The Gospel At Colonus – Celebration of The Trojan Family and Six Degrees of Wren Brown

COLONUS ARTOne of the greatest pleasures of my working on the current production of “The Gospel At Colonus” at Ebony Repertory Theatre has been a return to the professional theatre arena after a decade of teaching. Months ago, when Wren T. Brown, in the process of assembling his artistic team, invited me to join, I learned that I would be working again with Edward E. Haynes, Jr. I have admired Ed’s work over the years both at ERT and when we had worked together at the Mark Taper Forum: he as the resident design assistant, and I as either an ASM or an SM on several productions there.

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Spent way to much time on this…..

Wren asked me if there were any lighting or sound designers I could recommend, and of course I immediately thought of Philip G. Allen and Tom Ontiveros, both of whom grace the production faculty list at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, where I hang my hat as Director of Production. As the PM for all the shows at USC, I get to know the design students and faculty quite well through continued techs and performances. A perk of my place is access to job announcements which I can pass on to our alums. It is so gratifying to know that a student or alum is ready for an assignment and be able to recommend them for it. The same goes for colleagues. Wren graciously accepted my recommendations for Tom and Phil. At an early production meeting on the stage of the Nate Holden, the Artistic team spent a few minutes reminiscing about how we all knew each other. I hadn’t realized that Phil and Ed had concurrently been students at USC School of Theatre in their late teens as design students. Ed and Wren shared an even older connection as childhood friends, and Phil and I go back to the mid 1980s from our work at LA Theatre Center. As it is with both USC alumni connections and theatre roots, this was one gnarly family tree gathered to discuss the current project.  Good gnarly, though, not bad.

Theatre is a contact sport, yes, pun intended. It is both random and intentional who ends up in any given rehearsal room in a theatre. Casting needs vary for every show, of course, as scripts and the local theatre’s casting staff decide who fills those roles. Designers bring their skill sets formed from their training and the range of designs they have built into career portfolios. Directors often collect designers and work with them again and again, developing a short hand that saves time and energy. A theatre may have its own favorite stage managers and one can find oneself in the midst of those considered, or lurking on the outside looking in. Directors also often have favorite stage managers. So to find myself sitting at the table with this wonderful team made me euphoric; Wren and I had worked together more than 20 years ago at the Pasadena Playhouse. There was a lot of shared experience and history around the table.

Last night, in the lobby after the show, I introduced my friend, Musical Director Parmer Fuller, also a faculty colleague from USC to Wren. Parmer marveled at the vocal talents assembled on stage, saying

“Where did you get all these amazing performers?”

Wren said, “These people are all dear friends from throughout my life.”

To share this experience with my USC family has been heady. Fellow Trojans were Ed and Phil, myself, Tom, and Karyn D. Lawrence, a lighting designer who has designed for us at USC, our Production Assistant, Jessica Major, a Junior in the BFA Stage Management program, Jessica Williams, a recent alum,  joined the team as the Assistant to the Director, Andi Chapman.  A cast member, Sedale Threatt, Jr.  graduated from the USC School of Dramatic Arts MFA in Acting program just last month.

The Oedipal incestuousness (yes, sorry, intended again) nature of our artistic collaborations is not strange or unique in any way. The work that happens in any theatre on any given project is close, intimate work. Every theatrical assemblage of talent has the 6 -Degrees-of-Kevin Bacon-aspect going on. In this case, it’s the 6-degrees-of -Wren-Brown. Being umbilically connected via a headset system to your team throughout hours of tech, whispering numbers and letters in the dark at a close bank of tables in the theatre, makes for life long friendships or at least affinity for life. From those tech tables,  one observes the vulnerable expressions of actors finding their way, and designers in the house, dressing, lighting, and making audible those vulnerable performers.

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Most of the cast of The Gospel At Colonus turned out for the talk back.
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Ebony Repertory Theatre Founder Wren T. Brown, with Director Andi Chapman and Musical Dir. Abdul Hamid Royal surrounded by cast members

There was a post play discussion following this afternoon’s matinée at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. An enthusiastic house had watched the show, and after the curtain call, Wren T. Brown and Andi Chapman greeted them and began to take questions. I wasn’t sure how many of the actors were going to stay for the talk back, but I should have known they would represent. Wren fostered a beautiful conversation with the audience, who included a group of women from a local church as well as some neighbors who lauded Wren for his theatre’s offerings.

After a lifetime of stage managing shows, one knows that the lobby can be a treacherous place. You may be surprised when I tell you that not every show I’ve ever done has been a hit.  Many of my friends are well-schooled in the finer points of green room perjury. Favorite comments gathered both from life and from theatrical lore include:

I’ve never seen anything like it.

Good isn’t the word.

You’ve done it again.

However, in the wake of the rave reviews received by Colonus, the lobby of the Holden has become one of my favorite places to hang out.  It has been especially sweet to greet USC friends and associates who have come out to see the show. Their tears and enthusiasm have been heartfelt. The show’s community continues in the lobby as cast members greet family and friends and introduce their new friends to each other. The power of theatre to layer intimate experiences into the fabric of our work and social relationships is profound. One actor on stage today in the talk back spoke of how grateful he was for the television jobs that have sustained him but that the theatre was where he was rooted.

That old theatre family tree has deep roots.

The Gospel At Colonus – Opening Night

COLONUS ARTFew events in the theatre evoke more anticipation than opening night. Events leading up to the Opening night for The Gospel at Colonus have flooded my memory with earlier openings and the elements that make them both thrilling and poignant.  Opening night is the night that a director turns the show over to the cast, and in this case, the cast, crew, band and choir. It is poignant and I am almost always sad to bid the director adieu. In this case, I am certainly sorry to bid good-bye to director Andi Chapman, with whom I have relished working.

Yes, tonight marks the night when Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting cues are set, the sound has been programmed and mixed by designer Philip G. Allen in the days leading up to tonight. Naila Aladdin Sauders’ last-minute costume adjustments will have been made. As Stage Manager, my role will be to make sure that the cast continues to do the show according to the realized visions of the director and musical director, Abdul Hamid Royal. So to that extent it is complete. We are ready to open.

Historically, Opening night is the night when a show reaches maturity, solidifies, or in the immortal words of Ethel Merman,

”Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”

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Nikki Potts and the cast of “The Gospel At Colonus” during the rousing “Lift Him Up” number has folks standing and clapping in their seats.

This is ironic considering that what we do in the theatre is the antithesis of frozen. There is nothing solid in the activity that transpires between a cast on stage and an audience in the house, which is, after all, what theatre is – the meeting of story tellers and story receivers. Our art is ephemeral in the purest and most exhilarating form.

The Gospel At Colonus’ specialness sits somewhere between the edge of the stage and the gold carpeted stairs leading into the auditorium. I have watched it over the past two nights of previews. The show is not frozen, nor is it confined to a passive experience on the part of the audience, nor by rote or perfunctory performances by anyone on stage. It is a living, breathing celebration of our humanity.

In the past several days, our preview performances coincided with the terrible events transpiring in South Carolina and the aftermath of the senseless murder of 9 people in the historic Emmanual A.M.E. Church. On Wednesday night, during our invited dress, at Intermission, when I checked my phone, I had received a CNN bulletin about the events. I shut my phone off to silence the cacophony of my emotions to finish the show. Over the next two days, as we have all processed our feelings individually, I have taken great solace in the work before me each night, both from the cast and band and choir, and from witnessing the effect of that work on the audiences, as they stood throughout the show to applaud and sway in time with the music.

The story of Oedipus’ redemption on stage was eerily mirrored yesterday by the incredible grace of the families in the courtroom as one by one, they forgave the young terrorist Dylann Roof for his unfathomable actions.

I believe in the power of theatre to heal. I believe in the spiritual power of this theatrical event. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply spiritual person with a strong belief in the power of the human experience both one on one and in a theatre as a transformative power. Whatever is happening out in the world, and there are some pretty horrible things happening out there, the theatre has always been my church. I have taken comfort post-tragedy in the shared and sacred spaces of theatrical creativity – on the night after 9/11, from the booth at the Canon Theatre, where I watched the cast of the Vagina Monologues perform their words with heavy hearts, to the first preview of The Gospel At Colonus, where the words and music of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson can’t help but be tinged with our collective heartache over the events in South Carolina.

I have been healed by the fervor and passion and raw talent gathered on the stage at the liminal space between that top step and the house.

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”[1]) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

Wikipedia

The welcome disorientation of those on stage and the audience in the house for The Gospel At Colonus is the strongest I have ever felt in the theatre.

Last night on headset, I reported to the crew during “Lift Him Up”

“The first row is standing and clapping.”

“Now the second row is up.”

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Another ritual of Opening Night. Flowers from my Dad and his wife.

Tonight’s Opening night promises to be thrilling as all opening nights in the theatre are, but especially keen due to the gifts of these artists in this place and in this time. This production’s scale and cost is a gamble for any theatrical producer, and Wren T. Brown along with Gayle Hooks of the Ebony Repertory Theatre have nurtured the production to beautiful fruition.

It is such an honor to be working with these artists and I celebrate continuing to break down that fourth wall with our audiences in the coming weeks.

Happy Opening!

The Gospel At Colonus – Week 4 Tech

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Els and Jessica cutting up at the Tech Table.

Tech is the most engaging part of putting a show together for a stage manager.  I enjoy the discovery process that takes place in the rehearsal room, supporting by scheduling and taking blocking, watching as the actors find their way through a play. But it is in the process of tech where we gently cradle the newborn, carry it across the lobby, and lay it in the freshly built cradle (stage).

Over the course of this week, the designers, led fiercely by Edward E. Haynes, who created a set to accommodate the 32 performers and 5 band members in order to bring the show into the house, director Andi Chapman’s vision. The dedicated Ebony Rep Production Manager, Sheldon P. Lane, has brought Ed’s design to realization, through the work by Sets-To-Go scenic carpenters Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer. The set is carpeted, the railings which enclose the heights and playing areas are secure. The props are in place.

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Top of Show cues for The Gospel At Colonus. Co-author Jessica Major’s thumb.

Lighting Designer Karyn D. Lawrence and Projection Designer Tom Ontiveros have worked closely to create a lighting and projection design that can both isolate the intimacy of certain scenes, and tell the story of the play, which depicts the journey of Oedipus to Colonus and his redemption. The character of Oedipus is being played by two actors, the Preacher or spoken text performed by Roger Robinson, and the sung text performed by Ellis Hall. It is a complex story to tell; having not seen the original production except on the DVD, in my humble opinion I think it is being told more clearly in this iteration.

Silly Selfie of Els not  calling her cues. Photo by Jessica Major

This week, Ed, Karyn, Tom and Andi have worked to create stage pictures that  tell that story. My participation as stage manager is to execute those moments by calling the cues in the exact sequences we have worked out in tech rehearsals. In order to do that, I have created a calling script layered with these cues.   I am, of course, showing you only the pretty page of the script at left. One which was created largely through the computer savvy of Jessica, my production assistant on the show, whose ability to cut and paste far exceeds my own. With apologies to Jessica, because she has been so fiercely effective as an assistant – when I am doing things on the computer,  because she is a digital native she hovers over my shoulder like an Irish setter waiting for me to throw the ball. And I have news; I throw a lot more slowly than I did as a younger stage manager. After dinner one night, when she returned to the tech table, she looked at the computer and with horror in her voice, said,

“What happened [to our beautiful Top of Show sheet]?

Sound Designer Phil Allen, who was sitting behind me at the table at the time, laughed as Jessica tore the computer out of my hands and made rapid work of fixing the sheet.

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Stage managers have a pencil fetish. This is my current favorite.

So, the prompt book/calling script is coming together. The pile of tech food stashed under the tech table is diminishing. The band rehearsed last Saturday and Sunday night.

We finished teching the show Wednesday night, and Thursday, without tech, we had the Sitzprobe. I have written in earlier posts about how the Sitz is my favorite rehearsal, where actors meet band and begin the symbiotic relationship of telling the story with both words and music. With the show in the cradle, now, my friends, the cradle will rock. The Sitz, a creative crucible for both the Musical Director, Abdul Hamid Royal and the Sound Designer, Philip G. Allen, went extremely well, and got the cast really jazzed.  There is a lot of talent in the room for this show, singers with history and strong opinions about monitor placement and individual preferences for what they hear in those monitors. It takes a cool head to mix a show and I’ve always loved working with Phil because he comes to the room with skill, humility, a wry irony and a teflon ego that keeps things light. I’ve enjoyed working with Phil over the last thirty years.

Before beginning the Sitzprobe, William Allen Young, who plays Theseus, told me he wanted to have the cast sing happy birthday to our producer, Wren T. Brown, so with piano accompaniment from Ellis Hall, all the beautiful voices in the room were raised in celebration of his birthday. I have always loved birthdays in the theatre. What better place to celebrate one’s life than amongst valued colleagues and friends.

Friday night I called the show from the top with all the cues and it wasn’t a complete train wreck. Went rather well for the first time through. I took about two pages of notes for calls for myself.  I know that adjustments will be made in placement of cues, and in the timing of cues. It is always a butterfly-in-the-tummy situation for a stage manager. This show is pretty straight forward, so I wasn’t too nervous, but like first rehearsals, it is a rite of passage for the SM on a show.

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Ricky Nelson and I in the Rehearsal room where we enjoyed cake in honor of Wren T. Brown’s birthday.

As we move forward, our afternoon rehearsals will be finesse rehearsals. We worked with Keith Young, the choreography earlier this week and will do so again today. Due to schedules of some of the cast members, we have worked without the full contingent of actors. Fortunately, they are quick studies and their absence provided the stage managers with the opportunity to flex their acting muscles. There are a lot of facets to the work a stage manager does, not least of which is to publicly humiliate themselves on a daily basis by stepping in and attempting to do the work of professional actors. Fortunately, we are at the point where that humiliation is less frequent as we approach the opening and things come together into performance. This stage manager is safely back in her place behind the wheel.  Get your tickets, folks! This is going to be a fun one.

http://www.ebonyrep.org/

The Gospel At Colonus – The Music and the Movement

We are nearing the end of our third week of rehearsals; in my last post, I mentioned the upcoming rehearsal with the choir There are many parts in The Gospel at Colonus – actors speaking powerful text, quartets singing harmonies and performing movement. In addition we are fortunate to have Tony Jones, Choir director of the LA Youth Choir of the Gospel Workshop of America and his dedicated singers who will fill the Colonus choir stand with their fervent singing.

Last Sunday, at the end of our regular rehearsal day, thirteen choir members arrived for the first rehearsal at the theatre with Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal and Tony Jones.

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Abdul Hamid Royal and Tony Jones work with the choir on the music from The Gospel At Colonus

We had set up the chairs around the piano in the rehearsal room, and spirits were high as everyone assembled to sing through the choral numbers in the show. After a rousing welcome by Wren T. Brown, and a brief tour of the set in the theatre, Abdul Hamid lost no time, jumping immediately into the material with the choir.  It soon became clear that the talents brought by these young people are real and significant.

Producer Wren T. Brown, Director Andi Chapman and I were sitting at the tables in the room working on our own tasks, and basking in the music. It is unquestionably one of the perks a stage manager has to get to listen to the voices that are on any show, but particularly on this production. There are some phenomenal vocal talents in the show – Dorian Holley , Jackie Gouché and LaVan Davis, whose sense of humor and actor’s sensibilities support his vocal chops. And without exception, their voices are exceeded by their  humility. What’s clear from watching the musicians on the show is the joy that they each derive from using their voices in service to the work at hand. It has inspired me to watch them support the text with their voices. This play is tricky – the language is oblique at times, and both Andi and Abdul Hamid have worked hard to make sure the story is clear.

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Andi during a moment of listening to the Sunday Choir rehearsal

I know I’ve digressed from the choir, but in my earlier posts, I focused more on the text and the fact is that Bob Telson’s music is equally important to this play.  Back in the rehearsal room, at one point, as they sang “Let the Weeping Cease” with the music building in intensity and volume, I glanced over toward Wren and Andi. I can’t speak for what they were feeling, but I was moved to tears by the emotion of the choir’s commitment and their faith. It was palpable in the room.

The day before, our first day on stage, just at the end of rehearsal, Andi, as she was talking to one of the actors, and standing on the steps into the house, took a step back and slipped off the step, falling hard on her right knee. It was shocking and unexpected and required an impromptu trip to the emergency room that night. But on Sunday, she was sitting IMG_4209with her leg propped up, her crutches behind her, grinning with my same excitement about the contribution that the choir was bringing. The music was a good tonic to the pain in her knee. This blogger pushed a little too hard with the insistence on pictures  however, and got this photo saying

Talk to the hand.

In addition to the music work, we have done some musical staging with the effervescent Keith Young. I had never worked with Keith before. He is extremely laid back, but brings a rigor and groove and expectation that his actors will do well.  And he is the funniest choreographer I have worked with. His imagery is quirky and unrestrained. He employs a lot of laughter and an extremely talented assistant who executes the choreography with precision and offers useful suggestions to make the moves easier.

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Keith Young

There are two musical groups in the show, the Ismene Quartet, headed up by the afore-mentioned Jackie Gouché, and the Choragos Quartet, led by LaVan Davis, in the role of Choragos. After blocking in the rehearsal room, last Saturday, both groups got on stage with Keith to begin movement.

What I have come to appreciate even more through this process is that we as individuals bring unique gifts to this project. The men in the quintet, Milton Ellis, Otis Easter, Gerald J. Mitchell and Ricke Vermont all are strong and experienced singers. Keith has given them pretty straight forward movement and has guided them and refined the movements based on their skill and in celebration of their vocal talents.

In the course of staging one of the numbers, one of the singers was having a little trouble getting the steps. Another choreographer might have said, “Actor A, please swap with Actor B because you aren’t getting the steps.” Not Keith. Instead of shaming anyone, he reworked the steps so that the actor became featured in the number; he did it with such grace, remaining flexible in his approach so that no one felt less capable and the number ended up working just as well. Keith’s philosophy is clearly karmically correct.

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.

Romans 12:6

It is that kind of grace that makes it so nice to go to work each day on Colonus.