Memories, Manifestos and Mariachis

This weekend marked the final productions of the school year, and the launching of our three MFA Dramatic Writing 2019 graduates, Mariana Carreno-King, Aja Houston, and Gideon Wabvuta via the New Works Festival YIII at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Three powerful plays, dare I say personal manifestos about dystopias: political, mental and war-related, all with plot twists that took your breath away. The festival is a collaboration between The Pasadena Playhouse and USC School of Dramatic Arts. It features professional actors and directors and student stage managers, who get to practice what they’ve learned on campus in a professional venue. Each of the plays perform once, witnessed by an enthusiastic audience, then critiqued by a panel of responders (dramaturges), several local professionals, and one national responder, this year Celise Kalke, who came from Atlanta, Georgia’s Synchronicity Theatre to share her feedback with the three authors. The local responders were Oanh Nyugen, Artistic Director of The Chance Theatre, and Brian Nelson, television and feature writer, Co-Producer and Writer of Netflix’s Altered Carbon.

The directors are equally prestigious, Elisa Bocanegra (Hero Theatre), Jon Lawrence Rivera (Playwright’s Arena) and SDA Associate Professor and Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Anita Dashiell-Sparks.

In years past, the festival has been presented in the intimate Carrie Hamilton Theatre, but due to some scheduling challenges, was moved to the main stage, where the three plays were showcased beautifully against the 1925 proscenium arch erected through the fundraising efforts of theatre impresario Gilmor Brown. Sitting in the house for the first afternoon’s rehearsals catapulted me back to the early 90s when I was a stage manager at the Playhouse. Standing in the green room after nearly twenty years away had a similarly breath stopping effect to the plays going on above me. One of the students who was there this week as our festival’s ASM came up to me on the final night and showed me an antique looking picture she had taken on her phone. I stood looking at the screen, mumbling, “What am I looking at here?” , while Maya practically quivered next to me waiting for it to hit me. Aah. Lower right corner, kneeling on one knee, a thirty-seven year old Els with the cast of Equus.

Many dear friends in this photo arresting a moment in time so long ago. Photographer Maya Concepcion’s silhouette is visible in the reflection.

I learned so much on that show twenty-two years ago. I left the show in the last weeks of the run to assist my mother with her radiation treatments, by driving her to the hospital daily and caring for her for about a month. She had metastatic lung cancer. I was leaving the production in the capable hands of my assistant stage manager, Dan Munson. I remember the difficult conversations with the director questioning my professionalism. It was the first time I stepped away from my job for compelling personal reasons and I think I felt worse about the excision of myself from my work than I did about my mother. The minute I got there I knew I’d made the right decision, of course. When we’re young-ish, sometimes it feels like the show must go on and you’re the only one who can make it so. I’m here to tell you that is definitely not the case. If you’ve done your job well, you are replaceable. And if you haven’t, you are even more so.

The second thing I learned on that show, which featured nudity on stage, was that not all fan mail is welcome. The young man, who played Alan Strang, the boy, received a particularly horrible letter which he opened at or after half hour, and which understandably enraged him. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure what the solution was, because you can’t not deliver someone their mail, but my timing was poorly executed. And fortunately, the fire in the wastebasket was easily extinguished.

Memory is a tricky beast. As I stood in the Green Room and did the pano-shot above of the basement, so many memories flooded into my consciousness. In 1992, when Jimmie was called upon to step into the role of Henry Saunders in Lend Me A Tenor after the opening, due to an injury of an actor, Jimmie and I did our parental pass off of our three-year old son Chris, who came with Jimmie to the theatre in the evening for the show, and I was just finishing up with rehearsals for On Borrowed Time, upstairs in the then third floor rehearsal room. We exchanged hugs and child also in that dressing room. On Borrowed Time was also the first show I did at the Playhouse, and one where our dog, Molly Dogg was featured on stage. Among other things, I learned about how to and not to deal with an earthquake during the run, which makes me particularly attuned to instructions that Stage Managers have about procedures in the case of emergencies.

I will also always associate that corner dressing room with Bea Arthur, her rough directness and sweet affection for her cast mates in After Play in November of 1997, immediately following my mother’s death. There was something soothing about working on that play at that time. The long table hosted so many Saturday afternoon dinners, provided to the casts and crews by the Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, the volunteer army of playhouse devotees who staff the front of house and provide this important service, too.

So, you’re wondering, how do the Mariachis fit in? They were purely celebratory, serenading us at the opening responder’s dinner for the MFA Dramatic Writing New Works Festival. As the playwrights broke chips and salsa and guacamole with the responders, the friends and family and faculty cheered the process at the adjacent table, and raised our glasses to the launch of their hopefully long and memory-filled careers.

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