The Mask Project

As the reality of our statewide stay at home order began to sink in, coinciding with a weekend of no zoom meetings, I’d started to get kind of squirrelly. I can only speak for myself of course, because I’ve been contained at home since last Friday afternoon after a derring-do run to campus to put together kits for our production staff to take home so that they could begin making masks for Doctors.

The idea emerged in an email thread in the Production Managers Forum, a group from whom I’ve taken enormous solace from in the last several weeks, as my thirty five years of professional practice have been upended by the COVID-19 health pandemic. On March 12th, our school shuttered their remaining productions on the same day that Broadway went dark and so did Center Theatre Group.

On Friday, March 20th, the idea began to be discussed, and links to how to make masks started circulating. Like crocus buds peeking up through the snow, a sense of hope began to germinate. Here was a way to help. Our staff members have skills that could be used, but we needed to move fast. Pending decisions about closing the campus to non-essential personnel were on the horizon. After hatching a plan, I realized at 2:30PM during the Emergency Operations Committee meeting that we would need to execute it before 5:00PM. I texted my colleagues, Hannah, our props manager, and Charlotte, our Costume Shop Supervisor. Hannah planned to pull bins from the Shrine props storage that we could fill with supplies from the Costume Shop, consisting of:

  • 1 Bernina sewing machine
  • scissors
  • 10 yds of medium weight muslin
  • cotton fabric for the outside of the masks
  • 1/4″ elastic
  • pattern for the masks
  • clear ruler
  • Bobbins and thread

I arrived at about 2:45PM, parking on Vermont Blvd., feeling a little like I was in the Resistance. I walked onto campus and to our office where I met Hannah, who had already collected the bins and was spraying clorox on them and drying them with paper towels. I helped her, then rode on the back of the cart (practicing social distancing) to the Costume shop, where we met Charlotte, who was pulling the fabric and elastic out.

We measured and cut the muslin, then Charlotte overlocked the edges so that when it is washed to remove the sizing, it would hold its shape. Hannah was measuring the elastic across her body using the span of her arms to compile 90 ft for each kit. We were rough measuring and moving as fast as we could to get the kits packed and loaded into the Scene Dock Theatre, accessible to all the staff who were planning to come get their kits before the close of business. I plopped instruction manuals into each bin for the machines and patterns for the masks themselves.

As we loaded the boxes onto the cart, then into the Scene Dock, the skeletal scenery left from the aborted load in for Fuente Ovejuna, shined under the ghost light, the sole source in the room. Fortunately, I was able to find a home for the boxes and boxes of Girl Scout cookies which had been upstairs in our office and which we’d left quite abruptly the previous Friday, Friday the 13th. I tucked a box into each of the kits we made. Hannah delivered some of the kits to staff members on her way home, and our newest staff member, Donavan, planned to come pick up his and fellow ATD Michael’s kits by the end of the day.

In about two hours, we’d equipped our staff to do the sewing from their homes, to help to make a positive influence on our city and community. It felt good to be out doing good. The staff of the Production area in the School of Dramatic Arts are not the only Trojans out helping.

We’re entering the second week of production of the Masks. we’ve had multiple meetings where the staff members traded tips on techniques, altered methods as the patterns they’d been using changed due to feedback from hospitals to the Covid Rangers, our source of the patterns. Charlotte and her daughter made some very useful videos about production which were enormously useful to those with less sewing experience. Life continues to bustle in our own living rooms and kitchens, in spite of our empty theatres that sit waiting for our return. I’m really proud of our Trojans helping Trojans.

Hannah Burnham, Props Supervisor, models one of her constructions.

Mr. Burns, a post covid-19 remembrance

Several years ago, in Spring of 2017, University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts did a production of Anne Washburn and Michael Friedman’s play, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. The play’s three acts span a very specific 82 years in a world without electricity. Washburn is uncharacteristically prescriptive (for a playwright) about the lighting for each act.

  • Act I – firelight, outdoors
  • Act II – In an interior under a skylight in the afternoon
  • Act III – after nightfall, in an interior stage, lit with non-electric instrumentation: candles and oil lamps, probably, or gas
  • Act III finale features an assortment of old theatrical instruments, Christmas lights, etc.

Act I takes place in a forest “in the very near future”, where we find a group of four campers sitting around a fire made in a wash tub turned on it’s side.

They are reconstructing a story – an episode from the popular show, The Simpsons. We soon realize that they are there not to get closer to nature by choice, but because of the failure of the nuclear power plants which has caused the end of electricity, and the end of life as they know it. Early in the first act, they are surprised by a new arrival, a fellow traveler. His arrival into the firelight elicits a heavy show of firearms, and we soon know we are not “in Kansas” anymore. Gibson, who’s just arrived, carries a book, and the initial four, hungry to hear who he might have met along the road listen to the names he’s written in a composition book. It is eerie to hear the list of names in light of the mounting count of fatalities from the COVID-19.

10,000 today in Italy, over 2,000 in the US. Tonight, I stepped outside onto my balcony and saw this:

I’ve been thinking a lot about Washburn’s play in the past few days, especially about how the characters in her play adapt to circumstances beyond their ability to comprehend. Sort of the way we’ve all been forced to adapt.

33338515994_9f51982e7a_kAct II of the play, seven years later, takes place in what we soon realize is a commercial studio, where the re-telling of the Simpson’s episodes has become a cottage industry and way by which these actors or re-enactors support themselves. Washburn has cleverly structured her play to mimic the history of theatre making. In Act II, we learn that there is competition between the various re-enactors and that people will go to great lengths to steal effective bits from one company. Finally, with many apologies to Ann Washburn for this emaciated synopsis of her amazing play, we find ourselves in Act III, where theatre has become ritualized beyond the secular appreciation to have almost a holy feeling. Oh, and did I forget to mention, Act III is a full musical, complete with full costumes, and takes place 75 years after Act II.


All photos from the USC School of Dramatic Arts production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play were taken by Craig Schwartz.

The play is stunning and odd, but until the last two months, it felt like a far-fetched scenario. That is, until people started hoarding toilet paper and water. Until I started to see people reporting in their Facebook feeds the loss of close family members from the Coronavirus. Workplaces are shuttered, leaving 2.3 Million people unemployed.

Suddenly Ann Washburn seemed like a freaking genius.

I wrote a few posts ago about the beautiful letters we used to get from our dear friend Candasa, and inspired by her, I began to write to friends “Letters from the Pandemic,” each clearly labeled as such, full of deep feelings and fondnesses rarely expressed. It’s not that I think I won’t get to see them and say those things to them when we next embrace, but I’m coming to realize that I really may not get to see them again any time soon, either because they live across the country, or are advanced in age. I started mailing them on March 22nd and sent another batch tonight, and am starting to hear back from the recipients, by phone, or email, or text.

In the meantime, adjusting the syllabus from a class which had half its learning outcomes tied to the performance as a backstage crew member to something they can do while sitting at home is challenging. Fortunately, there are a lot of really good resources out there. When this is over, (another phrase which has multiple meanings, some of which are chilling), I have thought about the series of videos that we will need to make to demonstrate how we made theatre happen. Meanwhile, while we wait, the content making abounds. Every day there are more examples of frustrated, siloed artists trying to make connections from the confines of their own individual firepits. And what will the children who have suddenly found themselves in an unexpected golden age of time with parents take away from all this?

A brief list of comments from friends who’ve shared with me some of the unexpected boons that have resulted from our mass quarantine:

  • I was having a really hard time with my boss, and now I don’t have to deal with him/her because I’m working from home.
  • I’d been wanting to spend more time with my kids but was working such long hours that I never got to see them.
  • I suddenly have so much more time to read/write/think.

As Aesop said, “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” Be safe and know that the world has changed and we will change with it. And keep writing your form of “Letters from the Pandemic,” whatever that may be. 

Rabbit Holes in a Virtual Maze

We’re entering our first week of full on teaching on Zoom and here are some of the aftereffects. Any teacher whose teaching on line trial by fire week coincided with Spring Break’s start knows that we had a week to flounder around on the interwebs and try to convince everyone that we can be masters of the pedagogical online universe. There are people who do this for a living and are quite good at it. Then there are those of us who teach theatre, the foundation of which is being in the room, performer and audience, sharing an experience that shimmers across space. I hate to break it to you, but there’s nothing liminal about the experience of teaching online, no matter how successful the technology is at making you feel like “you are there.”

Here are some early findings (anecdotal and enormously unscientific, but personal to this subject.) Again, I’ve really enjoyed my time as a teacher and colleague so on my way out…

I had two production meetings yesterday. There were tops 20 people in each of the “rooms.” NB: we are not in the room together, as much as we want to convince ourselves that we are.

  • My internet connection was unstable. How did I know this? Because everytime I spoke, someone would follow by saying things like “We can’t hear you, Els,” or “You sound like you are in the bottom of a large well.” “Try turning your camera off to improve your connection.” I resorted to chatting with them in the chat, fingers flying like a fiend, my heart racing about my connectivity in conducting a class with 96, only a week away.
  • Even with my poor internet speed, the skepticism of the students about what we were doing moving forward to complete our classes this semester was vividly clear. They weren’t buying it.

Faculty are working to invent things to stay the course in this unknown abyss of online instruction. We spend huge portions of the day sharing ideas with our colleagues and reworking amended syllabi that will reflect those ideas. But basically, we’re making it up and the back and forth and to and fro with colleagues takes hours and is exhausting. Yesterday I spent from 8:30AM until 11:30PM online with a brief venture outside for two and a half hours of driving things around town for our mask project. Its’s not the students’ fault that we are here. It’s not the faculty’s fault. And as much as the president wants to lower his xenophobic disdain on the bat guano in China to whom we may owe this pandemic, it’s not China’s fault either. Globally, we were not prepared. And as it gets more and more real, and closer to home, we all feel the anxiety.

When I finally went to bed last night, my body was quivering to the point that I started asking myself if I had the CV. But no, I think I was just in a state of exhaustion, over-stimulated by the screen and being “on” all day. This after one day back from Spring Break. We know from research that exposure to screens and the blue light can be disruptive to sleep. What are the effects of spending the entire day glued to our monitors with only brief moments of respite to walk 100 feet to the refrigerator? (A well worn track in my living room carpet shows me that I need to broaden my route.)

This morning, I woke at 3:00AM, fixated on the green light from my smoke detector, which from the position on my right side where I was lying, was in the upper left corner of my “screen.” Panicked, I thought it was the recording light of the class and that someone was trying to chat a question. I found myself fully alert, pawing at the adjustable bed remote on my nightstand, thinking it was a mouse on a pad. Funny? Yes, but a little terrifying, too.

These are not the behaviors of your professor that you may want to see reported, but face it, we’re all lab rats in a great societal study.

Over the weekend, I took solace in the online fundraiser for Actors Fund, Stars in the House, a twice-a-day house party with Broadway’s finest, co-hosted by the charmingly snarky Seth Rudetsky, star of Sirius/XM Radio’s On Broadway. He and his partner, James Wesley, can be found at their kitchen table twice a day, at 2PM and 8PM Eastern Time, luring Broadway stars to their desktops to share their talents over the questionable microphones that we all are experiencing. Amazing interviews peppered with stories of the shows they’ve done over the years and songs performed to tracks or the live accompaniment of their partners. If I could sing like some of their guests, I’d be doing it rather than chatting feverishly in my chat box. (Remove the h and we are in a cat box.)

Please forgive the screed. We are all in the same situation, students and faculty. Stuck at home, far from their friends, in their childhood bedroom which may or may not have been converted into a craft space in their absence, we are aliens in this brave new world of internet pedagogy. Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that this is not where we belong. Any of us. Students of the theatre, or practitioners/professors of the theatre practice.

Take some deep breaths. Lower your shoulders. Put on your meditation app. Or better yet, don’t. Stand up and go to the nearest window and look outside at the Real World. What do you see? Breathe. Breathe again. And remember. What we do is improvise. Think outside the box. Refine and refine and refine until we get it right.

Conditions are currently not ideal. Let me say that again. Conditions are currently not ideal. And I’d warrant may not be so for some time. This is what theatre people do all day. we deal with uncertainty. Budgets are uncertain and frequently we need to adapt designs to fit into them. We adapt. It’s our greatest weapon.

Take a moment to acknowledge that despite the reassurances, our future is uncertain. I had a text from some dear friends yesterday that I shouldn’t answer because I was driving all over hell and back in my car, but it was simple:

Is there a daily limit on Rabbit Holes?

Not these days!

I then referenced the brilliant Liz Callaway. If you don’t know her Auto Tunes series, go to her website and check them out. I can’t think of a better accompaniment to these times than her car bound rendition of “Children Will Listen.”

These are things that keep me awake these days besides the blue light or the green lights of my bedroom. What does the future for our industry look like? Will we ever feel comfortable sitting elbow to elbow in the dark sharing the magical liminal space between audience and performer? What about our homey practice of greeting our theatrical colleagues with a warm hug? Will we even need the services of the new field of Intimacy Coordinator in a post COVID-19 theatrical world?

Wow. Talk about a Rabbit Hole.

Okay, rather than going to go out on a complete downer, I’ll let Liz take us out on this more hopeful note with her rendition of Beautiful City from Godspell. Check out the amazing synchronicity of the ambulance driving by at the end. As she says, “Wow.”

Let’s adapt and bring a spirit of generosity to the work that we find ourselves doing, unwillingly. Remember that each of those students and faculty members that you find yourself gazing at through the window on your laptop are characters in a play that they didn’t want to be cast in. It’s the actors’ nightmare writ large. Let’s guide each other to find our way back on stage together.

Too Soon To Write?

Sloane Crosley wagged her finger at all of us who like to call ourselves writers today in her New York Times article, Pay Deep Attention, Don’t Write Yet. I get it. It made me think back to an email I wrote to my friend and journalist Todd Purdum a few days after 9/11. I cringe about the rawness and bathos of that email. Forty-one at the time, with a young child at home, to me, 9/11 felt like the end of the world. I forgive myself for writing it, just as Sloane Crosley presumably forgave herself for writing the column abjuring herself (and all the rest of us) to not write about COVID-19 now. Yet, it was really like a starter pistol for anyone who likes to write creative non-fiction. Abject navel-gazing in what we hope will be a universally appealing way? What could be more universal than what has befallen our planet in the last two weeks?

How many other writers started a novel entitled Shelter in Place this week? Show of hands?

Everything we know about writing tells us we should be recording these moments now and yes, paying deep attention to the feelings and circumstances we find ourselves in. I’ve been shielding myself during the day from the onslaught of news, which after I leave my “office” falls like the most bedraggled wet blanket across my shoulders. I check the stock market only once (okay, twice) a day to prevent myself from running into the kitchen to commit Harakiri with the black plastic handled CUTCO knife set my son’s teenage girlfriend sold to me on a day when I was feeling rich.

You know what it’s not too soon to write? Letters. I invite you to write letters to your friends. Text them now and get their mailing addresses. Then begin a letter-writing campaign. One a day. If you’re squeamish, don’t lick the envelopes. Use the bacteria-laden sponge in your sink. Write to your friends:

  • Tell them how much they mean to you
  • Tell them how much you miss them
  • Invite them to grab a coffee with you virtually one day next week. Give them a date. Tell them you’ll text them a zoom link.
  • Tell them about a particularly awful or wonderful thing you noticed this week that happened because of this shared pandemic we are learning to live with.
  • Tell them your biggest fear about this time we’re in.
  • Tell them about the moment you thought you wouldn’t make it through this.
  • Tell them your most embarrassing worry.
  • Tell them something you laughed about until you cried.

Write it down. Put a stamp on it and mail it. One of my colleagues from work recommended a book that I’m in the heart of now, called I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman. I love the book. It is so full of detail, and the characters so deftly drawn. One of them is the teenage son of a single mother, who gets a job working in a bookmobile.

It was about this time I started to write letters to other peoples’ fathers. I wrote a lot of these letters in the bookmobile during lulls. I wrote them on the backs of overdue notices, upwards of ten notices per letter.

Howard Norman: I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place

Why not write letters to other people’s fathers? Okay, how about just to other people! Drop them in the mail. Do it. What do you have to lose? Nothing. What do you have to gain? Perspective and reassurance that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t the only one afraid or lonely or bored during these extraordinary times we find ourselves in.

A long time ago, Jimmie and I had a dear friend, Sylvan Epstein, who was a canter by night, and a trader in the stock market by day. His wife, Candasa, was a painter, and they lived largely separated for a long time, she, doing her work in Damarascotta, Maine, and he in their penthouse on 56th Street in Manhattan. I don’t think they were estranged – she was a free spirit and not beholden to the conventional ideas about matrimony. For a brief time, she was in New York and she and Sylvan entertained frequently. They had a big terrace that wrapped around the side of their apartment. Sylvan also gave singing lessons and Jimmie would walk across Central Park with our shepherd, Jasper, and take his singing lesson at Sylvan’s house. Sylvan would end the lesson by giving Jimmie a chocolate from a box and Jimmie would eat 4/5ths of it, then give the remainder to Jasper, who would lick his chops the whole way home to the Upper West Side across the Park. But really, the reason I brought them up was that Candasa wrote the most beautiful letters in addition to being an exquisite painter. Getting a letter from Candasa was like winning the lottery.

Candasa had written this letter to Jimmie while he was acting in a production of The Rainmaker in La Mirada. We’d been living in California a good ten years by then, so Candasa’s lyrical beckon to us to come back to New York was nostalgic for the beautiful evenings we’d had on their terrace. If I could write a letter to Candasa now, I would let her know how special her epistolary outreach was to us. I wish I’d saved more of her letters in retrospect. While writing this, I learned that she was no longer with us.

So, my friends, it’s never too soon to write. Your letters will brighten someone’s dreary isolation and who knows, perhaps we can save the US Postal service while we’re at it.


Here’s how it goes these days. I start the morning at the south end of my dining room table, eating my breakfast, drinking my tea, reading my newspaper (for as long as they continue to slip it under my door). I’m taking bets that I’ll get the paper maybe through Friday before they either don’t let the guy come upstairs or the New York Times stops deliveries.

This morning, I’ve added a zoom cuppa with my production staff. Five of us met for a chat over our morning tea/coffee. I met with them from the west side, my camera shooting back into my kitchen. It was comforting to chat about the chaos and see how we’re all coping.

Yesterday, at 9:00AM, I scooted over to the east side of my dining room table, where I plugged in my earplugs and my laptop and embarked on a long day’s journey into the Zoomsphere, joining meetings of my colleagues to discuss the issues of the day – course realizations, business continuity. Yesterday I did an online training about breakout rooms, which I’m sorry to report left me extremely disappointed (no offense to the instructor, who was charming), but the vicissitudes of Zoom’s breakout rooms will not advance my cause of building group morale among the students in my Introduction to Theatrical Production class.

At 1:00PM, I unplugged my earbuds, leave them on the table and walk fifteen steps to my refrigerator, currently well stocked with a variety of vegetables and cheese and eggs. I had some roasted butternut squash and the couscous salad I made yesterday. I return to my South End dining position. I worked on the crossword puzzle in pen in honor of my husband’s practice. It was Tuesday when I wrote this, so the puzzle was solvable without too much trouble.

At 2:00PM, I plugged my earbuds back in and go back to work on the East Side. What’s ironic is I’m probably seeing more of my colleagues this week than I have in all the weeks preceding this. You can see the worry on their faces, the brittle laughter at our shared commiseration in the Zoomsphere. I can’t imagine a group of people I’d rather be keeping communal cyberspace with than my colleagues at the School of Dramatic Arts. They’re positive, hard-working and funny. I love them to bits.

I worked most of the day collaboratively in the google drive which this COVID-19 crisis is forcing me to master. Apparently, I haven’t mastered the inviting-to-the-zoom-meeting yet. My invitations leave a wake of colleagues wailing “I tried to RSVP and the zoom link disappeared!” This is unsettling. But at least, due to the patient coaxing of colleagues better skilled, I now know how to work in a google doc collaboratively.

At 7:00PM, I rose from the table which has become my self-contained world and wandered over to the parlor to do some writing. I would have loved to go to the gym and walk on the treadmill, or do some rowing on the rowing machine. I can say that now enthusiastically, now that they’ve closed the gym in my building in accordance with Mayor Garcetti and the LA Dept. of Health guidelines against COVID-19. I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll weigh 300 pounds by the end of the month. My fitbit isn’t syncing properly, and my former student has invited me to the weekly step challenge; I will make a poor showing unless I figure out the synching and also get up and walk around a little more. One of the gyms where I occasionally spin is offering to let people take bikes home for rental. Would it even fit in my car?

Post workday, upstairs I could still hear the heavy padding of the dog child who has gotten heavier since last week as they run across the floor the length of the living room.

Outside I heard the buses whizzing by, and when I lean over the railing, I can see the line at Ralph’s growing, then receding as they allow people into the store on a schedule I don’t yet understand. Last night I ventured over to Ralph’s to see what I could see – ostensibly I went for yogurt I thought I might try making my own yogurt. Ridiculous, because I don’t really eat very much yogurt anyway, but I thought I would try and flex my pioneer making skills. Tomorrow I may try to darn a sock or plant some corn on my balcony. I do have a pack of seeds from the Huntington’s 100th year celebration. Oh, did I mention that they closed the Huntington to visitors as well? If you recall, they were taking precautions earlier this spring around the Lunar New Year. Well, it’s official today, and heartbreaking. There goes my plan for some exercise over the weekend.

A picture from February 7, 2020 at the Huntington.

Most of the days are spent reworking assignments of the physical making of theatre we have done all semester and can no longer do. Talk about thinking outside of the box. I miss the students and find myself thinking about them incessantly. Hoping they are all okay.

Last night, I had to stop and take a moment to FaceTime with my son and his family just to remember what matters. My four-year-old granddaughter makes it very real what matters in this world.

Hang in there, world. Try not to stress eat yourselves to death.

The Interrupted Stage

Today I opened the blinds to my bedroom not just to bring in the day’s light, nor to watch the dirty gray cotton-batting clouds migrate up and down the piece of the Los Angeles skyline I can see outside my windows, but to see the world. To remind myself that it is there, full of others who may also feel the crushing claustrophobic solitude I’m feeling. This morning I was supposed to go on a whale watch. Instead I rose early to WhatsApp chat with my college buddies, Bob and Susan; somehow our usual telephonic technical snafu and 60-year-old-communal-wattle-check was even more comforting than usual. In the meantime, I’m satisfying myself with looking at the pictures on my niece Martha’s FB page. She is finishing up a whale watching trip down in Mexico right now. Thank you, Martha, for sharing your live experience with those of us who were unable to go in person.

I’m not exactly completely isolated. It was just last night that my friend Rob and I went out to eat at El Cholo and to commiserate about the current events. The restaurant was predictably more empty than full, but there was a large and loud group of women in the corner celebrating someone’s birthday. The rise and fall of their voices and laughter buoyed us all in the restaurant. After dinner Rob walked me to the front door of my building before heading to his own about two blocks away. As we stood in front of the building awkwardly jabbing our elbows at each other, a young, lithe blond in jeans and a jaunty black beret walked by and said, “Just hug already and be done with it.” We all laughed, and I retired into my building.

I think this weekend’s practice isolation has left in its wake the heavy realization that I am widowed. Fifteen months later than the event itself. A bit slow, I know. I’ve found myself thinking many times this past week how happy I am that Jimmie is missing this dark chapter in world history. With the busyness and business of closing out the week and the school for spring break, I was still amidst my colleagues; the full reality of bearing this isolation alone finally hit me today. I’m aware that this paragraph will cue my sensible fisherman brother Duck to make a wellness/sanity check. I can hear his gravelly voice now.

Sis, you all right? You wrote some crazy shit in that blog of yours.

Yes, Duck, I’m fine.

I think my family thinks this blog thing is a little nuts on a good day, but in times that invite darker self-scrutiny, I know they worry. I slept two delicious hours this afternoon, facing the lighted windows and when I woke, I rushed to my computer to capture this realization.

Somewhere outside, in the middle of South Park, I can hear big band music. They’re playing “All of You.” It calls to mind our counterparts in Italy, whose masked figures gravitate to their street-facing windows as they sing their Italian national anthem to each other above the deserted streets. The videos my friend Caro has sent from her quarantine near Venice have cracked me up. I am so grateful to her.

When I awoke this afternoon, I looked out the window and saw a lone figure seated outside his apartment on his balcony. Was he nude? It was just the kind of physical demonstration of lonely exhibitionism we might expect in these strange times. Don’t worry, I’m not going to “frighten the horses,” that way, but his startling pale caucasian form alone on the balcony witnessing the world spoke volumes.

Today, a video made back in June of 2016 by Mitchell Rose resurfaced on Facebook. It features a group of 42 choreographers utilizing the technology and collaboration we still have at our fingertips. This magnificent video shatters the myth that isolation must breed creative stagnation. Young artists and theatre academics, please take note.

For now, I’m marveling at the magic of the Big Band music wherever it’s coming from, as I watch the American flag wave across the way. Just made a batch of New York Times Pecan and Cranberry Couscous.That’s what I see during this Interrupted Stage. What do you see?

Pandemic Prep

Here are the things I did this morning to prepare for potential total isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Read the newspapers
  • Made a few eggs and bacon for breakfast
  • Vacuumed the crumbs around my chair at the dining table
  • FaceTimed with my Dad and his wife
  • Mailed a box of birthday presents to my grandbaby ironically marked Imperfect Foods
  • Made more sugar water for my hummingbirds
  • Watered my grateful plants
  • Cooked some green beans
  • Watched the rain come down against the BLOC parking structure while listening to the slick sound of tires through the wet streets
  • Did some research/planning for upcoming online classes and communications
  • Did some stress writing (Is there such a thing? It doesn’t matter. For me there is and congratulations on getting to read it.)

Pretty much like any average Saturday morning (without tech). Usually, if I lean over my balcony, I can see the fairly quotidian life on 9th Street in DTLA. Starbucks clientele meets the Homeless. I wish it weren’t so, but that is my usual view. The last few days through the raindrops. It wasn’t until I walked over to the UPS store to mail my grandbaby’s birthday present that I realized things had shifted.

The doors to the Ralph’s Market were closed, and there was a line of about twenty five people standing outside, down the ramp to the street waiting to be let in to shop, looking miserable. I’ve never seen that before. Well I’ve seen the misery on peoples’ faces in Ralphs. Again, that’s an average event. Who likes to shop? But the halted line sobered me up considerably, and had me doing an internal mental inventory of the food I have in my house.

  • Rice, pasta, beans, canned tomatoes
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, kale, onions, tomatoes)
  • Cereal, Milk
  • Fruit (won’t get scurvy for a while)
  • TP ( have plenty thanks to hints from my colleagues to stock up)

I thought about all the Girl Scout cookies still on the shelf down in my office? What are the hazards of bringing those into my house in a time of stress? Probably significant.

Monday, I go to do my taxes. Some things are not subject to exemptions in pandemic times. Death and Taxes.

Be safe everyone. And let me know if you need to come over for supper. Proper social distancing practiced. 🙂

Home Schooling – Early Days

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on Academia (capital A) and in particular, the theatre department in my college. We just completed three test days using virtual teaching in response to the Coronavirus. After Saturday, the University heads into our Spring Break recess, followed by an additional two weeks of Virtual instruction prior to a return to campus April 14th. There are a lot of courses across the university which are taught online already, and even many which are taught in a hybrid setting, part in the physical classroom, and part online. But this nouveau social experiment we embarked on this week requires us to utilize tools that are antithetical to the work we normally do which is human interaction with live spectators. We teach theatre.

And yet, as I flitted around cyberspace the other night, visiting two different rehearsals, both in their third day of rehearsal, I found the tool of Zoom to not be so terrifying. One group, the BFA Sophomore Actors, embarking on their first class show, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, leaned forward avidly into their cameras, all in their separate housing spaces. They shared research on fairy tale archetypes, then Shakespearean archetypes. I watched as the other cast members listened, their posture and interest peaking when they heard archetypes that resonated for their characters. I stayed in their rehearsal through the first break, then flitted off to another rehearsal, one of the New Works written by a second year dramatic writing MFA student. This was a smaller cast, their windows open, filling my zoom screen a little less completely. I watched as they read several scenes, looking down at their scripts, away from their screens for the most part; one of the actors delivered his lines directly to the screen, and my imagination projected forward to the inevitable question of “What would blocking look like in a zoom production?”

Sewing together the pieces of our Zoom Corona-Quilt of online instruction, theatre practitioners and researchers must all be asking about this national case study in virtual acting. How do we make this work? It isn’t obvious. Especially when circumstances mandate that we not complete the production arc the way we commonly do it, with a performance. This week, on Thursday, our school made the heartbreaking decision to cancel all the remaining plays in our spring semester.

Honestly, I thought to myself as I stepped off the bus tonight after back to back zoom meetings from 8:15AM-6:00PM, thank goodness Friday has arrived so that I can unplug. It’s exhausting. Two days of zooming around from meeting to meeting. Focussed on multiple things – the content of the discussion, the physical settings that all the participants are in – we’re suddenly witness to peoples’ home settings which can yank you right out of the content part of the discussion. What a pretty lamp, or why is there a baker’s rack behind that person? Do they moonlight as a baker? Isn’t that a lovely shade of paint on their wall? Ooh, I love that pillow. Oh crap, what were we talking about?

There’s the chat window which beckons – everyone can see it – sometimes peoples’ questions are on point, but sometimes they are late to the discussion, or completely off topic. Then there are the individual chats – do you acknowledge the question to the group in the spirit of transparency and universality of experience? The focus required is heroic. God forbid it’s your meeting to run. It can be stressy. If you are in academia you know what I’m talking about because we’re all figuring it out together. It’s exhausting, zooming hither and yon.

As far as shutting down our productions, we’re in good company. Yesterday, Center Theatre Group announced the close of all of its shows, including the hit The Book of Mormon, playing at the Ahmanson, and Block Party at the Kirk Douglas, and The Antipodes at the Mark Taper Forum. I had tickets to see The Book of Mormon for my third time tonight, so I was disappointed, but also secretly thankful because I’d been questioning the intelligence of putting myself in a crowded theatre next to people whose spittle would fly (the show is that funny). Broadway closed its theatres until April 12th on March 12th as well. These are historic times, unprecedented, which will be devastating to the arts in this country. I have four tickets to go on a whale watch this Sunday, that I’d bought for my visiting grandbabies. I don’t think I’l go. It’s not a cruise ship, but I get queasy thinking about leaning onto the rail of the boat.

I have genuine sadness for the students, actors and designers who’ve rehearsed their hearts out until today, and now contemplate not being able to finish the show. It is devastating. The students and faculty (not just the theatre students by the way) feel as though the center stage rug has been pulled out from under them.

And yet. Let’s put it into perspective. The great stage rug has been pulled out from under all of us. All students and faculty across the country are being impacted as their learning/teaching is interrupted. I’m perennially Polly Annish. I’m not sure why I’m built that way. I am generally very optimistic, but I can just as easily go to the darkest end of the spectrum. Earlier this week I had the epiphany that of course during the coronavirus, and the incessant rains we’ve had in LA this week, of course this will be when we have the long-awaited catastrophic earthquake. I can go there. But on the other end of the spectrum, I guess I’m just an adrenalin junkie, and I also am incredibly energized by the prospect of discovering a new form of artistic expression in all this mess of virtual artistry. I asked in a meeting if it was possible to rearrange the windows in our corona quilt of zoom. If we black out our video when not speaking, and leave the two actors speaking on camera, does that help to focus “the audiences’s attention”? We should have panels hosting no more than 9 guests because that will nicely fill up the window, a la Hollywood Squares. And how do I get the Paul Lynde square top left? Or how do I put my cut up colleague Phil up there? How do I make breakout rooms according to colors that people are wearing? There are so many refinements needed.

Anyway, it’s been quite a week. As I waited for my Dash bus to go home tonight, I pulled up a recent email from President Folt, with a Coronavirus Video send off to Spring Break. A sincere and warm thanks to all the community for dealing with these strange circumstances with good spirits and optimism. Then I bade our beautiful physical campus goodbye for three weeks. See you all in zoom!

Anticipating Disaster, We Honey Bears

I’m exhausted from an eventful week. The week ended with a series of Zoom and in person meetings. Two zooms: staff meeting, communications meeting. Two physical meetings: lunch at the faculty club with some colleagues, a cultural values community discussion, a Stage Management Cohort Meeting then home to a quick bite before analyzing the results of faculty and student surveys on our recently executed Disaster Relief Teaching Pilot. We’re all in the uncomfortable state of trying to anticipate disaster. How would we respond if suddenly events conspired to not allow access to our teaching spaces. In light of COVID-19 it seems quaint that what we were originally trying to anticipate was our response to a major earthquake.

The antidote? Embracing life. Earlier this week, I had a festive dinner with my dear friend, Veronica. We go waaaayyyy back. Not sure how that’s possible given our young ages, but our gnarled roots are intertwined as far back as Princeton, New Jersey in 1980. I met Veronica when she was working at the McCarter Theatre, in their communications office. I was an Art History/Theatre student at the University. When I was a junior, living in the Princeton Inn College as a somewhat sotty RA, our mutual friend Susan, Veronica and I ended up running a theatre together in the basement of PIC. The only show I remember we produced wasThe Cradle Will Rock, which Veronica directed. She always seemed far ahead of me in terms of political awareness and sophistication. She still is. And so is Susan, by the way. In the early 90s, pregnant with her third child, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, where in the first three months, they experienced an earthquake, a major fire in Malibu and the birth of Maggie. Here are some photos of a visit we took while our friend Susan was in town.

In 1983, upon returning from a year abroad in Italy, I was hired by Susan, then the assistant production manager at the McCarter Theatre, to be a dresser on a play directed by the late great Harold Prince. Veronica was still working at McCarter. Our play, Play Memory, rehearsed in Princeton and performed there, then toured to Philadelphia. While there, as the newly promoted Wardrobe Supervisor, I started to fall for an actor in the cast. I remember talking on the pay phone in the basement of the Annenberg Theatre in a giddy whisper to Susan about him and how enamored I was before scurrying back to finish ironing the mens’ shirts in the show. When we both returned to the McCarter later that fall, me as running crew in props and Jimmie as Scrooge in Christmas Carol, both Susan and Veronica foster parented our budding romance. I owe my long and happy marriage to both of them. At dinner the other night only thirty-seven years later, Veronica and I picked up the conversation as friends do, bemoaning the state of politics on primary election night, at the Industriel Urban Farm in DTLA. We were sitting next to a bathtub over which were hung an array of honey bear bottles on strings.


I think all of us feel a little like honey bears on strings these days, as we contemplate a disaster of a different kind than anticipated; I peruse the LA County Department of Health’s website often and obsess about the inexorable slog of the COVID-19 to our front doors. There’s been a run on TP and hand sanitizer. I went on line to order some sanitizing wipes to stock our front of house operations and discovered some entrepreneurial patriots had hoarded them and were now selling them for $22 a canister.

So after a long week of The Academy, I’m happy to be home nestled in my apartment. I listen to the clackety clack of my fingers on my computer. Just yesterday, after discovering I’d lost the charger to my computer, I estimated that it was only about 14% away from turning into a sleek silver brickbat. Right on the eve of my needing it to teach virtually. I became so distracted that I awoke early, and stormed the campus bookstore Friday morning by 8:00AM to buy the cable, thus neatly resolving the problem. Planning ahead. That’s what these times require.

Upstairs I can hear what sounds like either a very large bull mastiff or a very small child gently padding across the living room. This is a fairly new phenomenon, hearing quiet sounds through the ceiling. I live in a solidly built 1983 downtown LA building. When we moved into the building in 2008, our deed came with CC&Rs, something foreign to us as single-dwelling owners; with a condo you also become co-owner of communal spaces, so God knows there are rules. One rule is the strict and limited use of hard flooring anywhere except the kitchen, front hallway, or bathrooms.

There used to be a voice teacher living above our condo. His name was Gary but he moved out a while ago. We would occasionally hear his piano faintly through the sliding doors onto the patio. It was pleasant because he was skilled and thoughtful about when he played; for some reason, I couldn’t actually hear the student singers, just the piano playing show tunes. I like show tunes. We frequently play them on Pandora at work as we craft theatre.

Then something changed, and when Gary was no longer the person above us there also changed their flooring. Occasionally I would hear the sound of a marble rolling slowly from one side of the room to the other. These new and diabolical marble-rolling-tenants had a dedicated housekeeping schedule involving vacuuming every Sunday morning. This didn’t bother me either, because if nothing else, it afforded me an auditory reminder that:

  • Someone had regularity in their lives
  • Our neighbor was tidy
  • Oh yeah, I haven’t vacuumed since I moved in

Yesterday I snapped a picture of the building’s titular Skyline, as the fog proceeded to roll in.

I texted it to Chris, my son, who’s response was a quick: “That’s the coronavirus moving in.” Ba dum chhh.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that this is serious. Deadly serious. I worry about my friends and colleagues in Washington state. I worry about our apparently fearless and feckless leader in Washington, D.C. and the consequences of his inattention to the seriousness of this time. It is especially challenging for those of us who are so Type A that it informs everything we do and think about. I looked around at the faces of our stage management cohort yesterday (23 of them) and saw the worry and fear and in some of the older students the jaded acceptance that what we do in the theatre is ephemeral on a good day and greatly at risk in days like these. I think a lot and strategize about how we could press on with a show if we could no longer congregate. It’s the fixer in me. It’s a job requirement for stage managers and production managers. Being the fixer, the problem solver.

And yet, there may not be an easy solution. Not to be a harbinger of doom. But sometimes we’re just honey bears hovering over the tub. It’s out of our control. We can only move forward and do what we do with passion and integrity and be present together as long as we can be together.

The world sends signals all the time. A few days ago, I walked out of the Starbucks on campus and passed this lone, lonely banana abandoned on the bike rack. Instead of saying, “Oh, yum! A perfectly good banana!” I started to look around to see if it was some sort of social experiment. I imagined a camera trained on the bike rack and a scientist in a white coat tallying how many people stopped to look, to consider taking it, picked it up, put it back down, took a photo of it.

In the anthem that I insist on singing as I move into my sixties, I joined the gym at USC for the first time last week, and attended two spin classes which were sweatastic. At the second one, I spun behind a young man who looked sort of familiar but it was early in the day and I didn’t have my glasses on. At the end of the class, we realized who each other was. After I came out of the locker room, Morgan was still standing in the lobby, his attention busy on his phone.

Morgan, we need to take a photo for Uncle Bob!

Morgan’s Uncle Bob and Aunt Sally in Civitella – June 2019

Uncle Bob being my most inspiring theatrical influence to date – the one who lit the flame for me. So, the world is sending signs that we are connected, we are alive, we can sweat it out, wipe down those bikes and get back on. So here, Uncle Bob, is proof that life goes on. Honey bears and all.

Happy Birthday x 2

This week saw two more of my comrades turn the corner into their seventh decade. One of my besties did it halfway around the world in Capetown, the other, closer in Burbank, with festivities at a little Mexican restaurant in Toluca Lake.

The Capetown Celebration took place at the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden. Because I wasn’t there, I don’t have a picture of the birthday girl, just this beautiful greensward.
The Burbank celebration took place at Cascabel in Toluca Lake where the birthday boy avoided near immolation by the sparkler on his cake.

In addition to serenading the plethora of friends who are having milestone birthdays, I’ve found myself singing the Happy Birthday song a lot, usually twice back to back, as I lather my hands with a frequency unkind to my skin, but to practice the current protocols avoiding coronavirus. At last check, there were a few cases in the state, none close to us in Los Angeles. I cross my freshly scrubbed fingers as I write this.

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed “the coronavirus is the common cold” and argued that the Democratic Party “poses a far greater threat” to the country than the virus does. 

Eliza Reisman, Feb. 27, 2020, Business Insider

Jeesh. Presidential medal winner. We have to get this right in November before DT awards Rudy Giuliani with his own Presidential Medal. Watching the field of Democratic Presidential candidates narrow- today saw Mayor Pete Buttigieg drop out – and following the fervent conversations about the appropriate candidate to vote for, leaves me with a rueful feeling that I may have thrown away my vote by voting my heart and voting early. Add the alarm of the novel coronavirus to the news front and it’s enough to send one into a complete tailspin. I spoke with my Dad yesterday and he was glued to the bad news monitor, aka the TV. I’ve decided I won’t turn it on these days. Not just because I’m never home, but because I just can’t go down the path of relentless bad news without coming out completely desperate for a cookie or six. Six is the number of cookies the state of the world engenders my desire for these days.

So to distract myself from both the television and the cookie jar, I’ve been reading the great Anne Lamott’s book about writing, certainly my favorite book on the subject to date, Bird by Bird.

I love her sensible and quirky instructions about how to get down to the act of writing and as you can see from this post, I’ve embraced fully the idea of “Shitty First Drafts.”

I’ve also been looking for synchronicities in my life, at the direction of my coach. One such synchronicity came this morning when I opened the Los Angeles Times and read the horoscope. I know it’s because I only get the paper two days a week that I really enjoy reading the horoscope, but today’s seemed important. I used to drive my teenage son crazy by reading him his horoscope. In spite of having been born under the sign of Virgo, he insisted he was a Leo. Come to think of it, I’ve never met anyone less Virgo-like than he, so I guess his instincts were reliable. But it would drive him mad when I read the horoscope to him. And of course, I had to read both Leo and Virgo so he could pick the one that best suited him.

Today’s horoscope:

Capricorn: You are now ready to wake up to something hidden in your psyche that you’ve long ignored. Relationships bring both joy and sorrow, but you benefit so much from them that you’re even happy for the sorrow.

Los Angeles Times Horoscope by Holiday Mathis

Well that rings a little too true. I’ve indeed benefited so much from my relationships of late, and have taken so much solace from my friends around the loss of important people in our circles. And around the celebrations of life, the milestone birthdays.

After reading my horoscope, I’ve been peering at myself to see what it is that I’ve been hiding in my psyche. I imagine that hiding things in your psyche must be a little like throwing things into the back of your closet – the floor is scattered with shoes. And now, my husband’s side of the closet is filled with earthquake supplies because that’s what his loss made me think of – the next catastrophe. And because I’m a Capricorn. Finding one’s psyche in the midst of boxes of MREs and water is a challenge. So instead, off I went to work.

I started around noon by playing costume fairy, going around to two of our three theaters to gather costumes whose demise I’d learned about from our stage managers’ thorough reports. Fortunately for me, one of our faculty was in the costume shop prepping the costumes for her play which begins dress rehearsals tomorrow night, so she was able to replace a zipper and repair the jagged tear in one of the actors’ pants. Have I been ignoring the fact that I actually hunger to learn how to do sewing and repairing costumes? I don’t think so, but while I was in the shop, I caught one of our freshman BFA Designers doing a bang up job on some masks for the BFA Juniors for Camino Real.

Tanner Jackson making beautiful masks at the direction of Costume Designer Joey Skinner.

Another synchronicity (read creepy AI thing) was tonight, I popped over to FaceBook and discovered in the side marketplace column on my page, a White Superlock Serger Machine. I guess my hidden psyche really wants to sew……

Sew….curtains for the lake house, maybe? I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time browsing on I’ve always spent a little time on retail therapy online, filling my cart with cute clothes, and then just closing the window before checking out. So satisfying to pick the size and color of the ensemble, then close the browser window. A contemporary form of window shopping that doesn’t inconvenience the sales people who have to return the clothes to the rack after you’ve tried them all on. See how thoughtful I am?

It’s even easier to close that browser when shopping for a lake house. Here’s my latest favorite. I know, it may seem ridiculous, but there’s something so satisfying about shopping for waterfront property. Because what starts to happen when you do, you begin to envision the kinds of plot twists that Anne Lamott says you can and should indulge in. It’s very good for the psyche. So now, as I wash my hands and sing happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear Elsbeth, I know what the sink I’m washing them at looks like, and when I turn to pick up the towel, what the dog romping on the grass by the lake looks like, too. I pick up the cup of hot tea, smiling through the steam and head out the slider to the wooden benches lining the porch.