The Art of Success

We are heading into another tech weekend. I know because I sat in tech rehearsal last night and counted every person in the room so I could know how many dozens of donuts to bring tomorrow. Four. This weekend,  we are in the world of William Hogarth, complete with denizens of the bawdy Beefsteak Club and the Pleasure Garden. The play: “The Art of Success” by Nick Dear.

I arrived tonight shortly after the rehearsal had begun, more or less straight from the production meeting for our New Works plays. Fridays work that way – I started at 10 with a committee meeting, then a faculty meeting, then a production faculty meeting, then some desk jockeying, then the first meeting for the New Works Plays. Dashed to the fridge to get my salad and then went off to the McClintock Theatre  where I plunged into the tech-disheveled,thrust-configuration theatre, and pushed my bag under a chair.

The cast, the BFA Juniors from the USC School of Dramatic Arts were arrayed around the stage in a tableau reminiscent of Hogarth’s Scene in a Tavern.

William Hogarth - Scene in a Tavern

The actors, all in their rehearsal costumes, corseted, and coated, were draped about the stage like satyrs after an especially athletic night. The students on the crew sat in a section of the house watching the process, and then working on their homework as the time-consuming process of building the light cues took place. We will spend 24 of the next 48 hours in the theatre, stumbling around in the house, forcing our eyes to adjust from the hallway to the dimly lit theatre. I remember once, probably 15-20 years ago, when I returned to the stage manager podium at the Pasadena Playhouse to find that someone had affixed a little sign on the podium. It read, “Tired of working in the dark?” I thought to myself, never. And 20 years later, I keep coming back for more. It is home.

Some tech weekends are more difficult than others. I happen to really enjoy watching Stephanie Shroyer work. She has the most extraordinary sense of spatial relationships and brings out the best in her actors and designers. She demands commitment from each of her actors, and specificity of physical and emotional choices. Watching her work reminds me of Frank Hauser’s description of the director’s role.

“The Director’s Role: You are the obstetrician. You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or midwife. Your job most of the time is simply to do no harm.
When something does go wrong, however, your awareness that something is awry–and your clinical intervention to correct it–can determine whether the child will thrive or suffer, live or die.”
― Frank HauserNotes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director’s Chair

Stephanie runs her birthing suite with style and meticulous detail to the instruments needed. Because her process is so organic, it can be slower than most of our productions to gel. This can be frustrating to designers with less experience, but the results are always stunning and I’ve never seen her lose a patient yet.

Keeping up with The Joneses

So, the other day, my dear friend and colleague Tina was driving me home from work – I can’t even call it carpooling because there’s probably no way it would happen the other way, with Tina living in Glendale and my living downtown, and our both working at USC, south of me. But I am always so grateful not only for the lifts, but for the time spent chatting about our work and our  lives outside of our work.

Tina mentioned that her husband had embarked on yet another renovation in their already beautiful home. He was working on the guest bath now, and had managed to acquire both the labor and all the materials in a gnat’s breath of time and money. Well, to a not-s0-recovering member of Renovators Anonymous, all I need to do is get a whiff of someone else’s renovation to get the juices flowing. In fact, a few years ago, after the Jones’ completed a renovation of one of their bathrooms, I saw it, fell in love with their design and basically copied the entire bathroom to our master bath. Tina’s husband Michael hooked me up at the tile store for his 50% discount, saving me hundreds of dollars on the 2″ octagonal marble tile on the floor and I found the vanity of their dreams for only twice the price they paid. It was all-in-all, a ludicrous copycat adventure, but we are all pleased with the results.

We have a second bathroom with 12″ square 1980s pseudo-marble ceramic  floor tiles and a painted white vanity topped with a yellowing plastic countertop that looks like someone rested their cigarette on  it frequently. The tub, designed by a sadist with long legs and little or no expectations for comfort when seated, sports a rickety set of sliding glass shower doors which tremble and quake when you breathe on them. The molding around the base of the walls has swelled from a sprinkler system flooding that occurred sometime before we moved in and was probably the defining moment of the condo’s vacancy status.

I guess you could say we have begun an ad hoc remodel of this bathroom,  when we replaced the toilet with a higher tanked one necessitating  the amputation of the countertop extending behind it. There is a 58″ wide flat mirror affixed to the wall above the vanity and toilet. There is an inset mirror-fronted medicine cabinet on the wall to the right of the sink. It has lost its will to magnetize, and so gapes with it’s mouth slack, revealing the rusty metal shelves full of the detritus left behind by our son when he moved north.

My pathetic efforts to decorate this bathroom consist of some lovely water colors on the wall and a Martha Stewart rattan set of tissue cover, soap pump and toothbrush holder. I can hear you clucking your disapproval already.

All in all, it is rather a desperate situation for one with the renovation DTs. And so, when Tina pronounced that they had found a vanity at Lowe’s, I felt the need for betterment stirring in my loins and found myself yesterday in the bathroom vanity section of Lowe’s looking for 28-29″ wide vanities. I quickly intuited the vanity that they had purchased, and to confirm my style sensors, snapped a picture with my iphone and texted it to Michael.

“Is this the one you bought?”

The Vanity

I continued to wander down the aisle looking at uglier and wider vanities. About 3 minutes later, “Yup” appeared on my phone.

I began typing frantically into my phone -“Do you think I can replace my 28″ vanity with a 31″ one if my toilet is wall mounted?” I mean, really, who texts something like that to a friend’s husband. Seriously, only someone in need of a meeting.

“Not sure, but I think code is 18″ from center of toilet to wall. Does a vanity count as wall? The distance code is about function. You at Lowe’s? Cause I’m on my way there.”

“Probably not the same one -I’m at Pico.”

“Ah. You can probably order the deeper tub there for a modest upgrade. Special order not usually in stock.”

“Just looking. Here’s my one option of 28″ on the vanity.”

28%22 vanity

“Saw this before and really like it. Tight storage so check it out.”

And with my taste confirmed by the expert, so begins my renovation project. I know it will happen. This time I will try not to copy my friends’ designs but can’t make any promises.

Happy Valentine’s Day – Postponed

Valentine’s Day for those of us who work in the theatre, is just another day, like birthdays, Easter, etc. We are used to the harsh mistress that is the theatrical tech schedule; she who shows no leniency for affairs of the heart.

Some of my happiest birthdays have happened in the theatre, where once, following a dress rehearsal of the S.T.A.G.E. benefit, in the notes session, my friend David Galligan told the cast that it was my birthday, and I was suddenly being serenaded by Broadway performers like Kay Cole, Penny Fuller, and a full orchestra led by Ron Abel. It was magical, and I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be doing the thing I love the most on my birthday. I still feel that way.

Academic theatre is similarly dispassionate about the pillage of its practitioners’ time.

My birthday coincides with Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday holiday, providing me with a three day weekend every year after the first week of the spring semester. And I need it by then, having survived the gauntlet that is the audition bender week where 10 shows audition and get cast in the span of four days.

We “Theatre People” learn to bend the calendar to fit our social lives in somewhere. For years, as a stage manager, I had Mondays off, and so it was on Mondays that I entertained, or went to the movies, or did the laundry, or did the grocery shopping, or cooked. Actually, substitute “and” for every one of those “or”s above and it will be closer to the reality of how theatre artists manage their limited time off.

This year, I had the privilege of meeting prospective students on Valentine’s Day. And like the old hoofers we are, my husband and I exchanged  Valentine’s Day cards and an obscene amount of chocolate over the breakfast table, then separated for the next 12 hours, coming together again after the auditions were done. It isn’t ideal, but we both understand that our work precedes the social.

And here’s my advice to you – if you want a life in the theatre, prepare to explain, apologize, defend,  and explain again to those people who say, “Why can’t you go with me to the ___________?” (Insert: baseball game, baby shower, fashion show, funeral, wedding, prom, gallery, picnic, slam dance event, marathon finish line, you name it – you will miss it at some point). “I have rehearsal.”

I Can't I have Rehearsal

That’s why it is a good policy to mate with someone who is from the same tribe – I have never had to explain to my actor husband why I needed to stay at the theatre for 10 out of 12s for 7 consecutive days. He gets it because he understands the business. Does it make it easier to bear? No, not really. He gets lonely and wants me to come home. I think about him at home waiting for me and get impatient to return. But I don’t have to deal with someone who doesn’t understand why I’m not home.

And when I am home, I am home. And he is there. And we are happy to be there, grateful for our healthy relationship of understanding and mutual respect. Of the work, and of the life we have crafted together.

For years, when Chris was growing up, we had a finely tuned balance of parental duties. I remember once when I was stage managing “On Borrowed Time” at the Pasadena Playhouse, and Chris was about 3, they were in rehearsals for “Lend Me A Tenor” and the actor Paul Dooley, who was playing the Maestro, had a motorcycle accident and broke his shoulder. The artistic director, Paul Lazarus, asked me if Jimmie would be able to come in and do a few performances on book, and for the next two weeks or so, I spent the day with Chris at home, while Jimmie rehearsed at the Playhouse, and then I’d bring Chris and our dog, Molly, who was in “On Borrowed Time” to the theatre and pass Chris off to Jimmie, who took him home and fed him dinner and put him to bed.

And we did it all in stride, because we are “Theatre People” and it didn’t feel the least bit foreign to us to completely integrate our lives with our work. Chris had a blast, running all over the green room – he loved being backstage – poor kid grew up in theatres all over Los Angeles. I remember a Halloween when he bobbed for apples in a big tub down in the basement of the Doolittle theatre right outside the green room during “Jake’s Women.”

And so, missing one Valentine’s Dinner isn’t so hard. We will celebrate it tomorrow night, and so it goes. This magical life in the theatre with my true love.

Spinning into Ice Cream

spinning

So I started a spinning class about a month ago. Fat and sassy from a winter recess spent eating chopped pecan cookies, and flushed with shiny New Year’s resolutions, I walked the half block to the Cycle/Yoga gym in my neighborhood and signed up for 10 classes. In all honesty, it wasn’t the first time I had started a spinning class. I had taken a free demo class three years before when the gym first opened. And that had been one of the most brutal physical wake up calls I had ever experienced. I practically crawled out of the gym after that class.

When I walked into the gym this time, I knew what I was getting into, but this time, I was determined to overcome the lassitudes of my pudgy 54-year-old legs and make them and myself proud.

The first class was predictably disastrous. I had to ask for help setting up my bike. I really abhor being the novice at anything; it always has been so uncomfortable for me. The lean and sinewy trainer with the matchstick arms and iron legs at the front of the class looked like she could be doing the routine in her sleep – it looked so easy for her – I hated her. She was hard and didn’t understand how hard it was for me. (Pouting emoticon)

This is what I now know and it only took me a month to figure this all out – mostly due to the kindness of the subsequent instructor who’s class I found and have been attending three times a week:

1) Use your core – this means you shouldn’t slump your shoulders and heave your body forward and backward by using your arms to pull you to the handlebars.

2) Zero out the resistance before you start the work out. This may seem ridiculously obvious to you if you have done spinning before, but I discovered (in week 3) that when I did that, I could actually move my legs in rhythm with the music rather than once for every two revolutions of the rest of the cyclers.

3) Bring the biggest bottle of water you can carry and drink it.

4) When the instructor says “Tap it up,” do it. Otherwise, you are cheating yourself. And keep going to the end of the song. And then to the end of the next song. And the next. Because it is only 45 minutes and anything is bearable for 45 minutes. When I’m struggling, I imagine myself walking out the door of the gym and into the sunshine, exhausted and happy that I started my day that way.

In one of my classes two weeks ago, before I had actually made it through the class without sitting down and crying, I found myself sandwiched between two identical twin blond sisters. I had gone to “my” bike, set myself up, when the Doublemint Twins came in and chose the bikes on either side of me. Incredibly slim, the the two of them would have fit into one leg of my six-year-old Addidas  workout pants. That was okay. I didn’t have any problem with company – in fact, I was excited to have someone better than me cycling on either side. But half way through the workout, sometime after the hill and before the final jumps, I gasped to the twin on my right, “You girls are killing me.” She shot me a dirty look; I guess I breached some unwritten rule about not talking to someone else during the class. Suitably chastised, I returned to my own misery.

This morning,  they were back, and I selected a bike behind them and to the left. What I saw during the class made me feel so much better. The sister on the left (was it the same girl who had been on the left last time?) wasn’t touching the little red knob on the bike. “Tap it up” elicited nothing more than hummingbird-speed cycling. No wonder she could move her legs so fast! She was at the base level of resistance! I can’t tell you how this cheered me on to the finish line. That and the fact that they both got off their bikes and walked out without wiping them down. No longer the novice, I celebrated their ignorance about the protocols as I cleaned off my bike.

I can have ice cream at least once a week now. You could say I am spinning into ice cream.Ice cream

Blood is thicker than prune juice

Blood is thicker than prune juice” was one of my paternal grandfather’s go-to phrases. If you didn’t know better, you would think my family lineage snaked back to Sicily or somewhere equally well-connected. But no, the Midwestern bank president was staunchly Protestant, and only meant to warn us that in the worst of times, your best resources lay in the deep close bosom of your immediate family.

And it was to this bosom I retreated this week, when, faced with challenges I cannot share with you prune juicers, my brother, Larry, rose to his full and majestic height and gave me the best advice of my adult life.

image

I had a series of three phone conversations with him this week, after returning from work. I sank into our other grandfather’s chair, recently reupholstered in a distinctly non-grandparental fabric, but retaining the elegance and comfort of its original 1925 bones. It’s gaily striped back, seat and arms embraced me as I dialed his number, and started to talk. Both the first and second nights, I had interrupted him in the process of eating something.

“I’m sorry, did I catch you at dinner?”

“No, Sis, I’m just having some ice cream.” And we proceeded, my conscience soothed by the fact that in spite of the difficulty of our conversation, he was having something agreeable.

The second night, when I again interrupted him while he was eating, he told me that he was having some ‘leftover macaroni and cheese,’ and my mind briefly bounced back to the night of our maternal grandfather’s funeral, yes the one from the chair, when three of his adult grandchildren, all married and some with children, had returned to our grandparent’s home to mark the end of this beautiful man’s life.

We were all ensconced in our childhood beds, in the attic bedroom over the garage, and adjacent by a set of steep wooden stairs to the kitchen. We must have been 26, 28, and 30 respectively, and the day had been difficult.

My brothers, even more than me, had been close with Grandad Coon- each having spent a summer working for his construction company and concrete company, and yet their tales of the hard work that summer had never obscured their affection for our grandfather. They had both been given the task, immediately upon arriving at the construction company, of donning ear protection and going into the cement mixers, each with a jackhammer, to clean out the old cement that had coated the truck’s large belly. I remember hearing from all involved that it was both an initiation to the hard work they would do that summer, and a demonstration to the other workers in the company that the two grandsons would not be handed anything they didn’t earn outright. And so, while the other workers didn’t retire to a lovely home with a swimming pool and cozy dinners with the owner and his wife at night, they could rest assured that the nepotism ended with the acceptance of the job by my teenage brothers. That was the kind of man my grandfather was: good, solid, Republican, as it turned out, but I can hardly hold that against him now.

But that night, in the quiet February darkness of rural Pennsylvania, my brothers and I lay in our beds talking about the day, and oddly, exchanging recipes.

“How do you make macaroni?” I had asked, because as a new wife, my cooking skills were still being honed- I had grown up as the privileged one to be in the kitchen with our mom, who was a skilled alchemist of the mundane. By that, I mean no insult; Her dinners were excellent yet routine. And so, having not paid close enough attention, I now sought to know how to make the macaroni and cheese.

Larry began in a careful treatise of how to craft (pardon the bad pun) the best Mac and cheese recipe I have ever eaten. And somewhere in the middle of his cheese roux recipe, intoned solemnly from under a purple sateen comforter from the darkened corner to my right, somewhere over near the bookcase filled with back issues of National Geographic, the absurdity of dealing with death by sharing family recipes began to tickle me. Soon, the three of us were gasping for air, alternately laughing and crying in the dark privacy of the mahogany-filled attic bedroom.

Now, 28 years later, I pushed that shared event aside as my critical brain said, “ice cream and macaroni and cheese; these aren’t healthy but I am in no position to lecture my big brother.” And so, I didn’t, but listened instead to his excellent counsel.
And the next night, I made the macaroni and cheese, deftly, with a shared inheritance of knowledge and experience. And this morning, with the leftovers, I crafted an omelet with zucchini and leftover Mac and cheese.
To my Grandfathers, I say “Thank you for the lesson that though blood may be thicker than prune juice, our expectations that you will succeed due to merit rather than privilege are clear.”
And to my brother Larry, I say “Thank you, for the best Mac and cheese recipe in the world and for being such a stellar supporter of me.”

Our Town

 

I was destroyed by the power of Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town” today. It was a surprise, came out of nowhere, as I sat in the first tech run-through of the MFA Year Three student production on a beautiful Saturday afternoon on the cusp of February.

I had left my husband at home this morning, gone to the bank, stopped to pick up the tech donuts,  and arrived at the theatre at 11:30 for the final run-through before adding costumes. The theatre is in a state of disarray, the audience risers littered with neat piles of cables, and stray props. We are definitely not audience-ready.

I brought in a chair from the stacks of them in the lobby and watched from the front row as the students easily became the denizens of the town. On the surface, Our Town is such a simple story. And the set for our production, beautifully designed by Takeshi Kata, unfinished wooden floorboards and slate walls, meticulously carved by our carpenters, and deftly painted by our Vika, our scenic painter. The furniture, well worn from years of use in our stock, had been newly stripped by a company whose receipt had been causing consternation all week in the purchasing office at USC. The name of the company, the Happy Stripper, combined with the illegibility of the pink copy once scanned had set off a flurry of phone calls, and the petty cash process ground to a halt, leaving us with no additional petty cash until the Happy Stripper would fill out a W-9 form and submit it.

But now, the furniture was placed by our competent assistant stage manager, the lights focussed and cued, the sound set. The director had established the rehearsal room milieu of the play- not just the furniture, but everything was stripped down to its most basic elements, the actors even generating the sound themselves.

I turned off my phone, and allowed the story to envelop me.

Now, I should say this play is already laden with personal sentimental value. My husband, Jimmie played the stage manager about 11 years ago, at the age of 76 for his acting company, Interact, and our son, Chris, 14 at the time, had shared the role of Wally Webb with his best friend, Mikey, because neither of them could commit to the full rehearsal burden due to their respective sports of ice hockey and AYSO soccer.

I remember most about that production how moving Jimmie was and how hard it was for Chris or Mikey to sit still in the Act 3 cemetery scene.

Our Town is a sneaky play- it tricks you into thinking that it is a quaint treatise of life in the early 20th century in a small rural town in New Hampshire, and then it rolls up in the third act and throws you up against your mortality and that of the ones you love the most. At least that is what happened to me this afternoon.

At this run-through,  the director asked me to set up some chairs to allow the family of a young actress who will audition for our BFA program soon observe part of the run-through with her parents. The four of them slipped into the theatre during the second intermission.

Wilder illustrated the separation of living from dead and the swift process of separation by recently dead Emily’s eager description of farm equipment purchased with Mama Webb’s  “legacy,” and dead Julia Webb’s lack of affect upon hearing the news. The sharp contrast brings one to the blunt and brutal realization that everything physical that we care about is fleeting. Just like that.

Emily’s realization that it was too painful for her to be among the living and her retreat to the cemetery just destroyed me. I was sobbing, tears streaming down my cheeks.

I went to the director, my tears the universal language of his successful realization of the play. He asked me to come talk with the visiting family, and I did, telling the young woman about our other theatres and what it means to be a part of a BFA cohort going through four years together, while I sopped my tears on my t-shirt sleeve.

The power of theatre to move me and to force me to look at the world and my life is palpable today. I have Thornton Wilder to thank for that, and the class of 2014 MFA Actors.

Tonight, I am bringing a large box of Kleenex with me when I return  for the first dress rehearsal and I am also bringing Jimmie with me.

 

http://dramaticarts.usc.edu/

MFA Y3 Actors