The Dangers of Living with an Actor

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m married to an actor. What I may have not mentioned is I’m married to a really good actor. This is an actor who’s plied his trade for the past sixty-five years, accumulating over twenty Broadway credits and twenty-nine off-Broadway,  has worked all over the country in regional theaters from The Mark Taper Forum in our home town, to the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, the Globe Theatre in San Diego, to Yale Rep. IMG_6046He’s gotten around, most recently, performing as Nagg in Center Theatre Group’s production of Endgame at the Kirk Douglas, in May 2016. He was one of three performers who were ninety years old when the play opened.

 

 

 

 

But perhaps his most convincing performance has been in the role of aging actor. Years ago, he played the 100-year-old man on the final “Centennial” episode of Las Vegas. The episode aired in 2005, so Jimmie was a spritely seventy-eight. He came home from his day on the set and told me that the mayor of Las Vegas had remarked to him after they shot their scene:

Hey, this acting business is tiring.

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What Jimmie looked like in 2005

For the episode of Las Vegas, they applied extensive prosthetics to achieve the 100-year-old character. I remember looking at him in his makeup and thinking

I’m going to stick around – you look damn good for 100!

But in fact, at the age of ninety, Jimmie looks decades better than he might (if the makeup artist was accurate) at 100. Now that’s talent.

I’d bet that you can’t tell which of the photos below is from 2015 and which is from 2016?

So this is how I know he’s a really good actor. Forget the convincing performances on stage and screen. He does an incredible stand-to-stasis moment when he gets up from the couch. He pulls himself up, then stands still for a moment, teeters precariously just long enough to engender a skosh of empathy from the audience (me) before he moves toward his walker. Once there, he trots away toward the bathroom. I’m pretty convinced that he doesn’t do it that way when I’m not there to witness it. But he eschewed the Nest Cam, so I won’t know for sure.

Other incredibly convincing acting techniques include the amount of time he takes to get into bed. The way he pulls his legs up and really slowly eases his toes under the sheets as though they might damage his legs – wow – it’s breath-taking.

I laugh sometimes when I see student actors struggling to convey age. They bend at the waist, use a cane; makes me want to cry out –

It’s all about the knees!

Jimmie’s use of hero props like his walker, hearing aids, and his enthusiastic insistence on the daily bottle of Ensure are foils against my incredulity about his aging.

He’s mastered his scooter for whizzing around the neighborhood, so you might lose sight of the fact that the same journey six months ago without the scooter would have taken five to six times the amount of time it takes now.

What gives him away as an actor, though, is when he lets his performance slip – shows his sharp recall of facts from the past, or launches into a brief but youthful invective against the current political situation in Washington. Or when we play Scrabble and he takes me with words like sycophant or xylophone.

The other night we had dinner with Hal Holbrook and the two of them were gossiping like teens. Talk about recall of events! Hal remembered a specific moment in a rehearsal at Lincoln Center during his put in for After the Fall. And Jimmie similarly about rehearsing a scene during The Changeling with Lanna Saunders where Elia Kazan struck him across the face to demonstrate to her how she should slap him. Twice. You can’t make this stuff up. Come on guys! You’ve gotta do better than that to convince us you’re getting older!

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L to R. James Greene, Els Collins, Rich Costabile, Randy Wilcox, Joyce Cohen, Hal Holbrook

When Jimmie and I first began dating, one of the things we liked to do was run after each other around Central Park. Actually, I usually ran after him. As an ex-marathoner, he kept me well in his rear-view mirror. That was okay with me – I liked the scenery with him in front of me. Now, I can just about believe that he was an ex-marathoner. His backstory is convincing when he plays the lack of knees in that stand-to-stasis moment.

But right now, while he pores over the New York Times, his new Nike eyewear in place, he looks only a tad bit older than when we tied the knot almost thirty-three years ago. I won’t let him know that his acting technique is failing him. He’s very proud to be an actor. It will be our little secret, okay? Unless you want to lobby to have him added to this list where he definitely belongs.

What I did on my summer vacation

Over the last two weeks, I spent an intensive 25 hours of training with forty-three other USC employees to become certified members of the USC Community Emergency Response Team.

I’ve wanted to become a CERT member for several years but haven’t been able to schedule it. I’ve wanted to brush up on my fire hose and fire extinguisher skills, dust the cobwebs off my search and rescue and triage skills, revisit how to bandage someone with a pen in their forearm and a gash on their head. You never know when you might need these skills.

I’m dead serious. We live in Los Angeles, where we are way overdue for a major earth mantle mastication, AKA earthquake. When you think hard about what you would do in the event of a 6.8 earthquake, and it’s aftermath, it doesn’t take long to realize you aren’t ready.

I was not alone in this realization; forty-seven of us gathered Monday a week ago in Ground Zero, on the USC University Park Campus. We’d all signed up for the training, offered free to USC employees by the Department of Fire and Safety at USC.

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Our fearless leaders at USC Fire Safety and Emergency Planning

As the Head of Production at the School of Dramatic Arts, I’ve worked with these wonderful people, clearing through them the use of e-cigarettes and random issues of egress that have arisen in the course of over 240 theatrical productions over the last twelve years. Aside from knowing their subjects (fire and safety) well, they are quick to respond to emails. After attending this training, I can see why. They’re focussed on teaching us all how to stay safe in our work environments. It’s their mission and they’re good at it. If this training was any indication, they all seem to have a good time doing it.

On day one, we introduced ourselves to the group. We came from a broad array of different programs across the university. There were representatives from the School of Social Work, Hazmat and Lab Inspectors, the Engemann Health Center, the Language Institute, The Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, the Department of Grants and Contracts and the School of Dramatic Arts. And that was just our group, one of five.  From SDA, Chris Paci, an Assistant Theatre Manager and I did the training. When I’m on campus weekends to tech our shows I’m very aware how important it is to know how to safely evacuate a theatre. This training will help us be more efficient and helpful if there is a catastrophic event.

Angela was the master of ceremonies throughout the week, providing us with lesson plans and instructions about what to bring for each session and taught us the segment on First Aid. Five hours each, the sessions lasted five days, culminating today with a live simulation of the skills we had learned during the training. We were geared up with bright green vests and helmets with headlamps, a red backpack emblazoned with USC CERT loaded with all sorts of goodies – heavy goggles, kneepads, first aid supplies, a flashlight, gloves, glow sticks, triage cards, packets of water, and a whistle. Daily, we printed out handouts to learn the following topics:

  • First Aid
  • Search and Rescue,
  • Triage/RPM (Respiration, Perfusion and Mental State)
  • Cribbing and Backboarding
  • Fire suppression and Fire Hose management

Each day, we had a lecture and then hands on training of the day’s material. It was well-organized and we learned a huge amount of information about all the areas listed above. After the drills today, Angela provided us with CERT certificates and cards and bright red CERT T-shirts, as well as lunch.

Best summer camp ever.

At today’s final exercises, an officer from the LA Fire Department who observed the drills told us that 70,000-75,000 people have been CERT-ified in Los Angeles County. This seemed like a huge number until I remembered that there are over 10.12 million souls in Los Angeles County. USC trains up about 30-45 people each year. It is an impressive program.  I’m very happy to have been trained at USC.

Throughout the training, our teams learned how to work together, communicate closely about what we were seeing and hearing in each of the exercises. We planned ahead and debriefed after each drill. Each CERT trainee learned how to put a cervical collar on a patient with a back or spine injury, how to load them safely onto the backboard. Those without spinal or back injuries would be carried in the green sling stretcher, or in the Evac Chair down the stairs.

We each learned how to hook up the hose to the fire hydrant, couple it with the Y-valve to connect the 2 1/2″ hose to the 1 1/2″ hose, connect the nozzle, call for water then let it rip. All in under a minute-and-a-half. Then we learned how to empty the hoses and roll them back up.

We learned about cribbing, the practice of raising up a heavy object using a fulcrom and boxes made of 4″ x 4″s and 2″x 2″s. I felt a brief surge of pride when Jeff Pendley told the group that the School of Dramatic Arts is the first destination for wood after an earthquake.

We learned how to prioritize what type of events we CERT members were capable of assisting at, and which ones we weren’t. Safety of the CERT team members is primary, Angela taught us to think throughout the exercises what was safe to do, and how we could make it safer.  We spent a day learning about Psychological trauma and what we might expect to feel ourselves after dealing with traumatized victims.

In addition to getting prepared at work, they encouraged us to prepare at home. In the course of the week, I ordered some additional supplies to add to my home kit, including getting an Evac Chair to get Jimmie out should we need to evacuate at home.

It was an exhaustive and exhausting training and a great investment in my personal development. I highly recommend you staying tuned for future trainings and jump at the chance when it’s next offered.

 

Summer Daze in DTLA

We’ve officially reached the shank of the summer. After the Fourth of July, just before the All-Star Game. Heat advisories in the Valley thankfully don’t seem to pertain in the downtown park where Jimmie takes his respite from the cable news talking heads before the afternoon baseball game begins, before I come home from work.

At work, the ordering of the next seasons’ plays is almost done, final strands coming together in a complex artistic and literary calculus. Design and stage management assignments formulating, the students now aware that we have bypassed our self-proclaimed deadline. Faculty are now aware that the students anxiously await the news.  A last minute delay in one title keeps us all waiting for the shared excitement that is the next season’s announcement. I anticipate the rush of questions.

When will we know our assignments, Els?

Patience is required in these summer days. Patience and presence of mind and heart.

Today on my way back from the YAS DTLA gym, Hector’s rigorous and entertaining “Fiesta Friday” workout, I passed a woman walking a black plastic milk crate on a string. From behind, she looked like any dog walker in the early morning pre-work hours. She carried herself with a regal, straight-backed air of confidence, her gait unhurried. The crate glided easily along the pavement just behind her right flank. It wasn’t too full and followed her at the companionable pace of a small dachshund. She wore black leggings and a tunic fringed with what looked like a fashionable purple sweater tied around her waist. Her hair, shoulder-length was tidy looking. Abruptly she turned, and began walking back toward me shattering the illusion. As I drew closer, I could see her dirt-smudged, tanned face, her hair in ratty unintentional dreadlocks, her eyes filled with the nervous preoccupation of one who likely hears many voices. Her black plastic crate suddenly looked less like company and more like the onus of homelessness that it was.

I suddenly felt so lucky.

I continued my walk home, passing the young sycamore tree, rescued earlier in the week by a maintenance worker at the restaurant next door. The Conservation Corps folks planted the sapling about six months ago at my request. A ranting homeless man had recently kicked away the wooden splints that held it erect. The tree, bowed from the weight of its leafy branches, bobbed over the curb into the oncoming bus traffic. When I walked by, the restaurant worker was retying the rubber stays around the trunk. I held the tree in place, two strangers collaborating on the rescue of a young life. The tree secured, I asked him what his name was, and introduced myself. This morning, he sprayed the sidewalk with soapy water and I greeted him like an old comrade in arms.

At home, in gratitude, I watered all the plants on the patio, all the orchids on hiatus from blooming, the neon-green shoots sprung from the wildflower seeds I planted in the planter late last week. The seeds, in brown packets with our names emblazoned on them had marked the seating at our son’s recent wedding. Elsbeth’s seeds are doing quite well. If they fail, you can be sure James’ seeds will be planted next.

I sat down to contemplate my good fortune. IMG_8419The early morning sunlight streamed into the living room, highlighting the carved mahogany legs of a table. A precocious orchid I had ignored,  its stem lurching out to capture the sun, is now inside, granted access for its one louche bloom. I promise myself I will pay closer attention to the other orchids to guide them straighter in their fruition. These are the things we promise ourselves in the lazy lucky days of July.IMG_8421

Today we get our car back from the body shop, newly painted hopefully with no evidence of its recent trauma on the 101. I will return the white Jeep Cherokee I’ve been driving for the past week or so, a bigger and thirstier car than I would ever choose.

We had been able to make a hellish drive to Redlands last Friday to see dear friends there in the Jeep Cherokee, a comfortable, slightly higher ride than usual. Foolishly, we drove there on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, leaving LA at 3:00, and arriving just after our 5:30 reservation. Our reunion was sweet, and after catching up on the last 10 years at dinner at Caprice Cafe, we walked them to the nearby Redlands Bowl where they were attending a trombone concert. Together, we posed for a snapshot near the patinated statue of William McKinley before heading home.

Audrey, our friend depicted above, is now a successful writer of children’s non-fiction. We discussed Jimmie’s recent book, A View from the Wings, a signed copy of which he delivered to her when we sat down in the restaurant, and Audrey recommended a book about writing: Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of A Creative Life.  I immediately went home and devoured it over the next two days. She has a lot to say that is extremely encouraging for the novice writer. It’s again ironic that reading books about writing is really just another procrastination from writing, but in spite of that, I felt re-energized about the process of telling my story and am grateful to Audrey for the infusion of creative energy.

Tuesday night, the Fourth of July, Jimmie and I drove to the campus to watch the Coliseum’s fireworks from the roof of Parking Structure A. My colleague, Duncan had told me about his excellent viewing spot for years, but until this year, I had eschewed it. This year, we were in the mood to see some explosions. It was a scene. When we first arrived, Duncan and his wife sat on a utility cart facing the south wall of the Parking Structure, a stool perched on the back of the cart for higher viewing. Sheepishly, I pulled up next to them in my Jeep Cherokee and we positioned ourselves parallel to them. For the next hour and a half, through the windshield, we watched as the skyline filled with ebullient fireworks, both those sanctioned and entrepreneurial in nature. By the time we left at about 9:30PM, there were at least twenty cars, and the parking roof was chock full of families enjoying the now smoky aftermath of the display. When we got home, the new Intercontinental Hotel displayed her patriotic colors.

So that’s what we’re doing in the summer days in DTLA. You could say that we are all pulling our crate, literally and metaphorically, and I am well aware of the precious cargo in mine.