For the past few dark mornings when I’ve nosed the shiny red hood of my car out onto the street from my building’s garage, I’ve been greeted by the road construction sign whose curious message caused me to pause and snap this photo:

It feels like we’re in the Pain Stretch of so many things:
1) The Fall semester, heading into the second midterms, many of my students seem beleaguered and overwhelmed.

2) As a country in the grips of a seemingly intractable divide, heading into the midterm elections, unable to talk across the divide, with the threat of political violence around us, the next few weeks seem to be heightened in their potential for pain.

3) As a world continuing to emerge from the chrysalis of the pandemic. Did you know that it is painful for the butterfly to emerge from a chrysalis? I do, and am aware that when people experience pain, they often go into self-protective mode, even sometimes into attack mode. Quite humanly, we want to blame our pain on something or someone else, rather than investigate what we might be doing to continue our pain of how we might move forward to ameliorate it. To use a Positive Intelligence metaphor, using our energy to take our hand off the hot stove rather than looking to see who left it on so we could hurt ourselves.

4) Coming up on the fourth anniversary of my loss of my husband, I feel the tendency to cocoon myself against a fresh wave of grief.

Now that I’ve completely depressed you and me, I want to flip the script.

What if the word stretch isn’t a noun referring to a time ahead of us? What if it is an action verb?

When we are tight of muscle, either mental or physical, what happens when we actively stretch to alleviate that pain?  It gets better, right?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about #4 above. After talking with my most sage friends this morning, I shared that I’d had a moment of complete contentment this morning as I moved through my apartment in a big fluffy white bathrobe that was gifted to us by a lovely couple staying at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena the same weekend my husband and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. I thought, I’m completely content right now.

And yes, I’m still a 5 Star Kind of Gal.

 “Returning to the life we love will be hard, but we always know where to come for refuge.” No, not necessarily lounging in a bathrobe, but finding our own internal “Langham Hotel experience.” (No, I didn’t get paid for ad placement….)

Yes, over the past four years I’ve struggled with the despondency of being alone, but I’ve stretched, too. I’ve grown and have made or am making a path forward to stretch out of that pain and into my new life as a single woman. This morning’s glimpse at serenity let me know that not only is it possible but it is well underway.  

I attended an exciting event last night at Center Theatre Group, a book signing for my colleague Sibyl Wickersheimer’s and Maureen Weiss’ book, “Scene Shift: U.S. Set Designers In Conversation,” published by Routledge Press.

The book, I told Sibyl, after diving into it, had me in tears by page five. Such an honest, emotionally accessible conversation between women in the scenic design field in a time of transition in the theatre.

Between June 2020 and January 2021, Maureen Weiss and Sibyl Wickersheimer convened a group of U.S. set designers for weekly, and sometimes bi-weekly conversations. In each conversation we examined our careers, our juggling act, and the state of theatre as the landscape shifted and unfolded before us.

Introduction, Scene Shift: U.S. Set Designers in conversation, conceived, curated, and edited by Maureen Weiss & Sibyl Wickersheimer

It was vitally empowering to hear these unbridled voices of women in the theatre talking about the messy inclusion of their lives within the hard scrabble world of designing theatre when that world hasn’t actively included them. By the way, you can substitute any job name for the word designing in the sentence above.

Yesterday afternoon, the party kicked off with a reception outside in the parking lot behind the Annex. I connected with old friends, some completely unexpected, like Christina Mills, my former colleague from Geffen Playhouse. It was sooooo good to see her there!

I visited with a gaggle of designers, some current colleagues, and a former colleague and discussed the delicacy of this post-chrysalis phase we find ourselves in as educators. The gist of the conversation was about the Pain Stretch (noun) vs. the Pain Stretch (verb) and how to navigate that with sensitivity. Rarely does my day-to-day scrum of a life allow me to have deep conversations like this which are so foundational to how we conduct ourselves in our lives and work. It was a moment of cranial and limbic joy for me to get my intellectual hands in the soil of what we do as educators.

Called to the panel for which we had come,  I entered the building to sit in a room inhabited by the ghosts of my former life as a free-lance stage manager. Ghosts of Babbitt, Salomé, halls populated by old colleagues, some of whom I am privileged to work in my current incarnation. We all walked, now masked, into Rehearsal Room C of the Annex. There, in that warm room full of creative designers, directors, I listened to a conversation with British designer Anna Fleischle led by Wickersheimer and Weiss. Fleischle happens to be in town for the Ahmanson production of 2:22 A Ghost Story, for which she is the scenic designer.  

I learned that unbeknownst to Wickersheimer and Weiss, there was an exactly parallel conversation in London happening with Anna Fleischle and her colleagues there. Their title for it was “Scene Change” and yesterday we all found ourselves witness to the fortunate in-person confluence of an international conversation about changing practices in scenic design.

Wickersheimer kicked off the discussion by raising the word Transition, which happens to be the title of the first article in the book, born of a conversation between the member of the group on January 19, 2021.

Transitions are so key to any production, and Wickersheimer posed the question to Fleischle as to whether the scenic transitions she envisioned and made happen on stage might be reflective of personal transitions she was experiencing.

Fleishle shared that when asked to design Hangman by Martin McDonough, she initially considered not taking the assignment. With a personal loss in her history, she debated whether she could handle the material. This aversion to participation in creative work that might invoke personal trauma was the exact conversation we’d had at the picnic table outside; I turned my head around, pointing to my masked nose as I caught the eye of a former colleague and we both vigorously nodded.

What Fleishle decided, was not only could she handle the personal lift of this content, but that she was the exact right person to tell that story. This vignette demonstrates for me that Stretch is most definitely a verb.

Other topics covered in the conversation, which eventually expanded to include many of the U.S. Set Designers featured in the book:

  • Managing a studio with multiple projects and how do we train students to think about the business of the business when sometimes we are figuring it out for ourselves as we bounce back and forth between our two jobs as professional designer and teacher?
  • What do you delegate and what do you hang onto as crucial to your role as designer?
  • How do you support the professional growth of young fledgeling designers whose flight from your studio nest has a profound effect on your ability to manage the work?
  • How do you create a realistic fee based on the hours you will spend so that you “pay yourself enough” and by extension, how do you negotiate with strength?
  • The concept of collectives for designers and the appropriateness of them
  • The ethics of training students to design when financially it incurs enormous debt and even without that debt, the financial instability of being a theatrical scenic designer?
  • Use of tools for rendering scenic design in the best way for Directors – the physical model’s seeming intractability in a discussion versus a Director seeing the ease with which a digital model can be edited in real time.
    • How to manage the timeline of the design process when the initial creative conversations which drive the execution of ideas, renderings, models may be happening too early for the directors to have cemented those concepts.
    • How to avoid having to design it “over again” when the ideas do concretize but too late for the scenic designer to have time to redo?
    • (This I hear all the time in the academy from students and staff, but couched instead in critique of the director for not knowing what they want when in fact, they’ve been ideating in a void until they begin the design and sometimes rehearsal process.)
    • Do longer periods of design better that? Or is it the nature of the creative act that collaboration creates change and transition of ideas?

I felt my heart and brain vibrating as I listened to the discussion and the questions asked. This is the life of the mind that excites me about being a professor. Too frequently, our conversations are so much more mundane and on the level of questions about time management and questions of grades and deliverables.

How do we stretch those conversations to the larger ideas of:

  • How do we create an environment of learning a difficult skillset within a healthy framework?
  • How do we expose our students to alternative revenue streams so that theatrical scenic design becomes one of many tools in their financial life-belt?
  • How do we maintain a sense of joy in the work without losing steam?
  • How do we bring compassion and empathy to all encounters.

If any group can figure it out, it’s these folks.

Photo of Takeshi Kata and Bailey Youn’s Scenic Design for Wintertime by Charles Mee at the School of Dramatic Arts. Lighting Design by Brandon Baruch.

4 thoughts

  1. Wonderful connections made here Els. Just a side note, the production Anna was speaking of in addition to Hangmen was actually Death of a Salesman which she also designed and is on Broadway currently. Both shows have an amazing scenic transition designed into them to support the storytelling. Thanks for writing about our conversation. I was also very moved by it!

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