Writing with Me: Declaration of Intention

I’ve been a derelict blogger of late; April is the cruelest month and certainly in academic theatre, where we had seven shows opening and running their brief allotted four to ten performances, barely longer than the lifecycle of a mayfly.

Mayfly Life Cycle

I will leave you to ponder that metaphor for just a few moments.

Moving on.

I’ve been such a poor blogger of late because I have turned my sights to a book project. In addition, there’s been some affectionate razzing by a colleague about “blogging”. Not discouraging exactly, but making me self-conscious (isn’t that what blogging is about you ask?) If I’m honest, I can’t really lay the blame on this colleague, who shall remain nameless, but whose initials are M.E. I also can’t really lay the blame on the book, because, truth be told, the progress on that is slow as well.

Anyone who has written a book can tell you that it is an extremely hostile environment. I’m speaking about mentally, in the writer’s own head. All sorts of questions assault your writerly core:

  1. Who will read it?

  2. What is new about your approach to this topic?

  3. How long will this take to complete?

  4. What am I going to make Jimmie for lunch?

  5. When do I need to take the dry cleaning in to be ready for my departure on June 11th?

  6. Who can I ask to go with me tonight to the theatre?

You get the picture. There are an infinity of tough questions that barrage one’s mind every day. How could I possibly fit the writing of a book or a blog for that matter into the folds of my  active neocortex? Note how I’m now inserting scientific terms into my blog to broaden my readership. So that could be added as #7 above.

If you know nothing else from reading my previous blogs, you should know that I am fundamentally competitive. My son still teases me about our blood sport tennis matches when he was ten and I was forty on the Studio City Tennis courts. Add to the mix my husband’s completing his memoir this year, the fact that I filled in the first eyeball on the Dharma Doll that my colleague Natsuko gave Jimmie at his book party in December knowing it wasn’t for a second book he’d write, but for a first book I’d write. It’s all a big tsunami of expectation eddying just off the shores of my brain, right behind the upturned face of my laptop.

That and the fact that I’ve never begun the process of writing a book before.

I know, because I’m a fairly rational and methodical planner, that any long piece of writing needs an outline and then a series of goals to hit. My outline consists of three pages in a small brown leather notebook that my Dad gave us a few of at Christmas time – episodes in my work as a stage manager where I learned something valuable or painful and valuable, or just something painful. This is one of the sticking points because as I’ve written so much about the necessity for stage managers to be discreet. Disclosing the secrets of painful learning about stage management necessitates pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard, and sometimes, the Wizard is someone we recognize.  I think about the Julia Phillips book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again and my resolve pales. I already know that my book lacks the sizzle of her rogue’s gallery of players. Certainly the drug history.

I do have a title. I’m withholding the title because this blog makes the writing of the book inevitable – my competitive soul has now committed me to doing it because the alternative would be too embarrassing. My followers, small in number, but mighty in support; you know who you are and thank you for sticking with me through the fallow periods like every April, now know that I have declared the game on with regard to this book.

And now, gentle reader, please do not judge too much. Here’s a bit from the introduction to dare I say it? My book:

Introduction

One of the consequences of marrying someone thirty-three years older than you is you develop the habit of looking over your shoulder with dreadful anticipation of the future without them. I can safely say that even when I was in my forties, I was attempting to reconcile myself to the moment when I would need to give up my work to care for my husband. This quotidian awareness of the finality of life seems unusual for someone in her forties, but even then, I knew that every day spent with him was precious. Perhaps that’s why we don’t quarrel, and greet each other with giddy relief at the end of the long days I spend at the university. As I turn the key in the door each evening, my eyes sweep the path to the couch to see him eagerly welcoming me as I enter our home.

It’s always been that way. Friends used to comment that when Jimmie would see me coming, he would begin to wiggle like an eager pup, his face breaking out into a grin, his hands outstretched, calling me into his arms. My wish is for everyone to have such a love in their life, and that it might last at least as long as our love has lasted. That is true prosperity.

Recently I flashed on the phrase “My heart in my mouth” in the contexts of the finiteness of our love, but also with regard to stage management, my life’s work. I have been a stage manager since I was in college, and professionally for over thirty years. I have learned my artistry from many mentors whom I assisted, watching as they called complex sequences, dealt with artists of difficult and different temperaments, handled intricate personal and political relationships and institutions.

Stage Management requires the facility to call complex and nerve-inducing cue sequences, often engendering the feeling of having your heart in your mouth. In addition, we must speak kindly to our constituents, whether they be cast or crew, or designers, or producers. Our hearts must be literally in our mouths because it is the truth and respect we convey through our words and actions that make us good or not so good at our jobs.

 

Theatre and Her Ability to Forecast

Sometimes I can’t be sure if what I’m reading in the paper is news, because it so frequently feels like a moment of déjà vu. Take this morning’s LA Times article by Teresa Watanabe about the recent renovations of the Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley, in which she reports a removal of 135,000 books from the library to make more study areas, nap zones in futuristic “nap pods.” The photos show students hunkered down over their computers reading, or on the modernistic equivalent of a back porch, where they work on their computers while looking through a wall of glass at surrounding trees. It is positively bucolic. The only thing missing is a frosty glass of lemonade on the side table. And the book. And yet… where have I seen this idea before?

In the theatre of course. Only seven years ago. Back in 2010, in a production entitled futura  at the Theatre @ Boston Court, we learned about the terrifying possibility that a future society would lose respect for and possession of all our books, in a rush to embrace technology. In today’s article, Libraries turn the page, the change happened because

students kept asking, ‘In the spirit of challenging the status quo, why is this library filled with dusty books no one looks at and I can’t get a study space?’

Teresa Watanabe, Libraries turn the page,

Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17

As a denizen of the theatre, I and countless other audience members confronted this unimaginable future by attending the theatre, where Jordan Harrison’s powerful play unspooled this to us, realized with pulpable (ouch) power by director Jessica Kubzansky.

I also stage managed a play at the Geffen Playhouse years ago, a two-hander by playwright Lee Kalcheim, starring Jason Alexander and Peter Falk, entitled Defiled, which depicted what happened when a computer threatened to replace a library’s card catalogue. How many card catalogues are still in use in the Moffitt Library, I wonder?

One only needs to see a play like the current one we are presenting at USC School of Dramatic Arts, which shall remain nameless, where after a nuclear apocalypse “we” are left literally powerless to fend for ourselves in communities of fearful survivors. These survivors amuse/distract/cling to each other by sharing stories/episodes of a familiar tv series around a campfire, and in subsequent acts re-create theatre around these shared stories.

My take away from this current production is that as a society, we’re potentially nuclear nano-seconds away losing everything we take for granted; we are nano-seconds from a moment when study and nap pods could be pointless without the electricity.

But what tantalizes me today isn’t thinking about our carelessness with our legacy of dusty old books no one looks at, but really about the Cassandra-like power of theatre.

This week has been busy – filled with dress rehearsals of the two main stage plays, one of which is Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, the second referenced above, and a third workshop play of MFA Dramatic Writer Hannah Langley’s Losing My Religion (in 140 characters or less).

Wedekind’s play, written in the late 19th Century, spookily forecasts the sexual awakening of teens in a repressive German society, and their missteps due to ignorance and the unwillingness of the adults to be honest about the changes they are experiencing. But the reason it’s still relevant is that these issues are ever present in our society today.

As I write this, the TV blares with the news about a certain anchor’s dismissal from Fox News for sexual harassment charges, ostensibly, but we all know it’s actually because of the loss of advertising minutes they’ve sustained recently. Déjà vu? Well, unfortunately, yes, because we just watched the head of that network be unseated only a month ago. But so long ago, on stage, we watched David Mamet’s Oleanna, which premiered in May of 1992, and has had many subsequent productions, most recently in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in June, 2009.

The power of theatre to forewarn us, to remind us of our foibles and their ultimate destructive and redemptive capacity is one of the things that I have always thrilled to, perhaps with the exception of Center Theatre Group’s production of Vicuna, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. I happened to see it the week before the most recent Presidential election. How smug I was, as I sat in the theatre watching the buffoonishly theatricalized character so like Donald Trump preen and provoke us.

That will never happen to us. Phew!

While I watched the show, I also thought about how bold it was of Jon Robin Baitz to write a play with such a short shelf life and how extraordinary it was that Center Theatre Group would produce it. What a risk! How could it be relevant to us after the election when we had the first woman President in the White House? A week or so later, I listened to a radio interview with actor Harry Groener, who played the Trump character as he recounted that the week after the election, the audience reactions were completely different. There were many fewer laughs, and the communal grief was palpable.

Years ago, when my Mom was still alive, an inveterate death-long smoker, she wrote an op-ed piece for the small local Pennsylvania newspaper where she imagined a day when we wouldn’t be allowed to smoke in our own homes. There would be smoke-police, and dire consequences for those who continued to light up. I was impressed with her Swift-like satire about the future, unimaginable when she wrote it in the early 90s. Now I know she wasn’t satirizing, but prognosticating about the future world, much as Baitz, Wedekind, Kalcheim, Mamet and the playwright who shall remain nameless have done. I feel fortunate to be a member of a theatre tribe where the work we do carries that magical lens through which we can view our past, present and future as a society. Aside from the poignancy and the humor and the immediacy of the work, playwrights have the visionary power to take us forward in time.

All of this seems pretty far from the study room at the new Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley. But maybe one of those students, feet up on the wall, looking out through the trees might prop up a script of Spring Awakening on his or her legs and think about what Frank Wedekind is telling us about the future so distant from and yet so relevant to his past. Or better yet, this student may elect to attend a play this weekend to see first hand what the magic is all about.

Excuse me, your Freudian slip is showing…

Today I attended our Spring musical, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita along with several hundred prospective students and their families. We had a full morning of workshops for students who have been accepted to our programs and are currently weighing whether to attend USC next fall.

I participated in two – the first was a panel of the Design and Production Faculty, where Sibyl Wickersheimer and Tina Haatainen-Jones shared some of their stunning scenic and costume portfolio work; Phillip G. Allen shared a personal story about where his passion for the theatre came from; Duncan Mahoney shared about his career trajectory to USC; I talked a little about my career as a stage manager prior to coming to USC and what makes USC so special.

At 11:00AM, we held a panel of the most of the designers and stage managers of Evita, on the stage at the Bing, where led by their accomplished director, Tim Dang, described in detail the process of collaborating to conceive the design elements of the show and then realize them through rehearsals and tech to the final product. All the prospective students were going to see the performance after lunch.

IMG_7831

Framed by Scenic Designer Grace Wang’s show proscenium, L. to R. some of the Creative Staff of USC Dramatic Arts’ production of Evita: Tim Dang, Director, Emma Bramble ’13, A2, Briana Billups ’18, Sound Engineer, Stephen Jensen, ’17, Sound Designer, Lexi Hettick ’18, ASM, Savannah Harrow ’18, ASM, Jessica Major ’17, SM, Edina Hiser, ’19, Asst. Costume Designer,    Liam Sterbinsky, ’17 Lighting Designer 

It was a great discussion, after which the visitors looked at a lobby display featuring the designers’ process paperwork and research. Duncan then led everyone on a tour of several of our facilities.

After lunch, we sat in our seats in the Bing. I had been offered a front row seat by our Director of Special Events (and the coordinator of all today’s yummy dining events), Marissa Gonzalez. She dashed in as the lights were going down and we entered the world of Argentina in the 1930s. The last time I’d seen the show was in a second dress rehearsal while there was still quite a bit of work going on in all departments. It really cemented for me the importance of seeing a performance to really appreciate the scope of the work and the tremendous attention to detail that is necessary to bring a show to excellence. Today’s performance was precise, and spirited, with the hard-won technical moments supporting the acting, singing and dancing of the twenty-nine cast members.

If you’re familiar with the plot of Evita, throughout the first act, we watch Eva Duarte’s ambitious rise from squalid beginnings through a succession of relationships, where she eventually lands on the arm of Colonel Juan Perón at the end of Act I.

At the end of Act I, Marissa again dashed up the aisle to the front of the theatre, and I, without thinking, stood up and turned to the woman on my right whom I had been talking with before the show and who was attending with her high-school-aged daughter and politely said

Excuse me, but I’m going to go spread my legs…..

The woman and her daughter, looked quizzically up at me and as if in slow motion, I replayed my own words as I realized what I’d just said….

I mean STRETCH my legs.

One of the best instagram accounts I follow is entitled @hashtagwelcometomyday. Julia, this one’s for you…It’s been a long week!