sharing their ideas with each other in small groups, I wrote on the board what the tiny steps that they could take to get moving toward the goal would be. (Can you tell I’m working with a life coach and trying to emulate her? Good guess.)

Amsterdam, Venice, friendship, creativity, supporting each other. These are the tiny steps that make a life. In the end, it’s all water under the bridge.

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

Strong Solo Voices and On Being Carfree

Last week was an amazing theatre week. Wednesday night I attended “On Beckett” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, starring the incandescent Bill Irwin, sharing his life-long love of and relationship with Samuel Beckett’s texts. Sitting in the center of the Kirk Douglas Theatre before the show, uncannily close to where I sat for opening night of Endgame, I cracked open my program to discover the Dramaturgical pages filled with pictures of Beckett performers, including my darling Jimmie, in the ashcan next to Charlotte Rae’s, circa 2016. (Scroll through to page 4/8 to see the page of which I speak. ) I continued to think throughout the ensuing evening how much Jimmie would have enjoyed this production.

Irwin is a master, his affinity with the distinctly Irish voice of Samuel Beckett so clear; his training as a clown made Beckett’s humority (do you like my new word?) powerful and immediate. Irwin removes all distance between himself and us with his personal narrative through the work. The fact that he shared texts most of us probably weren’t familiar with was also a bonus. The not-so-nutty professor, complete with gag podium.

Thursday evening, Sarah Jones was in the house, performing Sell/Buy/Date at USC as part of Visions and Voices in the Bing Theatre, packed to the rafters with appreciative students and faculty. Her play, which had appeared a little over a year ago at the Geffen Playhouse, is a complex jewel. Avoiding spoiler alerts, let’s just say her framing device is brilliant; positioning herself in a time frame about thirty years hence allowed her to skewer our behaviors and sharply direct our attention to the topic of sexual exploitation. On Sunday, the front page of the New York Times was a chilling reminder of how this show, originally performed in 2016, is maybe even more relevant today. Framing is everything. I told my freshmen seminar students that this is why the theatre has the power to change society.

Last Friday, I took the Dash bus to USC from my DTLA home, went to the Transportation office to turn in my parking pass in exchange for the EZ-Metro Pass. The pass allows me to take the Bus, Metro and Dash to and from work, something that I’ve not done in recent years because of my caregiver need to be able to get home quickly. This is a big step, given the fact that we’re heading into “winter” and there are, God willing, bound to be rainy days and late nights after tech where I’d probably appreciate the comfort of my private car. But the $110 parking vs. the $40 EZ-Pass is compelling, as is the lightening of my carbon footprint. And I can still listen to my favorite podcasts and spend time thinking and decompressing from work before I get home, regardless of the hour. I spent the first few days feeling a little dependent on forces not aligned with my fervent desire to get home right after work, until last night, at 10:49PM, I walked up to the bus stop at Jefferson and Figueroa, under Felix’s watchful eye, pulled up the timetable for the 81 bus to discover it only runs one bus per hour… but due to arrive in about 1 minute! Which it did. I got onto the bus, found a seat, and was home by 11:05, feeling oddly privileged.

Under the watchful eye of Felix the Cat

You see, it’s all in the framing. I’ve decided this old house needs to be reframed, and I’ve begun the work. I still have the car sitting at home. If my legs give out from walking the 11,000 steps I’ve proclaimed I want to do each day then I can always get my parking pass back. But on the eve of Free Ride Day on LA Metro (Oct. 2), I’m happy it’s not just a one day choice, but feels like a shift in my lifestyle.

Saturday, I attended the life celebration of one of the former deans of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC, Robert Scales. It was a moving tribute to a man who as many people noted, would have hated the attention. Speaker after speaker talked about what Bob had done for them, either through introducing them to someone who could help them, or by helping them himself. His acts of kindness or opportunity or financial support were laid bare for all of us to see, yet again, reinforcing his legacy. I’ve been thinking a lot about who memorials are for and they’re a chance for us to take notice of each other and the impact we can have on others’ lives.

I’d spent Thursday running around in our new van, picking up loaner ghost lights to decorate the Bing to celebrate Bob, who’d made the witty little lamps as a hobby. In my travels, I got to visit one of Bob’s Los Angeles homes, the 24th Street Theatre, where he had been a constant support to that theatre. You can read more about Bob here through the words of Jay McAdams, one of the theatre’s Artistic Directors. Jay handed me two boxes of the whimsical lamps to use at the Bing. Here are a few pictures of some of the celebrants at Saturday’s event. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the ghost lights.

I just want to take a moment to shout out to our amazing Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea, who gracefully shuffled the week’s events into an already loaded deck. At the time, we had Men on Boats in tech, and our upcoming productions of Amsterdam and Cider House Rules, Parts 1 and 2 waiting for their attentions for hangs and focuses. And yet they powered through, making the School look great as well as our guests, Sarah Jones and the spirit of Bob Scales.

It’s been a busy week and no signs of getting less so in the coming weeks. I feel lucky to have had such wonderful support in this difficult transitional year. Don’t know where I’m transitioning to, but I feel the psychic and emotional shift from looking backwards to looking forward. A few weeks ago, I removed the slim silver bracelet depicted below from my wrist because it no longer seemed a funny and encouraging exhortation but instead a petulant wail of sadness I like to think belies my natural optimism about the future.

Interesting I hadn’t noticed the timestamp in this picture, but six months later, the bracelet no longer feels encouraging.

It’s all about the framing.

Production Managers Forum – Spring Green, WI

I’ve had the privilege of belonging to this mythical group for the past seven or eight years, a national group of Production Managers from Regional Theaters, Educational institutions like mine, Opera Companies, and other assorted theatrical institutions across the country. Benefits of belonging to this advanced “hive mind” are almost instantaneous solutions to problems posed to the group, ranging from seeking contacts for designers and other artists, to advice on how/whether to have a horse on stage, which was one of my first queries back in 2012. Having the lived experience of so many other theatre practitioners at your fingertips makes being a PM possible and educational as well. I’d never before been able to attend a PMF gathering – maybe once before. Last weekend was filled with professional networking, sharing of practices, and a healthy dose of relaxation and taking in the green of Spring Green, WI.

In Wisconsin, we don’t say “I haven’t hit a deer”; we say “I haven’t hit a deer yet.”

Mike Broh, Production Manager, American Players Theatre

These words reverberate like the chimes played on the Hill before the matinee at American Players Theatre. Driving to dinner from the hotel, as the slight framed deer dashed in front of the Gray Nissan rental car I’d refused extra insurance coverage on, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed down.

The road to hell is paved with the flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.

This and other funny and insightful quotes peppered many cork boards throughout the backstage and shop areas at American Players Theater. My favorite was the APT Core Values sheet, on the safety yellow paper stock that APT’s production manager, Mike Broh, reserves for only the most critical areas of safety, of which core values would obviously be.

As someone who began as a Stage Manager prior to moving to Production Management, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for SMs, as folks who will have your back to the bitter end. This PMF group may have superseded them after getting to go on this weekend fall PMF conference. Our host was Mike Broh, of American Players Theatre. Sitting in the wide circle of tables in the rehearsal room for both sessions on Friday evening and Saturday during the day was humbling in terms of the collective experience of these Production Managers but in a comfortable non-judgmental way. There were about 40 of us there. Due to the location of the conference, there were PMs from Milwaukee and Chicago, but others who came a further distance, from Boston, New Haven, and Oregon, as well as three of us from Southern California.

Saturday morning we started the day off with a tour of the APT kingdom, which is a vast network of spaces intricately designed for their individual purposes, to support simultaneously five to eight productions annually. The complexity of this was clear even from the initial board filled with the beaming pictures of the staff, and visiting artists, designers and directors. Everyone’s friendly face on a yellow card with their name and their role clearly indicated.

We toured the props domain, starting with the props woodworking shop, framed by the organized jury of chairs sitting above to watch the clean well-organized shop. We moved through the kitchen, to the upstairs clean room for props and costume work, and finally to the furniture storage, each item clearly tagged and coded for easy retrieval. The staff’s sense of humor was evident, from the prominently displayed Julius Caesar, modeled after one of their core company members, complete with 20+ stab wounds overlooking the props work room from behind his own work goggles.

The tour continued around the many acres on which the Alpha and Bravo buildings were arranged, to the rehearsal space building. I didn’t look around to see if others were salivating like I was, but I suspect they were. I had definite space envy. In addition to the workroom spaces, each of the theatres has adjacent storage spaces to handle the scenery and costumes for rotation in and out of its stages in a very active Rep. Everything’s designed, or course, with these changeovers in mind.

The Costume Domain was equally impressive. From hats to storage, Millinery and Wig rooms, and spacious fitting rooms, all spaces reflected the ethos of giving your employees what they need to succeed.

After touring the facilities, seeing the indoor Touchstone Theatre and outdoor Hill Theatre, we returned to the rehearsal room for our second round table discussing important topics. Topics of the weekend (at the risk of banishment from the group) included:

  • Trends in Theatre
  • Salary Transparency
  • Sustainability
  • Onboarding New Employees
  • Vaping
  • Social Media
  • Use of Cell Phones backstage

Mike ran the meetings beautifully, letting the conversations about each topic ebb and flow; he didn’t need to moderate – this group pretty much self-moderates, but ending each segment right on time with a droll unsardonic “Well, that was fun,” which elicited a rolling, warm shared laugh across the room every time. Aside from acute space envy, I came away from American Players Theatre with an appreciation of the effects of transparency at practice there, the self-evident respect among the staff. It was great to run into a former student, Lea Branyan, who has worked at APT for several summers, and has recently taken a job with the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Just for yucks, as I was writing this, I looked back to see the colorful and extraordinarily helpful descriptions of what could go wrong if I allowed them to bring a horse on stage back in 2012. That’s the other benefit of being a member. Not that I’d wish more email on anyone, but this group is thoughtful and funny with their responses to members’ questions. About that horse idea?

  1. Calculate the weight of the horse when standing on 2 hooves and if you have a trapped stage, figure the point load of the floor. Oversheet the floor with 1” plywood and reinforce the braces in the areas where the traps are.
  2. Hire a horse and a handler. There are plenty of people who do this in Los Angeles. They bring the horse, rehearse the horse and then ideally, take the horse out of the facility.
  3. Be aware of campus sensitivity. Everyone will be looking for you to be abusing the animal. This is usually quelled by saying you have an animal wrangler. (Emphasis is mine)
  4. Talk the handler through the expectations of what the horse would be doing, and conditions on stage.
  5. When you get to tech, if you haven’t found it too crazy, you will need to proceed really slowly to integrate the horse lest it get spooked.  You’ll want to have horse no people with work lights, then horse with people, then horse with lights, then horse with sound, then add people and sound (this is the biggest jump and the most likely to spook the horse), again then people and light.  Only after everything is good with each step do you go ahead.  We would take a week to get animals who are used to performing acclimated to being in a different production number. And then this was a long lead before audience.
  6.   And I forgot to say that the backstage traffic is almost as complicated.  With the right animal it could be quick, if the horse is jumpy, it could be disastrous.  
  7. Oh! And don’t forget you’ll need to assign someone to poop duty. 

Throughout the weekend, we ate well at a series of local restaurants, including one of the local hotspots, Slowpoke Bar and Cabaret owned by Mike and his wife Stacey. We even got to slip away Sunday morning to visit the garish House on the Rock, which until I’d travelled there, always thought referred to the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Taliesan. Oh, couldn’t have been more wrong. A kitschy must-see for when you go to Spring Green. That and the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI.

I feel lucky to be in the company of such amazing Production Managers.