Writing with Me: Stories Just For Us

Just checking in to report that the book is underway. I’m spending a few hours each week to write (not nearly enough), and it’s unfolding as planned. I’m reading a book recommended to me by my friend Bob, entitled If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland. I highly recommend it, a balm for those get queasy at the thought of writing a book. So today, I’m digressing to write about things that probably won’t appear in the book, as they aren’t flattering things about my practice as a stage manager. I can see you all leaning in.

Oh good – here comes the dish….

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of Festival Supervising USC School of Dramatic Arts’ New Works Festival at the Pasadena Playhouse, two concert readings of plays written by the graduating writers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts Dramatic Writing Program. These play readings are cast with professional actors, directed by professional directors, an SDA offering in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse.

My participation in the past few years has been one step removed; on behalf of the school I’ve hired someone else to supervise the festivals, and due to the timing, have been unable to even attend the readings at the Playhouse. This year, I was pleased to be able to do both – supervise and attend the readings, which were highly entertaining and festive. I recommend you seek them out next year. They happen in the middle of May, this year landing on a weekend of cultural wealth in Pasadena, opposite the Lit Fest, the Directors’ Lab, an open house at JPL, two U2 Concerts at the Rose Bowl, and an AMGEN bike ride, all of which brought 200,000 visitors to spend a sweaty Saturday in Pasadena, where temperatures hovered at 92 degrees midday. I’d warrant a guess that anyone who braved the traffic to see Rebin Zangana’s Everybody’s Moving to Fiji, and Inda Craig-Galván’s award winning Black Super Hero Magic Mama was happy that they had made the trip.

I had spent about six years working on and off at the Pasadena Playhouse, back in the early nineties, and have several credits at the State Theatre of California, including a production of “On Borrowed Time” in 1992, where I met Wren Brown for the first time. You can read about that in the post linked above; the production was noteworthy for many reasons, most important of which was that I survived the opening night ride home. Other highlights included productions of “Camping with Henry and Tom” which began with a model-T Ford, entering upstage left,  rolling down a sharp incline, where it banged into a tree, the tree fell over, smoke came out of the car and the denizens of the car, Henry Ford, Warren Harding, and Thomas Edison emerged. The show had been done in New York the previous year, so our rehearsal period was fairly brief, our tech table still in the center of the house, and the house quite well-filled for an invited dress. I made the standard invited dress disclaimer over the god mic about perhaps having to stop the show then cued the top of the show. Nothing happened. The car refused to budge. We tried to start again, and still no movement from the car. From the tech table, using the god mic, I said,

Well, I think this is going rather well, don’t you?

Big laugh. Fortunately, the next attempt at the car starting went as planned, and the dress rehearsal began.

I gave a ride home the other night to two of our three junior stage managers who stage managed the readings at the Carrie Hamilton, and I told them a few stories about my time at the Playhouse back in the nineties – before they were born, I noted, wryly.

A lot of crazy things happened in those years, many that taught me how to manage crises in a live theatre situation and a few how not to handle them.

Late during the previews of A Lion in Winter, actress Carole Cook, playing Eleanor of Aquitaine to her husband Tom Troupe’s King Henry, lost her voice and arrived at the theatre willing but unable to go on. The Playhouse, a LORT B theatre, had no understudies, and I along with the director, and artistic staff, and with Carole’s rather surprising agreement, decided that rather than cancel the performance that night and send six hundred people and Ms. Cook home, I’d set up a music stand on the apron down stage right with a script, and I would read the lines while Carole acted the part. Crazy, right? But I’d been listening to her deliver the lines for the previous five weeks, and knew where she took breaths, etc. My assistant, Ando, called the show that night.

Maybe it was like watching a car accident, but I was told afterwards that no patrons went to the box office to get their money back. Audiences love that stuff, right? It’s live theatre. In this case, I am not sure where I got the gumption to perform, and I’m quite sure that it would not be considered best practice, but I received two calls the next day – one from the artistic director, Lars Hansen, thanking me for “saving the performance,” and one from the Equity Rep, letting me know that I’d be receiving an additional 1/8th pay for “going on” as Eleanor of Aquitaine. I wouldn’t recommend this as a course of action, but just as an example of thinking really far outside the box.

I stage managed “Lettice and Lovage,” a satire by Peter Shaffer, directed by David Galligan, starring Jane CarrJane Carr as the dotty and overly-inventive tour guide at a large English manor house, and Mary Jo Catlett as her officious boss. The play called for an ensemble of tourists, and the Playhouse, ever conscious of the costs of large casts, decided they would partner with the large volunteer organization, Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, who manage the ushering needs and support the Playhouse. The idea was quickly embraced that the ten to fifteen ensemble of tourists would be played by Friends on a rotating basis. Every night, we had a different group of volunteers whom we trained to follow Jane around the stage and hear her inventive history of the house.  Logistics were tough, but my assistant, Ando and I enjoyed their great energy and their commitment to the show. There’s no doubt that they were critical to the success of the play. It helped to boost ticket sales as well, since they all lived in Pasadena and had lots of friends to invite. Win win.

Last weekend, I became reacquainted with Patrick Corbin, a current house manager, who had just begun ushering around the time of Lettice and Lovage, and he dryly noted that he met a new usher one night and the next night had seen her on stage and thought, what a meteoric rise! He had no idea about the arrangement of the Friends as ensemble.

Managing the rotating handful of volunteers was a challenge, and their attendance was sometimes sporadic. One night we were down two volunteers, and so the director, David, and I decided we would don the running suits of these two tourists and head out for the first scene, which took place at the foot of a large staircase from the top of which Jane addressed the masses. Yes, we were being extremely naughty, and unprofessional, because we didn’t tell Jane that we were going on for the tourists. Lights up, Els and David facing upstage to hide our hysterics, our shoulders shaking like jello jewels in our garishly colored track suits.

Jane entered at the top of the stairs, took one look down at us and went into kill mode. She put a bead on the two of us and addressed the entire speech down at us, never breaking for a moment with a death grip of concentration. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of Jane’s onstage ire. The two of us were falling apart, and ashamed of our poor performance as the tourists. Jane never let us forget that one.

Those were critically important years for me in my development as a stage manager. I know that the examples cited above lead you to believe that the development was not in a positive or professional direction, but they tell the story of the types of things that stage managers deal with routinely.  Creative solutions are needed. The ones we come up with may or may not be effective. So we’ll just let these be our little secret, eh?

A Hero of Stage Managers

A hero of Stage Managers is defined as a group of stage managers.

I just made up a new collective noun. Feel free to use it. Incidentally, the collective noun for a group of heroes is a frailty of heroes (according to a questionable link which I will not attach here.) That’s kind of lovely in a mathematical stage manager sort of equation.

Hero=Stage Managers x 3

Frailty = Heroes x 3

9 Stage Managers = A Heroic frailty

But I digress. A Hero of stage managers. I can’t think of a better description. Stage managers, who, in the face of danger, combat adversity through impressive feats. I think it’s perfect. It’s also exquisitely apt for a description of the event I hosted last Monday night to celebrate the twenty years of teaching of stage managers by my colleague at USC, Mary K Klinger, who has continued to maintain a fruitful professional career as a stage manager while she taught and sent out into the world a hero of stage managers a very few of them who are depicted below.

Stage management is a rarified profession, and Los Angeles had limited professional venues for stage managers who sought to make a living. I met Mary early on when we moved to LA in 1986. She was one of four top-dog SMs who rotated through their shows at the Mark Taper Forum and the ones we upstart stage managers strove to unseat – er, I mean learn from.

Stage management is a competitive sport, and I looked up to this hero of stage managers with reverence and also extreme envy. We all studied at the elbow of former stage manager Gordon Davidson, who was a stern yet loving taskmaster. I invited all four of them to come on Monday and it was a testament to Mary that they all came to celebrate her accomplishments as a teacher and former colleague.

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L to R. Jonathan Barlow Lee, Mary K Klinger, Neila Lee, Michele Miner, Jimmie McDermott

Jonathan Lee, still the PM at the Taper, was the SM of the first show I PAed, a musical called Roza, directed by Hal Prince, starring Georgia Brown in May, 1987 in its pre-Broadway tryout. As PA, my main duty was to drive Georgia Brown, this torch singer with a gravelly voice, described in the Roza review as “ground cigarettes and glass” from her home in Beverly Hills, to the rehearsals downtown. At the time, Jimmie and I were newly married, I was twenty-seven, and trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. I shudder at the chutzpah of the young PA confessing such an inappropriate thing to the actor she’s driving, but won’t ever forget how Georgia told me to solve this “conceptual” problem.

Honey, put the legs of the bed up on a pile of bricks, drink a bottle of champagne and just fuck your brains out.

Mary straightened me out as to appropriate PA behavior on the next show where I met her and Jimmie McDermott on two Joe Orton Plays they did in Rep opening that July. The director, Joey Tillinger, was an extremely prolific NY director and a generally friendly fellow. One day I was talking with him during a break, and Mary called me over to the stage management table and reminded me to not distract the director during breaks. Later when I was a stage manager (like ten years later), I realized the import of what she had said. Mary occasionally still teaches with a delayed punchline, or Aha moment, but is always kind and very direct.

I marveled at how she and Jimmie McDermott organized that rehearsal room, at how they effortlessly managed the rules while providing creative safety to the cast and director. After rehearsals ended, we sat another hour or so while they took turns typing the report, which I was sent to Xerox, and file the copies neatly into the cardboard cubby slots in Rehearsal Room A. There was no email distribution at the time. On the sturdy black landline phone in the room (which we silenced during rehearsals to only flash it’s light when there was an incoming call,) they called the designers with notes, and then later recorded the rehearsal schedule for everyone to call, using the number on their wallet cards. All the while, with an easy camaraderie that revealed their deep affection for each other and for the process we were engaged in. These folks taught me everything I know about the soft skills of stage management. And many of the hard.

That’s how we learn as stage managers. By observing and doing. Succeeding and failing. For the past twenty years at USC, we’ve been fortunate to have a skilled and patient spirit guide in Mary K Klinger. When I started at USC in 2005, Mary was already well into her teaching career. I watched Mary train the next generation of stage managers, by informally and patiently explaining the practical steps of stage management, answering their questions, demonstrating best practices in creating paperwork, and discussing with them how they might deal with artists of all persuasions. They adored her.

Some of Mary’s former students sent comments which I was able to read at the party. A few are below. This one from a current executive in a large entertainment project management firm:

…I was in one of Mary’s first stage management classes at USC. Mary was one of the first teachers I remember being an active working professional in the field she was teaching, and I think that was very important for me to see. Up until taking that class, I had started to question my major choice, but I credit Mary with helping give me the support, guidance, and real world examples I needed to have confidence in my path. Two random things have stuck in my head from my stage management class are: 1) we should always be happy if we are working on a holiday, as that means we are employed, and 2) when making coffee backstage or in the rehearsal room, never re-use the coffee filter! I think these things have stuck with me because, beyond just teaching stage management tools and techniques, we were taught how to develop our work ethic, be ready to work hard and jump on opportunities and generally how to be employable. And while I have ultimately pursued other avenues of production, I often credit my strong stage management foundations from USC as a reason for my career success.

Mary’s students have always recognized that she had their backs and there was probably not much that they could tell her that would surprise her. Many of our graduates have gone on to illustrious careers as stage managers, and branched out in other directions as well as prominent lighting designers, managers in theme parks and project-based work, things that Mary allowed them to explore in her Stage Management II Class.

Another former student, now a television producer, wrote:

I had the great opportunity to work with Mary in one of my first professional experiences. As her PA on the Taper production of Expecting Isabel I watched her implement so many of the lessons we had learned in class. She was a great example to me of a strong leader whose guidance and support allowed the creative process to thrive. I use so many of the skills I learned from Mary and the incredible Stage Management professors of the SOT still to this day. Congrats Mary on 20 years of teaching! We are very lucky to have learned from you.

Mary has taught us all so much about living and facing challenges with grace. She faced her frailty of heroes in the past few years with grace and fortitude, then strode back to teaching and her professional work sporting a new bobbed silvery mane.

What will the next chapter bring? I’m hoping it will bring the next chapter as Mary’s talked about writing a book on stage management for years.IMG_7897 I slipped a dharma doll into her gift bag to help the process along.

For now, on behalf of the School of Dramatic Arts, I want to thank you, Mary for the legacy of learning and excellence and perseverance you will leave behind at USC, and thank you for twenty years of teaching.

Current and former students spoke at the party, and current and former colleagues as well, because as Mary has always told her students, if you are no longer my student, you are my colleague. You are under the watchful and loving eye of the hero of stage managers.