As You Like It Tech

We were on a break in tech for the MFA 2nd Year Actors’  Bing Production of As You Like It. Most everyone had wandered away from the room for a ten-minute break.

Stage Manager Meredith O’Gwynn                      at the tech table.

Christian Henley, one of the MFA Y2 actors, left by his classmates, took that moment to relax, dancing gracefully center stage, framed behind by scenic designer Lea Branyan’s “pole-trees.” Christian’s left arm aloft, he gyrated, his phone aloft, faintly playing the song to which he swayed. His white Henley t-shirt (I wondered, is he aware that his clothing punned on his name?)  Several people asked him what tune he was playing.

I’m jamming! Give me a minute!

After he finished his dance, he shouted out to the house:

“Budapest” by George Ezra!

It was a lovely moment in the middle of tech for As You Like It. The design team, guided by competent and calm BFA Junior stage manager Meredith O’Gwynn, sat shoulder to shoulder at the tech table, while director, Michael Arabian, sat a few rows behind them, watching the pictures unfold, and making adjustments with his team.

Lighting Designer, Sabrina Cadena programs while THTR 130 student Javi Dominguez-Ruiz

The clickety-clack-clack of Lighting Designer Sabrina Cadena’s fingers on the light board never stilled, as she constructed her cues, splashing pattern across the verdant cyc, reminiscent of the fall of light through a Cathedral’s windows.

dodecagonThe action on this tech is all on the fly rail, where the student crew, students from our THTR 130 class, are arrayed across the rail.  The set design, consisting of a dodecagonal platform atop a larger dodecagonal platform (12 sides), framed by two sets of legs seems deceptively simple.  But delights await the audience, as set designer, Lea Branyan has plotted extravagant motion of trees and lanterns. Much of the action of the play takes place in the auditorium, lit inventively by Sabrina Cadena, the lighting designer.

The THTR 130 team members who are backstage are guided by ASMs Kelly Jonske and David Delgado, both of whom are supervising the stage left rail throughout the show.  All afternoon, the crew has practiced their moves, trees in, lanterns in.

“HOLD!” as the lanterns hit the deck.

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At the dinner break, I caught this photo of Lea, adding some foliage to the lanterns for one scene.

The spike marks on the rail have multiplied throughout the afternoon, the system of marking created out of necessity – the failure of hearing the trees thump dramatically on the deck; they’ve labeled the lines with colored tape, with large numbers on white gaff tape. This is the first time most of the students have run the rail. Today they learned what it meant to have their line set out of weight. Some of the lanterns have not been circuited yet; as a result, these line sets will have added weight from cabling which will be counter weighted at the rail. For now, we joke that their biceps will be highly developed. Who needs the gym? Line set 29 requires a heroic effort. Terrence, David and Spencer were all on that line set. There was a lot of laughter audible from the offstage area, as well as some loud clanks as the locks on the rail were released. At the moment, they are telegraphing every rail cue. They giggled and bonded over their lantern labors.

The intrepid rail crew in the triumphant afterglow of a successful shift – L to R. Terrence Leung, Spencer Carney, David Delgado, Alliyah Ferrera, Kelly Jonske, Audrey Lipsmire, Zach Blumner (Kim Rogers not pictured)

I can’t wait until tomorrow when we breeze through these shifts. Their hard work will definitely pay off.

By Monday night’s first dress rehearsal, they will all be old pros. My perverse fantasy is that I will go back there and find each of them pulling the ropes with a donut in one hand and a cigarette hanging out of their mouths. In between cues, they’ll be playing poker in the wings. It’s just a matter of time.

USC School of Dramatic Arts

The Uber Cookie Drop

Isn’t it nice that there are so many helpful apps that already have my credit card so I barely have to move a finger to spend?Uber Like the complete stranger who drove me home from work today while we chatted away like old friends. I got into his car at a corner, and got out in front of my house; no money passed hands.

Take yesterday for example, when I became a new user of Venmo. Our son was home last weekend, with his girlfriend. When they left to drive back north, he managed to forget not only his key ring, but also the cookie tin filled with the most delicious chocolate chip peanut butter cookies I’ve ever made. They may indeed be the only such cookies ever to come out of my kitchen, but they were jaw-droppingly-good. I had carefully divided them into two tins – 6 cookies for me and my husband, 12 for our son. His poor girlfriend will be lucky if she gets any of them, I figure. Off I went to work, and they began their long drive north. Later that evening, I got a text asking if he’d left his keys at our house. I went to the key bowl by the door, and found the ring there. IMG_3684

Soon we were texting about the solution.

C:How quickly can you get me my keys?

M: Well, there are two options. I can overnight them tomorrow morning, and you have them by Tuesday, or I send my private drone up there right now to deliver them to you. Which’ll it be?

C: Overnight shipping I guess. Send the cookies, too. Chocochip

Ever the over indulgent parent (ask all my friends, they’ll back me up on this), the next morning I trotted over to the UPS store, which is only steps from our condo. I put the cookie tin and keys down on the scale and the clerk told me it would be $67.00 to get them to him by the next day. I grimaced but paid the money and walked out of the store. My phone buzzed and I looked down.

C: Download the Venmo App

While I was still walking home, I downloaded the app and began scrolling through the 12 pages of details I needed to agree to before I could be repaid.  I would be giving yet another app my credit card for the privilege of getting paid back for shipping cookies.venmo

Always an early adopter, I soon had the app up and running.  I typed in the $67.00 and hit Submit. Ka-ching! Now the cookies had cost me $134.00; apparently there is both a request button and a pay button; I had hit the pay button. Other features of this app – you can  see who has paid whom and for what. You can pay them on Facebook. Though why you would want to do that, I can’t imagine.  Chris had paid someone a few bucks for “rhino farts.” I was, however, at this point, pretty steamed. Of course, rolling back the tape, I could have just said to the UPS Store clerk:

Whoa! $67.00 is a bit steep for 8 cookies and a set of keys, right? I’ll just send the keys.

But no, I sent the damn cookies.

The Academic Sowing Season And Crop Report

We are in the Academic sowing season here at USC School of Dramatic Arts. Sewing season as well, of course, with three MFA Rep shows just recently open and many more extensively costumed shows in the pipeline. That’s a given. But in the sowing season, in a parallel universe, the faculty and admissions staff examine and sort the young shoots, graduating high school seniors, measuring the potential of promise and growth to seed the next crop of USC students, for creative, self-initiating, productive and impactful artists. We stand in the field, tilling the soil around our current crop, watering, feeding, fertilizing and thinning. At the end of the early days in February, we also head out to assess the potential in the greenhouse.


Farming feels like home to me, having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, where my childhood home was surrounded by rolling, agriculturally fertile fields. While I didn’t grow up on a farm myself, I feel a deep connection with the benefits of hard work and an appreciation for the alchemy of a favorable series of events and practices needed to bring in a good crop. I read the recent obituary of  arts philanthropist Henry Segerstrom, an Orange County developer, who died at 91, after transforming rural Orange County into a fertile community of business with thriving arts centers sporting his name. As Segerstrom’s obituary indicated, to the end of his life, he would introduce himself as a farmer. He identified with the first enterprise of his family, raising lima beans, but perhaps also it was a nod to the nobility of raising food and feeding people. As theatre educators and practitioners, we define training theatre artists to portray our humanness an ambitious and noble pursuit.

Like the farmers, we engage in long days of activity: early teaching and administration, reviewing portfolios online, culminating our productive days with five-hour interview sessions. It’s a serious charge, choosing the next cohort of actors, designers, stage managers, technical directors and sound designers; one in which we are all deeply and passionately invested. The applicants are many, and the choices we make are often difficult.

Please forgive my weedy farming metaphor, but I have been “in the field” with one of our Professors this weekend, director Stephanie Shroyer. We are in tech for our upcoming production of Peter Barnes’ “Red Noses,” a play about the ravages of the bubonic plague in 14th century France, and the transformative nature of laughter and comedy by a group of traveling clowns led by a fervent priest. This is a powerful metaphor for Stephanie’s process, which is equally transformative. In the four weeks of rehearsal, the atmosphere of collaborative ensemble-making she has developed with the cast is palpable. Shroyer’s work,both in the classroom and in the theatrical productions where classroom principals are applied to the productions fuels the growth of these BFA Junior actors.

From the Party Scene in James Joyce’s The Dead, February 2012. Photo Credit Craig Schwartz

One of Stephanie’s directorial strengths is her acute ability to visualize actors and objects moving in space. As the production manager, I know it will be unlikely that she will ever decide to set a play in a proscenium configuration. She sculpts each different drama using complex and innovative intertwining of actors and scenic elements. In spite of the improvisational nature of the rehearsal process, the process has been carefully mapped out. She sketches preliminary scenic configurations before her first meeting with her scenic designer. In spite of that early spatial strategy, she nourishes collaboration, stretching the designers by suggesting things that they may not have considered, or imagine were possibilities.

James Joyce's The Dead
Shroyer imagined creating the bed from the table shown in the earlier party photo. “James Joyce’s The Dead” Photo Credit by Craig Schwartz


There is nothing casual about Stephanie’s work. She bounds into the acting space to guide actors how the prop and scenic elements could fit to create shapes that are surprising and unexpected and funny. In the Sunday tech, while working out the details for a dinner scene, she suddenly asked for a stick, energetically disappeared into the hallway props storage area, emerged with a stick, and threaded four metal mug handles over it before dangling it out to the actors to deliver the mugs for the scene. Subsequent blocking to lay a table cloth displayed her iconic wit. Her call for an extra basket sent one of the actors scurrying off into the wings and returning with a basket. The students engage and participate in active ensemble-making. Shroyer delights in their discoveries, casually self-depricating when she has, temporarily forgotten the complex details of an earlier scene; she jokingly encourages the students to take advantage of her failing to tease her.  The energy in the room is fun and intense and focussed. Everyone is involved. This kind of nurturing takes time but is ultimately vitally fruitful.

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Sound Designer Stephen Jensen takes a break in tech for Red Noses. Photo credit Els Collins

Each semester brings me the privilege of watching Professors like Stephanie Shroyer and guest directors cultivate their crops. The variety of teaching techniques and processes make the selection of our future students take on so much more importance. We welcome you to come see the fruits of our labors in performances of Peter Barnes’ “Red Noses” next weekend at USC.

USC School of Dramatic Arts – “Red Noses”

On Borrowed Time – Twenty Years Later

I received a call from a dear old friend this week, Producer, Actor and general-all-round theatrical wunderkind, Wren Brown. In the vein of my favorite maxim: “there are only 100 people in the theatre,” Wren was actually among the first 100 I met in the theatre, when I was stage managing at the Pasadena Playhouse in the early 1990s. OnBorrowedTimeWe did a play called “On Borrowed Time,” by Paul Osborn, adapted from a novel by Lawrence Edward Watkin and directed by Sheldon Epps, before his tenure as the Artistic Director. Wren played Mr. Brink, A.K.A. Death, stalking Gramps (Conrad Bain) to tell him his time was up. Crafty Gramps performed a good deed, then tricked Mr. Brink to climb a tree where he became trapped, unable to make good on his goal of recalling Gramps. As Don Shirley noted in his LA Times March 24th review quoted below, Wren was hardly scary as death in the play. I concurred, Wren being one of my favorite actors to work with ever.

“In Sheldon Epps’ staging, Brown’s Mr. Brink is dressed in a creamy white suit and speaks in calm, firm, perfectly articulated phrases. Occasionally he cracks a smile. For those of us who can see him (some characters can’t), this Mr. Brink isn’t scary for a second.

Our fear of death is brushed aside. But then playwright Paul Osborn, adapting a novel by Lawrence Edward Watkin (who goes unacknowledged in the Pasadena program), didn’t want to frighten. He was making the very sensible point that death is a part of the life cycle, that the power to ward it off could create major problems.”

Don Shirley, LA Times, LA Times – ‘Borrowed Time’: A Comedy That Suspends Mystery

Several noteworthy events happened during the play’s performances. On opening night, a rainy late March night in 1992, we were on our way home from the opening night party in two separate cars: my husband with our little red Molly Dogg, who appeared in the play as herself in one car, and me in the second. 1985 BonnevilleI was driving the great big blue Bonneville I had inherited from my grandmother, and Jimmie was in our Volkswagen Jetta, close by me. The rain was fierce, one of those significant downpours that we used to have with such regularity in the early 90s, where the precious water came down in relentless sheets, working the wiper blades to their last shred of rubber –  inevitable in a clime where the sun baked them onto the windshields and disuse weakened them further. My hands clutched the wheel of the car. I was, in spite of having come from the opening night party, sober as a judge, almost seven years sober at that point.

I was driving west on the 134 Freeway, just reaching Glendale, when a car about 100 yards in front of me hit a big puddle and spun out. It corrected itself and I noted by peering into the rear view mirror that had it not corrected, there was a large gap between me and the cars coming behind me. Just as I finished that thought, I hit the same puddle and did a complete and heart-stopping 360 degree spin out,  halting for just a moment before resuming my forward momentum; I then pulled off to the side of the road, where I began to cry. Through the rain ahead of me, I could see Jimmie pulling the Jetta off to the side of the road. I pulled onto the road, still rather hysterical, and slowly followed Jimmie home, to the driveway where  he helped me out of the car and into the house. The play’s message came to me with full force, especially the next night, when Dan, my ASM, told about how he’d been on his way home and had almost been hit by some crazy woman whose car was spinning completely around. I could have taken out the entire stage management team on that night, but as I said, we were on “On Borrowed Time.”

The other event was the Joshua Tree Earthquake, which happened during a performance on April 23, 1992 at 9:50PM, just minutes before the end of the play. A 6.1 earthquake, it struck after Mr. Brink (Wren) had climbed up into his platform within the tree, and in the last 15 minutes of the play. I was calling the play from the downstage right SM podium adorned with its little sticker “Tired of working in the dark?” As was protocol then, after the shaking started, I got on the God mic and in the shakiest voice ever heard, announced to the audience that they should follow the ushers outside in an orderly manner. I gathered the actors and crew in the back alley outside the theatre (a horribly unsafe place where falling debris might have hit us) and we plucky theatre folks determined that we would finish the play if the audience wanted to stay. A survey by the front of house staff determined that the audience did want to stay, so we finished the performance, Wren climbing gamely back up into the tree in his off white suit, my hero for his willingness to finish the show in spite of the natural events around us. Because after all, we were all “On Borrowed Time.”

pasadena-green-roomThere were other events of the show that caused the cast to bond; I remember one night during notes in the green room with Sheldon, one of the pictures  jumped off the wall – came straight out and down. We were sure that Playhouse founder Gilmore Brown was making a comment. Overall, it was a distinct honor to work with the cast and I’ve been a huge fan of Wren’s ever since.  After that, he worked with my husband on a play called “Burning Hope” down at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and we have cherished each opportunity to see him and his beautiful family.

Gospel-art-1-BSo when Wren called me the other day, it was to ask if I would like to work with him again, to stage manage a very exciting project, the 30th Anniversary revival of “The Gospel At Colonus,” to be performed at The Ebony Repertory Theatre. Normally, I wouldn’t be able to consider taking on a stage managing job with my current job at USC, but the dates sandwiched perfectly into my life, and I am really excited about taking on this project for him. If anyone appreciates the fragility of life and the precious life-force in the work we do in the theatre, it’s Mr. Brink. Thanks, Wren, for your confidence in me and your steady and unwavering friendship!

Superbowl Sunday, The Commercial Way

I am sitting on the couch, and have been since 3:20 when Idina Menzel sang the National Anthem. I have in the last few days, acquired what I affectionately call “the crud,” a rasping gravelly cough, and mucus in all the sinus crevices above my nose. I am well through my first box of kleenex and mini Purell bottle. I don’t have an appetite for wings other than those which would transport me away from this cold.

So what am I doing? I am, of course, watching the commercials for the Superbowl. I’ve been working on a report for work, pausing only to look up to watch the commercials. In the final two minutes of the first half, I was literally quivering with anticipation for the half time show and the commercials. Or maybe chills and a fever.

Usually we have a pretty solid no-commercial policy in our home. Either my husband’s or my finger knows the way to the mute button. But today, when I was in the kitchen getting some cranberry juice, I heard the sound be silenced and I ran into the room, saying, “NO! We have to see the commercials! They are the best part!”

I have already wept three times in the game- and I literally haven’t been watching the game to tell you what I am not weeping about in the game itself. I wept at:

The Budweiser #Bestbuds commercial about the lost puppy wandering through traffic until he is saved by the Lippanzer horses from being devoured by a coyote/wolf on the hilltop over his home. 

The father/son appreciation commercial that ended endorsing Dove deodorant.

The Nissan commercial about the race car driver who was a terrible father all through his child’s development and then got a warm forgiving hug from him when he picked him up from senior high in his new Nissan, while the boy’s long suffering mother was completely forgotten.

I have seen the Microsoft commercial about the little boy with prosthetic legs and feet unmistakably like Olympic runner Oskar Pistorius’s. That is disturbing. I know, you think I’m being hateful, but the designers of that commercial had to know some of us would go there.

So, we just watched the Half Time Show, which began with a Pepsi commercial, showing a Pepsi vending machine lifting off, then a Pepsi truck, cans from a garage band’s cooler, a blue wig from a wig display. Katy Perry appeared, astride a huge multifaceted metal tiger puppet with red glowing eyes. The Tiger and Katy were surrounded by large changing light balls, held by prone people, whose black gloved hands were visible near the bottom of the balls. Katy continued to sing on the back of the tiger, which bucked as it and she roared,  backwards through the actions of the puppeteers. Cut to the second song’s set, a Chessboard with chess piece dancers, and trippy lights that changed the appearance of the plane she was standing on. Her gymnastic metal rooks and castles danced around, the floor changing to look like they were standing on various levels of columns. Cut to Lenny Kravitz  who sang on yet a third set, dressed  in an open to the waist leather jacket. Pyro fans flamed behind Lenny and Katy as they sang.

One more costume and set change took us to a beach set, where Katie’s flirty costume featured circular beach ball cups. She was surrounded by inflated dancing sharks and beach balls, trees with eyes and flaps through which you can see the hands of the puppeteers operating them. Dancing surfboards in bright yellow and pink, baby blue and dark blue ran around her on the stage. Dancers holding little abbreviated wave icons wrapped the stage as Katie was joined by eight polkadot clad dancers with colored socks and sneakers matching their bikinis.

The fourth set showed Missy Elliott and eight dancers joining Katy who had undergone yet another costume change, into an oversized jersey with a large 49 on it. Complicated graphics danced on the floor, while Missy and her dancers sang Music Makes You Lose Control.

The last costume Katy appeared in was silver off-the-shoulder gown, with stars on it as she crooned, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag floating through the air?” No, Katy I don’t, though I appreciate that this is your fifth costume change and you’re now flying up on a star rig, that is spinning with your loyal ball people on the ground. There are significant sparks flying from your star rig as you make your way around the stadium at 20 feet over everyone’s heads. Fireworks outside the stadium worried me about where you were in relation to those. At least your comet tail was no longer flaming and the show ended with you still in the high position over the field, as you cooly raised your arms in triumph. Good show!

Maybe I will take a snooze while I wait for the first commercials of the second half.