About a month ago, I attended my first Cirque du Soleil show. In the midst of a long life in the theatre, it has seemed embarrassing to have reached my age and still not have “experienced the magic” until now. All week long, as I shared my plans to attend “Corteo” at the Microsoft Live Theatre in DTLA, I’d been apologizing for this cultural lacuna in my personal theatrical canon, pondering the reasons for my shortcoming, looking forward with great anticipation to checking off the bucket list this item, and perhaps becoming a late in life convert to what I’ve understood from people to be a must-see experience.

What I realized after my initial flagrant disappointment in the show is that, as in all things, we will have our preferred type of theatrical experience. Call me crazy if mine isn’t a circus in a huge theatre with people lined up at the concession stand, carrying nachos back to their seats. Nor is my idea of entertainment batting a little person attached to balloons out over an audience like a human beach ball. Even in spite of the athletic prowess of the performers, the story fell flat for me and face it, I’m there for the story.

It took a return to the 24th Street Theatre a few Saturdays ago to remind me what it takes to make a powerful theatrical experience. All it takes, and granted, this can be elusive, are voices articulating a story with commitment and connection. Strong direction doesn’t hurt. Weeks ago, I talked with Luis Alfaro, the director, and he articulated his vision for staging Nilo Cruz’s play, Anna in The Tropics with a group of 12 students, one of the pilot Community Engagement Projects that Dean Roxworthy had proposed, and Associate Dean of EDI Anita Dashiell-Sparks helped to bring to fruition. Luis had talked about having the troupe of 12 actors seated in chairs around a bare playing space. Simple white costumes, taking a story theatre approach.

How to make a beeline into a Production Manager’s heart happens when Directors use language like this. In case you ever want to know – for some people, it’s food, for me, it’s the simplest trajectory to the story. That, and true collaboration between artists. There are many roads to telling a powerful story and this semester we’ve had some gorgeous examples of complex story telling, most recently, with Scott Faris’ direction of Urinetown.

Anna in the Tropics began with the precise and energetic parade of the twelve actors to their chairs. All wore the white cuban gueyabera shirts, dark trousers, women in flesh colored character shoes, and men in light shoes. They arrived at their chairs, the styles of which had been carefully curated for the characters they play: the factory owner and his wife in high backed wooden chairs with elaborately turned stiles, the daughter, played by Eli Bellity a white, worn wood school chair, her husband, Palomo, in a black bentwood. The cast sat with precision and clapped in unison to start the play. Throughout the play, this clapping was used to indicate scene breaks, reminding us of their unity as storytellers. As they clapped, the opening scene, a cock fight, was called by one of the actors, Sammy Zenoz, coming out and seating themself in the house, with two of the ensemble circling each other on stage. We were immediately engaged. Throughout the show, our ability to watch the close and intensely personal acting work of the actors contributed to our feeling like we were in the cigar factory, rolling the cigars. The precise and simple choreography of their hand gestures throughout were second nature to them, just as they would need to have been had they had the props to indicate the process of rolling cigars. Not having the cigars gave us all the freedom to listen more closely to their words, capturing their relationships with each other and the lector, played by Giovanni Ortega.

The play unfolded like a dream, the passions of the inhabitants of this closely held world, disrupted by the passionate stories of the lector and his effect on the marriage of the daughter of the factory owners, the simplicity and purity of human emotions shared between cast and audience.

I’d quite happily and unexpectedly run into my dear friend Helena Cepeda, and her daughter Eliana, who approaches graduation, the quick past four years having flown by. Where does that time go? Helena and I had met back during the year plus run of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, at the Canon Theatre, from October 2000 through November 2001.

From a previous post about that time:

“Helena did hair and makeup, and her easy banter relaxed the casts, many of whom had left stage careers for TV or film. I was the stage manager, and our friend Ando made the basement of the Canon Theatre a place everyone wanted to congregate, with fresh flowers and fluffy slippers for each cast member. Jim Freydberg, the producer, made that possible,  and Jenny Sullivan, the director who put the women into the show.  Our company manager, Friar, kept our spirits up as well. It was a great year, full of happy memories. When Jimmie was cast  on Parks and Recreation, I was happy  to reconnect with Helena.”

We had a baby shower for Eliana, attended by many of that cycle’s celebrities, Wendy Malick and Swoozy Kurtz. It feels only appropriate to have been Eliana’s teacher, briefly, during the pandemic, and to sit on the stage when she graduates in May. Full circle of life.

We had another Community Engagement Event on 4/24/23 at the LGBT Center, a reading of the multi-character adaptation of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Revisited by Jane Wagner. Again, similar format to Anna in the Tropics, this time led by Ken Sawyer, refitting the material onto a cast of 12 students from USC. They rehearsed about 15 hours a week for five weeks, then presented the staged reading in a celebratory evening. In a pre-performance reception, the crowd toasted Alexandra Billings for her achievement of tenure at USC School of Dramatic Arts. Here are some photos I took but there is a whole album of much better ones here. (the bottom photo here was taken by Molly O’Keeffe).

As we barrel toward the end of the semester and another commencement, sending a new crop of alumni out into the world, I am excited to have been a part of their journey. This year has been a year of growth. Each production closes and is followed by a debrief, organized by our Associate Production Manager, Leia Crawford. Through their efforts, we have a chance to discuss each production with an eye toward systemic changes that could make the environment as well as production better. I enjoy these conversations, though they can be tough sometimes. This spring has been hectic and occasionally we’ve let one of the spinning plates fall in our practice. Every production represents another opportunity to make things more smooth the next time.

Meanwhile, the spring post rains brings gorgeous flowers and the promise of a beautiful summer. So put your hands together!

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