Stage Managers and Scary Things

There’ve been several times as a stage manager, when I received invitations to do jobs that scared me. Scared me for different reasons, but mostly due to my normal fear of the unknown. And yet every job is unknown, because stage management is virtually 100% freelance gigs. Sometimes, though you are still working contract to contract, you get lucky enough to have an artistic home, as I did for several years several times in Los Angeles over the twenty-five years that I freelanced.

I spent four years at the Geffen Playhouse and the same at Center Theatre Group. I grew to love each of the staffs of those theaters, as well as the many actors, directors and designers with whom I collaborated on dozens of shows.

I’ll always associate becoming a mother with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was stage managing Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, when the call came from our social worker at the Department of Children’s Services that they had a toddler for us to fost/adopt. My colleagues, led by the ASM, Sandy Cleary, hosted the baby shower. Even considering the complexity of the show I was doing at the time, suddenly becoming a mother of a two year old used many more brain cells and was more physically challenging.

Four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. My crew and I grew so accustomed to being at the theatre, so at home there that once we walked to the nearby Target on a two show day and bought Little Debbie’s cakes, and Twinkies, then retired to the office during the dinner break and practically made ourselves sick and giddy and ridiculous there on the floor between the stained couch and the desk. I’ll always associate Tin Pan Alley Rag with losing my Mom. In the stage management office off upstage right, I took a call one night just before half-hour from Jimmie, who was holding down the caretaker fort with my mom as she progressed through the final weeks of her life. Metastatic lung cancer, proof of which manifested itself in several very surreal episodes.

Hi, Els, can you talk? Your mother would like to speak with you. (some rustling as the phone is passed to her)

Hello, Elsbeth? (breathing heavily, and sounding frantic)

Yes, hi, Mom, how are you? What’s going on?

Elsbeth! You need to call the UN immediately. They need you to negotiate. I just heard it on McNeill-Lehrer.

Well, uh, Mom, I’m pretty sure the UN will be fine without my negotiating skills… Besides, we’re at half hour.

What a brat I was.

Stage/Production Managers have extraordinary skills of compartmentalization. It’s what made it possible for me last year to organize the home care for my husband, then go to work and focus on details that the job demanded. The occupational hazard of Stage Management is megalomania – we begin to believe that we’re the only one who can do the job. I only have one regret about last fall. That I didn’t walk away from work to be at home before it became acutely necessary for me to be there. Take away this.

Yes, the show will go on, but it can go on without you when your life calls you urgently to live it.

Opening night, she came to the theatre to watch the play with Jimmie, and afterwards, at the opening night party, clad in a new Missoni floor length gown, she mingled alongside me, with the cast and crew. I introduced her to the actor who played the lead character, Ira Gershwin. It was a day or two after the fashion designer Gianni Versace had been murdered in Florida. Ever the reporter, Mom looked at my lead actor, turned to me and hissed, “He’s the one who killed Versace!”

No, Mom, I promise you, it wasn’t David. He’s been in tech and dress rehearsals for more than a week. He wouldn’t have had time to get back and forth to Florida between rehearsals.

I am fortunate to have spent my entire life (so far) working in the theatre – a life in the theatre is a life well spent. I’ve had the opportunity to share important life markers: falling in love, marriage, parenthood, illness and even death with other theatre artists who understood how to work and live with intimacy, depth and candor. All while doing work on stage which illuminates many of those same life markers.

Sometimes a job will come along that shakes you out of your artistic home. Calls upon you to maybe move household, or take a big step back or a huge step forward. An invitation to go to Sicily to Stage Manage for Robert Wilson; or to go to Montana for the summer with the Alpine Theatre Project; or to apply for the job as Production Manager at USC School of Theatre.

Your inner scaredy-cat says

“What? Go to Italy and work with international artists? My language skills aren’t strong enough!”

“What? Move to Montana for the summer? What if my family doesn’t want to come?”

“What? Production Manage? I don’t know how to do that?”

But your strong center and your hunger for new and interesting collaborations calms down the fearful voice and says, “You lived for a year in Italy and will regain fluency and for crying out loud, it’s Robert Wilson!”

“Maybe that’s just what you need to go to Montana to shake things up. Plus you can hike and get out of the city. Your family can come join you there for vacation.”

Or maybe you are just lucky enough, as I have been, to have friends who encourage you to try something new when you are at an emotional or professional crossroads. Like the Production Management opportunity. “Els, you’ll know how to do it. It’s just like stage management but on steroids.”

And so you take the steps forward to meet the challenge. To do the work. To build the life.

I’ve shared that the loss of my husband last fall was a devastating blow. Even now, nine months later, I still tear up and some days feel unmoored, untethered from the very life we had worked so hard to build. How fortunate I am to have a strong artistic family and friends that have gathered around me in my time of need.

I haven’t felt like writing lately. I’ve been hunkered down in my post apocalyptic emotional bunker, occasionally poking my head up like those adorable prairie dogs at the zoo. I’m on watch for the next tragedy. Grief is distracting. More distracting than anything I’ve ever experienced.

In stage management a project starts and it ends. There are frequently good days and bad day no matter how illustrious a project it is. There’s a thing nothing short of magic that happens in a rehearsal room as the alchemy of playwright, director and actors is forged through the vehicle of a new and exciting script. Life’s the same as that. Except it’s a devised work. No script. You’re the producer who brings all the facets together to create your own magical alchemy. If you take the chances, the risks, to step outside the normal boundaries of your existence, you meet new people, form new experiences, participate in new adventures. And yes, it’s frequently scary, but usually okay or way better than okay in the end.

All the good days, all the bad, the pain, the heartache, the joy you feel through every phase of your life makes you who you are. You are strong and vibrant and capable. You may not be able to write about something important every day, but if you pay attention to the call, you may find pop out of your prairie hole and find something to keep you entertained and alive.

Crenelated Time

In the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on the events of my recent trip to Italy. There I stayed with friends I’ve known for almost forty years. In both cases- my visit to Umbria and that to Venice, it felt as though we were picking up where we left off, and yet, we’ve all had full and rich lives between meetings.

This week, out of the blue, I got hired to do a reading, a wonderful project with interesting people, from referrals by friends from completely different segments of my life. And so, (I have to laugh because it’s so Mrs. Malaprop of me) I started thinking of the image of time as crenelated.

I laugh because what I really was thinking about was the way an accordion fan is folded, which isn’t at all what crenelate means. Crenelate means to furnish with crenels, or battlements to a wall, to fortify it. Which, ironically, could also be a little accurate in this recovery time. I’m coming up on nine months since the loss of my husband, and while things are slightly less raw, I am startled occasionally at the depth and pitch of the forgive the metaphor, crenels of grief.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful weekend in Carlsbad with my son and his wife and their beautiful daughters. Saturday, I’d made a dinner reservation for an Italian restaurant and found it on the map about twenty minutes away. We started off for a brisk walk along the beach wall overlooking the beach, arrived at the restaurant to discover that it was the wrong restaurant (there was another one with the same name two blocks from our hotel.) Hangry and more than a little annoyed, we walked back and stopped at another restaurant halfway between the two, where we had quite a nice dinner. My food came last, so I was holding the baby while her parents ate, and I gazed out the window of the restaurant at a couple who were standing still, arms around each others’ waists, watching the sun as it sank into the Pacific. They looked intently at the sun dipping into the water, then equally intently and fondly at each other. That’s all it took. I completely lost it. Tears quietly cascaded down my cheeks. I tried to hide it but with my hands full of baby, I wasn’t able to wipe them away.

My daughter-in-law said, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I blubbered. “I’m fine. Just snuck up on me.”

I proceeded to try to explain the loss of one’s other, the feeling of yearning to share life’s simplest moments, in direct contrast with intractable solitude one faces with the loss of one’s life partner. It didn’t go well, particularly because she’d been quite moved that I was so emotional about holding their darling baby. Which was part of it, I want to assure her.

But back to this feeling about time and the connection between quite disparate points in my life, and how they have remained joined to others on the same continuum. The metronome of friendship tick-tocking up to tap you from behind. I’m moved by it.

Earlier this week I came home from work and went down to swim a little in the pool at our condo. Only a year ago, my husband would have come with me, rolling his scooter with aplomb to a shady corner of the pool, where he would have watched me swim, or dozed off in the late afternoon. We might have brought crackers and cheese and some sparkling water down, and after emerging from my minimal pool laps, I would have sat and joined him in companionable silence, munching our crackers and enjoying the diminishing sun that warmed the chaises on the north side of the pool before it slipped down behind a nearby building.

I pulled my head up out of the water and looked quickly to his corner, deliriously expecting him to be there, just as I had earlier in the week as I stretched on the floor of our apartment, looking up to his picture on the table.

Damnit. You’re not coming back, are you?

No, he’s not. Anger, worry, hollowness, impatience, weariness, wallowing self-pity are some of the feelings a person in grief slogs through every day. But as time passes, it’s not always terrible. There are also moments of hope, optimism, gratitude, self-discovery, pride of accomplishment, and even some joy, too. Those are the feelings I try to steer myself toward. I’ve always been a “there must be a pony here somewhere” type of person, and now is no exception.

I’m so grateful to my friends and colleagues for their support now. I’ve learned the power of making plans to look forward to, to experience, then look back on and enjoy remembering the events of those times you’ve planned. I guess that’s what makes a good life, you could say. Even if time isn’t actually crenelated at all.

Orvieto, I think…

Final Days of My Roman Holiday

The last day in Rome, I visited the Vatican. I got adventurous, and took the metro from the Spagna stop (at the base of the Spanish Steps). This was my first immersion in Rome, far from the selfie-snapping tourists and close to the daily press of flesh which is the metro. I wisely waited two minutes for the second train and wedged myself in next to a woman with kind eyes and a universal sense of “What can I do about it?”

I made my way to the tourism office where the tour was meeting. They rented Vespas there. Can you imagine renting a Vespa in Rome? I’d seen three young girls on bikes the previous day at the Coliseum walking them more than riding them through the hordes of boisterous tourists. The tour I’d booked through ItaliaRail was called “Show and Go” and was $116. for the two tours of the Coliseum and Vatican. The beauty of them was that you could show up any time to join the tour. “No waiting in lines.” This proved to be ludicrous. There are nothing but lines in Rome in July. Get used to it. I can say I saw the Sistine Chapel, even without the benefit of having a selfie, unlike the woman at St. Peter’s in front of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It did feel sometimes like the pictures were being taken more to prove we’d been there than to experience these great artifacts and sculptures.

I’m guilty too.

My final night in Rome, I was feted by an old friend in his home with two indulgent Italian professionals, who let me struggle more than I had on the trip to date with my rusty Italian. It was a great evening and a wonderful way to close out the International part of my summer holiday.

The next morning, I winged my way back to Washington, DC, suitcase bulging with a few treats and my feet snuggly in my compression socks that my friend had generously loaned me.

I may have told you how much I loathe the phrase “to unpack the meaning of something.” I mean I really loathe it.

So when I say unpack, I mean literally unpack from my trip. The last leg of my trip was a visit to my Dad and his wife, Sally’s in Washington, DC. If I need any encouragement in continuing to travel as a measure of a life well-lived, I need look no further than my Dad and Sally. They have traveled all over the world, and now, as conditions keep them closer to home, it would be hard to impress them with stories of an Italian trip. But they were extremely indulgent, looking at my Ipad slide show of Umbrian hill towns, Venetian churches, and Roman ruins.

I remember as a child sitting through my maternal grandparents’ endless slide shows, with an actual slide projector, loaded with slides, and then reloaded with perhaps a second tray of slides. My grandfather was an architect, with a good eye and terrific composition in his photos, but as an eight or ten-year-old, one’s attention span is limited.

We sat in the breakfast room, watching as wildlife flitted by: three raccoons, a doe and her dappled faun, a cowbird and a dozen other varieties of seed-eating birds. It was delightful. The heat outside fogged up the refrigerated interior of the house.

They had a lot of things planned for my four day visit. I had seen an article about the new Spy Museum, and after an aborted attempt to get in, complicated by the parking at an unreasonable distance and poor planning in booking tickets ahead, sent us scurrying instead to the National Gallery, where we drank in the visiting exhibit covering 17 centuries of animals in Japanese Art; though they’d already seen it of course, they graciously accompanied me, then treated me to a lunch in the cafeteria connecting the two wings of the Gallery. When the exhibit comes to Los Angeles Sept. 22-December 19, 2019 don’t miss it! These are just two examples of the whimsy and elegance of this exhibit.

After lunch, we visited the Tintoretto exhibit upstairs in the West Wing. It was particularly satisfying to think that I’d just seen so much of his work in situ in Venice. There was a particularly interesting room of portraits which brought to mind Rembrandt, rather than the usual luscious, quick strokes of Tintoretto’s angels and suffering saints.

This richness made me realize that over the past 10 years or so, I’ve not been taking advantage of the cultural opportunities that Los Angeles affords us. Full time work, care taking my husband, who in the later years, tired easily. So many excuses, so many lost opportunities. The future gleams with potential.

Thursday evening, which was July 4th, they had planned a family dinner with some local relatives, which was lovely. Meanwhile, only a few thousand miles away, my home city was rocking and rolling from earthquakes. I didn’t feel the least bit disadvantaged by missing these shakes. Instead, we watched the rather insipid July 4th celebration on TV, hosted by John Stamos and the Muppets. After dinner each night, we worked diligently on their diabolically complicated Stave puzzle which we finally finished on July 4th.

Friday evening found the three of us in the Kennedy Center, watching the touring production of Hello, Dolly! starring Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlin as Horace Vandergelder. It was a lively, satisfying show with a powerhouse performance by Buckley. In the gift store before the show, I picked up a replacement fan so that I could continue my Venetian tradition of staving off the heat. I bought a second fan to send off to Caro in Venice, because I’d put some kilometers (chilometri) on hers while there.

Saturday we made our way over to the Hillwood Estate, Manor and Gardens of Marjorie Merriweather Post, and spent the morning steeping ourselves in the hostess’s meticulous and lavish lifestyle, beautifully preserved in the park and mansion exhibits.

That evening we had dinner out and called it an early night, so that I’d be ready for my trip home on Sunday, July 7th. A spectacular trip and one which I’ll remember fondly for a long time.

Thinking Heads and Voyeurs at The Venice Biennale

I’d be derelict if I didn’t share some of the photos from the two days we spent at the Biennale while I was in Venice. On the way there, though, Caro and I had a wonderful time exploring all the different countries’ pavilions. Here are some photos from our first day. If you get a chance to go to the Biennale, go. There’s a mind boggling amount of beautiful art and ideas. Beautiful for people watching. Take the largest frame below for example.

The Biennale is rife with colorful images, shapes and ideas, and could be represented by almost any of the pieces shown there. The Lara Favaretto room, in the main building of the Gardens felt like walking into a curated prop room, with shelves neatly decorated by groups of objects, identified with a descriptive word under each shelf. The most intriguing part of the exhibit was its reference to secret meetings of people in a bunker in Venice to discuss the objects. Wait, a bunker in Venice? The piece suddenly gelled as a metaphor for the whole Biennale.

I asked one of the docents who are there to help you understand what you’re looking at if there had been any meetings. An earnest young art student, he answered, “I believe that the first one was cancelled, but there may be more scheduled.” Given the top secret nature of Favaretto’s description, I figured if we went to any bar that afternoon, it would serve as the bunker for conceptual inquiry into the nature of not just these objects, but any in the various countries’ pavilions.

A wall decoration from within the Venice Arsenale

Our second day at the Biennale, Caro and I were joined by her husband, Alberto, and we explored the even more vast exhibits in the Arsenale. Here are some of the exhibits, including the studies by Lorenzo Quinn of sculptures that are currently able to be seen all over Venice, including in the Arsenale.

Earlier in the year, as I planned for my trip to Venice, I’d read about the Lithuanian Pavilion, and the first prize (Leone d’Or) they’d won for “Sun and Sea.” The exhibit was evocative and sensory, with the spectators looking down from above onto the denizens of a temporary indoor beach. Joshua Barone’s review in the New York Times, along with their photos captures the feeling of the experience. I thought it was a little critical, considering the accomplishment of this trio of artists. Try getting 30 people to commit to spending 8 hours on the sand in their bathing suits over a period of 8 months. Probably in June it’s pretty easy, but consider November, when the cold winds blow off the water whipping through the Military Arsenale into this warehouse with open windows. I have limited experience with wrangling volunteers for theatre projects with our production of “Don’t Go” a few years ago with Sojourn Theatre. It’s harder than it looks. An article in the ArtTribune.com shared the invitation they put out to get people to participate. https://www.artribune.com/arti-visive/arte-contemporanea/2019/05/biennale-di-venezia-2019-padiglione-lituania-cerca-volontari-vacanzieri-per-lopera-performance/

Seeing the performers in their swimsuits, digging in the sand with their children and dogs was pretty wild. Almost every exhibit in the Biennale this year examined in some way the impact of humans on the environment, and this one provided a chance for us to watch ourselves in microcosm. The opera itself, parts of which we saw in our thirty minute stay at the exhibit, had some both haunting and comedic, jaunty tunes. It was fun to identify which of the singers might sing next, the man with the gray chest hair, who scanned the balcony idly as his tween son ran off to play with some other children, or the woman who barked her little portion of the score, a tirade against people who bring their dogs to the beach. There were two visible at the time, well behaved little dogs who also looked like they were enjoying themselves. Periodically, cast members would sprinkle bottled water on the sand to keep the dust from kicking up into people’s faces. I was reminded of the Robert Wilson piece I stage managed in Sicily years ago, staged in a 13th Century Granary building. After a few weeks of rehearsal, they trucked in tons of sand and suddenly it became a different exercise entirely. Sun and Sea was pretty fascinating, though. I didn’t want to leave.

Some other stunning works from the two days at the Biennale.

From the Indian Pavilion (I think?) These were powerful as a group, but even more powerful specific objects.

There was quite a bit of video and theatrical experiences aside from Sun and Sea. The Istralei Pavilion hosted “Field Hospital” where you entered the exhibit, which looked like the waiting room for an urgent care facility. There you were given a number, and you waitied approximately 10 minutes, while watching reassuringly placid videos about the type of care you would receie there. Everything felt very hospital-like. All the staff were wearing white coats, and were very gentle with the visitors. Once your number was called, you went to the registration table, where you were given a paper wrist band, and the opportunity to select which video you would see in the treatment area. The videos ranted in topics from transgender bullying to The Palestinian question. Up the stairs from registration, you were guided into one of three padded rooms where you were told to follow instructions. I did, but after emerging from the booth, I realized they were not soundproof, so everyone in the outside waiting area had heard my primal screams.

On we went into the treatment room, where a large array of reclining chairs held other patients who were watching videos, and then watching additional material (second opinions ) from experts with knowledge of the topics of the videos. Once you finished watching, the “nurse” came and freed you from the chair, giving you a rubber bracelet to replace the paper one, which said “Field Hospital” on it. It was an eerie experience, especially for Caro. whose video was a little more graphic than mine. (I won’t spoil the exhibit for those of you who are going by telling you which videos we watched.) Suffice it to say that once we emerged from the Field Hospital, we were ready to go home and also to get a cold drink before taking the Vaporetto back home.

The Littlest Theatre in the World and Gratitude to the Madonna Dei Bagni

One of the last days I was in Umbria, we visited the Umbrian hilltown of Monte Castello di Vibio, another spot of unspeakable beauty. Our destination was to see Il Teatro Piu Piccolo Del Mondo. As the sign below promises, Civilization isn’t measured in square meters and volume. Built by a consortium of nine families (I’ll spare you the poor historical recall and defer to Wikipedia). But when we visited, the lobby had a fascinating exhibit by a local man who had documented his family’s history in a series of scrapbooks, only seven out of thirty-three of which were on display. There were photos, paintings of weddings on the stage, and other news clippings detailing the historic events that had taken place in the theatre. The frescoes by Luigi Agretti in the second floor lobby were really wonderful, considering he was 14 when he painted them in 1892. Yes, 14!

After relishing the tiny space, complete with playback of a recording of a musical concert so that we could experience the acoustics in the all-wooden theatre, we retired from Monte Castello di Vibio, and made our way to the Madonna Dei Bagni, a church near Deruta, which features approximately 700 votive tiles from the 17th century to the 20th century, all presented in gratitude for acts of salvation by the Madonna. Each tile has the initials P.G.R., which stands for Per Grazie Ricevuto, or For Graces Received.

The Sanctuary itself is not notable, except for these tiles, almost totemic in their iconography. Four Hundred years ago, according to the history, a man found a piece of pottery with the Madonna on it and he nailed it to an oak tree, and prayed for his ill wife’s recovery. When he returned to his home, she had recovered, and thus began the practice of these votive tiles. They represent graces received from the Madonna after accidents throughout the centuries. Did you know that the most perilous thing in Umbria is the tree and the ladder? So many people fell from trees and lived to represent it that there developed an iconography of falling out of the tree.

That and getting trompled by horses.

Or struck by lightning.

You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that just like the tree plates, there were several of the lightning and later, dozens of gnarly car and motorcycle accidents as well as war survivors and leaky rain gutters. I just didn’t take photos of them all. It’s worth going to verify my account.

But my favorite was the tile that told the story about the recovery of 140 of the tiles which had at one time been stolen (rubata) from the sanctuary. Thanks to our guide, Marina, who was able to read the tile to us and translate, we understood that an off-duty cop (Carabinieri) born in Deruta, but assigned to Perugia, had come across one of these plates at a swap meet or whatever the Italian equivalent is. He bought it, then launched an investigation and was able to recover all 140 of the stolen plates. I think the guy carrying the tile is the same one lying down in his carabinieri uniform (Art History 101).

After that, we were exhausted and of course, it was time to go get some lunch. We were very happy there as well for the graces received.

Thirty-six Years Later

I visited Venice after a 36-year hiatus and expected to remember my way around that complicated jewel box of a city. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Venice is a walking city and the routines of daily life had enabled me to learn about five ways to get home, how to walk in a narrow street in the rain with an umbrella, and how to choose an alternate route when there was someone too slow in your way. Guess what. I’m the slow one now. Continue reading “Thirty-six Years Later”

Chi Tocca Il Bambino Diventa Padrino

Saturday, June 22nd in Civitella was the Feast of Corpus Domine, and our hostess, Marina has a tradition of hanging banners from the windows of the Apti Palazzo, to greet the procession as it passes through the arch on its tour of the town. In previous years, the festive gold and red banners (if I squinted, they looked cardinal and gold to me ala USC) which she’d had made for this occasion were hung with ribbons from four windows on the south side and three on the north, and one in the main entryway of the Palazzo.

Bob and Sally had also traditionally helped with hanging the banners as you need one person on the ground to adjudicate what their level was, as well as the lay of the cloth against the rough stone. This year I was indoctrinated in the hanging of the banners. Here Bob invoked the powers of my stage management training, but the truth of the matter was that Sally’s mathematical orderliness came much more handily into play.

Our meeting time was scheduled for 10:30, so when we arrived, Marina had the main entry gate open, and gave me a complete tour of the Palazzo, which is stunning. Again, the temperature of these interiors is a good twenty degrees cooler than that outside, all managed by the shutters and windows. Generally, when a room isn’t being used, it is dark keeping the rooms cool. The standards of housekeeping in Italy always take me by surprise, from the first night I arrived at the Casalone in Scoppieto and slipped my tired feet between the crisp ironed sheets, to this tour of Marina’s Palazzo, where nary a dust mite appeared, the dark wooden doors gleaming with their polish. Honestly it puts most Americans to shame. Certainly myself.

We quickly determined that Bob and Marina would go below while Sally and I tied the ribbons on the banners and hoisted them out the windows. Stakes were high, but with guidance from below, we placed the banners. The biggest unknown was the strength of the wind, which tends to pick up in the afternoon and early evening.

After completing the task, Marina graciously complimented me on my stewardship of this process. And here again is the other reason you need to come to Civitella. I’m not sure if it’s something in the air, a generosity of spirit that heroicizes the visitor, but I am sure that my twenty minutes of participation has secured a lifelong invitation to Civitella. As we left to go get lunch, Marina taught us the saying with which I’ve entitled this post.

Chi tocca il bambino diventa padrino. Or, he who touches the baby becomes its Godfather.

In other words, this job was mine for life. Done deal. Similarly, on my last day at Scoppieta, I participated in the harvest of the walnuts for making Nocchino, a strong liquor made with forty walnuts quartered and put into a bottle with 180 proof alcohol and left to percolate until it becomes a deep dark headache-inducing beverage. Standing under the walnut tree counting the nuts garnered me an invitation for the olive harvest in October. Believe me I am sorely tempted!

After lunch and a nap, we returned to unfurl the banners just as Marina and Carlo went to Mass. While they were there, we took advantage of taking another walk around Civitella, and ending at the Museo Ova Pinto. Each year they have a town wide competition for who can decorate an egg most creatively. This year the theme was Leonardo’s five hundredth birthday. Here were some of the eggs we saw in the museum. My favorite was the children’s contribution in ho or of Leonardo, which put the whole angry birds thing in perspective. My plane neighbor would have really appreciated it, I think.

After the mass, the procession began, with the small group of local worshippers and us following through the town. There were portable speakers for everyone to hear the prayers and be able to sing.

The town had been decorated with flower petals by some young teens along the processional route. After the procession, all the flowers that hadn’t blown away had been swept up. We didn’t see it because we were busy striking our banners and planning how we would improve the hanging next year. Because, as we now know,

Chi tocca Il bambino diventa padrino.

Languorous Days, Illuminated Nights

The mornings shape up with a singular clarity of no mornings since my childhood. First my feet emerge from the heavy Italian cotton sheets, dropping onto the warm terra-cotta tiles of the bedroom, windows agape, and I peer out onto the sun dappled lawn. Two plump gray and white pigeons, (palome) , peck around in the grass, their gossipy calls sounding like “Chi a detto? Chi a detto?”

Breakfast consists of tea with milk, a bowl of granola with fruit and yogurt, or on the occasional morning, a special French toast with maple syrup. We aren’t rushed, but have a healthy itinerary ahead of us.

Friday we visited Todi, a town just northeast of Civitella, guided by charming Marina, the impressively bi-lingual landlord to the farmhouse where my friends have stayed for many years (8).

She took us first to the Church of San Fortunato, a church constructed in the 13th century. There was a music festival in Todi, so at the end of our tour (Giro) we stopped by the Palazzo of Tio Carlo, where in the grand salon, there were two music performances: a couple of guitarists singing autobiographical songs about Ireland, followed by a chorus of two dozen high school students from the local high school, singing a mix of music across the ages from an English fifteenth century song to a Beatles encore number. Dressed in black, they were conducted by a sophomore college student, passion writ large on his face. I sat in a chair along the windows separating us from another concert (Benny Goodman) outside, and marveled at his ability to keep the students focused and in tune.

We wondered why they had scheduled competing concerts so close together and decided that the outdoor concert that was supposed to be in the main piazza had been displaced by the youth soccer field which was installed there.

The competition outside was some line dancers, wearing bilious lime green dresses, hence, “lime dancers.”

Arriving a half hour before the concerts, we had been ushered into the gracious 16th Century Palazzo by our hosts, the sprightly 84-year-old Tio Carlo and his wife Tita, who gave us a tour of the Palazzo, Tio Carlo first rushing ahead to fling open the windows. It called into mind the Dutch paintings of women opening their windows to throw out the slops. Not because of a lack of grace by Tio Carlo, but due to the physicality of the action of opening the windows. What I’d never considered was how architecture informs the body mechanics of daily life until I reached into the dark bathroom the other evening to turn on the light switch and laughed as my hand butted up against the wall about a third of the depth of the wall. The activity of living in an Umbrian Palazzo would be time consuming but would keep you fit. The stairs alone, with their 10-12 rises challenge your stride. The first day I arrived and mounted the steps of the Apti Palazzo in Civitella Del Lago where Marina and her husband Carlo live, I panted like a trout flung on the shore. In the subsequent days, I’m happy to say I gained power in my legs. What would have been an impossible flight of stairs we conquered yesterday easily in Montefiascone to see the Cattedrale de Santa Marguerita by dint of our post prandial chant of “One Carbonara, two, Carbonara….on the way down I silently chanted mascarpone uno, moscarpone due…You get the idea.

In short, every day a destination or three. Hill town, Chiesa, home, pranzo (lunch) under the pergola, nap, then dinner (cena).

Over the past four days, we’ve visited Todi, Perugia, Assisi (more on that in another post), Orvieto, and Montefiascone. The latter was less impressive than any of the former, however, from where we sit at Casalone, if you gaze across the valley on a clear morning, you can see in the far distance the bump which is Santa Marguerita. Yesterday afternoon, as we stood in the courtyard outside the crypt of Santa Lucia, quite gaudily reconstructed with the stations of the cross around the place of worship, Sally took a moment with her GPS to make sure we could spot Civitella.

I’m so glad she did because now, in my mind I can see the three of us panting atop the wall. Our initial enthusiasm about the elevator waned when we realized that we were dropped at the base of the aforementioned carbonara steps.

Each day I feel stronger, physically and my grief subsides more with each Umbrian vista. Last night at 3:00 AM, as I slept in the monastic comfort of my suite in Casalone, I heard a voice sharply call “Els!”

I sat bolt upright in the darkness, then settled to listen to the rest of my instructions. The crickets outside continued but the voice was gone. I got up to use the bathroom, and returning to bed, I happened to glance out the casement into the night. I stopped abruptly, seeing the bright stars directly beyond the tree line. I leaned out the window, moved beyond my sudden awareness of the lack of the light pollution I’ve grown to accept, but more importantly that I was called to witness the glory of the Scoppieto night sky by whom? I stood there for a good five minutes, identifying the Big Dipper. I mourned my having missed this nightly show, and vowed to see it in my one remaining night at Casalone.

I the morning, I scattered some of Jimmie’s ashes in the lavendar overlooking Civitella because I figured his instructions were at least clear in that regard.

Old Friends, New Memories

I am in the Umbrian hillside town of Civitella Del Lago, a fifteenth century enmured town, the guest of dear friends and my former drama teacher and his wife. The trip to get here was crowded on the plane, a non-stop twelve hour flight from Los Angeles to Rome. I was wedged between two men, the man on my left declaring in the first five minutes a long terror of flying. The man on my right declared very little beyond his inexperience with flying, when he queried about the blanket and pillow combo, are you supposed to take the plastic off this to use it?

I figured that if you were going to spend twelve hours with someone in such close proximity you should at least know their names, but having set that laudable goal, only came away with knowing Terrified Jim’s name to my left. The gentleman to my right I will call Angry Bird because he spent at least 8 hours of the 12 playing Angry Birds on the games available on the seat screen.

Otherwise the flight was uneventful, occasionally freezing, and Terrified Jim, whom I complemented at the end of the flight, confessed that he thought he was going to have a heart attack, he was so scared. And this, my friends, is why we don’t introduce ourselves on long plane rides. Because what would you say to the self-professing pedophile or the binger/purger who lets you-know-that at the start of the journey?

Hi, I’m the world champion of spelling bees. (Actually, that would have been very helpful because I was having some trouble with the crossword puzzles so they might have been an asset.)

Anyway, I was able to see a few movies I’d missed in the movie theatre, in modified wide screen format, all 4×8 inches of it. And I really think there could have been fewer uses of the word freaking in the lastest remake of The Star is Born.

Aside from that, the flight was as one always wishes, uneventful, and the plane touched down at exactly the appropriate time, 12:15 in Rome. My Fitbit watch, I was upset to find, spent about a day to get acclimated. I needed to tell my phone that I was in Witaly, at which point Siri changed her attitude and at once became Italian, which was very welcome. Instead of receiving the hourly reminders to do my 250 steps, she speaks invece di I piedi riposte.

Everything is disorienting when you arrive at a foreign destination. I always marvel, though, how iconic signage and a big fat green arrow on the floor can get you everywhere you need to go. The Rome airport has a train right there that will take you to the center of Rome. After fumbling momentarily at the ticket machine, I purchased my ticket, first class for 14 euros, then proceeded to the train platform with my luggage. The train was full but I found a seat easily, next to a young couple who were speaking French, but for the young man, this was clearly his second or third or fourth language, in the charming adaptive European way, languages have a fluidity which serves the user. Living on a continent which affords cross country passage within one to two hours fosters this facility.

I tried to be respectful of their privacy while I leered hungrily through the window for a sight of the Roman countryside.

Arriving in Rome, I followed the signage to the train tunnel where I was only an hour or more early for the intercity 592 Trieste Centrale, the train which I’d booked to Orvieto. There at the tunnel, there was a board for departures (Partenze) around which were clustered a group of travelers, varied in origin, but most colorfully featuring a vociferous Italian on the phone who paced up and down bemoaning the cancellation of several eastern bound trains due to an electrical power outrage.

I waited and waited, perched on a small ledge of marble, watching the passing parade and trying to calculate between my phone and Fitbit, exactly what time of day it was. Suddenly, my daily morning 5:30 alarm went off, notifying me it was time to go to cardio spin with my friends, and it occurred to me that I had been up way more than 24 hours, and I was thirsty, thirstier than if I’d been dropped in the Gobi Desert. After a quick time calculation, I grabbed my suitcase and went up to the main level of the train station to buy some water.

Soon, I was on the train. The European trains are so beautiful and clean, sporting large picture windows, and comfortable seats. I imagined what the passengers around me were doing, heading home on their daily commutes, or off on adventures like mine. At this point, I was in serious danger of falling asleep, but I knew that the train would stop quickly, and I would have only about a minute or two to descend, so after the first stop at Orte, I pulled my heavy bag down and waited, excitement at seeing my friends at the train station mounting.

And then suddenly, after the mellifluous chime and the announcement that we were arriving in Orvieto, I grabbed my bag and lumbered down the aisle, dismounting to find Bob and Sally at the side of the train. Easy as pie. And we were off, in their rental car, who, of course, charmingly spoke Italian, and helpfully directed us forward, though they both knew well where they were going and were desperate to defang her.

Soon we arrived at the beautiful farmhouse where I’d be staying for a week with them. I was flabbergasted by the elegance and beauty of the building but more so by the generosity of their invitation, and recognizing instantly the healing properties of this spot.

Arrivederci, Los Angeles!

It’s hard to believe that today has arrived. I’ve packed my bags over the course of the past four days. Back in the days when I was married and we traveled, I packed for both of us, resentment curling the edges of my feminist robes. But only briefly. Because the person I was packing was such a delight and I would have sewn the clothes for him and then jammed them in the suitcase. God knows he did his own packing earlier in our marriage. Later mobility issues prevented him from standing a long time, so I took over. I had to laugh the other night when in the play, the mother in law advised the wife of her son, ”when you pack him tonight”… I laughed not because it was so grossly inappropriate, but completely in recognition. What’s funny was that after spending half an hour packing Jimmie’s things, I’d frequently rush to pack my own, forgetting critical things like a bathing suit, or a toothbrush, or once, a comb. By shearing my hair so short, that would be less of a problem now. So I had four days to get my proverbial shit together, and I must say (preening a bit), I did a damn fine job packing this time.

So, how does a stage manager travel?

    She arrives at the airport 2-3 hours early (so early, in fact that her flight isn’t on the list yet and she experiences a frisson of panic)
    Types her itinerary with every bit of information she’s acquired
    Brings snacks
    Filled her water bottle
    Has the Merrimack-Webster English/Italian dictionary downloaded to her kindle and has already looked up dozens of words and looks like a crazy person on headset talking with a disgruntled lighting designer.
    She buys the neck pillow and practices using it on herself in the gate area.

We will be boarding now, so I’m going to try to post this. Warning gentle readers. I have acquired a new iPad to use on the trip instead of my computer, so I’ll be learning how to do this. I’ve already failed in loading a picture. Hopefully this will improve in the coming days. But because I don’t have a wifi package on the plane, I’m posting this now.

Places, please! Andiamo!