There are moments in the teaching of making theatre where we get it right. One of these was evident this past weekend in the tech rehearsal for Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” going on in the McClintock Theatre. Churchill’s script is complex and layered, and the tech elements are equally multi-faceted. The play’s synopsis published on the Samuel French website is fragmented and purposefully so, as is much of the play:
Someone sneezes. Someone can’t get a signal. Someone won’t answer the door. Someone put an elephant on the stairs.
Two of our BFA senior designers were assigned the bulk of the design areas – BFA Design senior George Austin Allen is tackling the scenic, lighting and projection design, mentored by professional Lighting and Projection Designer, Jason Thompson. BFA Sound Design senior Danielle Kisner, is designing the production’s sound, mentored by professional Sound Designer and Director of the BFA Sound Design Program, Philip G. Allen.
I assigned BFA Stage Management sophomore, Taylor Cullen, this show because I believed that she would work well with SDA Faculty member Paul Backer, the director, but also because she had proven her capabilities in managing a fairly complex workshop production last spring.
Jason Thompson, Austin’s lighting and projection mentor, in addition to bringing his considerable expertise to the table, supplemented the design technology available to Austin by providing the Watchout system on a computer temporarily on loan to SDA for this project. The school purchased a 14K Christie projector about two years ago for use in the Bing Theatre. One of the pre-tech challenges Austin dealt with was how to utilize his scenic and prop budgets, along with his very minimal lighting and non-existent projection budget, to rent the necessary lens to allow this powerful projector to be used in a much shorter throw distance in the MCC Theatre to cover all 5 of his scenic walls. The Christie projector had been purchased for use in the Bing Theatre, with a throw distance about 5 times in play here.
Watchout allows digital mapping of content, including 3-D content with Audio. While the technical capacity of this software is impressive, where I was most impressed during the tech was with the breadth of Austin’s creativity in using the software. In a show that highlights our marination in social media, 24-hour access to often horrifying news images, and a societal fascination with all things game-related, this play invites a mind-blowing array of content, which Austin and his Scenic PA, Sophomore BFA Designer Zach Blumner are curating at a fast, though notably not frenzied pace.
On the sound side, Danielle, after thematic direction from director Paul Backer, created an equally deep well of audio content. She worked this weekend on gathering her cues, editing on the computer dedicated for our sound designers, equipped with both Pro-Tools for editing the cues, and QLab for delivering them into the theatre’s speaker plot. She and Austin needed to work tightly together, to ensure that she had provided space and the appropriate timing for his videos with sound. They had an easy banter going on together. In what would be a tense time-sensitive environment, I was impressed with the respectful, sometimes playful tone they maintained with each other as well as with the stage manager, Taylor. I like to think, as would any stage manager, that this emotional room tone, for lack of a better term, is generated by the stage manager. Taylor has an ease and affable confidence when she jumps on the god mic (which is a must for maintaining a clear audibility to all parties). She addresses the actors and crew members involved in setting the upcoming scenes, as well as those on stage currently with clear instructions, then cues herself up with Austin and Danielle and Dominic, the Sound Op in the booth before launching the sequence, a dazzling array of projected titles, video and audio content.
She is supported by her ASM, Ben, a BA student with interest in stage management. Ben organized the backstage props tables and moved fluidly from backstage to Taylor’s side in the theatre. His quirky note taking system of pencil notation on the sides of his macbook pro was the best way for him to keep tabs on the preset notes people had given him backstage. I chided him that:
Some people use postits. But whatever works for you!
First, let me reconcile for a moment that what I’m about to do breaks every code of ethics in the theatre for stage managers. Spilling the dirt is verboten. Stage managers are privy to all, witness to much that is shocking and transformative, and sworn to silence except what is necessary to tell a producer should the production be in danger of flaming up. If there were a Hippocratic oath for stage managers, it might read something like this:
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won artistic gains of those artists in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the cast, crew and creative team, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of coddling and artistic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to theatrical creation as well as physical reality, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the director’s note or the producer’s decision.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a production’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my actors, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a poor behavior, a toxic exchange, but a passionate human being, whose behavior may affect the person’s company and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the overburdened.
I will prevent toxicity whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as those crazy ass actors who cross my path.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of helping those who seek my aid.
Modified by Els Collins, Stage Manager, from the Modern Hippocratic Oath
I am fully aware of the severity of my breach by sharing this tale with you. I don’t share it to dissuade you from going into this esteemed profession, but merely as instruction in how to navigate its rocky shoals. For now, while the memory of these weeks’ challenges is strong, I want you to know; whatever the challenges your production brings forth are surmountable and most of the time with pleasing and astonishing revelations in the process. And you rubberneckers out there, don’t get too excited. I do have boundaries.
We had two weeks with the actors to put the show back together again. This would be a snap, right? Same cast, same band, same set, lights, sound, projections, costumes. The two new factors were the insertion of a new sound engineer, (which struck terror in my heart and, I can only presume, in the heart of Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal), and the replacement of the stage left PA, completely new to the show.
To quote Sound Designer Philip G. Allen, what sound engineer Patrick Hoyny was asked to do this week
…was like taking a leading role in the show with only three rehearsals.
I can say with certitude at this point, and only with the healthy advantage of hindsight, the re-opening of Colonus in my rear view mirror, this process was as pain-free as it could have been, in the skilled hands of the new sound engineer Patrick Hoyny, and with the gentle guidance of Sound Designer, Philip G. Allen. I can also say that the show rocked last night.
A remounted production falls under the aegis of the stage manager. I have never remounted a show before, so it was with some small amount of sorrow that I came to grips with this before stepping back into rehearsal mode. After ten years away from the PSM role, my director’s chops are a bit dulled. I flattered myself to think that my directorial abilities were quite keen at one point; my notes were on point and helpful for those actors learning the roles to be prepared should anything happen requiring them to go on. With weekly rehearsals scheduled under most LORT contracts, I had, over the years, refined my approach to the delicate task of putting different human beings into roles where they have little time to do anything other than observe another actor do their role. Usually these rehearsals are limited to 4-5 hours per week, and they don’t have the benefit many times of working with the set parts as they might be in show mode. They most likely will have access to the props, but certainly not the lighting conditions or sound cues of the regular performance.
In the case of the Colonus Remount, we had our Musical Director, Abdul Hamid Royal on the keyboards, and we did our rehearsals in the evenings to accommodate both my schedule as the Production Manager at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts and those of the musicians. Scheduled from 6-10PM, we worked about 5 days the first week, then jumped into dress rehearsals the second week. There was rarely a night when every single person was on stage to perform his/her role, because it is difficult to assemble 45 people, most of whom are busy musical professionals. However, we had been through this scenario in the past – we had several acceptable work-arounds, or short-hands for what we needed to do according to the various scenario. They ranged in severity of challenge from easiest to hardest to solve listed below:
What do we do with 1 usher, not the usual quota of 2?
Producer Wren Brown’s son, Brandon, had quite gracefully stepped in in the role of the second usher on several occasions, as had one of the theatre’s staff members.
What do we do without all the members of the Ismene Quartet?
In fairness, we (knock wood) never had to deal with this issue in performance. Do it with the members who are there and rehearse vocally when all are back. They are all solid professionals.
What do we do without the actor playing the role of Choragos?
Quintet member Ricke Vermont, whom I had also affectionately dubbed our dance captain, had performed twice in this role and had done a beautiful job, in the case where a family emergency called away our regular Choragos.
What do we do without the Soloist who sings “Lift Him Up?”
We found an extremely good alternate in cast member Sharetta Morgan-Harmon, who plays the Singer Antigone. It required some modification in blocking because she begins downstage rather than stepping out from the choir. The changes in blocking necessitated jumping over two light cues and required a change in the microphone used by her for the number.
You can see, we had worked out a number of quite challenging scenarios already in the course of previous rehearsals and performances. This time, however, there were some even more challenging scenarios awaiting us.
One of the Colonus performers, William Allen Young, who plays the Pastor in the show, has been shooting a new CBS primetime show called “CODE BLACK.” He had started to do this during the first run of Colonus, but by the time we began these refresher rehearsals, they were in full shooting mode for the episodes for the upcoming season. As anyone doing theatre in Los Angeles knows, in the battle between a TV gig and a theatrical gig, TV wins. It is pure economics. This is one of the most challenging factors in making live theatre in LA. Having said that, Will, ever the consummate professional, had communicated with me and with producer Wren T. Brown clearly what days were potentially problematic and had also arranged a few Fridays off from shooting completely so that the performance schedule was clear. How he can manage the work load of two full time gigs is another issue. But he’s an extremely dedicated actor and he has powered through both assignments. I can’t wait to see his show, which airs Wednesday, September 30th.
During the rehearsals, we rolled with the absences caused by work, family emergencies, etc. There were a few last-minute announcements from cast members about absences I didn’t know about, but as we had before, we accommodated them, and as per the SM Hippocratic oath above, no one died, and I didn’t need to take any lives. I feel pretty good about that part.
There were two rather challenging rehearsals, this past Tuesday, and Thursday’s final dress. I want to share the specific issues that arose and the ingenuity of the cast members and creative team in the results of the absences even though I am clearly breaking the oath. It was emotionally powerful to see the resiliency of the remaining cast as well as the teflon nature of this production – the will power that holds the fabric together and keeps the show unified.
On Tuesday, one of the leads suffered a medical issue that prevented him from coming to the theatre and even notifying me about his absence. The emotional rollercoaster of emotions that I went through was typical of any stage manager. I know, because of the 5 years of really good therapy I’ve had, that feelings are just that. Feelings. Surmountable. For a stage manager, nothing can be taken personally; coloring the facts with emotional baggage of expectation or history isn’t helpful to getting the work done on stage. But in the interest of teaching, I’ll share my emotions:
Anger – “Where can he be? Who does he think he is putting 45 other people out and not calling? He better be dead if he didn’t call.”
Embarrassment – “Did I not communicate the call to him? I know some people don’t follow the email. Should I have texted him to make sure he had the call?”
Worry – “Why haven’t we heard from him by the 8pm start? Is he all right?”
Fear – “Can someone please go check on him? What could have happened to him?”
Relief – “Thank goodness he is alive.”
Fear – “Is he going to be all right to do the show?” (I’m not proud of this coming so quickly on the heels of #5, but any stage manager who tells you this isn’t their first thought after the relief phase is lying.
Worry – “What adjustments do we need to make to his blocking when he comes back while he recovers from this situation?”
Relief – “We came up with some really good adjustments that can even work in performance if need be.” Again, these involved adding lighting instruments and creating alternative blocking options some of which we employed on the Wednesday night following his return.
So, you see, anything is possible in the theatre. That night, as Abdul Hamid sang the missing actor’s role while also playing the guitar part on his synth, I watched in awe as Dorian Holley appeared at the pivotal moment to walk Singer Oedipus up the stairs to begin his “descent.” He dropped him off then returned to his position on the stairs upstage right.
Remember, we are making it up. Creative minds will create elegant solutions to artistic problems. Theatre is just a never ending string of gifts like this.
The second scenario involved planning for the potential absence of Will due to his shooting schedule on Thursday. In addition, one of the ushers, Jonathan, was going to be out on Wednesday and Thursday due to another work commitment. The remaining usher, Sedale Threatt, Jr., had performed a lot of step-in assignments for actors missing in the rehearsal process. A recent graduate of USC School of Dramatic Arts’ three year MFA in Acting, Sedale is a quick study, committed to the work, and an extremely hard worker. When it became clear on Wednesday evening that Will might be held late at CBS on Thursday, Sedale offered to walk the role of The Pastor.
On Thursday, when I came into the theatre, I found him preparing to walk the part, with script in hand, while lead actor and Tony Award winner, Roger Robinson, coached him from the front row of the theatre. Watching from the booth as I readied the projector for the dress rehearsal, I could see that Sedale had a pretty good mastery of the blocking and was confident with his words. Lulled into a sense of security that things were handled, I went about my pre-show tasks. Rookie mistake. You’ve got to think it through step by step…
At 15, the PA from stage left notified me
Els, the ladies want to talk to you downstairs in the dressing room.
I quickly made my way backstage, after making the 15 minute call to the choir, and when I entered, they all turned their heads expectantly toward me. Sharetta spoke first:
Els, who is going to kidnap us if Sedale (the only remaining usher) is playing the Pastor?
Els: Crap. I’ll be right back.
I know many of you are thinking less highly of my anticipatory skills, but a quick hallway conversation with Sedale determined that he could both play the Pastor and then exit in time to re-enter with Creon as a henchman, kidnap the girls, then exit only to re-enter moments later to deliver the speech that ends Act I, echoed shortly after by the Ismene Quartet in “Numberless.”
And, believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened.
There were about 50 invited guests in the audience, and while I had to turn my face away because of the severity of the compromises we had made to get the show up that night, the audience was still completely engaged in the story and enthusiastic in their response.
My husband and I celebrated our 31st anniversary on 9/1. Yep, 31 years ago, we tied the not in a small Episcopal church on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Our lives then, as now, revolved around the theatre. At the time of our marriage, Jimmie was performing the role of Nag in a production of “Endgame” at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row with Alvin Epstein (Hamm and also Director), Peter Evans (Clov) and Alice Drummond (Nell). This production subsequently toured to Israel where we had a free honeymoon, staying at The Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel had a bar with a piano where, I kid you not, the piano player sang “Where it’s at, at the Diplomat!” There, in the bar, they served martinis consisting of about a thimble full of gin, a lot of ice, a twist of lemon and two of the smallest olives you ever saw. We were still drinking then, a habit which I shed shortly after our return from Israel, and Jimmie, about a year later.
A successful marriage of over thirty years is marked by many changes, involving mutual growth as well as personal.
If you read my blog about our 30th anniversary, and the romantic weekend getaway at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, you can see that this year was going to be hard to top. 30 Years, 30 Memories
So I started to think about the gift as a dramatic story; the kernel of the story coincided with something inexplicable that I have been thinking about over the past three weeks. You may think less of me, or perhaps more after you learn that I have been thinking hard about getting a tattoo. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my midlife crisis kicking in. I’m hardly the family’s first. Our son, Chris, has entire sleeves of elaborate tattoos on both arms, which, if the truth be told, I’ve given him a great deal of grief about.
My thought process in the past week got more focussed, as the timeline shortened, and I found the image I wanted while cleaning off my desk, an unopened box of Crane’s stationery. The notecards are adorned with a single, colorful hummingbird hovering over a frond of Indian paintbrush, a vibrant red flower stem that matches the bird’s ruby throat.
We’ve become obsessed with hummingbirds, starting from when Jimmie and I decorated our patio two years ago with furniture and two hummingbird feeders. Each day, from 7am to about 8pm, we have from 10-15 hummingbirds darting back and forth between the feeders, sparring for access. They are enormously entertaining to watch. Frankly, I don’t know why it took me so long to choose the image for the tattoo, but once I had, it was just a matter of working up my courage and finding the time to do it.
My online search for LA Tattoo parlors was brief; I quickly selected the one from Yelp with the most stars that was closest to Downtown LA, Alchemy Tattoo. I pored over their site, looking for similar images, and learning a little about flash, catalogue frames of tattoo art that is displayed in a parlor to give those with the urge but not the clarity some ideas.
This was supposed to be a surprise, of course. I figured there was nothing that would surprise my husband more than my getting a tattoo. It wasn’t just the shock value, which I hoped he could handle, but it was the (hopefully) romantic statement that I would go through a lot of pain and suffering for him, decorate my body with an image that had profound meaning to both of us and to our lives together. So, for the purposes of maintaining my cover, I told him that I had to go do some shopping for our anniversary, and after breakfast, I headed out the door with my hummingbird notecard and the best intentions.
Just before leaving, I texted a photo of the card to Chris, asking him for a sanity check. He approved (duh, Mom) and off I went. I pulled up in front of Alchemy Tattoo, which is on Sunset Blvd in Silver Lake. It was about 11:45AM on Sunday, and the security doors were not quite open, but I pushed my way in, heart pounding. It was empty! Great news. Chris had warned me that I should be prepared to discuss my project with someone, but not get in, because usually walk-ins would be given second priority to those who had larger ongoing projects. But, he had said, you might get lucky.
Jake, one of the artists, greeted me with the news that the place didn’t open until 12, but in spite of that, he came over to listen about my project. He told me all work was paid in cash, which caused me to sag for a moment, until he referred me to the liquor store next door where he said the owner would give me cash back on a purchase. I went over and bought a water and got some cash, returning to Alchemy. By now, Jake had surveyed the other artists and determined that none of the ones present were available – they were working on larger work with more organized clients than myself. But Josh was on his way in, had no appointments, and could help me with my project.
I sat self consciously, in the front of the store, the only person in a 3 block radius with no ink, and did my crossword puzzle, in ink, while I listened intently to the culture of the shop. There was a lightness and ease in the room, aside from my own terror, as people dropped in, dogs in tow, to share their tats with the artists there. I watched as a young red head came in to continue work on his left arm, and he was asked to show his completed work to the staff; they audibly appreciated it.
Then something happened. I had no idea how it was going to feel to get a tattoo, and that worried me, but the process of planning, designing the art work was one that was so familiar, that I instantly relaxed. I watched as Jake worked with the young man who was adding a dagger to his arm, listened as they discussed the shape, size, color and placement of the new tattoo among his existing art. They moved around the shop, looking at the art on the walls and describing how his idea of the dagger might differ from the options there. It was the theatrical design process in microcosm.
When Josh arrived, he and I looked at the image of the hummingbird and he discussed how the tiny (less than 1″ square) image would not translate well, and he threw it into the copier there and blew it up to about 2x the size. We discussed the flowers and I said I might like a different flower, and he showed me some cherry blossoms which he then went away and sketched into the picture. While he did that, I continued to try to finish my crossword puzzle and calm my nerves.
Soon we were solving the fact that I’d worn a pretty inappropriate blouse – I turned it around so the buttons ran down the back and Josh began to do the tattoo. Just like the dentist, the noise of the gun was worse than the pain. It was not nearly as painful as I thought it would be. Jake, at the next station over, was working on the red head’s knife, and when I asked how it was looking to Josh, piped up with
That pentagram is looking pretty good.
Tattoo humor. Who knew. I laughed and continued yoga breaths to get through the discomfort. I told them about my earlier trip, (only about 38 years ago) to a tattoo parlor in San Francisco, with a calendar-sized picture of a red footed booby. How the artist there had turned me away because I didn’t have the exact size artwork, and how relieved I had been. More jokes about the Red footed and other types of boobies that they had done. Throughout the process, I wanted to see what was happening, but of course, that wasn’t possible. As we neared the end, I asked Josh if I could take a selfie for the record and he agreed. See, I’m smiling, probably from relief that it was over.
On my way home, I stopped at Macy’s to buy the package that I could carry into the apartment to justify my 3 hour absence. And after two days of hiding my tattoo from Jimmie, on our 31st anniversary I will show him the gift that signifies we are bonded forever. Our little hummingbird.