Theatre and Her Ability to Forecast

Sometimes I can’t be sure if what I’m reading in the paper is news, because it so frequently feels like a moment of déjà vu. Take this morning’s LA Times article by Teresa Watanabe about the recent renovations of the Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley, in which she reports a removal of 135,000 books from the library to make more study areas, nap zones in futuristic “nap pods.” The photos show students hunkered down over their computers reading, or on the modernistic equivalent of a back porch, where they work on their computers while looking through a wall of glass at surrounding trees. It is positively bucolic. The only thing missing is a frosty glass of lemonade on the side table. And the book. And yet… where have I seen this idea before?

In the theatre of course. Only seven years ago. Back in 2010, in a production entitled futura  at the Theatre @ Boston Court, we learned about the terrifying possibility that a future society would lose respect for and possession of all our books, in a rush to embrace technology. In today’s article, Libraries turn the page, the change happened because

students kept asking, ‘In the spirit of challenging the status quo, why is this library filled with dusty books no one looks at and I can’t get a study space?’

Teresa Watanabe, Libraries turn the page,

Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17

As a denizen of the theatre, I and countless other audience members confronted this unimaginable future by attending the theatre, where Jordan Harrison’s powerful play unspooled this to us, realized with pulpable (ouch) power by director Jessica Kubzansky.

I also stage managed a play at the Geffen Playhouse years ago, a two-hander by playwright Lee Kalcheim, starring Jason Alexander and Peter Falk, entitled Defiled, which depicted what happened when a computer threatened to replace a library’s card catalogue. How many card catalogues are still in use in the Moffitt Library, I wonder?

One only needs to see a play like the current one we are presenting at USC School of Dramatic Arts, which shall remain nameless, where after a nuclear apocalypse “we” are left literally powerless to fend for ourselves in communities of fearful survivors. These survivors amuse/distract/cling to each other by sharing stories/episodes of a familiar tv series around a campfire, and in subsequent acts re-create theatre around these shared stories.

My take away from this current production is that as a society, we’re potentially nuclear nano-seconds away losing everything we take for granted; we are nano-seconds from a moment when study and nap pods could be pointless without the electricity.

But what tantalizes me today isn’t thinking about our carelessness with our legacy of dusty old books no one looks at, but really about the Cassandra-like power of theatre.

This week has been busy – filled with dress rehearsals of the two main stage plays, one of which is Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, the second referenced above, and a third workshop play of MFA Dramatic Writer Hannah Langley’s Losing My Religion (in 140 characters or less).

Wedekind’s play, written in the late 19th Century, spookily forecasts the sexual awakening of teens in a repressive German society, and their missteps due to ignorance and the unwillingness of the adults to be honest about the changes they are experiencing. But the reason it’s still relevant is that these issues are ever present in our society today.

As I write this, the TV blares with the news about a certain anchor’s dismissal from Fox News for sexual harassment charges, ostensibly, but we all know it’s actually because of the loss of advertising minutes they’ve sustained recently. Déjà vu? Well, unfortunately, yes, because we just watched the head of that network be unseated only a month ago. But so long ago, on stage, we watched David Mamet’s Oleanna, which premiered in May of 1992, and has had many subsequent productions, most recently in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in June, 2009.

The power of theatre to forewarn us, to remind us of our foibles and their ultimate destructive and redemptive capacity is one of the things that I have always thrilled to, perhaps with the exception of Center Theatre Group’s production of Vicuna, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. I happened to see it the week before the most recent Presidential election. How smug I was, as I sat in the theatre watching the buffoonishly theatricalized character so like Donald Trump preen and provoke us.

That will never happen to us. Phew!

While I watched the show, I also thought about how bold it was of Jon Robin Baitz to write a play with such a short shelf life and how extraordinary it was that Center Theatre Group would produce it. What a risk! How could it be relevant to us after the election when we had the first woman President in the White House? A week or so later, I listened to a radio interview with actor Harry Groener, who played the Trump character as he recounted that the week after the election, the audience reactions were completely different. There were many fewer laughs, and the communal grief was palpable.

Years ago, when my Mom was still alive, an inveterate death-long smoker, she wrote an op-ed piece for the small local Pennsylvania newspaper where she imagined a day when we wouldn’t be allowed to smoke in our own homes. There would be smoke-police, and dire consequences for those who continued to light up. I was impressed with her Swift-like satire about the future, unimaginable when she wrote it in the early 90s. Now I know she wasn’t satirizing, but prognosticating about the future world, much as Baitz, Wedekind, Kalcheim, Mamet and the playwright who shall remain nameless have done. I feel fortunate to be a member of a theatre tribe where the work we do carries that magical lens through which we can view our past, present and future as a society. Aside from the poignancy and the humor and the immediacy of the work, playwrights have the visionary power to take us forward in time.

All of this seems pretty far from the study room at the new Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley. But maybe one of those students, feet up on the wall, looking out through the trees might prop up a script of Spring Awakening on his or her legs and think about what Frank Wedekind is telling us about the future so distant from and yet so relevant to his past. Or better yet, this student may elect to attend a play this weekend to see first hand what the magic is all about.

Excuse me, your Freudian slip is showing…

Today I attended our Spring musical, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita along with several hundred prospective students and their families. We had a full morning of workshops for students who have been accepted to our programs and are currently weighing whether to attend USC next fall.

I participated in two – the first was a panel of the Design and Production Faculty, where Sibyl Wickersheimer and Tina Haatainen-Jones shared some of their stunning scenic and costume portfolio work; Phillip G. Allen shared a personal story about where his passion for the theatre came from; Duncan Mahoney shared about his career trajectory to USC; I talked a little about my career as a stage manager prior to coming to USC and what makes USC so special.

At 11:00AM, we held a panel of the most of the designers and stage managers of Evita, on the stage at the Bing, where led by their accomplished director, Tim Dang, described in detail the process of collaborating to conceive the design elements of the show and then realize them through rehearsals and tech to the final product. All the prospective students were going to see the performance after lunch.

IMG_7831

Framed by Scenic Designer Grace Wang’s show proscenium, L. to R. some of the Creative Staff of USC Dramatic Arts’ production of Evita: Tim Dang, Director, Emma Bramble ’13, A2, Briana Billups ’18, Sound Engineer, Stephen Jensen, ’17, Sound Designer, Lexi Hettick ’18, ASM, Savannah Harrow ’18, ASM, Jessica Major ’17, SM, Edina Hiser, ’19, Asst. Costume Designer,    Liam Sterbinsky, ’17 Lighting Designer 

It was a great discussion, after which the visitors looked at a lobby display featuring the designers’ process paperwork and research. Duncan then led everyone on a tour of several of our facilities.

After lunch, we sat in our seats in the Bing. I had been offered a front row seat by our Director of Special Events (and the coordinator of all today’s yummy dining events), Marissa Gonzalez. She dashed in as the lights were going down and we entered the world of Argentina in the 1930s. The last time I’d seen the show was in a second dress rehearsal while there was still quite a bit of work going on in all departments. It really cemented for me the importance of seeing a performance to really appreciate the scope of the work and the tremendous attention to detail that is necessary to bring a show to excellence. Today’s performance was precise, and spirited, with the hard-won technical moments supporting the acting, singing and dancing of the twenty-nine cast members.

If you’re familiar with the plot of Evita, throughout the first act, we watch Eva Duarte’s ambitious rise from squalid beginnings through a succession of relationships, where she eventually lands on the arm of Colonel Juan Perón at the end of Act I.

At the end of Act I, Marissa again dashed up the aisle to the front of the theatre, and I, without thinking, stood up and turned to the woman on my right whom I had been talking with before the show and who was attending with her high-school-aged daughter and politely said

Excuse me, but I’m going to go spread my legs…..

The woman and her daughter, looked quizzically up at me and as if in slow motion, I replayed my own words as I realized what I’d just said….

I mean STRETCH my legs.

One of the best instagram accounts I follow is entitled @hashtagwelcometomyday. Julia, this one’s for you…It’s been a long week!

 

 

 

“We Wrangle Crazy People for a Living”

Spring 2017 brought along with the rain we so desperately needed, a hearty serving of teaching practice for our BFA Stage Management cohort. The recently endowed Alice M. Pollitt Professorship in Stage Management, the first in the nation’s endowed professorship in Stage Management, kicked off an international search for the best candidate. In the past several weeks, four outstanding finalists have visited the campus, each teaching a class to our stage management cohort. Continue reading

Racing Walkers

One of the main reasons we have visited Chatham so often in the past dozen years was to see Jimmie’s sister, his sole sibling. She has lived in Chatham ‘nigh long as I can remember ‘- our first trip out to visit Jimmie’s sisters was when we were still young newlyweds, perhaps even before we married, so that’s 32 years ago. Claire, Jimmie’s and Kate’s older sister succumbed to cancer in 1992. She is memorialized in our hearts of course, but also tangibly by a brick marker in the paved brick base of the Oyster Pond flagpole in Chatham, a spot we return to each time we come to town.There are benches there and we sit and spend a few minutes looking at the beautiful scenery, and remembering Claire.

Kate embraced Chatham with a vengeance. She moved there originally to live with and care for Claire in her last years, and then moved permanently to Chatham with her husband, Marnie, where they lived until he passed away about 7 years ago. She’s been on her own since.

Kate actively participated in Chatham life, as a bookstore owner (she has had three different locations in Chatham), and in many organizations providing services to poor and underprivileged year round residents. There are, surprisingly, a lot of year round residents in Chatham. It isn’t just a summer tourist spot. As in all towns, the residents age, and need help with care as they are left behind by spouses, families, and our youth-conscious world in general. Kate’s most recent job was at the Senior Center in Chatham, an organization that provides services for seniors-a weekly meal for those who can’t prepare their own, and subsidies of gas/oil bills, groceries, and transportation. Kate has long said that Chatham is a wonderful place to grow old, because of services like these.

Two and a half years ago, Kate moved from the saltbox Cape Cod rental house she had long lived in on Orleans Road. It was a nice three bedroom house, with an upstairs which Kate rarely used. The kitchenette met her simple needs, and she had a lovely writing nook overlooking a freshwater marsh behind the house. When we came to visit her, we’d sit in her living room and watch the Red Sox games, then we’d go out for dinner somewhere in town: Pate’s, or the Chatham Squire, the Impudent Oyster, or any number of the other hot spots in Chatham.

Until recently, Kate was living in a City-run residential facility which houses 17 residents. Kate had a room, which faced out into a communal dining room where she and the other residents received a hot meal each day at noon. She managed the rest of her meals herself in her kitchenette in her room. The facility provided assistance with shopping, and had a common area with a TV where Kate could watch the Red Sox games.

When we told Kate that we were coming back to the Cape after 3 years away, her emotion was audible over the phone. A recent accident left her with perpetual back pain, and made her unable to travel. Last October, when she was getting into a car that was going to take some of the residents shopping, the driver backed up before she had gotten in, and Kate fell, breaking a bone in her back. It was a terrible accident, one, oddly that the man driving the car has taken no accountability for and which has had far-reaching effect on Kate’s life and current living situation.

Kate has had a long rehabilitation and uses a walker. Jimmie and I joked that the two of them could have walker races together, and in fact, when we first arrived at the facility last summer, the two of them dashed off with their walkers for the front door.

Kate and Jimmie adore each other, and always have. As the years piled on, it became clear that our visits would be less frequent, and I’d been acutely aware that last summer’s trip might have been our last visit with Kate. Jimmie says that Kate reminds him so much of their mother now. Kate is plain spoken, with a keen observational capacity. She’s been a writer for a long time, and while we were there, she told us the backstory on all the residents of the home, introducing us to some. We saw her just about every day we were in Chatham. Some of the meetings were great, and some less so.

One night I called her up at about 6pm and invited her to go out to dinner with us to Pate’s, a roast beef restaurant on Rte. 28 just outside of the main part of Chatham. We swung by to pick her up at Captain’s Landing, and arrived at Pate’s by about 7:00PM. It was already abuzz with diners. Miraculously, a parking spot opened up right by the ramp to the restaurant, and I extracted the two walkers from the car, managing not to smash my thumb again. We rolled on in, and were seated in the dining room. The host quickly wheeled the walkers away and stowed them out of the path of other diners. We have yet to lose a walker in a restaurant, and I can appreciate that they are an obstacle, but Kate became visibly upset by the removal of the walkers, snapping at me when I said it was in the path of other diners’ tables. I let it go, and she seemed to as well. Soon we were ordering drinks. Kate ordered a martini straight up with a twist of lemon, and Jimmie and I ordered our standard sparkling waters. Everything was humming along, nicely, and when Jimmie’s prime rib arrived, it was the size of the 10″ plate, red and juicy looking. Kate’s salmon was dressed with a lovely lemon dill sauce, and garnished with two pieces of asparagus crossed like lances over the fish. Kate took one look at her plate and said,

Two pieces of asparagus? Are they kidding me? That’s not vegetables!

I had ordered the filet mignon, eschewed the potatoes, so there was a small pile of appeasement carrots next to the meat. I hid them behind the steak to hopefully quell Kate’s vegetable revolt.

Kate’s martini eventually kicked in, and after eating about half of her salmon, enjoying it greatly, she began watching Jimmie’s attack on the prime rib with a horrified fascination; and she seemed unable or not interested in concealing her horror. Facing me, thankfully, Jimmie couldn’t see her expression of distaste as he raised each bite to his lips. Her eyes tracked the meat from the plate to his mouth, and each of his bites elicited a little moué of displeasure, a tiny shake of her head and a grimace of disgust. This went on until it became comical, and I tried to get Jimmie’s attention. Kate’s tongue pushed out of her lips in a repetitive lip lave which I’d not seen her do before.

After dinner, I retrieved the walkers, and we got out to the car without incident. We took Kate home and dropped her off at her room.

One of the better visits we had was around the task of helping her to hang some of her paintings in her room, something she hadn’t been able to accomplish on her own. Over the course of about an hour, we hung 5 pictures,  and she shared the details of how she had acquired each painting, reminding me of how involved she had once been with artists in the Chatham community. My skills as a picture hanger are just a little better developed than my skills as a wallpaper hanger. My last task was hanging a series of five small pen and ink drawings that Kate and her husband Marnie had made back in the early 70s. By this point, there were few vacancies on the walls of her room, but we spotted the band of wall above the closet, and I started to hang them up there. I was standing on a small step stool on my tip toes, and reaching full arm extended to place the nails, so it was inevitable that they would be uneven. At this point, I was overheated and it was time for dinner. After struggling to measure each nail position, I placed the drawings on the nails, and Kate, across the room, shook her head to say this positioning wasn’t working for her. Just as well, because a small tap against the wall sent four of the five drawings to the floor, so we removed the five nails and called it a day. But Kate was very with it throughout the work, and we were having a nice visit.

Nine months have passed since we had this visit in Chatham, and Kate is now a resident in a nursing facility in Chatham called Liberty Commons. When we spoke with her recently by phone, she commented,

They sure like to move me around.

Which I think was a commentary on her back and forth trips from Brigham Women’s Hospital in Boston to Liberty Commons and back and less a comment on the care where she is now. Our conversations by phone are brief and Jimmie has graduated to a Go-Go 3 Elite 3 Wheel travel scooter to get around to the park and to the car. But our hearts are still in Chatham with Kate even though travel seems less likely now. thumb_IMG_5380_1024

A Day at the Races

About a year ago, we changed financial advisors, choosing Thrivent Financial, to manage our funds. The Christians part aside, we liked their directness, availability, and the opportunity to look at how we might get the money out of the retirement fund when it comes that time. If you haven’t noticed, everyone is really good about telling you how to put it in the account. Not so good about how to extract it and how to diversify your options so that some of them are tax free. Ben and Isaac were really clear and we made some significant changes in the way we were putting it in. Since then they’ve done well for us and Isaac recently invited us to join them at the Thrivent Financial Day at Santa Anita. Last year we hadn’t been able to go, but this year Jimmie and I were free to go and so we added it to our calendar.

We had no idea what to expect, but when we arrived at the track, we found relatively close parking, and easy access to the ground floor entrance to the private party area. thumb_img_5678_1024There, we found our financial advisor, Isaac, near the buffet table, which was only feet from a bank of windows where we’d be able to conveniently place our bets throughout the day.

I had only ever been to the track once before, in Reno, with my Dad and Stepmother when I was about 14. There, he’d placed a bet for me and I’d won, $14, as I recall. Somehow I avoided the allure of winning at the track, and it’s only taken me forty-three years to return. But after today, I may not stay away as long next time. We had a blast.

thumb_img_5696_1024

Our Irish Three-Year-Old Filly, Siberian Iris, who won in Race 4, netting us $25.10.

thumb_img_5703_1024

That’s Tattooed Kitty in the front, my choice in race 5, bet $6 and won $15.80.

In the car on the way out to Santa Anita, Jimmie told me the things we should do in our betting today. Back when he was a late teen, he’d go to the track  with his mom and dad in Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. He remembered there is a $2.00 ticket that allows you to bet on one horse to Win, Place and Show (it’s actually $6.00 for all three of those options), but then you are really covered. Later, some of his dear friends, Jackie and Steve in New York, were part owners of a horse, and they used to go to the track. He warned me about the touts, who would come and tell you a tip about a race, then come back expecting a cut of your winnings.

They’re not going to let a tout into a private party area, I scoffed.

Today, as I stood in line for dessert behind a tall, attractive brunette woman, we ogled the plates of desserts passing by but it was the woman with the single oatmeal cookie that caused us to both giggle and begin talking.

How’re you doing today? I quipped.

Great, she said. (beat)  I don’t bet.

That’s when we laughed about the irony of being invited to gamble away our hard earned investments at the race track. She said her husband liked to tease their investment manager that he was going to bet it all on one horse.

And the tout? img_7585There was a board inside the party area which listed his choices. I more or less followed them, and did pretty well today. And he ended up addressing the crowd through a mic right in front of our table. Periodically he’d check in with us to see how we were doing.

I really wanted to know how to get a ride in the surrey without the fringe on top.thumb_img_5704_1024

At one point, I said to Jimmie

It’s so nice to be out with you at something other than a theatrical event.

Or a doctor’s office, he quipped.

thumb_img_5682_1024

And then I swallowed the canary.

img_7593img_7587img_7595thumb_img_5680_1024

 

Stage Managers in the Starting Blocks

We’re recruiting at the School of Dramatic Arts. The BFA Audition Tour.

For the past two weekends, we’ve met with aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts BFA programs in acting, stage management, technical direction, design and sound design.

We’re led by our fearless leader, the indomitable Lori Ray Fisher, our Asst. Dean of Academic Affairs, and her intrepid “touring company” staff, Meghan Laughlin and Ramón Valdez. Over the past two weekends, in classrooms all over the McClintock Theatre building, aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts arrived with their best materials and selves to show the acting and production faculty. Lori, Meghan and Ramón met with every one of them, briefing them on curricular and logistical details of becoming a USC student while the faculty put them through their paces in auditions and portfolio reviews.

The tour dates fell earlier in this year’s calendar, landing with a thud just after the school’s own casting audition cycle ended. In the first week of classes, in rehearsal halls across the campus, we cast nine shows.

Lacking a stage manager for one of the shows, I stepped in to administer the auditions for one of the New Works plays, and sat in the hallway of PED watching the actors pace hither and yon in anticipation of their auditions, the gracious and welcoming stage managers at their tidy tables outside those audition rooms.

I listened intently to the sweet sounds of musical auditions seeping through the walls of PED 207 from Evita. I listened to stage managers shushing over-excited actors who shared their audition battle stories with their friends sometimes a little too enthusiastically.

I peered into PED 208, where forty-plus young men and women, eyes fixed eagerly, desperately as they replicated the choreographer’s dance sequences. Some of them floundered  with the novelty of the moves, working the sequences over and over until their brows were shiny and their arms graceful, their smiles confident. You have to love casting week.

Usually a stranger to these hallways, I saw many of my THTR 130 students, most of whom are out of their element 8:00AM on Tuesday mornings in a technical theatre class. Now, I was there, in their zone, and they relished the chance to show me their true actor colors.

These are the stakes for the aspiring applicants we met last week in the auditions for the freshman class. The chance to participate in casting week, to land a part in the spring musical, or in a brand new play by a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing program. Or a design position on a future spring musical. Or the chance to sit in the hall outside the audition room to support the casting process. The stakes are high.

The school is also in the process of searching to hire a newly named Chair of the Stage Management Program, the first named chair in stage management in the country, due to a generous gift. I serve on the search committee, and can’t divulge anything about the process or the people who have applied. But this weekend, after considering who might become the Director of the program, followed by a weekend of meeting the students some of whom will join the program next fall, I’ve thought a lot about stage management skills and training.

What makes a good stage manager? There are dozens if not hundreds of books about the practice of stage management. They detail the importance of clear and detailed paperwork, good communication skills, an organized approach to the chronology of a play’s rehearsals, technical rehearsals and performances. Other qualities include the support of the director’s vision, good time management skills, a good sense of humor, etc. But I think the most important aspect of excellence in stage management is less measurable, certainly less systematic. It parallels the qualities and skills that make an actor or designer or technician good:

Listening

A good actor listens and responds truthfully and with the appropriate emotions and lines as rehearsed.

A good stage manager listens and processes, then, after separating the logistical consequences from the emotional underlying message, responds. Unemotionally whenever possible. A good stage manager does not take any information personally, and whenever possible, removes his or her ego from the room/process.

Being Present

A good actor remains in the moment, responding with truth to what he or she receives from the other actor.

A good stage manager similarly responds to information, not being thrown by unexpected events on stage or off.

  • Lamp burned out? Check the magic sheet and come up with an alternative to add to the cue, or text the theatre manager to be standing by at intermission with the appropriate lamp and a ladder.
  • Actor in tears in front of you? Wrap your arms around them and just let them cry. Kleenex and a cookie works pretty well, too, but only after that initial human response that lets them know you can see their humanness, too.
  • Actors refusing to perform until conditions have been improved? Contact the technical director and discuss a timeline for doing the work necessary to make them feel safe again.

I remember back in 1992 when we were in tech at the Los Angeles Theatre Center with Boogeyman,hollywood-squares Reza Abdoh’s wildly exuberant rant against corporate America’s response (or lack thereof) to the Aids epidemic. Timion Alsacker’s set was a nightmarish iteration of the Hollywood Squares set. Paul Lynde’s uppermost left square instead sported a tank of water over which a winch suspended an actor upside down and submerged him head first into the water. Another square had a shower, another an upside down hospital bed where an actor was strapped in for a scene. Another was a submarine room. All of these rooms were joined by a series of steps leading to doors. Reza’s pace was inhumanly demanding, and the actors were sprinting up and down the stairs, in and out of the rooms; at a certain point in the tech rehearsals, Tom Fitzpatrick, the Equity Deputy, came to me to say that the cast was refusing to go on until certain things were fixed related to the set and safety. And so, I took the list and went to visit David Mac in the production office, and he quickly resolved the issues so that we could proceed with the tech process.

boogeyman

This picture doesn’t do the Boogeyman set justice.

I once had a very esteemed actor stand in his dressing room and tell me that I sided with the management too often – didn’t side with the actors enough. Sometimes as stage managers, we have to hear things we don’t want to hear or don’t know how to solve, but we have to listen and proceed with our next steps as best we can.

Our interviews with prospective stage management students go like this; first we ask them what they like about stage management/design/technical direction. We ask them to show us what they’ve brought, and then we share with them the curriculum, emphasizing features of the program like “20 shows, no waiting.” “Professional directors to work with.” They bring a range of experiences into the interview – some of them have just stumbled on stage management as the tonic to rectify what is difficult for them in their personal lives. Some admit proudly that they like to be “in control.”  Others describe their roles as stage managers as supporting the production. Their essays are vulnerable and heartfelt. So many of them have such outstanding grades now that it’s hard to judge them on their academics. More relevant is their passion for the theatre, or eagerness to learn. How well do they listen? What questions do they ask to understand? Tidy contact sheets or blocking notation are swell, but why are they in this room looking at this program in the first place?

I don’t know that the soft skills of stage management are even teachable. But I sure enjoy giving it a try.

Writing with my best friend -Black and White

This is the coda to an earlier blog entitled Writing with my best friend – Royalties? Er….No.

After disengaging from the process thinking that we’d never be able to recoup on the book, another writer in our family, Jen, encouraged me, saying that according to her writer friends, publishing the book again in black and white shouldn’t be too hard. So back into Createspace I went, and began what I hoped would be a simple process.

Continue reading

Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

img_7529

Hiking into the New Year

This morning at the crack of dawn, I woke and pulled on my pants and boots, grabbed some breakfast setting off to meet two old stage manager friends (okay, old as in I’ve known you a long time, not actually old. Geez, people are so sensitive) to go on a hike.

I love hiking, though you’d never know it from practice – I think today’s hike is the first one I’ve taken since the summer when we stayed up in Tahoe, and hiked from the parking lot to the beach one day. Living in California and in Los Angeles where there are an abundance of hiking trails doesn’t seem to have been sufficient to get me outside, but a simple question posed by a fellow stage manager on facebook actually got me out the door.

Anyone wanna go on a hike?

You’d think three stage managers could organize a hike through deft email execution-an email or two, right? Our arrangements were hilarious, taking about a week and 16 emails, and an actual live phone call to realize. As I pulled up outside Susie’s house at 7:40AM, I replayed the email exchanges in my head, laughing that the three choices of hikes did not include the very real possibility of rain, and as I stepped out of the car, greeted by Susie on the stone steps to her house, I proposed hike #4 to IHOP. Fortunately, she didn’t go for it.

We swung by to pick up Michele and off we went to our hiking destination, which I think was Eaton Canyon, though I can’t swear to it because I’m not apparently from this region, having lived in LA only thirty-three years. There was a heavy mist on the windshield, but I didn’t pay much attention because it was great to see good friends and colleagues from so many years and there was a lot to catch up on.

Professionally, we’ve all worked together on so many shows that I can’t really remember which ones they were, but I always credit Michele with training me to be a truly autonomous ASM. She was the PSM on one of the CTG Celebratory shows – perhaps the 20th Anniversary, when as ASM, one of my jobs was to cue Gordon Davidson onstage riding an elephant. It was early in my career, one of my first ASM assignments at the Taper, pre-renovation, where the elephant (and all scenery for that matter) had to come in through bedroom-sized doors SL. I was intimidated and also admired Michele for her years of experience as one of the top SMs at the Taper. Deferring to her, I asked her what she wanted me to do next.

Run the deck!

And so I did, learning that I was there because she trusted me to know what to do next, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there.

I’ve been admiring Susie’s penchant for strenuous hiking for several years now. I’ve wondered how she’s able to put in the miles she does with her work schedule. Kind of amazing. I was glad to be there this morning. We started down the fire road into beautiful Eaton Canyon. At least I assume it is beautiful, because the conditions were quite misty and we couldn’t see too far down the road, kind of the perfect metaphor on this eve of a New Year fraught with political uncertainty.

img_7499

Stage Manager Selfie: L. to R. Susie, Els, Michele

This was the selfie I took of the three of us, looking fresh as we started off, me sporting my GumCha, a Christmas present from my Dad and his wife; this scarf is typical of those woven by rural farming families in West Bengal, India for more than 2,000 years. The 4o year old GumCha4Health project was started by local health and development professionals to

…create a self-sufficient, self-sustaining, community-based financial model for providing long-term support for healthcare and health education programs (including contraception and HIV prevention) for poor rural farm laborers, subsistence farmers, their families and their communities.

It’s pretty and bright, and apparently gets softer every time you wash it. I’ve worn mine almost every day since Christmas and it’s in the wash for the first time as I write this.

So, what do veteran stage managers talk about on the trail for 2 hours? Taping out floors and how sore it makes us when we’re done? Yes, a little of that, but much more about our lives outside the rehearsal room. The three of us share life synchronicity which they might not appreciate my sharing with you, but which gave us plenty of good conversation over the next 5.6 miles. The first 2.8 were mostly up the hill, where we were passed by bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and other folks out and about to ring in the New Year with a good cardio workout.

We stopped periodically to huff and puff, and per Susie’s usual routine, we greeted every single person at least once, and some of them twice, the cyclists, as they lapped us up the hill and back down. This paid off at the top, when we were able to ask someone to shoot the picture of the three of us by the Henninger Flats sign.The second 2.8 miles were down hill, in the pouring rain. I was grateful to have my GumCha with me to wipe off my glasses. The lovely tree portraits below were taken by Susie.

By the time we got back to the car, we were able to wring water out of our clothes. We raced home to take showers or hot baths, and for a good nap before tonight’s festivities.

What will the New Year and the road ahead bring? Hard to say, hard to see even, but in spite of the rain and mist, we will still get there with persistence, civility, and good hiking shoes.

Happy New Year!

Writing with my best friend – Royalties? Er….No.

The honeymoon’s over. After launching the book, creating the book’s FB page and asking everyone to review the book, we received the first royalties statement and practically had kittens. Seventy-three books had been sold, but no royalties were actually accrued.  Zero, zip, nada. I logged into our createspace account and then contacted them to talk with a human being, something I should have done earlier in the process. These were the disheartening reasons why there were no royalties accrued:

  1. Our book is 206 pages long, printed in full color on white paper. To the novice in self-publishing, what this means is that the three pictures in the book which are color are in full color. It also means that the rest of the book is produced using color printing, including all the black and white images and all the text. This makes for a very expensive book.
  2. Pricing –  I selected the minimum cost for the book, meaning that while it still is too expensive (see 1 above), we still get no royalties, because each book sold breaks even (after shipping and the percentage taken by Amazon.

So, what can we do about this?

  1. We could raise the price of the book, at the risk of not selling it.
  2. Had we printed the book in black and white on white paper, the manufacturing cost would have been something like $3.50 per book, versus the $15.27 it costs now. This would have resulted in much better returns for the author. Again, this knowledge would have been very useful earlier in the process.
  3. And, the worst news – we can’t simply reprint the book in black and white because  it has a ISBN number associated with it, and those people buying the book will expect it to be full color on white paper. (with its three color photos)
  4. To do that, we’d have to create a new project, get a different ISBN number and start over. This, at the moment, defeats me.

At a time when we should’ve been elated about publishing the book in time for Christmas, this news was not cheering. Ironically, the book seems to be selling pretty well, and to be frank, we didn’t publish it to make a fortune.

Having said that, read the great reviews on Amazon, but if you buy the book at the Createspace store, directly, you will be sending a little money to the author. Royalties accrue on every book sold there. So, we encourage you instead to buy the book at the Createspace store instead of on Amazon.com.

Publishing is complex and tough to make sense of as a newcomer. My advice, always read the fine print.

In the meantime, special thanks to those of you who have taken the time to write reviews on Amazon! It means the world to us! Merry Christmas to all.