Writing with My Best Friend-Publishing From a Solid Foundation

With our self-inflicted publishing/90th Birthday party too close on the horizon (81 Days, 11 hours, 5 minutes and a rapid descent of seconds, according to the count down website I found), it has become necessary to press ahead (groan) with a self-publishing option. First, a word about the kindness of strangers regarding the manuscript I had sent out.

Yes, they were rejections, but such lovely rejections. I embraced dearly departed Caroline See’s advice and wrote thank you emails to the publisher at one publishing house who had responded that they didn’t publish memoirs or biographies, and yet took the time to read the book, responding with some editorial comments. Wow. Didn’t expect that kind of compassionate contribution to the process. It really buoyed my faith in humanity.

She also recommended with our impending deadline, that we look into self-publishing, and recommended CreateSpace, an Amazon off-shoot company that provides editing and publishing services from soup to nuts. Having been through the template-learning process with Lulu.com, the re-formatting to the new template was pretty painless, and yesterday, we had a conversation with an editor to choose the publishing features we’ll use.

It was extremely helpful and instructive to learn how the process will go moving forward. We are on an aggressive timeline so will need to make decisions about photos and editing to be ready 8 weeks before Dec. 1st. So we will be rocking it from now until the first week in October.

There are discussions we are still having about the arc of the book, how to keep the narrative uncluttered, and ways to make the title of the book A View From The Wings tie to another image Jimmie had come across in the mid 90s by a professor from Harvard.  Last night at the end of a long week at work, I tried to listen and hear the importance of this imagery to him and understand how to make the connection tighter. We had a basic disagreement about how to do it, and anyone who knows us knows that disagreements are pretty far outside the boundaries of our experience. I think we’ve had one flat out fight back in the early 80s, consisting of irritation, not even harsh words. Our friend ,John Rubinstein, jokes that we are the most irritating people:

You two probably never fight because you are both so nice. (said with a slight exaggerated sibilancy on the word nice)

Jimmie and I have always agreed on things political, though this presidential election cycle has taxed our relationship a bit, Jimmie staunchly insisting on candidates other than the “I’m with her” candidate. It’s happened before when he voted for Ralph Nader. In fact it’s not the least bit unusual for him to be much further left than me. It’s something I’ve actually always loved about him. He keeps me politically honest.

We agree about the theatre. Usually our reviews of shows (of which we have seen hundreds together over the course of our married lives) are usually pretty aligned. Our taste in television rarely sparks discomfort. We look at each other when there’s too much blood, we reach for the mute button when there’s anything like torture on, or food porn, and we look at each other. So we’ve spent a lot of time looking at each other over recent years. Carl’s Junior commercials result in absolute facial fascination. And let me be clear, I’ve got no problem at all doing that; Jimmie  seems quite contented to gaze at me as necessary.

But an aesthetic difference about imagery was tougher for me to accept, and I found myself feeling worn down and a bit saddened last night, that as we headed into the publishing process that (gasp) we were at odds. I chalked it up to being overly tired and we kissed and made up before going to bed because, well, you know the adage…

This morning’s light brought the “big pour” of concrete in the building site across the street from us, and while I spun at the DTLA YAS class, my pal Ellen and I watched the relentless cement trucks lining up on Hope Street to empty their contents into the big hole. The cement cranes arched over each other like the graceful necks of dinosaurs grazing on the savanna, and when I returned from my class, I ran to the balcony to watch as their necks dipped and pecked, filling the spaces between the rebar grid. To the northwest corner of the pour, I could see men smoothing the pavement at ground level.

I am such a construction geek. I come to it legitimately. It’s a blood relationship to concrete, my grandfather having owned the largest concrete company in Northeastern PA. This morning, when I was walking home, I passed two construction workers, both Dads, with their four children under 8 in tow, walking eagerly down to where they could show them the activity across the street. It is magical to see the beginning of the process, to the end, so clearly demonstrated north west of us, with the now lighted spire of the tallest building on the west coast. I (of course) attended that big pour as well, which was probably four times the size of our little pour going on in the neighborhood.

So what does all this have to do with self-publishing a book? I am well aware that our process of publishing this book has as much to do with the foundation of our marriage, our trust and respect of each other, the history of our dipping and pecking in the savannas together. As much if not more than the content or caliber of the actual book. I know that our foundation is solid, well-cured and will withstand whatever small editorial disagreements we have. We are both energized by the process, looking through pictures to include in the book, and examining the structure of the book.  It is an accelerated process by virtue of the construction deadlines I’ve imposed on it. But I promise there won’t be any pictures of concrete pours in the final product!img_6943

 

 

Elk Confidant- Wapiti Whisperer

At the end of May, Hannah was offered a gift from a local theatre which shall remain nameless. It arrived early in June, and sat on the end of the work table in the production office for two months. A trophy Elk head with a beautiful rack of antlers, 10 point by my amateur count. I say amateur because a brief query about how to refer to his magnificence reminded me that there are experts in everything, and you can find them within seconds on your digital devices. Just typed in “How do you count an Elk’s antlers?” and within moments learned that there are several considerations to this question.

Regional: Are you western or eastern?

  • If western, you only count one side, so Mr. Big Head (our temporary but affectionate name) is a 5 point elk.
  • If eastern, as in east of the Mississippi,  he would be a 10 point elk.
  • But wait! Whose region? Mine or the elk’s? Where he is now? Or where he was when he lived with his “gang” (yes, that’s the nomenclature).
  • I prefer my region and now his as it sounds more impressive.  I can also refer to him as a 5×5, which sounds like the type of big-ass truck complete with the gun rack in the back that I might have driven while hunting this beautiful beast had we not acquired him in a more peaceful theatrical hand off.

Size of points

  • In order to qualify as a point, the projections need to be at least 1 inch out from the main “beam”, and longer than they are wide. (Mr. Big Head is clearly and proudly a 10 point. Hey, I’m from Pennsylvania. Don’t know where he’s from originally, but he’s western now!)

Scoring

  • There are professional scorers who can score them (sets of antlers) for you. I guess if you want to sell your antlers.

Like I said, there are experts in all fields.

Mr. Big Head sat on the work table, nose pointed blithely to the sky all summer long. I ate lunch with him every day; the production and design faculty had curriculum meetings with him listening from the comfy chair near my desk where he’d been moved to make room for our meeting. After that meeting, he spent the rest of the summer lounging in that big leather chair. His big eyes gazing across at me were comforting throughout the summer as I assembled the fall pre-production materials. I caught him looking at me and would wink at him conspiratorially when on the phone. Michael, our Assistant Technical Director, swears that he overheard me talking to Mr. Big Head several times during the summer when he worked in the theatre.

I smugly demised that his tenure in our office was short-term, because of his size and the low heights of our ceilings. Hannah and I texted over the summer about the ideal spot for him (was there one?) and decided that maybe over the couch would work, though one of his 5 or 10 points might put some poor student’s eye out, which would be antithetical to our mission. So that was a problem.

When Hannah returned a few weeks ago to work, it didn’t take her long to swing into action in mounting the elk head. She found the perfect spot, directly over the comfy leather chair, which sits directly across from my desk. Even during the installation, people flocked to Mr. Big Head, sharing intimacies with him, joking and stroking his wise chin and neck for comfort.

Mr. Big Head is a good listener. He doesn’t judge. He is so kind, and allows those he meets to stroke his neck which isn’t even too dusty. He models amazing counseling skills – listen a lot, speak a little. He let the advisee craft his/her own solutions without butting in. After all, he’s wise enough to know that it’s dangerous to butt in when you have a 10 point rack.

So in the last week since the mounting of Mr. Big Head, I have begun taking portraits of some of  his fans.

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Hannah reading fall play scripts as Mr. Big Head looks on.

I wonder what he thinks of the plays? But he is the soul of discretion. He would never say anything to make us question our season.

He’s also modest, but we’ll see how long that lasts. Hannah, his agent is already brokering possible appearances in a few shows in the fall schedule. He will be a little more obvious on stage than Lea’s white squirrel was, who made appearances in all her SDA shows after her first all-white set, as set dressing, through to his final SDA appearance in A Little Night Music last spring. Mr. Big Head will inevitably command attention, as he already does in our office setting.

 

IMG_6809Here’s my selkie. In this shot I inadvertently caught a hint of approbation in his gaze. I think he might have objected to the angle with which I shot the photo, but really my chins look much worse than his. And still, in spite of the look he didn’t criticize me. And besides, the shot accentuates his beautiful antlers.  This photo got me in trouble when I posted it on Instagram. We were busted by the local area theatre PM, who noted that it was one of their gang. Hope I didn’t get anyone in trouble.

The rest of the photos which follow are some of our distinguished faculty and students who have sat with our Wapiti Whisperer, Mr. Big Head. You too can make an appointment to take counsel with him. You can see from his banners that he’s ivy league educated, and likes to drink champagne. And he’s very orderly – note the file drawers. I’m so sorry that I ever thought he wouldn’t/shouldn’t be a permanent member of our team. I think he’ll forgive me because that’s the kind of understanding elk he is.

My Talented Aunt Irene

This past week, we had the pleasure of spending four days in New York City, the first time since 2009 when we were there to attend my niece Kendra’s wedding. I organized this trip so we could see my Dad and his wife, Sally, whom we also hadn’t seen in way to long a time. We all ended up staying at the Algonquin Hotel on W. 44th St., smack dab in the middle of the theatre district.  What I didn’t know was that my Dad’s sister, Irene, and her husband, Paul Neal, would also be in New York for some meetings with her new agent.

My Aunt Irene is a truly gifted artist. She has been making art for a long time, close to 50 years now, and her painting style mirrors her personal refulgence.

Renie is my dad’s younger sister. They are 5 years apart in age. They adore each other and have such a great time when they get together which is frequently. They love to laugh, a trait they and I inherited from their mother. Here are a few images from over the years.

When they get together, their laughter is contagious. This trip was no different. One evening, I teased my Dad that I couldn’t believe there was a table in the Algonquin dining room making more noise than ours. I blurted out that he has a stentorian voice which he misheard as centurion, which set us all off. Both words actually apply. My dad is a voracious reader, and a commentary writer. His areas of interest and opining are population, family planning, immigration and a number of other subjects that I studiously avoid because our views are so diametrically opposed. But he is not shy about expressing them and loudly. In retrospect, it is surprising that we avoided talking about the Presidential race for four days. Dad is also one of the most generous men I’ve ever known, and it’s become a point of pride when I can get the table’s check before he does, which happened exactly once the entire week. (I need to practice more.)

Jimmie and I have our own modest collection of Irene Neal’s paintings and jewelry created over the years. On our wedding day in 1984, she and Paul arrived at Paulsson’s Restaurant for our reception bearing a 4′ x 5′ oil painting that she had freshly inscribed to us. It still hangs in our living room. Other periods of her work featured colorful acrylic paintings on wooden bases that are enormous, and totemic in feeling. They are a blast of color and energy just like Renie is. She belongs to a group of painters called the New New Painters, who had a show in Prague in 2002, curated by Kenworth W. Moffett, who passed away just a few days before Renie came to New York. Out of that show came a colorful catalogue of their work, which I have a copy of at home, inscribed in Renie’s loopy writing.

Renie and Paul are environmentalists; out of that love came her creation of beautiful pins and earrings made from discarded plastics. In the 1980s, she utilized the 6 pack plastic rings used to hold beer or soda together, once destined to choke fish but now have a second life as beautiful earrings and brooches. Her most recent jewelry material are the Nespresso pods which she has shaped into delicate, glittery flowers that are quite dressy looking. I was thrilled to be given one by her on the last night there.

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Anna Abruzzo and Irene Neal

Renie and her husband Paul came to New York to meet with Anna Abruzzo, who is interested in repping Renie’s work.

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L. to R.: Dad, Paul Neal, Irene Neal, Sally Epstein, Richard Epstein

We visited Anna at Studio Tag, where she showed us around the architectural showroom showing us all of Renie’s most recent ink stain paintings  gracing the walls of several Studio Tag offices. Before I arrived, they had taken this photo of our group in front of one of Renie’s paintings, and Anna, whose energy mimicks Renie’s, had already named my dad “The Boisterous Man.” I liked her immediately.

After showing us the showroom, Anna took us all up to the roof of the building, where there was a delightful meadow in the middle of Manhattan.


The thing I love most about my Aunt Irene is her natural joy and irrepressible enthusiasm about everything. Right after we got home yesterday, she texted me this picture. I can’t tell if the mounted policeman is giving her directions or lecturing her, but I’m sure that after the encounter, he left smiling because it’s impossible not to when you meet a force of nature like Irene. IMG_6624She always has a smile on her face; she is one of our family’s biggest boosters. What am I saying? You already know her because she is the most frequent commenter on my blog. She gives me a target to aim for when I get to be 80.

Our trip to New York and time with Boisterous Man and his sister Irene is not one I will soon forget.

 

The Perils of Grandparenting

There are so few places where you can get a good candid shot of your family, but Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum afforded us the perfect opportunity to show our fortitude in the face of a T-Rex and other threats.

This week has marked the first visit to Los Angeles of our beautiful granddaughter Skylar, and her professionally qualified parents, Whitney and Chris. We’ve had a great time, fending off Dinos and Cheetahs while we got to know each other a little better. Talk about bonding exercises! Here are a few tips I’ve learned about the perils of grand parenting this week:

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How is it that we kept laughing while being chased by a cheetah?
  1. Don’t offer to babysit the first night when your grandchild is exhausted from an all night road trip the night before. It usually ends in tears. And not just the baby’s. Have you ever felt more inadequate than when your grand baby is screaming in your left ear?
  2. When in doubt, check the diaper. There are usually only three reasons that we are no longer having fun: Wet or poopy diaper, hungry, need a nap. Or see 1.
  3. Do not send video tapes of the melt down moments (see 1.) to the parents with the entreaty “Can you come home now?” This is irresponsible and subpar grand parenting. You can do better than that. My friend Hannah has told me I’m allowed to send them to her instead. That’s a good friend. And have you ever tried to soothe a squalling baby and take a video at the same time? I’m not adept enough to pull it off.
  4. Always have a burp cloth near by. This is just the euphemistic name for a better place for your baby to throw up on than on your new shirt.
  5. If you are out at the restaurant and the baby is lying serenely in your daughter-in-law’s lap after the meal, don’t offer to hold her. It will usually end up in tears.
  6. Binky = Success.
  7. Don’t try to conduct business when you are babysitting. Had to put the phone down with the company manager from the Kirk Douglas yesterday to rescue Grandpa, who had dropped the Binky. See 6.
  8. It’s okay to go to sleep when you’re babysitting and the baby has gone to bed and is quiet. It only took me two hours of waiting for the pros to come home to realize –

    DOH! Chris and Whitney go to sleep at night while she is sleeping. I can go to bed, too.

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    Always take a photo if you are surrounded by giant butterflies and ladybugs. It will be a classic. 

Love And Information Tech Rehearsal

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Jason Thompson, the Lighting and Projection Mentor leans in to advise Austin and Zack on a technical issue during tech

There are moments in the teaching of making theatre where we get it right. One of these was evident this past weekend in the tech rehearsal for Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” going on in the McClintock Theatre. Churchill’s script is complex and layered, and the tech elements are equally multi-faceted. The play’s synopsis published on the Samuel French website is fragmented and purposefully so, as is much of the play:

Someone sneezes. Someone can’t get a signal. Someone won’t answer the door. Someone put an elephant on the stairs.

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George Austin Allen works at his tech table station in MCC – the Ion Lighting console and monitors can be seen over his right shoulder. The Watchout computer and second computer networked to allow content organization by his assistant Zach Blumner sits to his left.

Two of our BFA senior designers were assigned the bulk of the design areas – BFA Design senior George Austin Allen is tackling the scenic, lighting and projection design, mentored by professional Lighting and Projection Designer, Jason Thompson. BFA Sound Design senior Danielle Kisner, is  designing the production’s sound, mentored by professional Sound Designer and Director of the BFA Sound Design Program, Philip G. Allen.

I assigned BFA Stage Management sophomore, Taylor Cullen, this show because I believed that she would work well with SDA Faculty member Paul Backer, the director, but also because she had proven her capabilities in managing a fairly complex workshop production last spring.

Jason Thompson, Austin’s lighting and projection mentor, in addition to bringing his considerable expertise to the table, supplemented the design technology available to Austin by providing the Watchout system on a computer temporarily on loan to SDA for this project. The school purchased a 14K Christie projector about two years ago for use in the Bing Theatre. One of the pre-tech challenges Austin dealt with was how to utilize his scenic and prop budgets, along with his very minimal lighting and non-existent projection budget, to rent the necessary lens to allow this powerful projector to be used in a much shorter throw distance in the MCC Theatre to cover all 5 of his scenic walls. The Christie projector had been purchased for use in the Bing Theatre, with a throw distance about 5 times in play here.

Watchout allows digital mapping of content, including 3-D content with Audio. While the technical capacity of this software is impressive, where I was most impressed during the tech was with the breadth of Austin’s creativity in using the software. In a show that highlights our marination in social media, 24-hour access to often horrifying news images, and a societal fascination with all things game-related, this play invites a mind-blowing array of content, which Austin and his Scenic PA, Sophomore BFA Designer Zach Blumner are curating at a fast, though notably not frenzied pace.

On the IMG_5137sound side, Danielle, after thematic direction from director Paul Backer, created an equally deep well of audio content. She worked this weekend on gathering her cues, editing on the computer dedicated for our sound designers, equipped with both Pro-Tools for editing the cues, and QLab for delivering them into the theatre’s speaker plot. She and Austin needed to work tightly together, to ensure that she had provided space and the appropriate timing for his videos with sound. They had an easy banter going on together. In what would be a tense time-sensitive environment, I was impressed with the respectful, sometimes playful tone they maintained with each other as well as with the stage manager, Taylor. I like to think, as would any stage manager, that this emotional room tone, for lack of a better term, is generated by the stage manager. Taylor has an ease and affable confidence when she jumps on the god mic (which is a must for maintaining a clear audibility to all parties). She addresses the actors and crew members involved in setting the upcoming scenes, as well as those on stage currently with clear instructions, then cues herself up with Austin and Danielle and Dominic, the Sound Op in the booth before launching the sequence, a dazzling array of projected titles, video and audio content.

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Ben Altman, ASM on Love and Information

She is supported by her ASM, Ben,  a BA student with interest in stage management. Ben organized the backstage props tables and moved fluidly from backstage to Taylor’s side in the theatre. His quirky note taking system of pencil notation on the sides of his macbook pro was the best way for him to keep tabs on the preset notes people had given him backstage. I chided him that:

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Director of Love and Information Paul Backer looks at some of Austin’s projected content prior to our first dress rehearsal.

Some people use postits. But whatever works for you!

If you get a chance, check out Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” this weekend in the McClintock Theatre! Tickets and Information available Here!

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Sound Designer Danielle Kisner works on sound refinements prior to the first Dress Rehearsal. Paul Backer sits behind her. Taylor surveys from her SM post.

31 Years – The Gift

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L to R: Alice Drummond (Nell), James Greene (Nag), Alvin Epstein (Hamm), Peter Evans (Clov)

My husband and I celebrated our 31st anniversary on 9/1. Yep, 31 years ago, we tied the not in a small Episcopal church on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Our lives then, as now, revolved around the theatre. At the time of our marriage, Jimmie was performing the role of Nag in a production of “Endgame” at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row with Alvin Epstein  (Hamm and also Director), Peter Evans (Clov) and Alice Drummond (Nell). This production subsequently toured to Israel where we had a free honeymoon, staying at The Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel had a bar with a piano where, I kid you not, the piano player sang “Where it’s at, at the Diplomat!” There, in the bar,  they served martinis consisting of about a thimble full of gin, a lot of ice, a twist of lemon and two of the smallest olives you ever saw. We were still drinking then, a habit which I shed shortly after our return from Israel, and Jimmie, about a year later.

A successful marriage of over thirty years is marked by many changes, involving mutual growth  as well as personal.

If you read my blog about our 30th anniversary, and the romantic weekend getaway at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, you can see that this year was going to be hard to top. 30 Years, 30 Memories

So I started to think about the gift as a dramatic story; the kernel of the story coincided with something inexplicable that I have been thinking about over the past three weeks. You may think less of me, or perhaps more after you learn that I have been thinking hard about getting a tattoo. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my midlife crisis kicking in. I’m hardly the family’s first. Our son, Chris, has entire sleeves of elaborate tattoos on both arms, which, if the truth be told, I’ve given him a great deal of grief about.

My thought process in the past week got more focussed, as the timeline shortened, and I found the image I wanted while cleaning off my desk, an unopened box of Crane’s stationery.  The notecards are adorned with a single, colorful hummingbird hovering over a frond of Indian paintbrush,  a vibrant red flower stem that matches the bird’s ruby throat.

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Our Anniversary Dinner at the Perch Restaurant (before the dramatic reveal)

We’ve become obsessed with hummingbirds, starting from when Jimmie and I decorated our patio two years ago with furniture and two hummingbird feeders. Each day, from 7am to about 8pm, we have from 10-15 hummingbirds darting back and forth between the feeders, sparring for access. They are enormously entertaining to watch. Frankly, I don’t know why it took me so long to choose the image for the tattoo, but once I had, it was just a matter of working up my courage and finding the time to do it.

My online search for LA Tattoo parlors was brief; I quickly selected the one from Yelp with the most stars that was closest to Downtown LA, Alchemy Tattoo. I pored over their site, looking for similar images, and learning a little about flash, catalogue frames of tattoo art that is displayed in a parlor to give those with the urge but not the clarity some ideas.

This was supposed to be a surprise, of course. I figured there was nothing that would surprise my husband more than my getting a tattoo. It wasn’t just the shock value, which I hoped he could handle, but it was the (hopefully) romantic statement that I would go through a lot of pain and suffering for him, decorate my body with an image that had profound meaning to both of us and to our lives together. So, for the purposes of maintaining my cover, I told him that I had to go do some shopping for our anniversary, and after breakfast, I headed out the door with my hummingbird notecard and the best intentions.

Just before leaving, I texted a photo of the card to Chris, asking him for a sanity check. He approved (duh, Mom) and off I went. I pulled up in front of Alchemy Tattoo, which is on Sunset Blvd in Silver Lake.  It was about 11:45AM on Sunday, and the security doors were not quite open, but I pushed my way in, heart pounding. FullSizeRender 9It was empty! Great news. Chris had warned me that I should be prepared to discuss my project with someone, but not get in, because usually walk-ins would be given second priority to those who had larger ongoing projects. But, he had said, you might get lucky.

Jake, one of the artists, greeted me with the news that the place didn’t open until 12, but in spite of that, he came over to listen about my project. He told me all work was paid in cash, which caused me to sag for a moment, until he referred me to the liquor store next door where he said the owner would give me cash back on a purchase. I went over and bought a water and got some cash, returning to Alchemy. By now, Jake had surveyed the other artists and determined that none of the ones present were available – they were working on larger work with more organized clients than myself. But Josh was on his way in, had no appointments, and could help me with my project.

IMG_4980I sat self consciously, in the front of the store, the only person in a 3 block radius with no ink, and did my crossword puzzle, in ink, while I listened intently to the culture of the shop. There was a lightness and ease in the room, aside from my own terror, as people dropped in, dogs in tow,  to share their tats with the artists there. I watched as a young red head came in to continue work on his left arm, and he was asked to show his completed work to the staff; they audibly appreciated it.

Then something happened. I had no idea how it was going to feel to get a tattoo, and that worried me, but the process of planning, designing the art work was one that was so familiar, that I instantly relaxed. I watched as Jake worked with the young man who was adding a dagger to his arm, listened as they discussed the shape, size, color and placement of the new tattoo among his existing art. They moved around the shop, looking at the art on the walls and describing how his idea of the dagger might differ from the options there. It was the theatrical design process in microcosm.

When Josh arrived, he and I looked at the image of the hummingbird and he discussed how the tiny (less than 1″ square) image would not translate well, and he threw it into the copier there and blew it up to about 2x the size. We discussed the flowers and I said I might like a different flower, and he showed me some cherry blossoms which he then went away and sketched into the picture. While he did that, I continued to try to finish my crossword puzzle and calm my nerves.

Soon we were solving the fact that I’d worn a pretty inappropriate blouse – I turned it around so the buttons ran down the back and Josh began to do the tattoo. Just like the dentist, the noise of the gun was worse than the pain.  It was not nearly as painful as I thought it would be. Jake, at the next station over, was working on the red head’s knife, and when I asked how it was looking to Josh, piped up with

That pentagram is looking pretty good.

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Selfie with Joshua Jimenez, my hummingbird artist @joshuajimenez_tattoo

Tattoo humor. Who knew.  I laughed and continued yoga breaths to get through the discomfort. I told them about my earlier trip, (only about 38 years ago) to a tattoo parlor in San Francisco, with a calendar-sized picture of a red footed booby. How the artist there had turned me away because I didn’t have the exact size artwork, and how relieved I had been. More jokes about the Red footed and other types of boobies that they had done. Throughout the process, I wanted to see what was happening, but of course, that wasn’t possible. As we neared the end, I asked Josh if I could take a selfie for the record and he agreed. See, I’m smiling, probably from relief that it was over.

On my way home, I stopped at Macy’s to buy the package that I could carry into the apartment to justify my 3 hour absence.   And after two days of hiding my tattoo from Jimmie, on our 31st anniversary I will show him the gift that signifies we are bonded forever. Our little hummingbird. IMG_5014 IMG_5012IMG_4984

Gospel at Colonus – Poolside Family Reunion

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My go-to pic for all pool party invites.

We hosted a glorious reunion of our Colonus Family yesterday. The colleagues whom I met only about two months ago have become family. That can be one of the powerful aftereffects of a theatrical venture. In certain productions, the chemistry of a company becomes larger than the vessel that holds it, and spills over, flooding your lives with the epsom-salted-soothing water of a warm bath. Or in this case, of a warm pool, as the twenty-plus guests gathered to celebrate the upcoming remount of the show in the Rec room at our condo in downtown LA. There were conspicuous absences, of course, as several cast members live back east or across the country and were not able to attend. Others, still, had work, or family engagements, or reunions planned after the flurry of the show this summer and were otherwise engaged.

Yesterday was a tough and emotional day for Jimmie and me, as one of Jimmie’s nephews passed away suddenly after a brief but impactful series of medical episodes. In the scrum of the party organization in the morning, I glanced at FB, seeing a picture of Jamie on his brother Doke’s FB page, and the dreaded words, rest in peace. Though he had lived with AIDS for over 30 years, managing his health well, his departure was a blow. His twin, Martha, herself recently widowed, had sat with Jamie every day for the past five days, in ICU, as the medical team worked nobly to stave off the inevitable. Nothing prepares you for the loss of a family member.

Death crept elsewhere around our Colonus family reunion yesterday. Jackie Gouche´ arrived, on her lips a story of the sudden passing that morning of her next door neighbor, a 56-year-old man. I am ever alert to the potential for loss. You can call me Maude Lynn;  I guarantee I will use that as my nom de plume in the future.  My hyper awareness of loss is genetic, as well as due to the large age gap between myself and my husband. The picture I select for our invites each time we host a pool party is of a woman who closely resembles my dearly departed stepmother. Her kind, limpid blue eyes, combined with the silly plastic spangled swim cap reminds me of dear Joan, and her strong impact on me as a teen and later, as a young mother. Each loss stings as a reminder of losses to come. This hopeless extra sensory perception to loss causes me sometimes to go overboard planning parties where I can more easily embrace our family and the non-blood-related families we build around us via the theatre.

I feel an urgency to make the most of each day; so, on a day when our apartment looked like a war zone due to the bathroom remodel in progress, I gathered up the necessary tools to make the Condo’s lovely rec room adequate to host a party and pushed my cart down to the 2nd floor pool level.

By 1:00pm, I was ready, plastic red and white checked table-cloth rolled out over the rec room’s tables, all the available chairs pushed up next to the long 15′ table area, buffets set up near by, and a station of cold drinks ready by the door to the outside, where 95 degree temps eagerly mashed their sweaty fingers up against glass protecting the cool, air-conditioned room. It was sunny and the grill was heating. I swooned a bit from the combination of grill and natural heat as I flipped the first burgers.

The inevitable fear of party failure loomed. Tough questions rolled through my brain:

What if no one comes? What if no one eats? What if no one has a good time? What if there is nothing to talk about? Did I make enough food? Will anyone swim? Will the lack of parking deter them from coming?

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L to R: Ricky Nelson, Els, Jackie Gouche, Andi Chapman, William Allen Young. This photo almost didn’t happen but we convinced each other it was a good idea.

One thing I should have been certain of is that there would be plenty of talk and laughter and frivolity.
At more than one point in the afternoon, the decibel level in the room exceeded the legal limit for condo rec rooms, but thankfully, the doors were closed up against the heat, and we just reveled in the sonorous ricochet of laughter.

As at all family reunions, topics of health came up. We bemoaned this family’s shared acute asthma, comparing treatments and the high cost of inhalers, and hopeful appraisal that we could still take up scuba diving in spite of the affliction. We talked about the value of the epsom salt soak, either lavender-scented, or plain.  We took turns reveling in the achievements of our children, the raucous chatter and laughter silenced for a few minutes to listen to the extraordinary vocals of Jackie’s son, featured on Tyrese’s latest and last album, Black Rose. We laughed about the Hollywood phenomenon of being in a TV Series; how a mundane drive across town could suddenly be punctuated by seeing your own face on the side of an adjacent bus, or on a nearby billboard. Surreal. Enjoy it while you can!

Did you get a selfie?

I have a selfie stick.

You do not!

I do, just not with me.

We shared Face Time with Muff, who had recently moved to Florida; we visited briefly, me sitting on the edge of the pool, feet dangling, as Angie held the phone up to my face and I struggled to see Muff through the sunny reflection of Angie’s phone. Then Angie swept her away to visit with some of the others.

It felt good to laugh, to listen, to relish the memories of the brief time that we have known each other as a group. People came and left during the afternoon as their schedules allowed. IMG_4849We had a brief visit from the Colonus Pater Familias, Wren T. Brown, his beautiful wife, Anne Hailey Brown, and their son Brandon, who had performed in the last weekend of the show as one of the Henchmen. It is because of Wren and Gayle Hooks that we exist as a family now. This two month-long hiatus, broken up by our Colonus Poolside bash allowed us to remember what bonded us. Ricky regaled us with a story about being recognized recently by several large groups of women.

Do I know you from church?

No! We saw you in the play!

How did you recognize me?

We recognized you from your hair!

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I watched affectionately, as my hostessing duties took me away from the table, and Dominique invited Jimmie closer in to the table to talk. And, at the end of the afternoon, when I realized there was another party booked in the room, I felt terrible to have to tell people it was time for us to wrap it up.

Everyone scurried to make plates of food for people to take away and to help with the clean up. Nina’s yummy baked beans! I quickly snagged some of Lantrez’ beautiful enchiladas, and I am glad I did! I missed Deante’s mac and cheese, which, I was told, was very cheesy! Oh well, next time.

With classes starting, and the beginning of the fall semester, along with the remount of Colonus for three brief weeks, I am not sure how to get another party pulled together. That’s okay. We will see each other soon!

Next weekend, Jimmie and I will see our blood family, for Jamie’s memorial. In this business of life and death, it’s about making opportunities to be together, about embracing and laughing and eating.  COLONUS ART

This is the last week for early bird tickets. Tickets $25-35 are on sale only through August 21st. Get yours now! http://www.ebonyrep.org/

The Gospel At Colonus – Messy Humans

I’ve been struggling about what to write about in these last weeks since The Gospel At Colonus opened. In a whirlwind of positive energy here at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, the cast and band and crew have settled into their roles amidst an almost embarrassing surfeit of riches, as rave after rave after rave has rolled out from the LA Press. I say ‘almost’ because no one can really complain about reviews like these; to do so would be disingenuous at best and karmically ungrateful at worst.

The play continues to sustain me as a stage manager, both in my work backstage with the wonderful crew, and with my limited face time with the cast prior to the half hour and following at the impromptu after show party that keeps the lobby abuzz until well after 11:00PM. (The show ends at a little past 10pm).

Average lobby after the show.
Average lobby after the show.

People don’t want to leave, it seems, but want to stand and reconnect with friends, and celebrate the uplifting message of the play and the talented performers.

As a teaching exercise, running a show beyond the brief five performances allotted us in the university schedule has been beneficial to my assistant, Jessica. She has gleaned more about the responsibilities of maintaining a show to the opening night level of excellence. She and Sheldon, our ASM, have kept the stage clean, and maintained their performances each night by running their sides of the deck professionally, and with good humor. Even when things have gone differently. I won’t say astray, because that isn’t correct. What interests me is that intersection where life and theatre meet and the flexibility required by all to face the ensuing challenges. Most folks in the theatre optimistically embrace challenge as a learning experience. The rest embrace it as another nail in the martyr’s cross of artistry, which is also, for them,  a positive experience. I have always preferred to work with the former type, the learners. Coping with challenges and changes are what we are trained to do, and we flex those muscles every day. Live theatre involves human beings, artists with complex lives outside of their work. They face demands placed on them by the economic realities of work in a field that doesn’t pay well enough to support them exclusively. Artists every day subsidize their own work by agreeing to work for lower wages than they might earn in a standard “day job.” It is an unfortunate expectation, but it is institutionalized in America, where federal funding for the arts is minimal and ever decreasing. So it is not surprising that many in our Colonus company, have full-time jobs in other fields, as well as families to support with those outside jobs.

When Wren asked me to stage manage this production, we discussed the fact that it was not a contract that provided for understudies. This made me a bit nervous, because with 32 performers, I expect that somewhere along the way in a 6 week run, something will come up that may get in the way of their performing. For example, my own dear husband was scheduled for a procedure this week described as in-office and not complicated. While it may have been routine, and in the doctor’s office, and straight forward, it was impactful for my husband. Don’t worry, it went well, and after the immediate reactions clear, life will be better for him. Being human is messy. So a cast of 32 humans dealing with their messy humanness can be unsettling for a stage manager without understudies. I should have known Wren T. Brown would have a back up plan.

This week I should have factored in that one of our Colonus cast members was going to be out to support a family member this weekend. Another Quintet member was pegged early on to cover this actor when he went out, with a third in the wings to cover his role; we planned rehearsals and a put in this week on Thursday to prepare these two cast members. Then, unexpectedly, in the same week another member of the company received a TV offer that he couldn’t or didn’t refuse, creating a challenge in covering a second major role from within the company. whoopee! Learners rejoice! A challenge arises!

This presented the real opportunity to conduct a lab for Jessica on “put ins”, something that is difficult to replicate in academic theatre. We occasionally do double casting, but that is pretty deftly handled within the body of the rehearsal process by having cast member A do the scene once, then cast member B do the same scene the second time through. The Understudy process where you have an abbreviated shadow rehearsal process mimicking the original is not built into the structure.

Understudy rehearsals are delineated at the start of rehearsals. Understudies get hired during tech or preview week; while the show is teched, they watch, taking blocking notes and learning their lines prior to the first rehearsal with the stage managers, during opening week on an afternoon when notes rehearsals are not needed.  The expectation is that the understudy will be able to go on, even from the first day they are under contract, even if they must carry a script. There is a lot of pressure on  stage management to be ready to throw one of them into the show with as little disruption as possible, even before the first formal rehearsal. Replacing one actor within the company can also create a domino effect, where the others step into roles other than their own. All of these folks need to at least walk it, optimally with the show lights and sound.

The understudy rehearsal process can be chaotic, in spite of meticulous planning.  Most theatres do not have the money to engage one actor to cover each part, but will hire one actor to cover, say, two or three parts. This means that stage managers will need to jump in during understudy rehearsals to walk the other roles and do as credible a job as they can to represent the timing and blocking of the original cast. All this while following the script and making sure acting intentions parallel the original ones. Putting an actor into a role as an understudy isn’t like creating a clone to the original actor. Every actor is different (remember, messy humans!)  and brings qualities of their own to the role, even while respecting the blocking and needs of those they will play opposite. I’ve had more than one understudy tell me that the first night is thrilling – the understudy is treated like a hero for saving the show. The second night, they frequently find themselves recipients of helpful notes from their fellow actors to push them more into the footprint of the actor that they are covering.

A play with music presents even better challenges for the stage management team. There is music to learn, either with an associate musical director, or with the musical director himself/herself. Movement has been taught, learned and retained by the cast, and hopefully captured with a cell phone camera by stage management for training purposes of the understudies. As a stage manager, I find it imperative to get up and move so that I could learn the movement in my body, usually much to the delight of the more agile cast members. Musicals will have a dance captain from within the cast who teaches the understudies those movements. Several weeks ago, I pegged the best mover in the quintet and loudly under my breath coughed “Dance Captain.” Stage managers get good at pegging a dance captain as the person who is paying attention and repeating the steps over and over. In this case, it was the actor who I also knew would be taking over this weekend.

Everyone worked hard this week to ensure that the substitutions in the cast would go smoothly. We involved lighting and sound in our put in rehearsal, so that they wouldn’t be surprised and to be able to demonstrate to the new actors where the light was so they could best be seen.

Friday night with our four cast changes came off really without a hitch, due to the preparation both formal and informal done by the cast members and the staff. The relief following the show was palpable. The second and third performances this weekend went even more smoothly, and next week when we look back at this weekend, we’ll all say,

“Now why was I worried about that?”

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The Colonus cast prepares for a cast photo at photo call.

 

 

 

The Gospel At Colonus – Celebration of The Trojan Family and Six Degrees of Wren Brown

COLONUS ARTOne of the greatest pleasures of my working on the current production of “The Gospel At Colonus” at Ebony Repertory Theatre has been a return to the professional theatre arena after a decade of teaching. Months ago, when Wren T. Brown, in the process of assembling his artistic team, invited me to join, I learned that I would be working again with Edward E. Haynes, Jr. I have admired Ed’s work over the years both at ERT and when we had worked together at the Mark Taper Forum: he as the resident design assistant, and I as either an ASM or an SM on several productions there.

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Spent way to much time on this…..

Wren asked me if there were any lighting or sound designers I could recommend, and of course I immediately thought of Philip G. Allen and Tom Ontiveros, both of whom grace the production faculty list at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, where I hang my hat as Director of Production. As the PM for all the shows at USC, I get to know the design students and faculty quite well through continued techs and performances. A perk of my place is access to job announcements which I can pass on to our alums. It is so gratifying to know that a student or alum is ready for an assignment and be able to recommend them for it. The same goes for colleagues. Wren graciously accepted my recommendations for Tom and Phil. At an early production meeting on the stage of the Nate Holden, the Artistic team spent a few minutes reminiscing about how we all knew each other. I hadn’t realized that Phil and Ed had concurrently been students at USC School of Theatre in their late teens as design students. Ed and Wren shared an even older connection as childhood friends, and Phil and I go back to the mid 1980s from our work at LA Theatre Center. As it is with both USC alumni connections and theatre roots, this was one gnarly family tree gathered to discuss the current project.  Good gnarly, though, not bad.

Theatre is a contact sport, yes, pun intended. It is both random and intentional who ends up in any given rehearsal room in a theatre. Casting needs vary for every show, of course, as scripts and the local theatre’s casting staff decide who fills those roles. Designers bring their skill sets formed from their training and the range of designs they have built into career portfolios. Directors often collect designers and work with them again and again, developing a short hand that saves time and energy. A theatre may have its own favorite stage managers and one can find oneself in the midst of those considered, or lurking on the outside looking in. Directors also often have favorite stage managers. So to find myself sitting at the table with this wonderful team made me euphoric; Wren and I had worked together more than 20 years ago at the Pasadena Playhouse. There was a lot of shared experience and history around the table.

Last night, in the lobby after the show, I introduced my friend, Musical Director Parmer Fuller, also a faculty colleague from USC to Wren. Parmer marveled at the vocal talents assembled on stage, saying

“Where did you get all these amazing performers?”

Wren said, “These people are all dear friends from throughout my life.”

To share this experience with my USC family has been heady. Fellow Trojans were Ed and Phil, myself, Tom, and Karyn D. Lawrence, a lighting designer who has designed for us at USC, our Production Assistant, Jessica Major, a Junior in the BFA Stage Management program, Jessica Williams, a recent alum,  joined the team as the Assistant to the Director, Andi Chapman.  A cast member, Sedale Threatt, Jr.  graduated from the USC School of Dramatic Arts MFA in Acting program just last month.

The Oedipal incestuousness (yes, sorry, intended again) nature of our artistic collaborations is not strange or unique in any way. The work that happens in any theatre on any given project is close, intimate work. Every theatrical assemblage of talent has the 6 -Degrees-of-Kevin Bacon-aspect going on. In this case, it’s the 6-degrees-of -Wren-Brown. Being umbilically connected via a headset system to your team throughout hours of tech, whispering numbers and letters in the dark at a close bank of tables in the theatre, makes for life long friendships or at least affinity for life. From those tech tables,  one observes the vulnerable expressions of actors finding their way, and designers in the house, dressing, lighting, and making audible those vulnerable performers.

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Most of the cast of The Gospel At Colonus turned out for the talk back.
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Ebony Repertory Theatre Founder Wren T. Brown, with Director Andi Chapman and Musical Dir. Abdul Hamid Royal surrounded by cast members

There was a post play discussion following this afternoon’s matinée at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. An enthusiastic house had watched the show, and after the curtain call, Wren T. Brown and Andi Chapman greeted them and began to take questions. I wasn’t sure how many of the actors were going to stay for the talk back, but I should have known they would represent. Wren fostered a beautiful conversation with the audience, who included a group of women from a local church as well as some neighbors who lauded Wren for his theatre’s offerings.

After a lifetime of stage managing shows, one knows that the lobby can be a treacherous place. You may be surprised when I tell you that not every show I’ve ever done has been a hit.  Many of my friends are well-schooled in the finer points of green room perjury. Favorite comments gathered both from life and from theatrical lore include:

I’ve never seen anything like it.

Good isn’t the word.

You’ve done it again.

However, in the wake of the rave reviews received by Colonus, the lobby of the Holden has become one of my favorite places to hang out.  It has been especially sweet to greet USC friends and associates who have come out to see the show. Their tears and enthusiasm have been heartfelt. The show’s community continues in the lobby as cast members greet family and friends and introduce their new friends to each other. The power of theatre to layer intimate experiences into the fabric of our work and social relationships is profound. One actor on stage today in the talk back spoke of how grateful he was for the television jobs that have sustained him but that the theatre was where he was rooted.

That old theatre family tree has deep roots.

The Gospel At Colonus – Opening Night

COLONUS ARTFew events in the theatre evoke more anticipation than opening night. Events leading up to the Opening night for The Gospel at Colonus have flooded my memory with earlier openings and the elements that make them both thrilling and poignant.  Opening night is the night that a director turns the show over to the cast, and in this case, the cast, crew, band and choir. It is poignant and I am almost always sad to bid the director adieu. In this case, I am certainly sorry to bid good-bye to director Andi Chapman, with whom I have relished working.

Yes, tonight marks the night when Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting cues are set, the sound has been programmed and mixed by designer Philip G. Allen in the days leading up to tonight. Naila Aladdin Sauders’ last-minute costume adjustments will have been made. As Stage Manager, my role will be to make sure that the cast continues to do the show according to the realized visions of the director and musical director, Abdul Hamid Royal. So to that extent it is complete. We are ready to open.

Historically, Opening night is the night when a show reaches maturity, solidifies, or in the immortal words of Ethel Merman,

”Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”

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Nikki Potts and the cast of “The Gospel At Colonus” during the rousing “Lift Him Up” number has folks standing and clapping in their seats.

This is ironic considering that what we do in the theatre is the antithesis of frozen. There is nothing solid in the activity that transpires between a cast on stage and an audience in the house, which is, after all, what theatre is – the meeting of story tellers and story receivers. Our art is ephemeral in the purest and most exhilarating form.

The Gospel At Colonus’ specialness sits somewhere between the edge of the stage and the gold carpeted stairs leading into the auditorium. I have watched it over the past two nights of previews. The show is not frozen, nor is it confined to a passive experience on the part of the audience, nor by rote or perfunctory performances by anyone on stage. It is a living, breathing celebration of our humanity.

In the past several days, our preview performances coincided with the terrible events transpiring in South Carolina and the aftermath of the senseless murder of 9 people in the historic Emmanual A.M.E. Church. On Wednesday night, during our invited dress, at Intermission, when I checked my phone, I had received a CNN bulletin about the events. I shut my phone off to silence the cacophony of my emotions to finish the show. Over the next two days, as we have all processed our feelings individually, I have taken great solace in the work before me each night, both from the cast and band and choir, and from witnessing the effect of that work on the audiences, as they stood throughout the show to applaud and sway in time with the music.

The story of Oedipus’ redemption on stage was eerily mirrored yesterday by the incredible grace of the families in the courtroom as one by one, they forgave the young terrorist Dylann Roof for his unfathomable actions.

I believe in the power of theatre to heal. I believe in the spiritual power of this theatrical event. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply spiritual person with a strong belief in the power of the human experience both one on one and in a theatre as a transformative power. Whatever is happening out in the world, and there are some pretty horrible things happening out there, the theatre has always been my church. I have taken comfort post-tragedy in the shared and sacred spaces of theatrical creativity – on the night after 9/11, from the booth at the Canon Theatre, where I watched the cast of the Vagina Monologues perform their words with heavy hearts, to the first preview of The Gospel At Colonus, where the words and music of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson can’t help but be tinged with our collective heartache over the events in South Carolina.

I have been healed by the fervor and passion and raw talent gathered on the stage at the liminal space between that top step and the house.

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”[1]) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

Wikipedia

The welcome disorientation of those on stage and the audience in the house for The Gospel At Colonus is the strongest I have ever felt in the theatre.

Last night on headset, I reported to the crew during “Lift Him Up”

“The first row is standing and clapping.”

“Now the second row is up.”

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Another ritual of Opening Night. Flowers from my Dad and his wife.

Tonight’s Opening night promises to be thrilling as all opening nights in the theatre are, but especially keen due to the gifts of these artists in this place and in this time. This production’s scale and cost is a gamble for any theatrical producer, and Wren T. Brown along with Gayle Hooks of the Ebony Repertory Theatre have nurtured the production to beautiful fruition.

It is such an honor to be working with these artists and I celebrate continuing to break down that fourth wall with our audiences in the coming weeks.

Happy Opening!