Explore at 4- The Performing Arts

This week, the USC Career Center, in collaboration with the Theatre Student Association of the School of Dramatic Arts hosted a panel in the Martin Massman Theatre for The Performing Arts, as part of their Explore at 4 series.

LevarQA-808c59dfThe panelists included actor, entrepreneur LeVar Burton, Camille Schenkkan, Program Manager Next Generation Initiatives, Center Theatre Group (CTG), CTG Casting director Mark Simon, playwright and Co-literary Manager for the Theatre at Boston Court, Emilie Beck, and David Mack, Strategic Director of the Heidi Druckler Dance Theatre. Meghan Laughlin, who helped coordinate the event with the Career Center  asked me to moderate the panel. This was a first for me at USC.

The purpose of the panel was to show alternative pathways to students on the brink of forging a life in the performing arts. To provide a safe place for them to ask questions of a prestigious panel of people who had already made their way in a variety of directions. Approximately 55 students attended. Career Center’s Senior Career Counselor and organizer of the event, David Ginchansky, took a quick survey which revealed all but three students in attendance were Thespians.

I have an embarrassing confession. I was really nervous about moderating this panel. That probably sounds silly, and after a lifetime of stretching out of my comfort zone, the experience has reminded me yet again of a valuable lesson for those about to seek a life in an uncertain profession.  The wonderful thing about being asked to do something new is that following that initial frisson of fear, one’s creative habits and training kick in. Which is, of course, what the panel was addressing. How do we take the training we have received in school and go out into the profession to find our way? The students who attended the discussion heard the same idea expressed many ways throughout the hour-long discussion:

Find your authentic self.

Keep your ego healthy. In a business where exposing your authentic self is de rigueur, find a way to protect your ego from being bruised without sacrificing what makes you authentic.

Be kind. To everyone.
Take risks and do things that are unfamiliar because you never know when you will stumble into your perfect career in the arts.
Dare to fail.

We covered topics such as how to navigate new media as actors. Who better to discuss that then LeVar Burton, with 1.7 million Twitter followers? Burton refashioned his long running Reading Rainbow television show into an app which has allowed students to read over 16 million books on their tablets. He modified his original premise of bringing reading to young children via the current technology  (television in 1983 when the series started) to embrace the latest technology. He took what he knew and adapted himself and his vision, creating a successful kick starter campaign with over 105,000 contributors, raising over five times his $1,000,000 goal. Burton asked to see a show of hands for how many of the students had Instagram accounts. Every single one rose in unison. Roots_25th_Anniversary_Edition

Burton discussed how he had been cast as the lead in Alex Haley’s “Roots” when he was 19, a sophomore at USC. He attributed everything he knows about acting to the training he received at USC, in the earliest days of what is now the School of Dramatic Arts.

Mark Simon and others talked about researching the company you are approaching for a job and knowing before you interview about the type of work they do. Before auditioning, he advised, “Read the play.” He said that if he found that an actor hadn’t read the play he was likely to lose all interest in that actor. Good advice!

The universal advice from the panelists was to get out and go to the theatre. See the plays, talk about them, write about them, hone and train your ability to think about plays in critical terms and to have opinions.

Several of the panelists talked about how they had started as actors and migrated in another direction. Camille Schenkkan began as an actor, and realized that she really didn’t like commuting to auditions. She had a formative internship while in college, which developed into a full-time job. She became active in the Arts Alliance and other organizations, and soon landed at Center Theatre Group. She is responsible for overseeing the internships offered to students at Center Theatre Group, now a highly competitive process.

Emilie Beck began as an actor in Chicago, an environment she loved, and which I later overheard her telling some students about more. When she moved to Los Angeles, she discovered she no longer wanted to be an actress, and because she was writing plays by then, sought a job which could support her creative work.

David Mack described his rewarding work in coordinating the logistics for a dance company doing events in non-traditional performance spaces. Again, the theme was adaptation, flexibility, not being afraid to try something that hadn’t been tried before. It was a wonderful conversation.

I had joked with my husband before the event  that moderating a panel is just like hosting a dinner party, except without the shopping, cooking, and doing the dishes. The moderator’s task is exactly what the dinner party host’s is: to draw out your guests, to tease out the stories and the experiences that fascinate the other dinner guests. I love hosting dinner parties.

The dessert was hearing these generous panelists respond to the questions of the students, who were so eager to hear what they had to say. It was a dynamic and positive conversation which left everyone in the room, both students and panelists, feeling charged and hopeful about their future lives in the arts.

Following the question and answer period, the panelists stayed to talk with the students one on one before heading out into the early evening. Everyone left this dinner party fully sated.

In Touch (with what matters this week)

It is the end of January, so it must be Tech time for the MFA Rep, and indeed, last night and tonight, we began the tech for “The Servant of Two Masters,” directed by Andy Robinson and opening on February 7, 2015 at 8:00PM in the Scene Dock Theatre on the USC campus.

Three things happen at the end of January, like clockwork, every year.

1. We tech the three play Rep.

2. Many of the faculty decamp for points east on their recruiting efforts. New York, Chicago, and then back out to San Francisco.

3. A huge blizzard sweeps into the east coast knocking out all means of traveling in and out of New York.

I mean literally every year this happens. Every year those of us left behind to tech the rep talk amongst ourselves about whether we will ever see our itinerant colleagues again. We envision them getting stuck in a snowdrift somewhere between LaGuardia and the midtown Manhattan hotel where the auditions happen. Meanwhile, we crank up the air conditioner in the Scene Dock Theatre and throw some plates around. We’ve been watching CNN for two days now, as the intrepid reporters stand in the deserted streets, or drive in the traffic-restricted streets while telling us to be safe. We are sitting in the middle of Los Angeles in 70 degree weather crafting a play.  Molly, our fearless stage manager, keeps us focussed on the action on stage, as she runs the tech with grace and agility. This has been one of the quickest techs yet. Molly is an alum, my heart swells with pride while I watch her stand from her table and cross the room to speak quietly with the director; after a brief consult, she makes an announcement that we will just be running through the restaurant sequence and releases everyone else from the tech. It’s 7:30 and I thought I’d be here until 10:00. That’s important news, or at least it matters to me.

Tonight, after tech was over, I stopped by my nearby grocery store for a few staples – lip gloss, napkins, heartburn medication, some snack packs for the rest of the week, when my days stretch like fussy felines, from 9:00AM to 9:00PM. Last but not least, I picked up the latest issue of “In Touch” magazine. Subtitle: With What Matters This Week.

This week’s cover of “In Touch” Magazine.

I couldn’t resist;  the front cover of the magazine carried a picture of George Clooney and his new bride, Amal, looking none too happy to be captured by the invasive lens of the paparazzi. If looks could kill. I picked it up for my ladies at lunch, but when I brought it home I couldn’t pry it out of my husband’s hands. I mean, who can blame him? It’s hard to resist a two page spread of photos of our favorite female celebrities out doing errands without makeup, each picture worse than the next, each one with a little round inset picture of them looking radiant with make up on. I told him I was glad I wasn’t a celebrity because I wouldn’t have the inset photo. My inset photo would also be bare of makeup, and trust me, my friends, that ain’t pretty. Other features included: Jen’s Secret Revenge on Angie, an article about how Jen and Angie avoided each other at the recent SAG Awards, or Desiree’s Dream Wedding.

The In Touch Magazine cover read “George and Amal’s Nightmare”  “$200M Divorce” “How it all went wrong in only 4 months.” I couldn’t take a picture of the cover fast enough to share it with my friends. I texted the photo and within seconds, back came the responses: “Do you think it’s true????”

Zach, making ye olde letters for “The Servant of Two Masters.”

I wonder if the writers who work for “In Touch” magazine have as much fun in their artistic process as we do in ours. Looking around the theatre tonight, I watched the students who were assisting the designers in the theatre: Zach, sitting at a table in the house, was meticulously cutting parchment letters into the correct sizes and folding them, then applying sealing wax. His enthusiasm was infectious. I snapped a picture of him and sent it to Hannah, our props supervisor, just to prove that we could still get some things done even while she was away.

Haley, the Lighting Design PA, padded around the theatre in her striped socks, something any self-respecting production manager would call her out about. She was busy adding diffusion to an LED strip light backstage which was too bright. The set had been meticulously swept by the two ASMs, Lexi and Maddie, so I thought Haley would be safe for tonight.

Bucky, The Budget Skeleton overseeing the front of house storage of props and ladders.

Throughout the tech, whenever I had a comment that needed to be heard,
I would turn to  Bucky the Budget Skeleton, who was waiting his turn to perform in the Rep. He doesn’t tech for another two weeks, so stood silently in a vacant space behind one section of seating, leaning casually against a pair of orange ladders. In this phase of the Rep Tech, we are still figuring out where the storage will be for all of the furniture and props. Bucky is supervising that process on the front of house side for the time being.

Backstage, a table full of yummy looking props awaited the restaurant scene. I tried not to pass that table before tech began, because my dinner paled in comparison with the available entrees on the table backstage.  These were constructed under Hannah’s supervision, by several of our production students. That must have been fun! Those In Touch Magazine editors have got nothing on us…IMG_3589

Access Evaluation Center

Jimmie sits in front of one of the retired busses used for training and evaluation at the Access Evaluation Center

The trip to the Access Evaluation Center this morning reminded me a lot of my trip to Lourdes back in 1983. I don’t know what I expected but when we entered the warehouse I didn’t expect a full blown episode of Mister Rodgers neighborhood gone to seed. The entryway was lined with people in varying stages of physical impairment. Arrayed around the roughly 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse were busses and ramps, carefully laid out pathways lined in yellow paint. The walls of the warehouse were decorated with large color photographs of the various types of busses in use in the city of Los Angeles, interspersed with gray line drawings of more busses, trains, trees and even an ungainly plane taking off into the dingy white acoustical tiles that covered the ceiling.

I brought my extremely indulgent husband, the ex-marathoner, here today to see if he is sufficiently impaired to take advantage of the para transit services offered to people in Los Angeles. While I am more than willing to drive him wherever he needs to go, I thought it would be nice for him to be able to get around without driving.

The process is outlined below at the website for this service. Check it out. We had done the steps to get here today, and had arrived a few minutes early for J’s 9:00AM appointment.

Access Paratransit Eligibility

This is an impressive facility, with dozens of people in the process of being evaluated. Each person sports his or her own means of battling the indignities of time: walkers, canes, scooters. We all find ourselves in this downtown purgatory for what we have been told will take from 2-4 hours.

After sitting for an hour or so, and watching the rhythms of the room, I gleaned that following the brief intake session, we would return back to the original seating area to await the next evaluator who would walk him through his paces. In the intake session, like a well-tuned team, the evaluator held up a small camera and said, “I’m going to take your picture now.” Jimmie leaned forward, and just as the man was about to snap the photo, one of his colleagues swept in with a large piece of white poster board to block the camera’s view of the row of waiting patrons behind where Jimmie was seated. It was impressive. We returned to our spot and watched approximately ten people march or roll or limp by, their attentive evaluators carrying clip boards and prepared to grab them by the belt which was wrapped around each applicant’s torso. The general sound of bustle in the room was broken occasionally by the chirping sound of a traffic-crossing sound, the light of which was just visible over the top of one of the busses.

Desks for the horde of evaluators were cleverly and discretely scattered around the room, the walls of their cubicles decorated with playful storefront designs, suggesting that we were in a perfect version of LA with people to assist you onto and off of the busses.

I have to say, as a bus passenger, I have always been impressed with the care and respect the drivers give to those passengers requiring assistance with their wheelchairs and walkers. So the testing is understandable, given that the Metro already has considerations in place.

This facility may be where old busses go to die, but they don’t die, they continue in their service here, providing a live set for the practitioners. IMG_3585

After an hour of waiting, I can see that my husband was bored with this exercise. I, on the other hand, was avidly interested in the process and continued to jot down my impressions.

There appeared to be about 20 evaluators, and at the end of the testing area, a man in a mauve polo shirt sat at a computer and processed out people as they completed their testing. I could see we wanted to get to the mauve man. That was how you won the game in this warehouse.

We sat on purple plastic chairs arranged in front of one of the busses. To our left stood a dusty looking Palm tree and a small 3′ round of AstroTurf at the base of the tree. When we arrived, we were told to sit by the palm tree. I thought about how much fun the designer of the warehouse must have had with this assignment.

A trip to the restroom revealed another completely full zone of waiting, about thirty more people in relatively good cheer in this purgatory of paralysis.

An industrious employee in a blue polo and sweatpants, with one phone headset in his right ear, the other dangling over his chest, swept periodically dirt and dust tromped through from all our urban feet.

Robert’s desk is past the two busses on the left, behind the mint green ramp.

Finally, my husband was summoned by a young man named Robert who was both kind and observant. After leading us past two parked busses to where his desk station was, he asked some questions about current medical conditions, took down the list of medications that we brought.

“This is an amazing place,” I said to Robert as he typed the medications.

“Yes it is,” he said. I noted that there were a lot of people there.

“How many people do you evaluate a day?” I asked. Robert responded that there were anywhere from 150 to 200 people evaluated every day. Impressive.

Robert rose from his table and said, “Follow me. We’ll go for your orientation.” I had heard the language “orientation” earlier and knew that that was done at the final station, by the man in the mauve polo shirt.

“Jimmie doesn’t have to do a tour of duty?” I asked Robert.

“I think he’s done his tour of duty already,” he responded, as he led us to the mauve man’s desk. In about 5 more minutes, we walked out into the parking lot and drove home. In 21 days, Jimmie should receive his Access card which will enable him to call for the van to pick him up and take him well, wherever he wants to go.

Mennonite Spin Class

I just got back from my Mennonite YAS class. YAS class consists of a half hour of spin followed by a half hour of yoga. Mennonite All those long blue dresses would get caught up in the wheels of the bikes, wouldn’t they? I can hear you asking yourselves this important question. But the white caps would be good sweat absorbers during the half hour spin followed by half an hour of yoga, right?

I like to rest my bible up on the handlebars next to my water bottle for quick text checks during those particularly challenging hills and sprints.

But no, dial it back, my friend. My reference is merely an observation of the gender sorting that seems to take place every Saturday morning in my downtown YAS class. Our fearless instructor, Stephanie, is great. We find our bikes- most of us creatures of habit-I head directly for the bike under the fan, left side, front row, near the open doors for as much air as I can muster. It’s funny, because I am definitely not a front row kind of gal in the exercise realm. Academically, I would always position myself toward the front of the room, so as to better hear and be less distracted from the shenanigans in the back, the row upon row of hormonally charged note-passers were a distraction in my day. Now the notes are passed virtually and as a lecturer, I know that the better or at least more attentive students are sitting closer to the front of the room.

But where group exercise goes, I have always been a back row kind of gal.

Not so with spin, probably because I usually attend a 7:15 spin class where there are about two or three of us, so I know a retreat to the back is futile. The instructor will find me, so I might as well take advantage of the fan.  What happens in this YAS class each week is that the women clump on the left side of the room, and the men configure themselves on the right side in a straight line across the mirror, like horses at the starting gate, leaping at the reins, their individual lanes ahead, poised to break out and win the race. I prefer to think that the women’s collective on the left side is, by proximity, driving our team on to victory over the men. I’m not competitive, by any means, as my son can tell you.

Mind you, this is never mentioned or commented on. But it has happened the last three weeks. About ten  to twelve students, all arrayed the same way.

Cut to the yoga room. This is even more obvious. The practice is that you place your mat in the room ahead of time and get whatever toys you need to put by your mat to survive the session; my pile includes sixteen blocks, two straps, and a one touch EMT button that will summon the fire fighters should I fall over during the Warrier 3 and break a hip. I am a stage manager, so I get there early; generally, there is no one  in the room when I go to put my mat down, i,e., there are no influencing factors as to where in the gender stream I will end up.

And yet, at the end of the yoga class today, I turned my head and observed that our mats were neatly arrayed in two rows, women in the back, men in the front. Weird, right? It has made me so curious. What is at play here?

I know why I choose the back right corner of the yoga space to unfurl my mat. I want to be as unnoticeable as I can when I topple over or lay on my back in the amended pigeon pose (who made up these names?). Perhaps the young women in the class enjoy watching the broad sweaty backs of their male counterparts, but as far as I can tell, most of the men arrive as couples amongst themselves, so it may not be hopeful longing that positions the women there. Could it be that we really are adopting the historical directives of our foremothers? In religious gatherings, women cede front position to the men? Or, Is everyone in the yoga class as skills weak as me? No, again, casual observance shows good form in both the men and women’s practice.

I am flummoxed by the trend, but don’t see myself breaking my habits. I like the bike I like, I like the mat position I like. But the imp in me wonders what would happen if I took a position in the front row of the right side. Or said, in a loud voice as people were setting up their bikes, “Hey has anyone else noticed how we have self-sorted into men and women in these classes? What’s up with that?”

For now, I am content to allow the Mennonite spin experience keep happening unimpeded. If you have any ideas, or have observed this happening in your classes, let me know! There must be grant money out there for research. Maybe we could get funding from the Axe, or Secret deodorant companies. Just a thought on this quiet segregated Saturday.

Dinner with Hal Holbrook- Talk about a Life In The Theatre!

Dinner with Hal Holbrook

Approximately eighteen years ago (gulp) , I had the honor of ASMIng on a national tour of Death of a Salesman starring Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Franz, and many other talented actors, including Eve Rossen, Hal’s daughter.Hal Holbrook

I was initially contacted by the PSM of the tour, Rich Costabile, a NY based stage manager. I remember getting the call right after I had returned from an aborted assignment in San Francisco at ACT. While there, my body had gone into major systems failure, resulting in the ultimate removal of some major reproductive organs.

The squeamish among you are thinking – “Wow, this suddenly went somewhere I sure didn’t want it to go.” But such is life, and I remember that the call with the job offer came around the same time that my mother had come out to Los Angeles to support me post op, while I lay in the fold out bed in the living room, so I could watch TV while recuperating. I remember being grateful for her help, though at the time, her insistent wails from the kitchen about the location of things felt almost onerous – “this is help?” My memory is that I had just finished sobbing to my mother about  my lost reproductive faculties, to which she responded with helpless empathy, “Oh, Elsbeth, don’t do that.” Not because she reproved of my expressing my loss, but because she herself couldn’t bear my pain. The timing of Rich’s call may be gently corroded by the passage of so much time.

I do rememberer receiving that wonderful life affirming call completely out of the blue, and telling Rich that I was recovering from major surgery. His was an unexpected response, laughter, as  he recounted his own recent minor surgery. Never having met, we bonded in that instant about how the two wounded stage managers would be useless to Hal out on the road. About six weeks later when we met, we did bond tightly, working in concert to support a masterful production of Miller’s play, directed by Jerry Freedman and starring one of the true gentlemen of the American Theatre, Hal Holbrook.

Rich and I laughed a lot on the road with Hal, too. It was a magical 6 weeks, as we zigged and zagged across the country, starting at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida, and traveling  to Cerritos, and Boston, Nashville and Memphis. Foggy memory prevents me from detailing all the stops, but highlightspeabody hotel like watching the ducks at the Peabody Hotel make their way to the fountain in the lobby are vivid.

It was the first and almost last time I had toured, and leaving my husband and young son at home was wrenching, but as anyone well-worn by time will tell you, 6 weeks is a mere flutter of the eyelid in a life, and six weeks on the road ain’t nothing when you’re Hal Holbrook.

Earlier this weekend, my cell phone lit up with Rich’s name, and I was happy  to hear that he and Randy, his husband, were back out in Los Angeles, on another leg of the tour of “Mark Twain Tonight”, a job that Rich has been doing for about ten years. For Hal, it is a fifty year life journey which is beautifully captured in the documentary: “Holbrook/Twain:An American Odyssey,” which Jimmie and I saw last summer at its premiere screening during the LA Film Festival.

Rich had a generous offer. “Would you and Jimmie like to have dinner with Randy and me, Hal and Joyce on Monday night?”

“I would be thrilled,” I said, and so was Jimmie. Later we firmed up the plan to meet at Hal’s home for dinner. Joyce is Hal’s wonderful and longtime assistant; for 27 years she has supported his work and travels. I had also met her while on tour back in 1997.

Jimmie and Hal go way back. My six weeks pales in comparison with the experiences shared by these two theatre veterans. Both worked at Lincoln Center Repertory Company headed by Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead. And over our dinner that night, they shared many funny and poignant stories about their experiences. It was fascinating to see that they shared a perception of the company as being an inhospitable environment for actors. Hal described it in architectural terms, by the long gray cement hallway leading to the dressing rooms, where one was not greeted by the others, and how he shared a dressing room with an actor who insisted on the cone of silence. Jimmie described it in more emotional terms: how he had bridled at having to check the other actors’ tights due to an added ASM duty to his contract. Hal and Jimmie,  and all of us at the table were rapt with the details of the legendary National Theatre that had been attempted at Lincoln Center.

Hal is a masterful story teller. Anyone who’s seen his Mark Twain, Tonight can attest to that. His eyes filled with tears of emotion several times during the dinner as he and Jimmie strolled down memory lane. He dabbed at them unapologetically with the French country patterned linen napkin.

I reminded him that during our time on the tour in Nashville, we had done a few student matinees. I think they were 9:00am shows. Brutal. “Death of A salesman” for 14-18 year olds at 9:00 Am on a Tuesday. Just take us outside and put us out of our misery. But this one show, we had heard the distinct cry of a newborn in the house. Hal had been really annoyed,  and asked us to check with the house manager about the crying baby, insisting that the little squawler be escorted out of the theatre. After a bit, the crying stopped and later, somewhat sheepishly, the house manager reported back that the baby had been animatronic, programmed to cry at random intervals. A student had received conflicting assignments: in health class to tend to the baby for 24 hours, and in English, to attend the performance at this ungodly hour when he should have been baby sitting. When the baby erupted with cries, the student had exited the auditorium and shoved the baby into a locker in the lobby. So much for Parenting 101. Hal leaned his head back and roared.

The evening was lovely. The table held many vases filled with yellow long stem roses, and ivory tapers infused the peach walls and our animated faces with a flattering glow. The food was wonderful, healthy and plentiful, though I felt guilty as our questions slowed Hal from eating. We all were enjoying ourselves so much.

Good news- for fans of Hal, he has been writing a book. First you have the treat of this upcoming documentary which is in the festival circuit now. It is the most important film I have seen about the life of an itinerant actor. Brutally honest and as I said to Hal, “it should be required viewing for all student actors.” And now, news of a possible book- we have so much to look forward to.

And Hal, with 11 more engagements on this year’s schedule, at nigh on ninety years of youth, shows no signs of withholding his generous tales. Thank you, Rich, for allowing us to pass the time with such an great group of folks.

Nightcrawler I am Not

Last night, I managed to get into bed at a very respectable hour, about 11:00PM. The first week of classes is always a doozy. But the first week in the Spring Semester is also when our Annual Merit Review reports are due to be turned in. As Chair of my department’s Faculty Council, mine are the annoying emails that remind our faculty about the upcoming process. We send one out in mid to late November when Thanksgiving turkeys and the respite of the winter recess is on everyone’s mind. People receive it, brushing it aside with the gentle shove like the one I used to use when swatting my white cat, Bernstein, away from my black pants before I’d head off to work.  Then, with military precision, comes the second email, launched on the first work day after New Year’s, reminding them about the report’s due date in approximately ten days. God help the faculty member who leaves the task until the first week of class. I can only imagine the sleeplessness that mires that member’s mind.

So, anyway, this is that week, and though I have turned in my report, the week has still been as busy as ever. Auditions for nine of our thirteen spring productions are happening, and the University committees are meeting again this week. So it was with extreme anticipation of quieting my mind with the restorative slumber beckoning me from our magic bed, that I turned down the sheets, plumped the pillows, raised the head of the bed and climbed in. Aaaaaahhhhhhhh.  I was really ready to close my eyes and go out.

But no, mosquitooff in the distance, like the annoying mosquito that befriends my ear lobe on a summer night on Cape Cod, i could hear the insistent sound of a few helicopters circling the downtown. It went on for about 20 minutes, circling within earshot, then out, then in, then really in. Now it sounded like the chopper was almost overhead. I got out of bed and opened the blinds and yes, could see some sort of light lighting up the side of the AON building about 5 blocks to the north. Pissed, I climbed back into the bed, and shoved my right shoulder into the mattress, pulling the sheet over my face and mumbled curses into my pillow.

My husband, still in the living room, made his way into the bedroom and said, “I’m going out on the patio to see what’s going on out there.” And in a few minutes, he returned, saying that there was a building on fire on Figueroa. I jumped out of bed and threw open the blinds again, peering into the sky to the left of our building. Sure enough, the chopper was now circling the Water Marke building, which is literally across the street on the corner of 9th and Flower. About a 25 story building or so, the top of the roof has a lighted border around it, and as the chopper circled, I could see plumes of smoke coming from the roof. “Oh my god,” I thought. “The building is on fire.” All of the bad high rise films came to mind – “Towering Inferno,” “Fire: Trapped on the 37th Floor” (Ok, I confess for searching the subject just now and came up with that title which no one remembers).

Like Jimmy Olsen, I put on my shoes, grabbed my camera, and joined my husband on the patio. I could hear sirens coming, and sure enough, I saw three fire trucks arrive, gathering at the bottom of the building on Ninth and Flower. IMG_4399I couldn’t yet see any flames, but the smoke swirled around the top of the building, and the steel gray chopper insistently circled the lighted crown of the building, pushing the smoke around. Lights from atop the building lit the chopper’s underbelly and blades as they passed over the top of the building, but oddly, the firemen below weren’t readying their ladders, uncoiling their hoses. None of them was rushing into the building  It was weird.

Here is my best video reportage – sadly, I had by now convinced myself that there actually was a fire and that I could smell it; furthermore, I was coughing because of the “smoke” that was drifting over across the street to my apartment.

And then, as quickly as they had appeared, the firetrucks pulled away from the curb, and drove away. The irritating chopper wheeled off to the north, leaving the smoky crown of the building. I had been duped. The only thing that was real here was my disgust and total exhaustion. I put down my camera and climbed into bed.

On the Occasion of Brent’s Baby Shower

On the Occasion of Brent’s baby Shower                           January 11, 2015

Organized by Vic at the home of Laura and Geraldine

We’ve all been to a lot of baby showers – all of us over the age of thirty or so, anyway: women probably more so than men, though times are changing on that. image1The most recent shower I attended about 8 months ago, the result of which may be the happiest baby I have ever met.

Today I have the privilege of attending the baby shower of one of my colleagues, a well-traveled, thoughtful man who teaches Applied Theatre Arts. This baby won’t be your first, Brent, though it is your first flesh and blood baby. You birthed the one-year MA program in ATA at the School of Dramatic Arts several years back, to which you brought your intellect, passion, strong core beliefs and work ethic. This time, you will be taking on an even longer term project, for sure, currently as a single Dad, and I know you will bring to this new experience the same commitments and passions which you’ve dedicated to your work of the mind.

The challenges that face you in this adoption are many. Your academic work has global reach, taking you all over the world, multiple times a year, to regions where danger is not so much lurking as expected.

As I prepared myself to go to your baby shower, I, always the worrier, had so many thoughts spinning through my head.

Who will take care of the baby when you are in Rwanda or India next? Will you take the baby with you?

How will you create the support group necessary to make your full time teaching and global work possible?

I wish I could see the baby’s room you have set up, though thank you for sharing some pictures with us via social media.

Isn’t it wonderful that children’s lives now have a digital lifespan that even my son, born 25 years ago, did not have?

Is it wonderful?

In the days leading up to today’s shower, I have thought so often about our son’s welcoming party. My husband and I adopted him from the Department of Children’s Services, in October of 1991, when he was 2 years and 2 months old. We knew very little about his history, other than the fact that his birth mother, addicted to drugs was in Sybil Brand Women’s Prison. Chris had been in two foster homes prior to his placement in our home as a fost-adopt, i.e., a child whom we intended to ultimately adopt, but to whom we were currently foster parents.

I know that you know that it’s a long process to become a foster parent, one we had embraced eagerly even while we accepted its foreignness. An adopting couple has no natural nine-month timeline during which to plan for a baby’s arrival. In our case, we didn’t even know the age or sex of the child, so securing a crib or anything, prior to the specific call about the baby would have been folly. So, we really had nothing going in, save the Ikea bed which our adoption worker, Amy, helped us to put together on the weekend during which our guest bedroom became our son’s bedroom.

At the time, I was the stage manager for Reza Abdoh’s “Bogeyman,” which was in performance at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, with amazing artists both on stage and off. My ASM, Sandy, along with her soon-to-be-husband, Galen, the sound engineer for the show, and their roommate, David, organized a baby shower for Chris at their home in Silver Lake. In attendance, if my fraying memory serves me here, were many of the beautiful actors from the show, Tom, Juliana, Tom, Tony, Peter, and others, and the indefatigable crew, Michael, Alix, Mark, Jane, Jon and others whose names have sadly withered away. See, there’s one difference – if our shower had happened now, there would have been dozens of photos on Instagram and Facebook allowing Chris and my husband and me, to access those memories in sharp detail. Alas, now our son needs to rely on that increasingly faulty source, his mother’s and father’s memories, and some photo albums with yellowing photos.

I do remember that Chris was rambunctious, and he ran around the coffee table for hours, opening his gifts (another difference with your typical baby shower). The givers of the gifts got the added bonus of seeing their gifts truly and very actively appreciated. It was moving to see these generous artists, who gave every night on the stage their seething, raging, triumphant spirit and commitment to Reza’s work, give stuffed animals, Winnie the Pooh plate sets, and many other toys to our son. It may have been the most life-affirming experience I’ve ever had.

IMG_4391And so, dear Brent, I welcome your baby into your life and my life, and the life of the school we share. You must feel free to call on us to support your new role as father, protector, nurturer and teacher of your child. It will be quite a ride, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

Lots of love to you from your extended family.

Watts Towers 1986 to 2015

Recently, while cleaning out some boxes from our storage area, i came across an old picture of our visit to the Watts Towers in about 1986. We had recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, out here temporarily due to Jimmie’s gig in a touring production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Huntington Theatre (later James A. Doolittle Theatre, and currently The Ricardo Montelban Theatre). We were staying at the Magic Hotel in Hollywood, on Franklin Avenue, at the base of the Magic Castle. Our hotel room was more of a suite, with a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen, with not much more than a hot plate and a microwave. I remember the sofa bed retracted into the kitchen right where the oven would have been. The hotel took dogs, which was critical for us, as we had brought Jasper, the smartest dog in the universe, with us to L.A. There was a seedy park across Franklin from the hotel where we would walk him throughout the day, and we took night walks up Odin St., which ran behind the hotel into the hills, and where we frequently spotted the shining eyes of coyotes late at night.

IMG_4362In the picture, Jimmie and I were leaning up against Simon Rodia’s epic exterior wall, smiling  at the photographer, while our dog, Jasper, tongue lolling, looked off to the right. Casually dressed, Jimmie wore jeans and his Tail o’ The Pup t-shirt covered by a bluejean jacket. I had rather unflattering front-pleated khakis on and a long sleeved pink T-shirt. The jewel tones of our shirts echoed the vibrant colors of the broken tiles in the walls behind us. I really wish I could remember who took the picture, because we were looking so fondly and a bit shyly at them. The towers were completely unprotected at that time, no fence, no entrance tickets, no tour guide. We were left more or less to our own devices to wander through the structure and relish the detail of this artist’s mad and spectacular life’s work.

One of the towers stands 99 1/2′ tall, just 6″ short of the regulations of the day for structures needing permits.

Today, about 28 years later, I returned to the Watt’s Towers. IMG_4319After many years of being closed to the public due to fears about their seismic safety, they are still in the process of being restored;  the whimsy and passion of the work is so powerful. Jimmie didn’t come with us today. I was invited by a friend who was introducing a new member to the Trojan Family to some of LA’s splendors. I tagged along, and was so glad that I did. Over the course of thirty years, Simon Rodia, whose life had early on taken a somewhat tragic spin, regained control of his circumstances and sought to execute this tribute to his Italian roots. He scouted the location, in 1921, of this small lot bordered on the one side by the Red Line Trolley tracks, and on the other by a working class neighborhood. Over the next thirty years, he used stones and metal and broken shards of pottery and tiles to construct what they called today, the largest personal sculpture in the world. And it is spectacular.  I asked my friend to take a picture of me by the wall, but I will make another trip back with Jimmie to take an analogous picture to the one we took almost thirty years ago. IMG_4324 IMG_4325 IMG_4326 IMG_4327 IMG_4328IMG_4338