Events in the past three weeks have been shocking and have smacked me upside the head. On the macro level, more young black men were gunned down in the streets, more cops assassinated. Every time I turned on the TV it seems like ISIS or some wannabe fringe extremist has killed another 125 people.  I’ve become de-sensitized to random acts of terrorism, both international and national. And it’s not because I don’t care about my fellow human beings. It’s just not possible to be in a constant state of shock or rage or worry or grief. Especially if you’re a “there-must-be-a-pony-here-somewhere” type of person like I am. Unfortunately, events like these have hardened me enough that I don’t have to curl up in a corner 24-7. Because if there were no auto-protective features, that’s where we’d all be, right?

But on Monday,  when I received a call from Virginia, our guiding Senior Business Officer about the recent and sudden death of one of my faculty colleagues, Paul Backer, I cried out. “What?” So shocking was the loss of someone so integral to our work place, and ostensibly so healthy, that the news reached out of the phone and punched me in the gut. “I wanted you to know before you heard it from someone else,” she said.

Paul Backer, tall, with boyish good looks, a large head filled with facts about the theatre, and the broadest spectrum of interests, was a fixture of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC since 1984 when he began teaching there. He attended all the productions, both those that were curricular, as well as all the Independent Student Productions. As the production manager, I am the last person to sign off on the ISP contracts, and Paul was the faculty advisor for 99.9% of them. He was a sterling director, directing the first show of each fall semester in the McClintock Theatre. This was a tight rehearsal period, four weeks to tech, one which required exquisite preparation. The plays were challenging contemporary, open-ended types of plays, and Paul somehow found the time to sit with the play, conceptualize his approach, get the research done, and send off no less than 30 pages of analysis with research images, with metaphors for what he wanted to achieve in his/our production.

thumb_IMG_5149 3_1024His production last fall, Love and Information, was a huge learning experience for our production and design students. A few weeks ago, I received his first ideas about how  he wanted to stage Julie Jensen’s Mockingbird, with the casual tag line, “details to follow. Pb.” That made me smile, typically understated.

To get an idea of how ecumenically Paul approached his productions you only have to read a little about the subject of his dissertation, to quote SDA’s website: 

“Shakespeare, Alchemy and Dao: The Inner Alchemical Theatre. It was an interdisciplinary and cross cultural analysis of Shakespeare and the Renaissance esoteric traditions as seen through the lens of classical Chinese Daoism, particularly the philosophy and practice of “Inner Alchemy” or neidan.

USC School of Dramatic Arts

Paul slipped off this mortal coil in his sleep, at 59 years of youth, sometime before Monday when I heard about it from Virginia. And as I processed the news, even before the official email came telling his SDA family about our tragic loss, the ripple effect among Paul’s “children,” his former and current students, was immediate, tsunamic.  I saw Paul’s last post on FB honored an alum, who passed away July 2nd. Paul attended his memorial just last Tuesday, spending an hour  after the memorial in the parking lot chatting with one of his former students. She called me to commiserate that afternoon. She shared that she had asked Paul about what to say to a parent who demands “when are you going to give up this theatre stuff and get a real job?” They’d talked about how hard it must be for a parent to bury their child, and how attending services like these felt terrible in the same way.

Paul was there for his students. He was there for his colleagues, picking up the role of interim chair of Critical Studies when his supervisor had to step away to deal with her own tragedy.

Paul’s death has got me thinking a lot about legacy. As we watched Paul’s legacy unfurl through the devastated testimonies from former students, I thought that Paul probably never ever thought about what his legacy would be. He just built it one relationship at a time. He showed up. He witnessed the work. He demonstrated how he cared, one conversation, one hug at a time. And then he was gone. One of my colleagues said in a recent emotional email,

The time to start measuring up is now.

My tribute to Paul on FB garnered 270 views. That’s a whole lot for me, like by a multiple of ten. We are Paul’s family, vast and interesting and varied, just like his mind, his theatre practice, and his life.

I am and I know the rest of the SDA/SOT community are in a stunned state of grief about the loss of Paul Backer. There is a significant hole in the fabric of the universe. Paul was always there, always supportive, always creative and collaborative. He attended all the shows, was witness to people’s important life events. He gave all of himself to us. Thank you for your calls today to talk about Paul Backer and to cry a little about our loss. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the posts from students and alumni about the impact Paul had on your lives. It really helps to try to understand this loss. I took this photo last September during tech of Love and Information. I wish I’d waited until he turned around.


Rest in peace, dear Paul.

7 thoughts

  1. Dear Elsbeth, I am so sorry to learn of your beloved associate and friend’s death….so young…. He surely was loved by so many….my heart is heavy for you and all those who loved him…. Renie

  2. Hi. I’m not sure who you are, but this article made me cry. So beautifully written. I am an SDA alumn (1991), though “SDA” hadn’t yet been invented at that time. Paul’s sudden passing was so shocking to me. I’m trying to process it, but am struggling. A year after graduation, my mentor and teacher died of cancer. Tad’s death was life changing for me, but somehow so many years later, this news is equally painful. Thank you for putting into words what I am unable to express. Paul will be sorely missed.

    1. Dear Maria,
      Thanks so much for sharing your grief. The news was indeed shocking to all of us. I am the Head of Production at SDA and had the privilege of working with Paul on many productions as well as serving on committees with him. But mostly I saw him at the shows where we witnessed and discussed the students’ work. Good luck with your processing. You know about the memorials this week?

  3. Oh my dear Els. What a beautifully moving tribute to counter one of the darkest weeks I can remember. You captured Paul beautifully, in word and image. The photo of his back against a vivid living projection of “dream” is iconic Paul. Gods bless.

  4. Thanks so much, Brent. Your share at Paul’s memorial took my breath away, especially, your rendition of the “There are giants in the hall. One is Brent and one is Paul.” Crying through my tears. What a loss. How grateful I am to have all of you and the students to share his memory with.

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