One 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.
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.
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.