Stage managers, in the course of their work, frequently have to put actors into a show when circumstances arise that prevent a regular actor from performing. Plays have understudies, who are contracted to start, usually a week or so before a play opens. This means stage management begins rehearsals during the preview week, when rehearsals for the regular show are happening during the day, and previews at night. Everyone is exhausted at this time in the production arc, but Stage Managers know that it is critical to have at least one, if not two rehearsals that week. That way, the understudy can go on “on book” – an occurrence one wouldn’t wish on anyone, but a legitimate state of performing per our Actors Equity Association rulebooks.
This way the producers are covered if someone gets sick, or has to leave the show abruptly due to occurrences like the ones that underlie this post. And stage managers know how to rehearse actors to put them into shows. We know the blocking, we know the intent of each scene, the director’s desires. On more complicated shows, we’ll create tracking sheets for each actor, so that if we have to insert them into the show, we know how to run a pick-up rehearsal, including just those parts of the play in which our understudy will be featured.
When you get to a certain age, you’ve accumulated things. If you are fortunate, as I am, you’ve accumulated good friends, close family, a comfortable workspace with supportive colleagues. But there’s one thing I’ve only become aware recently of how many I’ve accumulated, and that’s widowed friends. I have a plethora of the widowed in my life.
Men and women; just counting on my fingers, I have two full fists of friends who’ve lost their loved ones, their spouses, their life partners. There’s a range of loss from 35 years ago, to 18 years ago, to 8 years ago, to just a few weeks.
With all the other widows and widowers, I have turned my face and ear to them as a sunflower turns to the sun, drawing in their experience and wisdom, their references for books, thoughts about memorials, and life ahead, about clearing clutter. Surely that will make the path through grief easier, if it can be done. Why not do your research and make it more tenable? And I bask in every ray of their singular and collective light as it illuminates renewal, a time when the pain is less, and when I know what my new path is. Who I am alone in the world. What my purpose is.
But it is the week-old widow (WOW) who speaks loudest to me. She and I have uncannily similar situations. Both married to actors more than thirty years older than we; both theatre workers. Neither of us religious, nor afraid to tell the truth about our circumstances. Both with irreverent senses of humor. Now we share a date of grieving that I never would have wished on either of us. But now that it is a thing, it provides me, and I hope her, with some solace. The morning of Jimmie’s birthday, while I was helping some neighbors decorate our lobby’s Christmas tree, she sent me a plaintive text that her partner had passed away.
How are we ever supposed to get over this?
Boy is that the question of the month? And with the question came the turning point. From sunflower to sun, not that I presume to know a scintilla of what my widowed friends know, but I could keep company with her, and being three weeks ahead on the learning curve, I could share what I knew.
And so, with my WOW friend, right in the middIe of my own “production,” I had the tracking sheets, at least for the first three weeks. I knew the blocking, the intent, the emotional pitfalls that might confront her. I knew I’d be able to push her around “backstage” and help her make her entrances.
A good stage manager allows the understudy to bring themself to the part. To interpret to a certain extent the lines so that they fit them and they can inhabit them gracefully.
There’s nothing graceful about a five week widow. Trust me. But my WOW friend is a strong woman. And we have the history that allows us to speak honestly to each other about how we are doing. That’s a huge gift.
One of the first things I had to confess was my obituary bitterness. Granted, I didn’t know the first thing about placing an obituary in the newspaper. Apparently, it’s something that should happen that day or the next day at the latest. I waited a week, only prompted to do so by my brother. Now my very dark advice is to write your obituary now so you’re ready.
Two days after I got the text from my WOW friend that her partner had passed, I picked up the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and saw his obituary in both papers.
But see, those are the kinds of things you can say to an understudy. Both to help them through the terror, and also to make the process as fun as possible. Believe me, putting an understudy on is fun compared with this widow’s work. And to further impress you with the strength of my WOW friend, she conducted a real understudy rehearsal about 5 days after her own loss.
I’ve started going to the theatre again this week – first to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Jefferson Mays at the Geffen. He’s really terrific, as are all the production values. If you can get there this week, try, because it’s the last week. My friend Jill warned me about the opening of the show, where a dark Victorian casket sits center stage, surrounded by black feathers and haze. People are very thoughtful. That wasn’t, as it turns out, a trigger for me.
Last Sunday, I went for a hike with my WOW friend and another Stage Manager pal who is not on the current understudy track that we are on. Instead, we walked for five miles in Griffith Park, up and down along the North Trail, the Bee trail, admiring the morning sun and talking about life in general, and the two of our’s newly widowed status. When I got home I was sore, but felt a sense of accomplishment from the hike to remind me that I was indeed alive. Painfully so, but good pain this time.
People are kind and considerate, calling, texting, what’s apping (sorry Mr. Strunk, I’m sure that’s not a verb)…. Life goes on. We turn our petals to the ever increasing sun and await instructions. Building our new tracking sheets to better be prepared for future performance. My WOW friend and I stand together strong in a long tradition of life and living after death.