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?
Before attending The Father by Florian Zeller at the Pasadena Playhouse, I met my friend Cathy at the Urth Caffe for dinner. It was also the first meeting of our writer’s group of two, formed when I shyly asked her to join me after my un-birthday tea. Saturday I arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes early, with a typed paper listing my goals for our writer’s group.
If it isn’t already obvious, I’ve never been in a writer’s group. I don’t know from writer group etiquette. That was clear when I created a doodle poll to figure out possible meeting times. For the two of us who were meeting in an hour for dinner…
No doodles, intoned Cathy, in her deadpan delivery that always makes me laugh.
I was fine with that, having spent the entire last week filling in my “empty time” with doodle polls at work. So many meeting seeds planted, few of them surviving.
It will be more organic, Cathy reassured me.
Organic is a terrifying concept to stage/production managers. Doodles we do just fine, organic not so much.
We ordered our food and sat down at a metal cafe table outside near the heaters. I unfurled my pretentious little sheet, which I’d brought two copies of so we could each look at a copy. Thoughtful, eh? When our salads arrived, I looked lustfully at the piles of hearts of palm. Cathy interrogated the waiter about whether that was really what she’d ordered. He smiled shyly, picking up our numbers before walking away.
After dinner, we walked away from the Urth Caffe, down the Playhouse Alley full of so much personal history, to the front courtyard where we entered the State Theatre of California. We climbed the sloping carpeted stairs to the balcony and found our seats in the rear most row. This was the second time in recent history I’d found myself closer to the booth than the stage. Saturday night, fresh inside from the unseasonably cold evening, all the heat of the theatre rose to meet us. We stripped off as many layers of clothing as we legally could, then fanned ourselves with our programs while we talked about Valentine’s Day coming up. Conspiratorially, I leaned into her and confided a secret which made us gasp and burst into uncontrolled laughter. As people started to fill in the seats around us, I became aware that given the topic of the play, our inane giggling was inappropriate, which of course made us giggle more. We riffed on the fact that we should write a scene with two women of a certain age in the week before Valentine’s Day, giggling about the unspeakable in the moments before a play about the dangers of aging.
Soon the play unfolded under the careful direction of Jessica Kubzansky, a thriller of sorts: deft scenic design by David Meyer, immersive sound by John Zalewski, and heart stopping cessations of normalcy that Elizabeth Harper provided in blackouts that punctuate each chapter of the evening. The play delivers a gut-wrenching and unreliable narrative familiar to anyone who has been dementia-adjacent. Costume Designer Denitsa Bliznakova facilitated our confusion with details that called into question who was really narrating the play. Audience members question what we’re seeing as though our own memory has begun to slip. The cleverness of the designers’ work guided by Kubzansky is breathtaking. Alfred Molina, as the titular Father, is by turns charming and reprehensible, confident then lost. He’s supported by a cast of characters with impressive range. The effect is sobering, sometimes funny and ultimately devastating.
I’ve always loved the arc of the phases of enjoyment related to theatre going.
First, there’s the delicious anticipation which begins the moment you select your seats on the theatre’s virtual seating map. Earlier in the week, I’d been warned by one of my colleagues that at the New York production, people were screaming and crying in the theatre. I can’t imagine going to the theatre and having people scream (maybe at a curtain call with positive feedback). So thinking that we might have a moment like that made me want to see it even more. I’d worked with Alfred Molina and was looking forward to seeing performances by Michael Manuel, and Pia Shah. I was looking forward to going to the play with Cathy, all of that return on investment before my ticket was even scanned at the door.
Once, my husband, Jimmie, told me about the curtain call for The Changeling at Lincoln Center, where the audience stood and booed and hissed loudly while pointing at the actors in their monstrous codpieces on stage. Have you ever had an experience like that? I haven’t, but live in eternal hope.
Phase two: there’s the play itself, approximately two hours where immersing yourself in the world of the play unpeels all the world’s worries from your brain. I’m amazed every time I go to the theatre by the creative splendors of playwrights’ stories, the artistry of a director’s vision shaping how those stories are told. For me, every theatrical outing is an opportunity to admire and critique other theatre artists’ work; it’s research, a way to expand my personal theatrical canon. From the first moments when we sat down, I admired Meyer’s beautiful Parisian apartment, imagining what I’d be like if I lived in a Parisian apartment, the heady feeling that I’d traveled somewhere wonderful, even magical, a feeling that persisted for those fifteen minutes before the play began and continued to tease me throughout the evening.
Phase three happens as the lights go up we discover and then meet the characters, listening as their relationships unfold; we experience the delicious satisfaction of spying on others, watching their worry and relief. Though they are immersed in a private hell, we have the distance afforded by our overheated balcony seats to reflect how we might have dealt differently with the circumstances unfolding, or in Cathy’s case, how she had dealt with similar circumstances. While we engage with the play, we also feel grateful about returning to our own worlds afterwards.
Then finally, after pushing back from the banquet table, we reach the moment where we digest the play through conversation and reliving specific moments in our minds, a process that goes on for me over the next week. Everything in my quotidien life becomes colored with brushstrokes from the last play that I’ve seen. The last two weeks were really something, with Metamorphoses, Eurydice, Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all churning around on my canvas.
After the play, Cathy and I retired to a bench in the courtyard to dissect and reflect about The Father. We sat huddled on the bench for fifteen minutes before retrieving our cars from the garage, as she shared details of her guardianship of a loved one embedded in the confusing whirl like what we’d just witnessed on stage. We closed our car doors and made our way home.
Sunday morning, I slept late, waking finally with the beginnings of a head hungry for caffeine, then ate my breakfast and drank my tea before calling my father, as I do every Saturday or Sunday morning via FaceTime. I caught him in his familiar green chair, and we chatted companionably for twenty or thirty minutes, he showing me his wife, sitting over his shoulder on the couch. We waved at each other. They’d been to a memorial service that morning, and he was reflective on life, and aging. I told them about the play, advising them if it ever came to Washington, they should definitely see it. About twenty-five minutes in, I asked him to redirect the camera to his face, because it had drifted to a view of the ceiling. Suddenly Dad said something vague like “I feel like a curtain is coming down sometimes and I’m…being attacked.” It was such an odd statement. I said, “What do you mean, Dad?” And from behind him, his wife said, “Yes, what do you mean, Don?” And I felt like I’d been sucked back into the play through some diabolical theatrical wormhole. I felt hot again, as though the sweaty tendrils of the balcony were reaching for me. As quickly as it happened, it passed, leaving confusion in its wake.
Maybe we should hang up and you should take a nap, Dad? Are you feeling okay?
Writing now, regretfully, I know that he’ll read this and undoubtedly feel terrible that I’ve revealed an unsettling personal detail. My father has always had the best memory of anyone in the family on either side – a penchant for capturing exquisitely detailed aspects of everyone’s story, like a prospector panning for gold and holding the shimmering pieces up for us all to see. In recent years, he’s bemoaned the dulling of his recall, but in fact, I’ve always felt his memory was at least five times better than mine or either of my brothers’. This momentary lapse was so startling, disorienting as much for me as it was for him. For me, as much because it came on the heels of the evening before like that “Aha” Refrigerator moment, or what others call Fridge Logic, when, standing in the light spilling from the fridge you understand what that curious beat in Act II that rendered you confused at the time. At 88, nearly 89, it is to be expected and yet, I found myself reacting dreadfully, in the literal sense of being filled with dread. What can I do?
I’ve had a few days to mull it over and process what it means. I’ve come to the realization, in the words of my friend Cathy, not solvable by doodle polls, this, too, will be more organic.
In spite of my unsettling post-dramatic experience, I sincerely recommend a trip to the Pasadena Playhouse to see The Father.
This living business is sometimes pretty daunting. I can cope with the whole get up, wash my face to face the world, step onto the bus and ride to work, engage with my colleagues and students, laugh a little, cry a little routine part. That I’ve mastered quite well. I can even fit in a few external tasks, like rolling over an IRA (to see if there’s anything under there), or sending a book back that I borrowed, or returning the white pair of sailor capri pants I ordered that arrived and looked as ridiculous as you might have expected they would. What was I thinking? But all that seems pretty manageable.
What’s more elusive is formulating the next steps in living. You know, simple things, like whether you want to start dating again. I mean, how do you even begin to think about something so foreign? It’s about as imaginable as my getting up and disco dancing again. Or wearing sailor pants at 60. You start, I guess, naturally, perusing through your mental rolodex of all your male friends:
Married, married, gay; gay?, damaged, completely celibate, out of my league, way too sensible… you get the drill. It’s daunting. And who even uses a rolodex anymore. Makes you feel like a damn dinosaur.
You toy with a new affectation that you are a freelance writer. You open an UpWork account to try to field writing jobs because a friend told you they do that and it pays well. I guess it’s like joining a dating website (no, no, no). At least the writing part is something you can enjoy in your newly minted solitude. Like a skilled needleworker, you can retire to your living room after work and tat tat tat away on your computer conjuring images of checks rolling in from an unmarked escrow account. Ahhh, speaking about fantasizing…
I’ve been reading a lot lately. Books about the upward powerful current of optimism I aspire to. I shared with my students the other morning an article by Jane Brody from the New York Times Science section how optimists have been proven to be 50% (women) to 70%(men) more likely to live to the age of 85. I polled the class using the statements late in the article with a show of hands to gauge how they looked at the world. I’m happy to report that there were many more rose-colored glasses wearers in the class than not. By the way, if I could write one tenth as well as Jane Brody, I’d be able to die (after 85) and happy.
In this phase of my life, I’m pushing through the uncertainty, grasping at things that look appealing to me, without really knowing how to trust whether they are truly what I want, or just a means of rebuffing grief. And, yes, I did intend the double meaning of rebuffing – shining it up to admire my heroic features in it, while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length so I can avoid it at all costs. I don’t know how to describe this phase I’m in, really, though I am committed to trying to. Forging ahead through it.
You know, life is really good. I had a splendid birthday trip to New York, with an escape to the Lake House, and a reunion dinner with about a quarter of the Tutorial. I’m so aware of the precious and refined oxygen of a room filled with good friends who are inquisitive and curious about the world and each other. It’s heady stuff.
This week has been a reminder of why we should so value our loved ones, with the fragility of life as evidenced in the loss of Kobe Bryant and eight others. Tonight, I got off the bus near the Staples Center, where people have been gathering to pay tribute for days since the news of his and his daughter’s untimely death. I saw an endless parade of city buses, whose display panels on the front flickered back and forth between their route number and RIP KOBE in respectful fonts. The Wilshire Grand Building at 7th and Figueroa sports a huge LED image of a purple 24 on a field of gold. At the corner of Olympic and Figueroa, vendors are selling life-sized photos of Kobe and t-shirts, capitalizing on our nostalgia.
So what’s with the picture of the man on the bench? The other night, I was coming home from tech rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I grabbed the 204 bus up Vermont, exited at Olympic, and was cutting through the parking lot to wait for the 728 bus. As I passed behind the bench where a man sat, hands folded patiently on top of his cane, he uttered a quiet exhalation of breath that sounded so much like Jimmie I had to scurry past to get a discreet look at him. I took the photo surreptitiously, his pose, his cane, his cap causing my own quiet gasp; I was suddenly subsumed by a torrent of emotion for the loss of partnership, of friendship, of my other half. When you lose your partner, you are rendered from your heart. Even now, fourteen months after the event, something as tiny as an exhalation of a stranger’s breath can sucker punch you.
But I’m working to stay alert for signs from the world that I’m still viable and will move into the rest of the year with hope and transparency. And maybe a little bit of freelance writing to keep me amused.
We lost a great human being this week, Susie Walsh, stage manager, friend, my reluctant widow pal. There have been so many heartfelt posts about what made Susie special. I’m late to the tablet. People have noted her great sense of humor, her biting but loving wit, her talents as a stage manager to anticipate and solve problems as they arose. The length and quality of her practice as a stage manager, the depth and breadth of her friendships and impact has wowed me. Susie was very private and would probably have hated the attention she’s getting, except not really, because it is so heartfelt, and irreverent, just like Susie was. Loving, subversive, disarmingly direct sometimes, she said what she meant and rarely sugar coated it unless needed to stay within professional boundaries.
I’ve known Susie for twenty-five years, but hold her dearest in my heart for her role as PSM for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Spring of 2016. It was my hub’s last show. Having worked so many times with Susie over the years on shows, and seeing her shows, I took enormous comfort in knowing that she’d be monitoring the halls outside of the three 89+ year old actors dressing rooms. Just making sure they were behaving. Which they were, I think, for the most part.
She let me come to a rehearsal one time upstairs so I could see how Jimmie was navigating the work as his best 89-year-old self. I’d visit Jimmie on his two show days; In the bathroom across from his dressing room, Susie would be putting on her togs for a run or bike to the beach. A runner and a complete jock, Sueis loved sports and people who loved sports and some of us who just pretended to love sports to witness her love of them and us. I went to watch a football game at her house earlier last year and feigned interest, grazing instead on the snacks, and enjoying the company of her college friends who really were invested in the game as I would never be.
Susie and I shared a secret affection for our “old men.” She and I were about eight years apart in age, and both our partners were about 30 years older than us, give or take a few years, and after all, what’s a few years when you already have 30+ years difference? Though she and Ken never married, she was loyal to him like a spouse. We shared a pretty unique set of concerns for our old men. Our stage manager, old man Venn Diagram really was fairly rare. We added a widow circle on Dec. 1, 2018.
Sure, other couples of similar ages have illness arise that they have to deal with and it is no less impactful than what we did, but ours was expected. We knew what we signed up for. It was dreaded and yet routine, and when we had lunch together after seeing her show at the Geffen about a year ago, we spent twenty minutes or so chatting about their bad knees, their home care workers. It was our dark bond, one that we shared easily like a special shared language.
When Jimmie passed away, Ken was in his home receiving carefully organized care that Susie had put together. She texted me some photos of her battle station at Ken’s.
Hey, who do I know who would appreciate my organization?
She was right, I did appreciate seeing it because the quality of her instructions was so personal, so tangible. Seeing them brought back my own diligence, and the urgency of caring for someone you love so much in decline. That was Nov. 24th, and Ken was gone by Dec. 1st, Jimmie’s birthday. We made plans in January, to go see David Sedaris on Nov. 6th this coming week at UC Irvine. It seemed so far off, and I knew we’d both need a laugh as we approached the anniversary of our shared loss. This was the perfect reflection of Susie’s sense of humor.
Susie was the fittest over-fifty person I knew, running races, inspiring us more sedentary types to exercise more. The photo above is from New Year’s eve in 2016. That morning, we took a hike in the rain and mist. At the end, I was tired, and sore for days, a fact I shared with Michele and Susie via our ongoing shared text message. We made plans for a few more hikes, each of us taking the role of organizer of the day. My go to spot was the Huntington Gardens, Michele organized a Christmas light walk in Pasadena. In each of these walks, we shared the easy comaraderie of long time colleagues and friends – the stories unfolded, with the trails. In March, 2019, it was Susie’s turn to call the walk and we’d agreed to do a hike in a spot I didn’t know about. Susie knew all the trails – we’d done several in Griffith Park and I’d seen more of Los Angeles than I dreamed existed. We followed her trustingly, sometimes discovering that the distance was more than we’d planned for, but always feeling accomplished at the end. This time, however, in the car on the way over, Susie said, casually, “I’ve got to tell you a story – I had to go to urgent care last night.” We leaned forward to listen expecting a typically light story about food poisoning, or something like that. We arrived at the spot, got out of the car and started across the parking lot. Susie was lagging a little, then she stopped and said, “Hey would it be okay if we didn’t walk? I’m having a lot of pain.” And so instead, we went to breakfast. And began to hear the ominous start of what became the beginning of her cancer odyssey. The way was unclear, and as the future unfolded, Susie met each bend in the very uneven road with her usual fierce integrity and grit and eventually resignation and grace.
In the recent weeks, when I was able to visit her, either in the hospital or the one time I was able to get away to visit her bedside, we rarely talked about death, though he was obviously in the room, shadowing the conversation, evident in the clear oxygen tubing that snaked around Susie’s ears and under her nostrils; the propulsive wheezing of the tank that spooked Maddox, her cat from sitting on the bed with her. In her living room, the room had been torqued 90 degrees from the way it liked to be, the alien hospital bed facing the door, the coffee table and couches hugging the walls, pushed aside as if to make room for the last dance of life. The photos of family, and young Ken faced her bed, her sister Katie sitting in the chair, back to the front door, her comrade in arms, as so many of Susie’s many brothers and family had done since late summer, when Susie began her chemo. I was hopelessly inept at saying what needed to be said in what turns out was the last time I saw my friend. I’m kicking myself about that and all the loss of recent weeks makes me want to rail against the gods or something. But for what?
Friday, my colleague brought me a little pink rose bush, and said how sorry he was for my loss. Thursday, the day we all lost Susie, my coach had given me an exercise to do called Roses and Thorns. As I lay in bed last night, just before I turned out the lights I documented the Good Things (Roses) vs. the Bad Things (Thorns) I marveled at the literalness of the day. Aside from literal roses, I thought about the happy reunion of Ken and Susie, Susie and her recently departed Mom, and the very happy actors, Jimmie Greene and Charlotte Rae, who now can begin rehearsals afresh with Susie monitoring the hallways of heaven.
I drove my friend Caro to the airport where I bade her goodbye as she went off on the next leg of her trip to Sidney, Australia. We’d had an amazing five days visiting; the last two, she’d accompanied me twice to campus, where she observed a production meeting Monday evening, a quick dinner in the Tutor Student Center courtyard, then a workshop on Post-Dramatic Theatre with our Israeli guest director of Amsterdam, Lilach Dekel-Avneri.
Caro lives in Venice, Italy, where I visited her and her husband, Alberto, for about five days this summer. Over those days, she patiently helped me to reconstruct my geographic synapses of a city that I had known well enough to make it home late at night intoxicated, but which thirty-three years later, greeted me as a bewildering maze of indiscriminate streets and courtyards. The canals teamed with water buses and ambulances as we strode around, crossing the arching bridges to stop at shops and galleries sampling the fruits of the Venice Biennale. One of our favorite stops had been at the Lithuanian Pavilion, where we voyeuristically drank in the performance of the actors romping on the faux beach while singing the modern opera about life’s vicissitudes in a warehouse near the Arsenale.
And we laughed. We laughed about the silly things, Caro’s bright Australian accent piercing through the afternoons and evenings. I marveled at how she’s managed to keep her youthful sense of humor and life appreciation even as she’s matured into a wise, insightful woman. When I left them in Venice, we made tentative plans for her to stop in Los Angeles on her way to Australia to see their daughter.
Between then and now, classes resumed, the seven undergraduate plays were cast and rehearsals began, designers collaborated, directors directed, and we already have closed one of the shows and opened the second. The fall has been a blur of activity, and the impending anniversary of my husband’s death has begun to rattle my cage.
The other night, the night of October 3rd, I had a dream, where Jimmie and I were traveling. We were at the airport, which was clean and modern, white shining subway tile in a hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jimmie emerged from the bathroom, standing tall, no walker or scooter, shock of neatly combed white hair. I walked to his side and we began walking, but I couldn’t keep up with him and said, “Hey, I can’t keep up with you. You’re walking too fast.” He turned, and with the twinkle in his eye I always loved, he said, “I owe it all to you.” And with that, he was gone. It was only later when reviewing some photos and some writing I’d done that I realized October 3rd had been a momentous day for us. Nearly 28 years before, it had been the day we had the call from our adoption social worker, with the news about our soon-to-be son. Also, last year, Chris had been visiting us and I’d snapped this picture at home, before our last dinner out together before Jimmie’s rapid decline. October 3rd had returned to remind me of its power and the power of our love for each other. Later that morning, poor Chris called me to say hi, and I blubbered for about ten minutes.
It was in this emotional period, when I picked Caro up at the airport on Friday afternoon, the beginning of the only weekend of the semester when I didn’t have a tech rehearsal. I marveled at how we’d somehow scheduled her visit for a pocket of my life when I could pull in my PM shingle and just play for three days. We’d opened Amsterdamjust the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.
Amsterdam has been an unfettered learning experience in mounting a non-hierarchical production. Working with Lilach has been challenging, and exciting and instructive as to how to create a play and environments through the sheer creative drive of a team. You should try to get over to USC to see it this weekend. It plays three more times this weekend. It closes Sunday 10/20.
Friday, after kidnapping Caro from the airport and driving her to Malibu, we had dinner at Gladstone’s, sitting outside, smelling the seasonal fragrance of the local fires, and watching the blood-red sun sink into the Pacific Ocean as we waited for our dessert and coffee to arrive.
There’s truth to the idea that the friends you make in your twenties are the ones you keep closest. As we looked out over the sand, I reminded Caro of the silly game we used to play at the beach at the Lido – find your physical twin. I remember my eternal body dysmorphia and how I always selected someone who looked well…. hmmm… sort of like I look today. Not as we looked then, svelte, and carefree and…twenty-two. I feel so fortunate to have managed to keep my friends close at hand.
Tonight, as I sorted through some of Jimmie’s residuals, finally made out in my name after almost a year of back and forth with the lovely folks at SAG-AFTRA, I thought about my new competencies. I’ve learned out to grieve as I need to, to pull it together when life calls for that. I know how to weigh the value of time spent with dear friends versus an extra hour of preparation for work. I’ve learned how to calendar my time to do the things that matter to me, and to keep committing to the forward actions that will make my future. I’m learning that I can be quite satisfied with a fried egg for dinner and I don’t need to beat myself up for not cooking. Or cleaning, or tidying the pile of mail before I sit down to write. When someone says they’re coming to stay, I don’t need to launch into a worry-fest about how I’ll manage house guests in the busy days of November, including November 9th, the anniversary day. Instead, I’ll think about how wonderful it will be to be surrounded by family at that time, fantasize that they might have dinner on the table when I come home, then proceed to take it one day at a time rather than drifting into a miasma of martyrdom.
I’ve spoken to several students this week who suffer from depression, anxiety and OCD. And the cold or the flu that’s going around relentlessly. I want to tell them it will be okay. Emotions are emotions. They won’t kill you. You have the power to control them. And even if you can’t for a moment, this too shall pass. That’s what they made Kleenex for. Lord knows I’ve developed a competency with Kleenex this year.
This fall, I have an amazing class of GESM 111G students. We’re learning how to read plays together, how to look at plays, how to sit and experience each dramatic outing and then come together and share our more and less favorite parts. They’re so enthusiastic and willing to share. I tortured them with an exercise this week. I’d had them do the Creative Autobiography from Twyla Tharp’s terrific book, The Creative Habit weeks ago, then carried around their little bits of heart in my bag for weeks until I finally read them. Each of them shared their creative successes and failures and aspirations with me. Across the board they all want to make a unique contribution in their field that helps people. So I thought that was worthy of some torture. I had them write what they thought that unique thing might look like, and after several iterations of sharing their ideas with each other in small groups, I wrote on the board what the tiny steps that they could take to get moving toward the goal would be. (Can you tell I’m working with a life coach and trying to emulate her? Good guess.)
Amsterdam, Venice, friendship, creativity, supporting each other. These are the tiny steps that make a life. In the end, it’s all water under the bridge.
The last day in Rome, I visited the Vatican. I got adventurous, and took the metro from the Spagna stop (at the base of the Spanish Steps). This was my first immersion in Rome, far from the selfie-snapping tourists and close to the daily press of flesh which is the metro. I wisely waited two minutes for the second train and wedged myself in next to a woman with kind eyes and a universal sense of “What can I do about it?”
I made my way to the tourism office where the tour was meeting. They rented Vespas there. Can you imagine renting a Vespa in Rome? I’d seen three young girls on bikes the previous day at the Coliseum walking them more than riding them through the hordes of boisterous tourists. The tour I’d booked through ItaliaRail was called “Show and Go” and was $116. for the two tours of the Coliseum and Vatican. The beauty of them was that you could show up any time to join the tour. “No waiting in lines.” This proved to be ludicrous. There are nothing but lines in Rome in July. Get used to it. I can say I saw the Sistine Chapel, even without the benefit of having a selfie, unlike the woman at St. Peter’s in front of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It did feel sometimes like the pictures were being taken more to prove we’d been there than to experience these great artifacts and sculptures.
I’m guilty too.
My final night in Rome, I was feted by an old friend in his home with two indulgent Italian professionals, who let me struggle more than I had on the trip to date with my rusty Italian. It was a great evening and a wonderful way to close out the International part of my summer holiday.
The next morning, I winged my way back to Washington, DC, suitcase bulging with a few treats and my feet snuggly in my compression socks that my friend had generously loaned me.
I may have told you how much I loathe the phrase “to unpack the meaning of something.” I mean I really loathe it.
So when I say unpack, I mean literally unpack from my trip. The last leg of my trip was a visit to my Dad and his wife, Sally’s in Washington, DC. If I need any encouragement in continuing to travel as a measure of a life well-lived, I need look no further than my Dad and Sally. They have traveled all over the world, and now, as conditions keep them closer to home, it would be hard to impress them with stories of an Italian trip. But they were extremely indulgent, looking at my Ipad slide show of Umbrian hill towns, Venetian churches, and Roman ruins.
I remember as a child sitting through my maternal grandparents’ endless slide shows, with an actual slide projector, loaded with slides, and then reloaded with perhaps a second tray of slides. My grandfather was an architect, with a good eye and terrific composition in his photos, but as an eight or ten-year-old, one’s attention span is limited.
We sat in the breakfast room, watching as wildlife flitted by: three raccoons, a doe and her dappled faun, a cowbird and a dozen other varieties of seed-eating birds. It was delightful. The heat outside fogged up the refrigerated interior of the house.
They had a lot of things planned for my four day visit. I had seen an article about the new Spy Museum, and after an aborted attempt to get in, complicated by the parking at an unreasonable distance and poor planning in booking tickets ahead, sent us scurrying instead to the National Gallery, where we drank in the visiting exhibit covering 17 centuries of animals in Japanese Art; though they’d already seen it of course, they graciously accompanied me, then treated me to a lunch in the cafeteria connecting the two wings of the Gallery. When the exhibit comes to Los Angeles Sept. 22-December 19, 2019 don’t miss it! These are just two examples of the whimsy and elegance of this exhibit.
After lunch, we visited the Tintoretto exhibit upstairs in the West Wing. It was particularly satisfying to think that I’d just seen so much of his work in situ in Venice. There was a particularly interesting room of portraits which brought to mind Rembrandt, rather than the usual luscious, quick strokes of Tintoretto’s angels and suffering saints.
This richness made me realize that over the past 10 years or so, I’ve not been taking advantage of the cultural opportunities that Los Angeles affords us. Full time work, care taking my husband, who in the later years, tired easily. So many excuses, so many lost opportunities. The future gleams with potential.
Thursday evening, which was July 4th, they had planned a family dinner with some local relatives, which was lovely. Meanwhile, only a few thousand miles away, my home city was rocking and rolling from earthquakes. I didn’t feel the least bit disadvantaged by missing these shakes. Instead, we watched the rather insipid July 4th celebration on TV, hosted by John Stamos and the Muppets. After dinner each night, we worked diligently on their diabolically complicated Stave puzzle which we finally finished on July 4th.
Friday evening found the three of us in the Kennedy Center, watching the touring production of Hello, Dolly! starring Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlin as Horace Vandergelder. It was a lively, satisfying show with a powerhouse performance by Buckley. In the gift store before the show, I picked up a replacement fan so that I could continue my Venetian tradition of staving off the heat. I bought a second fan to send off to Caro in Venice, because I’d put some kilometers (chilometri) on hers while there.
Saturday we made our way over to the Hillwood Estate, Manor and Gardens of Marjorie Merriweather Post, and spent the morning steeping ourselves in the hostess’s meticulous and lavish lifestyle, beautifully preserved in the park and mansion exhibits.
That evening we had dinner out and called it an early night, so that I’d be ready for my trip home on Sunday, July 7th. A spectacular trip and one which I’ll remember fondly for a long time.
I’d be derelict if I didn’t share some of the photos from the two days we spent at the Biennale while I was in Venice. On the way there, though, Caro and I had a wonderful time exploring all the different countries’ pavilions. Here are some photos from our first day. If you get a chance to go to the Biennale, go. There’s a mind boggling amount of beautiful art and ideas. Beautiful for people watching. Take the largest frame below for example.
The Biennale is rife with colorful images, shapes and ideas, and could be represented by almost any of the pieces shown there. The Lara Favaretto room, in the main building of the Gardens felt like walking into a curated prop room, with shelves neatly decorated by groups of objects, identified with a descriptive word under each shelf. The most intriguing part of the exhibit was its reference to secret meetings of people in a bunker in Venice to discuss the objects. Wait, a bunker in Venice? The piece suddenly gelled as a metaphor for the whole Biennale.
I asked one of the docents who are there to help you understand what you’re looking at if there had been any meetings. An earnest young art student, he answered, “I believe that the first one was cancelled, but there may be more scheduled.” Given the top secret nature of Favaretto’s description, I figured if we went to any bar that afternoon, it would serve as the bunker for conceptual inquiry into the nature of not just these objects, but any in the various countries’ pavilions.
Our second day at the Biennale, Caro and I were joined by her husband, Alberto, and we explored the even more vast exhibits in the Arsenale. Here are some of the exhibits, including the studies by Lorenzo Quinn of sculptures that are currently able to be seen all over Venice, including in the Arsenale.
Earlier in the year, as I planned for my trip to Venice, I’d read about the Lithuanian Pavilion, and the first prize (Leone d’Or) they’d won for “Sun and Sea.” The exhibit was evocative and sensory, with the spectators looking down from above onto the denizens of a temporary indoor beach. Joshua Barone’s review in the New York Times, along with their photos captures the feeling of the experience. I thought it was a little critical, considering the accomplishment of this trio of artists. Try getting 30 people to commit to spending 8 hours on the sand in their bathing suits over a period of 8 months. Probably in June it’s pretty easy, but consider November, when the cold winds blow off the water whipping through the Military Arsenale into this warehouse with open windows. I have limited experience with wrangling volunteers for theatre projects with our production of “Don’t Go” a few years ago with Sojourn Theatre. It’s harder than it looks. An article in the ArtTribune.com shared the invitation they put out to get people to participate. https://www.artribune.com/arti-visive/arte-contemporanea/2019/05/biennale-di-venezia-2019-padiglione-lituania-cerca-volontari-vacanzieri-per-lopera-performance/
Seeing the performers in their swimsuits, digging in the sand with their children and dogs was pretty wild. Almost every exhibit in the Biennale this year examined in some way the impact of humans on the environment, and this one provided a chance for us to watch ourselves in microcosm. The opera itself, parts of which we saw in our thirty minute stay at the exhibit, had some both haunting and comedic, jaunty tunes. It was fun to identify which of the singers might sing next, the man with the gray chest hair, who scanned the balcony idly as his tween son ran off to play with some other children, or the woman who barked her little portion of the score, a tirade against people who bring their dogs to the beach. There were two visible at the time, well behaved little dogs who also looked like they were enjoying themselves. Periodically, cast members would sprinkle bottled water on the sand to keep the dust from kicking up into people’s faces. I was reminded of the Robert Wilson piece I stage managed in Sicily years ago, staged in a 13th Century Granary building. After a few weeks of rehearsal, they trucked in tons of sand and suddenly it became a different exercise entirely. Sun and Sea was pretty fascinating, though. I didn’t want to leave.
Some other stunning works from the two days at the Biennale.
There was quite a bit of video and theatrical experiences aside from Sun and Sea. The Istralei Pavilion hosted “Field Hospital” where you entered the exhibit, which looked like the waiting room for an urgent care facility. There you were given a number, and you waitied approximately 10 minutes, while watching reassuringly placid videos about the type of care you would receie there. Everything felt very hospital-like. All the staff were wearing white coats, and were very gentle with the visitors. Once your number was called, you went to the registration table, where you were given a paper wrist band, and the opportunity to select which video you would see in the treatment area. The videos ranted in topics from transgender bullying to The Palestinian question. Up the stairs from registration, you were guided into one of three padded rooms where you were told to follow instructions. I did, but after emerging from the booth, I realized they were not soundproof, so everyone in the outside waiting area had heard my primal screams.
On we went into the treatment room, where a large array of reclining chairs held other patients who were watching videos, and then watching additional material (second opinions ) from experts with knowledge of the topics of the videos. Once you finished watching, the “nurse” came and freed you from the chair, giving you a rubber bracelet to replace the paper one, which said “Field Hospital” on it. It was an eerie experience, especially for Caro. whose video was a little more graphic than mine. (I won’t spoil the exhibit for those of you who are going by telling you which videos we watched.) Suffice it to say that once we emerged from the Field Hospital, we were ready to go home and also to get a cold drink before taking the Vaporetto back home.
One of the last days I was in Umbria, we visited the Umbrian hilltown of Monte Castello di Vibio, another spot of unspeakable beauty. Our destination was to see Il Teatro Piu Piccolo Del Mondo. As the sign below promises, Civilization isn’t measured in square meters and volume. Built by a consortium of nine families (I’ll spare you the poor historical recall and defer to Wikipedia). But when we visited, the lobby had a fascinating exhibit by a local man who had documented his family’s history in a series of scrapbooks, only seven out of thirty-three of which were on display. There were photos, paintings of weddings on the stage, and other news clippings detailing the historic events that had taken place in the theatre. The frescoes by Luigi Agretti in the second floor lobby were really wonderful, considering he was 14 when he painted them in 1892. Yes, 14!
After relishing the tiny space, complete with playback of a recording of a musical concert so that we could experience the acoustics in the all-wooden theatre, we retired from Monte Castello di Vibio, and made our way to the Madonna Dei Bagni, a church near Deruta, which features approximately 700 votive tiles from the 17th century to the 20th century, all presented in gratitude for acts of salvation by the Madonna. Each tile has the initials P.G.R., which stands for Per Grazie Ricevuto, or For Graces Received.
The Sanctuary itself is not notable, except for these tiles, almost totemic in their iconography. Four Hundred years ago, according to the history, a man found a piece of pottery with the Madonna on it and he nailed it to an oak tree, and prayed for his ill wife’s recovery. When he returned to his home, she had recovered, and thus began the practice of these votive tiles. They represent graces received from the Madonna after accidents throughout the centuries. Did you know that the most perilous thing in Umbria is the tree and the ladder? So many people fell from trees and lived to represent it that there developed an iconography of falling out of the tree.
That and getting trompled by horses.
Or struck by lightning.
You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that just like the tree plates, there were several of the lightning and later, dozens of gnarly car and motorcycle accidents as well as war survivors and leaky rain gutters. I just didn’t take photos of them all. It’s worth going to verify my account.
But my favorite was the tile that told the story about the recovery of 140 of the tiles which had at one time been stolen (rubata) from the sanctuary. Thanks to our guide, Marina, who was able to read the tile to us and translate, we understood that an off-duty cop (Carabinieri) born in Deruta, but assigned to Perugia, had come across one of these plates at a swap meet or whatever the Italian equivalent is. He bought it, then launched an investigation and was able to recover all 140 of the stolen plates. I think the guy carrying the tile is the same one lying down in his carabinieri uniform (Art History 101).
After that, we were exhausted and of course, it was time to go get some lunch. We were very happy there as well for the graces received.
There are few more positive things than the events that transpire around commencement: acting showcases, design showcases, awards banquets, culminations – these things pepper the final weeks before everyone moves forward.
I’ve been holding onto myself or at least my hat last week, as creative events swirled around me:
Monday – A conference of LA Stage Managers for SMA (Stage Managers Association), an association of my peers. Hosted at Center Theatre Group, in the familiar Rehearsal Room C, I met Joel Veenstra, who heads up the MFA and BFA Stage Management programs at UC Irvine and is the Western Regional Director of the SMA. The day included panels on the SMA itself, info on different avenues for stage managers to pursue with their skillsets, how to transition a show from one theatre to another, an informative and extremely sobering panel on safety and security, and a panel of stage managers discussing how they made their way through the professional maturation process. This final session I appreciated, because there were inclusive gestures from the stage about how old I was. Maybe it’s time to dye the old locks….
Wednesday marked the beginning of our portfolio review sessions with undergraduate designers and stage managers. These tabletop exercises demand that designers bring their developing pages and discuss their collaborative processes. They are informative, an iterative process, one that begins with their first one unit design assistant position, throughout to the spring, moments before the final Showcase. Over the course of four years they get quite skilled at presenting their work and defining their interests in design and stage management.
Wednesday night featured the Cabaret performance by Alexandra Billings, a fundraiser to raise money for LGBQT student scholarships. Here’s the link if you’d like to contribute. She is an amazing performer, and brought the house down that night. Another polished performance also by our by-now-beleaguered Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea and students who called, engineered the sound by Philip G. Allen.
Friday’s all day 2019 SDA Production/Design Showcase events began at 10:00AM in the Scene Dock Theatre with Faculty and Guest Designer critiques of all ten graduating Designers and TD. Each senior is given a table and a board and they spend about 24 hours decorating and preparing to showcase their work accumulated over four years to an array of faculty, guest designers, directors, and staff.
At 11:00AM, the two graduating stage managers met with a panel of both Alumni Stage Managers (now professionals) and their professor, Scott Faris to review their resumes in the form of a job interview.
Next came our family style lunch in the Technical Theatre Lab at noon, hosted in the shop by Head of Technical Direction Duncan Mahoney and featuring about fifty of our extended family. It’s so wonderful to see alumni coming back to support and give a leg up to our graduating seniors. This year we had an all vegan Indian meal, after several years of BBQ. It’s only fair, right?
At 1:00PM, the Showcase featured a panel of guests who shared their professional journeys. They included small business owner, Madison Rhoades, whose Cross Roads Escape Rooms have become a hit in Orange County; Production Designer and Alumnus Ed Haynes, who works for numerous corporate clients as well as keeping a prominent toe in theatrical design. His work recently graced the Scene Dock via his scenic design for The Busybody. Television and Film Production Designer Michael Andrew Hynes shared stories of his voluminous work with the students, starting from his roots in theatre design, as did lighting design Alum Madigan Stehly, working with Full Flood Lighting and as a freelance lighting designer. Panelist Sarah Borger, Production and Broadcast Director for ESL- Turtle Entertainment spoke about her journey from Stage Manager to Live Gaming Production Management.
In the spirit of the rest of the week, I overbooked myself on Friday, agreeing to attend a 7:30PM Independent Student Performance, directed by a graduating senior. I like the play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph, not just because it features a young man, a hockey player, prone to injuries. Hey! I have one of those! Directed by Jordan Broberg, the two-hander was performed in the Brain and Creativity Institute, a sleek, cone shaped auditorium with acoustics by the Disney Hall acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota. Jordan’s cast members are both seniors, Ido Gal, and Cherie Carter, to whom, ironically, I had just come from awarding (in absentia) the James Pendleton Award. As I slipped into my seat, fifteen minutes late, I chuckled as I realized why Cherie had been absent from the banquet. They did a great job with the play. You could hear a pin drop in that hall, which was definitely not in my favor, 14 hours into my day and eager to squirm.
At the risk of promulgating an avalanche of back health ads, recently, I’ve been undergoing treatment for a herniated disk, via weekly chiropractic sessions, and bi-weekly massages. Aside from the fact that last week got too busy to attend to that, a few weeks ago, in the course of an hour long massage, I felt the pain melting away from all areas save for the lower back, where my back remained tightened into a rictus of resistance. The massage therapist and I discussed it at the end of the massage, and he acknowledged that we were definitely working on something there. Later that morning, my WeCroak app message seemed particularly pertinent:
Pain is always a sign that we are holding on to something – usually ourselves.
Pema Chodron (WeCroak)
My favorite gym partner, Lynn and I shared a selfie today at the Sanctuary Fitness Cinco de Mayo festivities.
This right before she shared with me a new podcast, the brainchild of Nora McIlnerny, author and notable widow, entitled Terrible, Thanks for Asking. You should definitely check it out. Here’s a link to her TED Talk. Especially if you are in the business of grieving. And not just to use a phrase of hers, “grief-adjacent.” She is very clever and speaks the truth about loss in an immediate and uplifting way, if you can imagine that combination of incongruities. And after this week of looking forward through the eyes of our talented students, I can indeed imagine the uplifting part.
On Monday, my son and his wife ushered a beautiful second daughter into the world, a process comparable in many ways, he noted, to helping his father/my husband out of life last November. Sitting bedside, hearing the breathing patterns, feeding encouragement, at one end breath expunged, followed by a terrible stillness and the onset of grief; at the other, an energetic intake of breath, a hearty kicking cry of life followed by rejoicing. Both amazing and frightening and life altering experiences for the privileged witness participants.
I wasn’t able to be there for the in-person rejoicing, as we’re in the full press of tech for two spring productions at USC. Someone, however, took a photo of Chris, holding the newly arrived baby, swaddled in her iconic blue and pink baby blanket, eyes closed. In the photo, Chris looks at the camera. Over his left shoulder on the sill of the hospital window sits his Dad’s blue Boston Red Sox baseball cap. In his eyes, the warmth of a life remembered and one anticipated.
Chris had brought his Dad along for the birth. Three years ago, Jimmie and I’d arrived from the airport about an hour after their first daughter was born. We’d all sat on that same purple couch, marveling at her perfection and the miracle of new life, then watched as she had her first bath.
Last weekend, we had tech rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with Georgein the Bing Theatre, and Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody in the Scene Dock Theatre. Spring beckoned from outside, beautiful lush flowering bushes surrounding the Technical Theatre Lab. Periodically, I would roust myself from the hip-wrenching theatre chairs to walk the exterior perimeter of the lab, beginning appropriately on Bloom Walk, savoring the sunlight on my head, and watching the hummingbirds dart through the blue and pink flowers. Very restorative.
Last night, I sat and watched the second dress rehearsal of Sunday in the Park with George, house left in the Bing, our 551 seat proscenium theatre. It felt good to sit down because it had been a day. I came in and tossed down my backpack, falling into the comfort of the seat.
I’d started the day assisting the new Campus Emergency Response Team in their final training exercise, playing a victim in the Search and Rescue drill. There were nine of us, all but one of us CERT members from previous trainings: staff, faculty, even a local untethered middle schooler. We arrived at 7:30AM to get made up, bloodied, ready to play our roles and ready to do some serious schmacting, the kind of overwrought performances only non-actors can give. I eschewed facial blood because I had to run from the drill to film the welcome greetings for our incoming class of Production/Design students. I figured seeing the Head of Production bloodied or just looking dirty might not be a good message of welcome for them. Good call?
I’d been feeling particularly sad that I wasn’t at the birth of my second granddaughter the day before, so during the drill, I adopted two rescued CPR baby dolls with enthusiasm and purpose. Another participant, Michael, from the USC Hotel, embraced them, too, so while I came into the drill a widow, within a few hours, had two babies and a husband. Pretty quick work, my fellow victims laughed. I’m sure there is some embarrassing video and stills out there of our schmacting. Stay tuned.
Chris and I texted throughout the day, first in the morning, about his eldest daughter’s dour demeanor at breakfast. She had some particularly colorful words for her other Nana as she gruffly eschewed toast. I took the opportunity of being surrounded by the zombie apocalypse to film a little PSA instructing her to eat her toast, and what might happen if she didn’t, but Chris hadn’t shared it with her. She was busy coloring.
As I watched the start of Sondheim’s masterful treatment of art and love last night at the second dress, I thought of Jimmie, not just because Chris had texted me moving messages about the power of helping loved ones across the border from life to death and from birth to life, but because the actor playing George was wearing Jimmie’s straw hat. We’d found the hat on one of our vacations to Cape Cod, a straw panama hat with a black ribbon around the outside, with the prophetic brand “Sunday Afternoon” inside the sweat brim. I’d brought the hat in earlier this year, rescuing it from its ignominious resting place in a wooden magazine holder at home, hoping that the hat (and Jimmie) might have another go on stage, and sure enough, the costume designer designated it the place of honor. I watched the hat come to life again as George sketched studies of the characters on the banks of the river for his seminal work of Act I, Un Dimanche Apres midi a L’Ille de La Grande Jatte.
Sondheim’s Act II meeting of 19th Century Dot with 20th Century George had me sobbing. Sometimes the confluence of art and love and life and events of life feels almost too strong to bear. But it wasn’t until after the dress rehearsal ended that I realized I’d been sitting in “Jimmie’s chair” all night. 551 seats in the Bing, and I’d plopped down my backpack in pure exhaustion settling into his seat to watch the rehearsal. Who says our loved ones are gone when they are gone?
Sheathed in it’s sleek red white and blue certified envelope, my new passport arrived earlier this week. I could barely wait to open it when I got home, backpack still on my back, ripping the top of the envelope to extract the smooth, navy booklet emblazoned with the gold eagle, turning quickly to the glossy photo page to see what this world traveler looked like.
Note to self: don’t take the photo immediately after a haircut lest you look like a newly shorn Maltipoo. While cute, remember that this image will follow you on your travels for ten years. But then, we’ve previously acknowledged my history of poor pre-Passport acquisition hairstyles. A few days later, the old passport arrived, retired by virtue of its expired date, and more evidently by its hole-pierced cover, now a testament of travel gone by, an archive of trips untaken.
The new passport, a beckoning scorecard for future adventures, a challenge to stretch from the safe commute of home to work to home. What if work can span the globe as it does for grandson George?
I’m sporting a new piece of jewelry acquired this week as well. Not quite the same message as Stephen Sondheim’s inspiring Act II number, but this, for the moment, is my new mantra. I’ve bought a dozen of these for dissemination to my “widow’s club.” Because while it’s not a club one willingly seeks membership in, it’s sure nice to have the support of others on the same journey.
Please join us this weekend and next at USC School of Dramatic Arts to see what our two current productions promise in the way of emotional border-crossing. Hope to see you there!