The Attraction of Cults


Tonight, I attended Jesse Mu-En Shao’s play, “The End Times,” a play about  an extremely cultish Christian community. The play had  great resonance for me.

When I was a junior in college in Spring 1981, and still fancied myself destined to be a great actress, I had a friend in acting class named Wendy.

Wendy and I were doing a scene for  our acting class about these two little old ladies who sold lemonade on the side of the road. In the scene  it is eventually revealed that the lemonade is spiked, and the two become hammered during the scene. Wendy and I had the brilliant idea that if we made some pot brownies and ate one before rehearsing the scene, we would achieve the effect of getting high like the little old ladies in the scene. Smart, right? Sounds like a couple of dopey college students – no pun intended.

I had been given some extremely strong pot butter by one of my older brothers, and I brought the green jar over to Wendy’s dorm room, where we made a pan of brownies while discussing our “approach” to the scene.  I had also wanted to talk with Wendy was because I was taking a GE Religion class, the topic of which was Religion or Cult, and I had elected to write a paper about the  E.S.T. movement, by “infiltrating” a training and outing it as a cult. I knew that Wendy had already taken the training.

From Wikipedia:
“The Erhard Seminars Training (est), an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard, offered a two-weekend (60-hour) course known officially as “The est Standard Training”. The purpose of est was “to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself.” The est training was offered from late 1971 to late 1984.”

So, as the brownies baked,  Wendy proceeded to reel me in, and I prepared to  test my hypothesis that est was a cult, not a religion.

The brownies finished, cooled, and we cut the pan’s contents into 12 squares. We each ate one, and then rehearsed the scene. 15 minutes later, we looked at each other, and shrugged. Nothing. No high. We each ate another brownie. After another 20 minutes, nothing, so we ate a third each. After finishing a third pass at the scene and still feeling no ill or good  effects from the brownies, I left Wendy’s room, having decided that I would attend an est training in a few weeks, and went back to my room, where I proceeded to have a nightmarish  and hallucinogenic reaction to the brownies. Wasn’t pretty, and it was pretty much my last exposure to pot.

In a few weeks, Wendy drove us to the est training, located in a non-descrip industrial park in New Jersey, in a conference room  filled with about 200 chairs. Est ground rules dictated that the trainings were each 12 hours long, and there was one lunch break in the day, and very infrequent bathroom breaks. The philosophy was that difficult emotional discoveries  could not be avoided by a sudden urge to go to the bathroom if you were not allowed to leave the room. As a result, in addition to “getting it,” I have a bladder of steel and can sit through 6 hour meetings without breaking a sweat.

The thing about infiltrating a cult is that you need to do more than one visit to get the full 360 on it, and the thing about doing more than one visit is that you are in danger of getting sucked into the cult. There is intimacy in sharing a spiritual quest with others that binds you to the group.  It makes you enthusiastic about the work and about sharing the experience. That is what cults count on – that the people who come seeking spiritual sustenance are hungry for intimacy, for fellowship, and will gladly share their experiences with others.

When I had taken two trainings, and several workshops with the Werner Erhard and Associates group, I invited my Mom to come to Princeton for a workshop. She was, at the time, getting her Master’s Degree in Journalism at Columbia University, and she drove down to Princeton at the end of a long day of classes. All the poor woman wanted was a Manhattan and dinner with her daughter. But  I had an alternative agenda -to share with her this transformative experience. We went to the meeting, and there, I watched my intelligent, journalist mother look into the hollow and haunted eyes of one of the est participants. Only then as I watched her asking logical questions of them was I able to see the folly of my search for a spiritual identity. It was not going to happen in the bosom of est. Getting away from the group was not easy, again, as Jesse’s play described. I eventually left college and changed my address, even moved to Europe for a year, effectively breaking the bond with the denizens of the “human potential movement.”

The “getting away” was painted in dark hues in Jesse’s play tonight.  Listening,  we felt exhilarated by the religious fervor of the characters, then claustrophobic , stifled by the constraints of the group’s irrational rules; what was the most devastating thing was the limited  alternatives for the  characters who sought to escape the group, and the abysmal success rate of doing so. Kudos to you, Jesse Mu-En Shao. Thank you for sharing your powerful play with all of us.

New plantings in the garden


Having passed through the festive Commencement arch a few weeks ago, I was beginning to feel the summer months approaching. I guess the 95+ temperatures in the week before Commencement should have clued me in, but with the grading and final committee meetings, portfolio reviews, awards banquets, and final exams, there just wasn’t time to get over to Home Despot to buy the plants to fill the planters on our balcony, which have sat empty of color and filled only with dessicated and dead soil.

That weekend marked the first time in a while that I didn’t have something else on my plate that I should have been doing, and so I jumped in the car and drove over to see what they had in the nursery at Home Depot.

I’m always looking for Hummingbird-compatible flowers for the boxes, but that seems less important since the feeders have satisfied them of late. I have always relied on the sales birds at Home Despot to guide me to the flowers that will interest  them. The real sales people are probably made nervous by my quiet observation of the nursery both inside and outside. That day, the birds were not in evidence, so I selected four small containers of Fuschia flowers, four small containers of lavender plants, and some lovely white daisies with blue centers for borders.

Came home and launched into the reno of the patio, tossing old dried up pots and augmenting the existing soil with a new layer of fresh potting soil. The flowers look great, and I am waiting for the birds to discover them.

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“Pairi Daiza” and “Henry and The Hippocampus” and “The End Times”


I have the privilege of working with talented theatre artists – most recently, the newly minted alumni MFA Dramatic Writers from the School of Dramatic Arts at USC. This week there is an ongoing “New Works Festival” of plays written by the recent graduates. The thesis plays, by the three writers, Nahal Navidar, Brian James Polak and Jesse Mu-En Shao, are directed by established Los Angeles directors, cast with professional actors and presented as concert-style readings in the McClintock Theatre at the corner of Jefferson and McClintock.

Those are the facts, but what has happened, gradually over the past several years and most successfully to date this year, is that a community of directors and playwrights and dramaturgs fill the 90 seat house with enthusiasm and  an expectation which is palpable. The plays are each presented twice, in rotation through the course of the second week, the first week having been devoted to rehearsals and several days where the writers go away and work again on their scripts. What happens is a wee bit of alchemy – talented readers and eager writers percolate, stirred by directors who have both willingness and skill to forge  new plays made better in the creative cauldron.  And the audience is there on the front lines to witness the birth of these new plays. Not only witness, but have direct feedback following the readings to respond. And with an audience of playwrights, dramaturges and directors as well as actors and interested general audience members, the comments are insightful. They take what you have just heard and spin it around so you can look at it from a number of perspectives that you might not have considered. Oh, and did I mention it is free?

Last night’s play, “Pairi Daiza” by Nahal Navidar, is set in Iran in 1981, on the eve of revolution with three characters united in circumstance, separated and ultimate unified by their experiences and challenges.

Tonight’s play, “Henry and the Hippocampus” by Brian James Polak unfurls the elaborate dance of three characters, a man who has lost all ability to form new memories, his wife, a professional dancer, and the doctor who is doing his research on the title character’s painful mental purgatory.

In both cases, I was awed by the intelligence of the characters, by their raw and universal  humanity and by the profundity of the feelings that were evoked through sensitive direction and beautiful performances.

So, there’s one more in the chute. “The End Times” by Jesse Mu-En Shao, will perform tomorrow, Thursday evening at 7:00PM at the McClintock theatre. Do yourself a favor and be there to drink in some of the latest voices in the theatre in LA. It’s a bit of a party, too – you never know who you might meet there!

The plays all perform again – Pairi Daiza on Friday at 7pm, Henry and the Hippocampus on Saturday at 2:30 and “The End Times” on Saturday at 7:00PM. Don’t miss them. I will be sorry if you do.

Intentional Life Depicted then Jumbled

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The date function on my camera recently stopped functioning. I think it had something to do with the changing of the batteries from Duracell batteries to Ultimate Lithium batteries, at the suggestion of Walter from Walter’s Camera shop, a decrepit little shop where I took my camera to try to determine why it wasn’t quick enough for me to capture pictures.


I know little to nothing about photography. I don’t know an F stop from the F Dash stop where I catch the bus each morning, but I do know something about impatience. I know quite a bit about impatience. Ask my son.  No, on second thought, don’t – he will not get back to you because he’s out fishing for a week or so. That will be frustrating for you and you will become impatient. Like me.

Anyway, so back to Walter. I went there with my Canon PC1431 camera, prepared to drop a few bucks to have him tune it up for me so that I could take better pictures with the camera that my son had given to me a few years ago.  Walter (or the man who runs Walter’s Camera shop, who, according to my friend/colleague Hannah, is not Walter), told me that I just needed new batteries. Nothing wrong with the camera.

So I went to CVS and bought the new batteries, which were expensive enough to make me feel like I had actually done something to repair my camera. Alas, all that happened was the date mechanism zeroed back out so that the camera now thinks all the shots are being taken in January of 1980. Why January of 1980? Is that when my little camera was born?  Of course, the camera was a gift which came without any manual. So I have consulted with very intelligent people to try to reset the date without success. And, due  to it’s natal confusion, the photos it now takes are no longer able to be sorted by “event” but are in a jumble. This means that the pictures I took last Friday of the Senior Designers’ Portfolio displays are now mixed willy nilly with the pictures I took in Los Osos of our great niece’s baby shower over the subsequent weekend. Try it sometime. Take the dating mechanism off your camera and shoot for a weekend then go back in and try to sort them out. Which ones are the local critters?


What happened to me was this slightly nauseating sensation of confusion – seeing pictures of students and work colleagues/friends/family (we spend enough time together that I consider them family) interspersed with beautiful central coast scenery and real family (with whom we do not spend enough time to be as well acquainted as the colleagues at work). That’s a whole other topic.  Not at all clearly defined, but sort of fun, at the same time. You should try it sometime.


Last Day of Classes


This was a picture taken the first day of class this spring at our BFA Production Student Meeting. (Apologies for the tiny size of the participants. ) And like a flash, thirteen shows later, we will, after final exams and commencement, bid sixteen production students adieu. Today was the last day of classes and poof, like that, we will lose another class of seniors. This is a big class – there will be 160 at Commencement, but that’s all of the programs.  In our little behind the scenes neck of the woods, we are losing 10 BFA designers, 1 BA designer,  1 BFA SM, 1 BA SM, 3 TDs.  It is tough to let them go; but go they must. Several already have jobs or internships, or plans to attend graduate school in their future.

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But this is what I know. They need to go and they will make us proud. IMG_2660 My little secret is that they come back!  They come back to play and to see and make  new plays with us. IMG_1267 IMG_1899


And to bowl at our annual Jingle Bowl.  And to visit us on Football Techs – no, that’s not where we tech the football game, but where we miss the football game and sit in a dark theatre for 10 hours. But sometimes, on the occasional Saturday, something so breathtaking and  magical happens that it makes you remember why you do this thing called teaching. IMG_1796   It’s because of these guys. IMG_1798 IMG_2653IMG_1802 It is just obscenely gratifying when you get to see them all fully formed and functional and making their way as artists in the world. IMG_2121

So this is my little love letter to all the former students, current students and soon to be former current students whom I will miss with the deepest pang in my heart after a few weeks when their lives “commence.” Don’t you dare not include us in the next phase of your lives. We want to know how your story continues. What are the high points? What are the low points?  Show us your scenic triumphs!  Invite us to your shows. IMG_2118

Just please, please, please keep coming back!


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