Active Learning – 5 of this week’s lessons

A couple of noteworthy learning events happened this week.

1) I learned from an NPR post I saw on FB that using Times Roman font on my resume/CV was the equivalent of showing up to an interview in sweatpants. I imagined, as I quickly remodeled my CV in sleek, no-nonsense Helvetica that I was, in a sense, remodeling myself, from dowdy mid-fifties professor, to hipster siren of stage management. I want to remind you  that digital heckling or jeering is not appreciated.

2) After bemoaning (thankfully to myself only) the loss of my second water bottle, I learned that there was some value to cleaning one’s desk. Before you begin marveling at how high the crap on my desk would have to be to hide a 12″ high water bottle, I want to assure you that it was not height, but location. The bottle was sitting just out of my peripheral vision on the desk. As I turned back to check I hadn’t forgotten anything last night as I left my office, there it was, standing like a little soldier in the corner.

TechTimeQuizShow3) I learned that it is still possible to raise the roof at 8:00AM in the morning in THTR 130. We had our final class yesterday and after 1 hour and 20 minutes of “Tech Time”, our quiz show format , the students were laughing and shouting out the answers so loud that I thought the University might send the classroom propriety patrol around to GFS 106. We had already been rescued by the IT Squad at the start of the class when my PowerPoint stubbornly went to a black screen every time I hit the play button.

4) I learned that, as a digital immigrant, it is good to have powerfully fluent friends in this technological age. My colleague, Phil Allen and the IT person who’s trying-to-be-helpful voice was coming from the grate in the wall (I guess most people would call it a panel, but in this case, it was grating, because my computer was on the podium 10 feet away, and with the arrival of the streaming masses, the technician could no longer hear my woeful cries from the podium), they solved the problem by saving the document as a PDF and completely circumventing the PowerPoint issue. Brilliant, right?  Phil provided both the calm assuredness of someone well-versed in mirror imaging (no, that isn’t a criticism), and someone who is extremely adept at problem solving.


5) I learned that while change is scary, transitions in life are meant to allow us to grow. The building that my office has been in for the past 9 years, I think, is going to be razed to make room for a beautiful new Science building. All 20 plus of us are being relocated to various venues around campus. Rather than looking at the move with fear  and dread (I’ve already passed through those portals), I am viewing it as an opportunity to clean my desk. (See 2 above).

So, as I always tell myself, and my students, it is never too late to learn something. You can teach an old dog new tricks and my students do so every day.

Lucy and Ethel in Tech

You remember that “I Love Lucy” episode, right? The one where Lucy and Ethel joined the theatre and had to extract a baby possum that found it’s way into a crate of props backstage? No?babypossum

Things are hopping at the School of Dramatic Arts these days. Tonight was the first/final/photo dress for the MFA Dramatic Writing New Works Festival Year Two Play, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Chinese People but were Afraid to Ask” by Fei Kayser.

IMG_3953 2
Crew member Massimo Napoli and Stage Manager, Savannah Harrow review the scene shifts before the first/final/photo dress rehearsal

The New Works projects are some of my most favorite projects that we do: workshop productions of plays written by the second year MFA students in the Dramatic Writing Program. Budgets are minimal to contain the tech related to the plays so that most of the attention centers on the re-writing of the play by the playwright, supported by the guest director and the dramaturge assigned to each piece. We do three of them over three consecutive weeks and each process culminates in a weekend of performances in our smallest black box space, the Massman Theatre. Hence the telescoping of three distinct events in the timeline of a play: first/final/photo dress.

The designers for the plays are generally doing their first designs, after assisting as design Production Assistants on an earlier project in the fall semester. The stage managers are from the Freshman BFA class. What they know so far is based on the introductory design classes and their experience assisting older stage managers on Fall projects as well as whatever experience they brought with them from their high school programs. Which is, I can tell you, often, considerable and impressive. However, it is their first time out of the gate, and there is a lot to manage, even in a small workshop situation. Why? Because in addition to managing rehearsals for a play which, in this case, sports a cast size of 13 actors, the stage manager is receiving new pages from the playwright every day, or at least three times a week. Anyone who has stage-managed a new play can tell you that this is a considerable task. Introducing new material affects scene breakdowns, occasionally scenic elements, and usually always costumes.

After the first/final/photo event, freshman Stage Manager Savannah emerged from the booth, and in the same, calm, authoritative voice that she had used to guide her company through the preceding three days of techs, announced,

I think there is a possum in the booth.

My head turned as I looked at her with incredulity, and I asked her to repeat herself. “What??

Savannah calmly reported that she had gone to put a prop away in the crate in the booth, and saw something furry in the box. With the uncomfortable realization that I was  one of “the grownups” in the room, I moved slowly into the booth, as the students gathered behind me. There in the corner of the booth was a small blue milk crate, filled with extra props, a prop laptop computer leaning on top of a Chinese toy mask and some candies and bananas in the bottom of the crate.

Grownup doesn’t begin to define what I was feeling as my heart pounded in my chest cavity. I grabbed a broom that leaned against the wall and tried to raise the laptop with the handle, discovering, just as she had said, a small gray furry critter at the bottom of the crate trying to, well, “play possum.” Despite its efforts, you could see its little sides heaving in and out; it had a lot to learn still about that trait.

By this time, my partner in crime, Tina Haatainen-Jones, Director of Design, had entered the booth, and she assumed the role of the real grown up, because I was now backing away from the crate as though it contained a rabid coyote. I have never been very good when faced with small rodents (I know, a possum is a marsupial, but it looks like a rat from the top view).

Tina began speaking in her really calm “It’s going to be all right” voice which is certainly what I should have begun doing when I discovered the critter, and buoyed by her voice, and that she promised it wouldn’t move quickly, we each grabbed a handle of the crate and picked it up, marching through the booth and outside the door of the theatre to the back of the building, where there were some trees, Tina narrating the release plan to the students who followed us with interest and giggles. Much hilarity ensued as we arrived at the tree, and without missing a beat, Tina reached into the crate and extracted the little fellow by lifting him by his tail, placing him on the tree trunk we were next to. He scampered away into the darkness, leaving his admirers pointing their iPhone flashlights and cameras at his receding tail.

We returned to the theatre and began gathering our bags to leave for the night. Tina offered me a ride to my car, which I gratefully accepted and which I’m sure she began to regret.

When I had arrived earlier in the day, I thought I had parked on level 5. However, even with my arm outside the window of her car pushing the button to make my car’s horn beep, after circling the garage for about ten minutes, I was becoming convinced that my car had either been stolen, or had been towed. This was particularly upsetting, as I had completed my car loan payments just earlier in the week, an event which I had celebrated with much excitement. Again, Tina calmly encouraged me to mentally retrace  my steps.

Ok. I started the day at Smart and Final buying the meet and greet food for the two shows. After leaving S&F, I drove to the back of the MCC Building to drop off the first show’s food, then got back in my car and drove to the Scene Dock to drop off the second show’s food. Then I went to my office to drop off my bags and my food, parking in Lot 6 with my blinkers on.

Then I ran into David and we went to talk in my office about next year’s titles for the MFA. Oh! My car is probably in Lot 6 with a ticket and a drained battery!

Tina demonstrates our Lucy and Ethel-like understanding of how the jumper cables work
Lucy and Ethel prepare to jump the car battery

And that, gentle and most indulgent reader, was exactly where my car had been parked. By Me, no less, and promptly forgotten. Tina drove me to my car, produced the jumper cables from her trunk and the two of us hooked the two cars up; thanks to the instructions which were clearly printed on the case for the cables, guided by the good-natured support of two students who parked their car next to us while we were figuring it out, I was able to start my car. Then of course, I couldn’t go home yet, because I had to drive it a bit before turning it off.

After returning home, I invited my husband to come down and sit with me in the car to drink my milkshake, while recounting the day’s events.

I stopped at McDonald’s and that was the cherry on top of the day. I raise a glass to Tina and Savannah and the Baby Possum who all support the work at hand.

Writing 101: Brevity, dropped letter

To whom it may have concerned:

Had you found this tender opus,

You wouldn’t feel the need to mope, as

Clearly fond affections flourished

Toward you, (who were more than nourished

With self-doubt and pity,

Fearing yourself not as pretty)

You’d have found your soul mate in the city.

dropped letters

Search and Rescue

A Great Blog!


My mother, when she was dying, said to me, “There are no wrong answers, Kris.”

She was speaking from the vantage point of someone who has nothing left to lose. Someone with the luxury of looking back on a life filled with worry about making the right choices and realizing, in the end, most of those choices become irrelevant.

I was torn between staying at her bedside and going back to Chicago to take care of my kids. I felt I did not have a choice. My kids needed me. I was the glue in our household. But my mother needed me also.

Recently, I was worrying about the right job, the right parenting, the right financial and life decisions. As I’m sure many of you do. Few of us are immune to trying to game the system for the best results.

choices, options, alternativesIn most situations, you can stay put until…

View original post 784 more words

Writing 101: 3 Songs, 3 Stages

Today’s Prompt: Write about the three most important songs in your life — what do they mean to you?

Brassai photographe
Brassai, Au Bistro, 1930-1932

I was always a romantic. I remember at ten, lying on the floor of my parents’ den, on my pudgy stomach, my cheek resting on the back of my hands, knees bent, clicking my heels together over my butt, as I listened over and over to the scratchy LP of Edith Piaf singing “La Vie En Rose.” She had the most evocative sound, the sound of someone who was loved hard and truly by many men. I didn’t know squat about Edith Piaf then. I didn’t know anything about anything at ten.  However, I was studying French at the private school I attended, and I strained to understand the words in the plaintive cascades of melody, as the phrases tumbled and rolled downwards, then climbed to tumble yet again. When the record ended, I stood up, walked to the stereo and picked the needle up and dropped it down at the start of the record again. Now I have all sorts of images to accompany this song in my mind, but at the time, I was a young girl living in the suburbs of southwestern Pennsylvania; Edith Piaf’s voice evoked the potential of an exotic life of travel and love and exploration. She was magical.Candycigarettes

Karla Bonoff’s “Lose Again,” is another romantic paean to adolescent love. The previous song evokes an adorable, ten-year-old wearing a beret while dragging on a bubblegum cigarette to mimic Edith Piaf.  Karla Bonoff represented actual heartbreak and the yearning to live through it. That’s just embarrassing anyway you play it. And yet, I must have listened to Karla Bonoff sing “Lose Again”, turgid by anyone’s contemporary standards, but elegaic to my ears as a lovesick high school and college student. A self-proclaimed feminist in college, I’m abashed now by the lyrics I doted on, which suggested that someone else would save and free me “from this ball and chain” of lost love. But this song was right up there with my top tunes for about 6 years. Besides, it was right in my range and I could sing along to the simple piano accompaniment. There was so much fragility and strength in her voice, the humanity clear in the cracks at the top of her range. It was the perfect romantic martyr ballad. I loved it.

What’s really odd is that for someone who loved music so much as a young woman, I’ve lost touch with my music in my “middle ages”. So to find the third song I had to turn to my “dusty” itunes catalogue. What I realized is that 60% of my music is still single female vocalists. Strong women singing. That seems to be the theme.  I gravitated to the three Tracy Chapman albums in my itunes; her gravelly voice and simple guitar chord accompaniment score the stories she tells with steady strength.

I am yours if you are mine.

Is it surprising that the three stages of my life are scored by romantic music?

Stage 1: The youthful pre-pubescent longing for adventure and a life of love;

Stage 2: The damaged recovery of young and inexperienced love looking for a more permanent home;

Stage 3: The deep emotional embrace of the simple giving of oneself to another on a daily basis, which is the gift of a long and happy marriage.

A romantic to the end. Thanks for this prompt allowing me to revisit my musical heritage.

Writing 101 – A Sense of Place

In April, I spend time in many  different places, doing many different things. Here’s a brief list of some of the places I inhabited in the first 8 days of this month:

  1. Bing Theatre – Attended Final Dress Rehearsal for Grease
  2. MCC Theatre – Two days of 10 out of 12s and a Dress Rehearsal of The Waiting Room
  3. My office – Assorted tasks related to this year’s productions and next
  4. Smart & Final – Buying food for the Meet and Greet rehearsals for “Waiting Room” and “Hide and Seek No More.”
  5. Spudnuts – Slinging Donuts
  6. GFS 106 – Lecturing on “Production Management” and introducing to my students, Sheldon P. Lane, PM of The Ebony Repertory Theatre
  7. DRC Conference Room – Meeting finalist candidates in the School’s search for a Critical Studies professor
  8. Massman Theatre – Attending first tech for “Hide and Seek No More,” an original play written by one of our MFA Y2 Playwrights
  9. Scene Dock Theatre Workroom – attending three production meetings for 5 remaining productions left in the semester
  10. Town and Gown – Dining with parents of prospective students
  11. My Couch – Sitting and recovering -arguably the least inhabited in April but most comfortable of my sites
  12. Lobby of Kaprelian Hall – Purchasing a tuna sandwich, my dinner, from the vending machine

I’ve bored you to death already.  I am doing a writing 101 drill through WordPress, where throughout the next twenty days (or remaining 18), we respond to writing prompts which we receive at midnight each night – or 12:01AM to be precise. Which is, in the month of April, just about the time I sit down to play a few mind-numbing rounds of solitaire before climbing into bed next to my lonely and abandoned husband. Today’s prompt – sharing a space with all that it evokes.

We’ll linger on #6 for a bit, the beautiful classroom where we teach the students who take THTR 130, Introduction to Theatrical Production, a class which meets at 8:00AM every Tuesday morning. Ask any of our students and they will be quick to tell you how much they love love love the 8:00AM class meeting time. THTR 130 is a very large lecture class with a lab; the class is divided in half each semester. Half of our students attend lectures about the literal nuts and bolts of assembling scenery, lighting and sound elements and costumes. They do their labs in our theatres and shops, building and painting scenery, hanging and focusing lighting instruments and sound speakers, and sewing costumes. They do these labs three hours a week for a total of 36 hours.

The other half of the class comes to lectures on the design areas and stage management. Their labs are intensively focused days surrounding the tech and performances of our School of Dramatic Arts plays, where they support the execution of the designers’ work by running the boards for lights and sound; learn how to run a mop around the stage (a surprising number of students seem to have never met much less used a mop or broom); help actors with quick changes; do hair and makeup; or execute scene shifts on stage.

IMG_3894 2
The seats stand at attention under the curved wooden ceiling holding multiple projectors.

Our lectures on design and stage management take place in a room in the Grace Ford Salvatori Hall, which, last summer, underwent an epic makeover. The happy result of this remodel, which we eyed with greedy anticipation throughout the summer, was neatly marching rows of fold-up seats, and desktops which retract into the backs of those seats.

The walls, off white, circling the room, are able to be written on, with markers provided in cups around the room; this feature  allows students to break into smaller groups and work on projects before reporting back to the group.

The biggest boon of the classroom is the multiple projectors which face the front white board and the 5 large monitors wrapped around the sides and back of the room. When I saw the projectors and screens being installed last summer, I panicked a little. This would change the game of teaching in this classroom. We all know form follows function, but in this case, my form was being challenged by the enhanced functionality of the room. My lectures now required visuals worthy of the space.

IMG_3892 2
Fortified with coffe and my laptop, I await the onslaught of students.

As a stage and production manager, I appreciate good paperwork and am enamored by its beauty, but the majority of the students in the class are actors, not stage managers, so the wealth of screens called upon me to raise the bar in all my presentations. By embracing my new “secret” life as a blogger, armed with a cell phone that transfers its pictures to my computer via a wave of my magic Airdrop, I can now confidently illustrate my Keynote presentations with photos taken “in the field,” during techs.  In the still limbo of the empty classroom at 7:40AM, I snapped a few shots to share the feeling of potential learning that could be achieved in the room. And as the students began to trickle in, I appreciated all their efforts to be present, many of them having been in the tech rehearsals the previous night until 11:00PM. We waved at each other, greeting and acknowledging each others’ service to our collaborative art of the theatre. My colleague, Duncan, likes to say the first day of the class,

 “None of your parents made you come to theatre school.”

IMG_3896And few of them knew exactly what the day to day would be for their student thespians. This room, and this class, are indeed an intro to a life in the theatre. Not everyone is cut out for it. It is hard work. Hard, with long hours, late nights, and early mornings, but rewarding, resonant work. So yes, I complained on FB last night that I was getting too old for these 15-hour long days. Guilty as charged. But at the same token, I get to do what I love. Make theatre every day from dawn until way after dusk. And it feels great.

When I get an email from a former student who just got promoted at her job, or I sit next to a freshman stage manager who is running his first tech and doing a fantastic job, I relish what my life in the theatre has taught me and my privilege in sharing those skills and experiences with the next generation of theatre artists.

The Waiting Room Tech

IMG_3886 2
Director Larissa Kokernot shares a light moment with Stage Manager Elizabeth Nordenholt during tech

It is Easter Sunday and we’re sitting in the dark. Again. We’re in tech for “The Waiting Room,” by Lisa Loomer, directed in this BA Only incarnation by Larissa Kokernot, here at USC School of Dramatic Arts. I should be having a strong sense of deja vu, as I was the SM for a workshop production a gajillion years ago, at the Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Plays, directed by David Schweitzer at the John Anson Ford Theatre.  I know I attended the production when it moved to the Taper in August of 1994. There have been a lot of productions since then, and the “old hard drive,” aka my brain, needs defragging; it is almost like I’ve never read this play before.  I sat in rehearsals for at least two weeks, probably more like four when we did the play before 1994. Only a little more than 20 years ago. Sigh. Anyway, here we are now, and the three women who make up the characters of this play, Forgiveness from Heaven, Victoria, and Wanda are sitting on their respective clean white gurneys, designed by Sarah Krainin, and lit by Adam Blumenthal, in a triangular pattern arrayed on the set.

Sound Designer and Composer Colin Wambsgans builds cues during the last break of the night.

We’ve just finished teching what Director Larissa Kokernot refers to as the (spoiler alert) “Gurney Ballet,” and which I will always call the “A.R. Gurney ballet.” (I know; it’s a cheap way for me to add a tag to my blog to increase readership among scholars and theatre goers and generally swanky folk.) The A.R. Gurney ballet, masterfully choreographed, lit and with sound by Colin Wambsgans, serves as one of a dozen transitional moments in the play. The play transitions nine separate times in the first act, so as a director, one has to come to the table with some magical solutions. Hence the ballet. Larissa is a straight shooter. She is practical, straight forward, with a strong creative overview of all the play’s elements.

This production sports a lot of gurney-like objects. We did a serious purge of extraneous backstage furniture to accommodate the many silver-legged-white-topped furniture pieces. This followed a complete reorganization of tools we use in the space all the time: ladders, the “leg cart,” which holds the pipe that supports our audience risers, and the genie lift. Sarah and I poked our head into the dressing room yesterday, and Sarah said, “that table’s not doing anything.” I watched as the crew members, Shannon and Emily, who were sitting at the table using it for their homework began to look sad as we planned to remove their island of comfort. Those islands of comfort are critical for survival of tech. But backstage space is as important as on stage space. Designers and stage managers discuss stage real estate in production meetings. But for now, the storage issues have been solved and we are marching through the cue building. The actors are, during tech, in a metaphoric waiting room. The focus is not on them, but as I said to one of them during a break, “This is valuable time for you, to work out things that have bothered you that you haven’t had time to figure out.”

197 is Wanda’s line. 198 is Wanda’s cross.

Guest and Alum LD Adam Blumenthal works with THTR 130 student Casey Dunn on the light board in the McClintock Theatre.

It is great having Lighting Designer Adam Blumenthal back in the theatre with us, though this space didn’t yet exist when Adam was a student here. Adam graduated in 2007, and is now an accomplished lighting and scenic designer, as well as a magician. He works bicoastally, which is nice for me. I never hesitate to call him because he has defined his workspace as both Los Angeles and New York. Take note, designers, this is useful if you can swing it.

We hire guest designers to work on our shows sometimes; they are professional role models and give mentorship for our current students, augmenting our full-time design faculty. There is a also a magical theatrical echo effect when one of our alums comes back to play with us. On The Waiting Room, it happened when we were shuffling the furniture around the space and Adam saw the park bench we were using for the show. He greeted it like an old friend.

Hey, that’s the bench I designed for “A Boy’s Life!”

We have a guest stage manager, guest lighting designer and guest sound designer on this production. Elizabeth Nordenholt has worked with us before, as the stage manager last spring for “Fortinbras.” She has a wonderful easy way of working and demonstrates complete respect for actors, designers and her director. She keeps the room tone light and moving along. It is probably the most important role a stage manager plays – that of host or hostess of the creative tech process.

Let me know when you are done, Adam and Colin.

She nudges us all along, reminds us when to keep our voices down so that she can continue to communicate with the designers. She always takes a beat to ask the designers what they need before running a scene or moving forward. She cues the actors respectfully, and starts each scene with clear instructions.

We’ll be taking it from Nurse Bruce’s entrance. Whenever you are ready, Ladies!

Scenic Designer Sarah Krainin taking notes during tech.

I am often asked by students: Do you have to go to every tech?  Their eyes are usually wide with incredulity when they ask this. I’m not at every tech, but at about 90% of them. What allows me to keep my sanity? Perhaps this blog helps, but what keeps me engaged is the alchemy of constructing a show during tech. The designers work fervently, quickly, convening creatively after building their cues, the stage manager calling new sequences which are now much more than the sum of their parts.

As we worked the last transition, the women saying good-bye, the last tableau unfolding, leaving Forgiveness and Wanda on the last gurney center stage. I’m thrilled to report that the play has in large part, returned to me, powerful images and certain iconic scenes, which I will not spoil for you, tickling my memory.

When we finish tech in a few minutes, we will run-through an hour or so of the play in the time that’s left; the actors will take their play back, new and improved with lighting and sound and fluid transitions.  Tomorrow we’ll add costumes.

And on Thursday, we’ll hopefully add you, the audience!

Tickets for The Waiting Room