Production Managers Forum – Spring Green, WI

I’ve had the privilege of belonging to this mythical group for the past seven or eight years, a national group of Production Managers from Regional Theaters, Educational institutions like mine, Opera Companies, and other assorted theatrical institutions across the country. Benefits of belonging to this advanced “hive mind” are almost instantaneous solutions to problems posed to the group, ranging from seeking contacts for designers and other artists, to advice on how/whether to have a horse on stage, which was one of my first queries back in 2012. Having the lived experience of so many other theatre practitioners at your fingertips makes being a PM possible and educational as well. I’d never before been able to attend a PMF gathering – maybe once before. Last weekend was filled with professional networking, sharing of practices, and a healthy dose of relaxation and taking in the green of Spring Green, WI.

In Wisconsin, we don’t say “I haven’t hit a deer”; we say “I haven’t hit a deer yet.”

Mike Broh, Production Manager, American Players Theatre

These words reverberate like the chimes played on the Hill before the matinee at American Players Theatre. Driving to dinner from the hotel, as the slight framed deer dashed in front of the Gray Nissan rental car I’d refused extra insurance coverage on, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed down.

The road to hell is paved with the flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.

This and other funny and insightful quotes peppered many cork boards throughout the backstage and shop areas at American Players Theater. My favorite was the APT Core Values sheet, on the safety yellow paper stock that APT’s production manager, Mike Broh, reserves for only the most critical areas of safety, of which core values would obviously be.

As someone who began as a Stage Manager prior to moving to Production Management, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for SMs, as folks who will have your back to the bitter end. This PMF group may have superseded them after getting to go on this weekend fall PMF conference. Our host was Mike Broh, of American Players Theatre. Sitting in the wide circle of tables in the rehearsal room for both sessions on Friday evening and Saturday during the day was humbling in terms of the collective experience of these Production Managers but in a comfortable non-judgmental way. There were about 40 of us there. Due to the location of the conference, there were PMs from Milwaukee and Chicago, but others who came a further distance, from Boston, New Haven, and Oregon, as well as three of us from Southern California.

Saturday morning we started the day off with a tour of the APT kingdom, which is a vast network of spaces intricately designed for their individual purposes, to support simultaneously five to eight productions annually. The complexity of this was clear even from the initial board filled with the beaming pictures of the staff, and visiting artists, designers and directors. Everyone’s friendly face on a yellow card with their name and their role clearly indicated.

We toured the props domain, starting with the props woodworking shop, framed by the organized jury of chairs sitting above to watch the clean well-organized shop. We moved through the kitchen, to the upstairs clean room for props and costume work, and finally to the furniture storage, each item clearly tagged and coded for easy retrieval. The staff’s sense of humor was evident, from the prominently displayed Julius Caesar, modeled after one of their core company members, complete with 20+ stab wounds overlooking the props work room from behind his own work goggles.

The tour continued around the many acres on which the Alpha and Bravo buildings were arranged, to the rehearsal space building. I didn’t look around to see if others were salivating like I was, but I suspect they were. I had definite space envy. In addition to the workroom spaces, each of the theatres has adjacent storage spaces to handle the scenery and costumes for rotation in and out of its stages in a very active Rep. Everything’s designed, or course, with these changeovers in mind.

The Costume Domain was equally impressive. From hats to storage, Millinery and Wig rooms, and spacious fitting rooms, all spaces reflected the ethos of giving your employees what they need to succeed.

After touring the facilities, seeing the indoor Touchstone Theatre and outdoor Hill Theatre, we returned to the rehearsal room for our second round table discussing important topics. Topics of the weekend (at the risk of banishment from the group) included:

  • Trends in Theatre
  • Salary Transparency
  • Sustainability
  • Onboarding New Employees
  • Vaping
  • Social Media
  • Use of Cell Phones backstage

Mike ran the meetings beautifully, letting the conversations about each topic ebb and flow; he didn’t need to moderate – this group pretty much self-moderates, but ending each segment right on time with a droll unsardonic “Well, that was fun,” which elicited a rolling, warm shared laugh across the room every time. Aside from acute space envy, I came away from American Players Theatre with an appreciation of the effects of transparency at practice there, the self-evident respect among the staff. It was great to run into a former student, Lea Branyan, who has worked at APT for several summers, and has recently taken a job with the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Just for yucks, as I was writing this, I looked back to see the colorful and extraordinarily helpful descriptions of what could go wrong if I allowed them to bring a horse on stage back in 2012. That’s the other benefit of being a member. Not that I’d wish more email on anyone, but this group is thoughtful and funny with their responses to members’ questions. About that horse idea?

  1. Calculate the weight of the horse when standing on 2 hooves and if you have a trapped stage, figure the point load of the floor. Oversheet the floor with 1” plywood and reinforce the braces in the areas where the traps are.
  2. Hire a horse and a handler. There are plenty of people who do this in Los Angeles. They bring the horse, rehearse the horse and then ideally, take the horse out of the facility.
  3. Be aware of campus sensitivity. Everyone will be looking for you to be abusing the animal. This is usually quelled by saying you have an animal wrangler. (Emphasis is mine)
  4. Talk the handler through the expectations of what the horse would be doing, and conditions on stage.
  5. When you get to tech, if you haven’t found it too crazy, you will need to proceed really slowly to integrate the horse lest it get spooked.  You’ll want to have horse no people with work lights, then horse with people, then horse with lights, then horse with sound, then add people and sound (this is the biggest jump and the most likely to spook the horse), again then people and light.  Only after everything is good with each step do you go ahead.  We would take a week to get animals who are used to performing acclimated to being in a different production number. And then this was a long lead before audience.
  6.   And I forgot to say that the backstage traffic is almost as complicated.  With the right animal it could be quick, if the horse is jumpy, it could be disastrous.  
  7. Oh! And don’t forget you’ll need to assign someone to poop duty. 

Throughout the weekend, we ate well at a series of local restaurants, including one of the local hotspots, Slowpoke Bar and Cabaret owned by Mike and his wife Stacey. We even got to slip away Sunday morning to visit the garish House on the Rock, which until I’d travelled there, always thought referred to the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Taliesan. Oh, couldn’t have been more wrong. A kitschy must-see for when you go to Spring Green. That and the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI.

I feel lucky to be in the company of such amazing Production Managers.

Tunnel Vision, Scarcity and Balance

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you are a college professor. Your hours are filled with prepping for classes, grading assignments, reading to stay ahead of your students, planning how to engage them in the topics at hand. Then there are meetings, trainings, and the relentless onslaught of email, each one dripping into your inbox, requiring at least 30 seconds to 5 minutes to adequately respond with the information requested. Because there’s never just an email:

Hi! Loved seeing you the other day. You look tired. Are you eating enough spinach?”

“Thanks, it was great to see you, too! Nope, I’ll add some more spinach to my diet. Thanks!”

That only took about 15 seconds and left me feeling pleased that someone noticed how tired I was, and even more so since I just purchased some spinach at the store a little while ago. But it’s never that simple.

I was rushing around last week, on Monday, returning from one of our buildings flung up on the north end of campus to my office in the southwest what I call “idyllic corner.” I was trucking along, at a pace my Dad trained me early to master; in order to keep up with him, it required one practically to skip. I wasn’t skipping back to my office, exactly, but I was powering along when my boot landed on a little perfectly round 2″ long stick, and suddenly I was going down and going down hard, my right hand outstretched to break my fall, my left hand holding my cell phone, grimace on my face, the whole thing, I’m sure in slo mo. My phone and I slammed hard onto the asphalt driveway between the shop and the theatre where my office is.

Oofa.

All I could think of as I picked myself up and dusted off my ego, pride and jeans, was “That would have been a disaster if I’d broken something. Time to slow down.”

Earlier, I’d been listening to this amazing series on one of my favorite podcasts, “Hidden Brain” with host Shankar Vendantam. A summer series, under the umbrella of “You, 2.0,” the episode, entitled “Deep Work,” guest, computer scientist Cal Newport, discussing his disciplined approach to work without interruption. It was tantalizing and extremely helpful. The idea of having large blocks of time where you allow yourself not to be interrupted by every incoming email or phone call in order to focus on the development of writing, or research, or even working on class prep sounds impossible to schedule in the fray of the semester. How do you do that?

I suppose it’s like training a pet. Which is to say it is really more about training the owner of the pet to be consistent and focussed on breaking the behaviors that you are trying to correct. About fifteen years ago, my husband and I had a series of extremely….er… hospitable dogs. They’d “welcome” our guests for about 20 minutes of enthusiastic barking, for which we rewarded/stuffed them with dog biscuits. This made hosting a large party a hellish venture for both us and the guests, but not, I must say, for the dogs, who proceeded to quiet down in the middle of the party and then ramp it up at the end to say “goodbye” to our guests with the same rewards coming. We hired a dog trainer, to the tune of $700.00, but unfortunately we weren’t able to break ourselves of the bad habits that fed our dogs’ bad behaviors. Not even for that grotesque financial incentive to succeed.

And so it is with distractions at work. We don’t block out work sessions four months in advance (Cal Newport does); nor do we currently adhere to the deep work time like he’s scheduled, and end the day with check of the weekly plan, a visit to his task list and a mantra where he basically checks out of work so that it doesn’t bleed into his evening or family life. That would be amazing, though, right? If we could do that?

I can visualize myself at my desk on a Friday afternoon at 6:00PM saying “There is nothing more here to be done this week. I’ll see you on Monday, dear little desk.” And standing up, gathering my things and walking out of the office. Uh. Nope. Not so fast!

Working in the theatre, both professionally and educationally bleeds a lot into your life. Many of the conversations I’ve had with students over the past fifteen years have been to listen to their fears about this idea of work/life balance. Can I have a family? I did. I have a wonderful family who supported my professional and creative work. I wonder if my son understands why I’d made some of those sacrifices, now that he is a working man with deep responsibilities and a young family? I hope he has more success in pulling the plug at the end of the day than I did.

Tunnel vision creates feelings of scarcity and the inability to manage things in our lives. This was illuminated in another episode entitled “Tunnel Vision.” It covered hunger, financial scarcity and loneliness, all of which can become crippling to your normal standard operating procedures. I guess grief probably falls in there, too, as it reflects a scarcity of your recently lost loved one, with resulting loneliness.

A question that my coach asked me recently has stuck with me.

What are you tolerating in your life right now?

Examples she gave were, clutter, poor lighting, broken car. This is an activating question to ask yourself. Last week, after asking myself, I:

  • Fixed the motor shield under my car that had been kissing the road for months. And by kissing, I mean sloppy, slovenly, snogging.
    • I decided to just remove it ($30) rather than replace it ($465), so also a prudent financial move.
  • Cleaned off my desk so that I had some space to think.
  • Went to the movies on a weeknight with friends and laughed a lot. (not just tolerating loneliness)

I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but actually, when you are pulling yourself out of grief, it is quite a lot. Ask any of my BIGs (Buddies in Grief). They’ll tell you I had an amazing week.

The last thing I’m aware is of these days is my physical balance or lack thereof. At the end of each morning’s workout, we have 20-25 minutes of yoga. I’m aware of the difference from day to day or even side to side of my balance. It isn’t physical, but mental, I think. Breathe. Be present. Catch yourself and try again. It’ll come back.

Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

Lucky Koi

I loved the koi at the pond at the Actors Fund Home in Woodland Hills. I went out on Saturday with two colleagues from USC to visit a former colleague and also some former colleagues of my husband’s. We had lunch in “The Lodge” dining room. It was comfortable, restaurant-like, the only thing giving it away as not a typical restaurant was the high count of walkers and canes scattered around the edges of the room and the occasional interruptions by various very deferential staff members in scrubs.

I initially caused a kerfuffle as I’m wont to do when we arrived. Our host had very carefully ordered a table for four, but unbeknownst to him I’d invited two more people and a third arrived with them, so the Lead Waitress, Rosalinda, was initially displeased. But in the scheme of things, this was merely a one-ripple event, and soon, we were all seated, ordering our lunch. The food was great there, and the company even better.

During lunch we were visited by some Actors Fund Home luminaries, including a beautiful 97-year-old woman who looked better than me, and a friendly intern chaplain from UCLA who stopped by to greet the residents. We fake-sparred in the inevitable way that Bruins and Trojans do when they meet, just because we have to. It’s an exercise of saving face in these days when saving face has become increasingly important at USC. But I digress. As the chaplain-in-training walked away, our host quipped: “He’s an intern, so he can only send us to purgatory.” This caused the others at the table to roar (after it was repeated a few times for audibility). I was very impressed that the staff knew everyone’s names and addressed them respectfully and shared some laughs with them.

After lunch, we toured the grounds, seeing the cottages, the Louis B. Mayer movie theatre where first run movies are shown for the denizens (empty yesterday), the Roddy McDowell Rose Garden, replete with a larger than life-sized statue of Caesar, Roddy McDowell’s character from the Planet of the Apes Movies. This made me titter, the idea that this wonderful actor would be memorialized as his ape character. We sat on some benches in the shade – it was 107 degrees in the sun, or so the thermometer at the start had said it was. But if we stayed very still, we could imagine it was only 95 or so. Dry as it is in California, the redeeming thing about our weather.

Mary Joan points to the Lu Leonard bench plaque as our host, Michael, looks on indulgently.

The lucky koi, so diverse in their colorful array of smooth and textured skins, swam around in the large pond, bordered with tables with umbrellas, and a few chaises. We stood and watched them swim around in a frenzy for several minutes. We remarked on their beautiful colors. “That one looks like it’s wearing fishnet stockings.” Our host said it was one of his favorite places to go. The campus is 22 acres, and full of many really impressive things, including a cozy library lined with books about the business of show. I thought Jimmie would have been very comfortable in that library, and if I ever wanted to give away Jimmie’s biographies and autobiographies, that would be a good place to start.

At one point as we walked around, Mary Joan put her arm over my shoulder and said conspiratorially, “These are the important things.” I’ve been learning so much about what the important things are in recent weeks and months as I work on getting my footing back. Friends, family and self-reflection have fed me enormously, even if I don’t have enough time to do the latter very much.

I’ve begun working with a life-coach to see what the next chapter might bring. She’s someone I knew from college, so we are able to bypass a lot of the getting-to-know-you phase of our work, though after thirty-seven years apart, I look forward to getting to know her again. I can tell from our short interactions to date that she likes her work, and I trust her feedback. This week, we talked about catabolic and anabolic energies. Energy is constantly changing all day long. We have certain default tendencies. It was easy enough to come up with examples of tasks or stressors that deplete (catabolic) vs. those that energize and reinvigorate (anabolic). Picture your email inbox and imagine these various responses to the task of emptying the email.

  • Level 1 (Catabolic) -Victim of email. Avoidance of email.
  • Level 2 (Catabolic)- Mad about email. Blaming all those people for sending email. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
  • Level 3 (Anabolic)- Coping with email. Thinking about it as an opportunity to remain connected with others. Thinking of it as a necessary tool.
  • Level 4 (Anabolic) Concern for Others – Taking on the burdens of others. Helping others succeed by answering their questions.
  • Level 5 (Anabolic) -Perhaps email is a chance to build relationships or discover opportunities?
  • Level 6 (Anabolic) – Email is a writing exercise that helps me polish my craft. Email is a free writing opportunity.
  • Level 7 (Anabolic) Level of pure creation. Tap into joy while answering email. (Frankly, this is currently inconceivable, but then, I’ve just begun…)

My homework – to look at events and things that happen and try to filter more than one purely catabolic reaction to an event. I shared with her that I’d had a wonderful therapist who showed me that feelings were just feelings. In the same vein, there are many different ways to react to events. I’m practicing this week, so if I see you and it takes me longer than normal to respond to a question, I may be working on it from the inside out.

But any way you look at it, these koi are lucky. Lucky to be in a big well-aerated pond, guarded from predators by a plucky concrete owl, visited by the denizens of a beautiful residence for Show-biz types.