The (all too) Humans

Some people measure years and personal growth with penciled marks on a closet wall next to their child’s name. As the child grows, the marks rise, sometimes inches above the last mark, especially during adolescent growth spurts. This sizing of our tribe is proud, grateful, sentimental, self-referential, celebratory – many of the things that mark our humanness.

As Angelenos were painfully reminded just this morning, the passing of time can also be marked through shared loss, as we read about the untimely passing of Pulitzer-Prize-winning LA Restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who’s LA Times obituary was one of the most moving I’ve read in some time (Kudos to Andrea Chang). Gold, in addition to being an exquisite writer, was a gourmand, chef, taco-truck aficionado, friend, husband, organizer, someone who celebrated the value of food in building his community and ours. In fact, several of the local annual foodie events that happen in Los Angeles came about because of him.

This building community is a feature that I’ve always appreciated about the theatre. This week, I attended The Humans, Stephen Karam’s breathtaking (and Tony Award winning) paean to our humanness.

Those of you who are diligent followers of my blog (a handful, but nevertheless profoundly appreciated) may remember that I had seen The Humans in New York a little more than two years ago. It was an emotionally draining experience, not just because of the power of the play, but really, because of the physicality of the journey itself, and the resulting realization our connubial theatre attendance was moribund; that was painful and distracting. And with that inviting introduction, if you want to, you can read about it here. 

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Jimmie in NYC June 2016

So about a week ago, when I ran into my friend Rob at Ralph’s in the dairy section, I agreed reluctantly to attend a performance of The Humans last Tuesday at The Ahmanson, where the touring production is playing (only this week, so don’t miss it!).

We agreed to meet there, and on Tuesday evening, I caught up with him at the box office window, watching as he worked to negotiate seats together (after booking them separately). Somehow he managed to pull it off, and we entered the lobby of the Ahmanson, immediately accosted by an enthusiastic subscription saleswoman. I made the eye connection, so my bad.  Rob headed off to the bar to get us some cool drinks, while I tried to figure out how to get Dear Evan Hansen tickets without mortgaging our condo. Done and done.

Viewing The Humans for a second time with none of the logistical myopia caused by getting my butt in the seat was eye-opening. I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania. However, my maternal grandparents lived in Wilkes-Barre, and we spent many happy trips there while we were growing up. Reed Birney (Erik Blake), bears an uncanny resemblance to my dearly departed Uncle Lou (at least from Row E of the Ahmanson Theatre’s mezzanine), so much of the Thanksgiving gathering and the feedback felt appropriately familial. Like those self-referential closet wall markings, we take in theatre experiences from where we stand.  Two years ago, perhaps I related more to the character of Brigid (Sarah Steele), hearing and responding to her parents’ critique of her marital status, her new apartment, her life choices.  It’s also possible (and quite likely) that I didn’t adequately hear the play, so wrapped up was I in the emotional reckoning I was having in the balcony of the Helen Hayes theatre, with my husband of thirty plus years.

Two years down the pike, last Tuesday, the play ran through a different emotional filter, as I focussed keenly on the character of Momo, played by Lauren Klein, and the effect her caregiving had on her son and wife, played with stoic durability by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. Lately, I frequently find myself mentally marinating in the role of caregiver, caretaker, whatever one calls it.  This isn’t the moment to expound, but suffice it to say, any caregiver who cares for a loved one also takes pleasure and privilege from the work, hence my confusion in the use of the terminology.

KL: What was your impulse behind writing The Humans?
SK: I was thinking a lot about the things that were keeping me up at night and that got me thinking about existential human fears: fear of poverty, sickness, losing th e love of someone…Was there a way to actually tell a story that might elicit some of those fears – or provide some thrills- while also talking about how human beings cope with them? And by the time I was done, I had written a family play, or, as I think of it now, a family thriller.

From an interview by Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D, and Playwright Stephen Karam (Original transcription by Annika Bennett)

But I digress. Theatre is prismatic. It accords us the opportunity to revisit even the same play over and over again, learning new things about ourselves and our community from the facets of our experiences. That is why a play like The Humans appeals to so many different types of people. It has the ability to mirror back to us that which we project.

Rob and I drove back down to South Park after the show, and a day later, Rob reported that he’d lost his wallet at the theatre. After multiple trips to the theatre, dealing with kindly Christine, the house manager, and searching the areas under our seats, he discovered a slot under the row where he posits his wallet might have fallen into a mysterious pocket, probably unretrievable. Somehow, this seemed a fitting end for a lost wallet at The Humans. We searched my car again to make sure his dreaded trip to the DMV was required. This morning, when I got in the car to go to the gym, I discovered I’d left the overhead lights on from our search, and felt grateful when my car started up.

My re-visit to The Humans managed to remind me about all of the things that make our shared experiences powerfully human, and I’d go so far as to say to remind me why I am so grateful to be alive and living in Los Angeles.  I’d encourage you to make a visit to see The Humans while you can to discover what experience you find reflected back at you. Then, by all means, let me know!

Don’t Go

The image above is one of those perfectly encapsulated generational images. On the left, our son, age 2 and 3 months, poised in his dandy finery next to the knob on Thanksgiving, impish smile as he reached for the doorknob, his favorite talisman of the terrible twos. On the right, a photo of his daughter, age 2 and 4 months, hand extended in an eerily familiar manifestation of her DNA. Both photos say “Don’t go.” But in the one on the left, it was we who were saying “Don’t go” and on the right, it is our granddaughter who wears the universal mien of the child who wants her parent to stay. I haven’t asked Chris who took the shot, but I’m assuming from his Instagram post that he evoked this tragic look of loss on her little face.

April has been a month rich with visits, starting with a spring break visit from our son and his wife and daughter, three days full of flurried energy. Our guest bedroom isn’t the comfiest spot for a family of three, but we’ve hungered for connection, so it was great to have them here.  This last visit was taxing because unbeknownst to me, Jimmie was becoming dangerously anemic.

Our second visit was from our dear friend Susan, who resides in South Africa. Her trips are about the clearest demonstration of a friend’s love that I’ve ever witnessed. Two legs of travel, the first 10 hours, the second 16. Each way. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to stay awake while here to visit, and to watch baseball with Jimmie while I head off to work. The last day of our visit was cut short, when I drove Jimmie to Hotel Good Samaritan to find out why he was so exhausted. Susan, ever gracious, had cleaned the house and left us flowers reminiscent of those she left 34 years ago in our honeymoon suite after executing the Maid of Honor duties for our wedding.

The third visit was Jimmie’s niece, Martha, come to support me through the last weekend of productions in the spring semester. I called her on Wednesday, she arrived Thursday evening and began taking care of us selflessly, as she has done so many times before. She cooked for us, spent time with Jimmie, and still managed to make discoveries around downtown LA, checking in on the progress of the mural in Pershing Square.  She discovered a new dangerous french bakery/cafe opposite Pershing Square, where she picked up the best blueberry scones I’ve had ever. Martha has an enormous zest for life and such style that I am constantly finding myself wanting to emulate her. She was as ever, a good sport, when I cajoled her into participating in one of the spring productions at USC, entitled Don’t Go.

Don’t Go was a devised, exploration in collaboration with the Sojourn Theatre Company, under the auspices of USC’s Arts Initiative, “Visions and Voices” of what happens when strangers meet, form a relationship, then discuss a topic that they may not see through the same lens. For a year, we’ve been planning this artist residency, and for the past four months or so, we’ve cast the seven student actors, and then the Strangers. The rehearsal period and performances were the culmination of this phase of the project, which I suspect will have a future life in the capable hands of the Sojourn Theatre.

I’ve come to appreciate the kindness of Strangers. Both at work and at home. Yes, capital S because the Strangers I met at work this month were many, curated from the USC campus and from among friends, family and neighbors within the larger Los Angeles area. The play demanded participation of seven of these curated souls each night, and finding them initially seemed impossible given the constraints of our other productions and the fact that each day only had 24 hours. Guided by the directors of the piece, Nikki Zaleski and Rebecca Martinez, we reached out to create bridges across the campus and with other theatrical institutions, such as The Pasadena Playhouse, which yielded willing participants to this theatrical and social experiment. Potential Strangers were asked to fill out a brief survey, indicating their availability for specific dates and performances or rehearsals, and some brief questions to unearth issues that they might feel strongly about. Meanwhile, the directors were building a structure for the conversations to take place while guest scenic designer and artist Aubree Lynn simultaneously designed a habitat. Student Costume and Projection Designer Mallory Gabbard worked to create clear instructional projections and a curated wardrobe to support the desired environment.

Student Lighting Designer Abby Light created a flexible plot which could both color and provide movement around the space for the conversations to unfold. Student Sound Designers Jacob Magnin and Noah Donner Klein grappled with the physics of reinforcing sound in unpredictable places throughout the theatre.

Most impressive to me was the ingenuity of the Stage Management team, students Lexi Hettick and Domenica Diaz, who communicated throughout the process with our Props Manager, Hannah Burnham, as the tasks to foster relationships evolved. In tech and performance, Lexi created an improvised tracking system to call lighting, sound and projections as determined by Sojourn artists, Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd, who took us all on the journey each night. It was different each night, because the topics selected were different. Lexi’s and Domenica’s focus in tech was laser clear and sound, live mixed by Noah was integral to the audience’s ability to follow the show.

The take away for me from the month of April is the blessing of generosity in the people around us all the time were we only to be aware. As negative as the current news cycle is, it is sometimes easy to think we are surrounded by danger all the time. My personal visits at home and the circumstances of the Sojourn piece allowed me to appreciate that we can easily share our common humanity with a complete stranger over the course of anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes of getting to know them. We may present ourselves to the world in a way which may be very different from what is in our hearts.

Yesterday, a new visiting nurse came to check up on Jimmie, post-hospital stay. She and I had been playing phone tag a bit, and we were expecting her between 6 and 7pm. Starving, Jimmie and I downed a bowl of potato chips, and I went to see what of Martha’s magical leftovers were in the refrigerator, not intending to prepare them until the nurse left. She arrived, a young woman in her early to mid-twenties, clad in blue scrub pants, a gray t-shirt, and sneakers, a bounce in her stride that jostled her braids. Within the ten minutes of our meeting, she knew that I taught theatre (which surprised her), and we knew that she lived in the neighborhood and had a four year old with brain trauma. How do we know these things? Because we allow ourselves to be interested in each other. To take advantage of the most cursory and peripheral engagements to be curious about who they are. What do they think about this? That?

With our hands on the doorknob, poised for flight, we have the opportunity to say to each other, Don’t Go. Stay a while. Let’s share our common humanity.

 

Puzzling for PMs

Production management is a big puzzle. What are calendars but intricate jigsaws of time, venues, and events, people and resources? Beginning with the broad strokes, the macro edges of a season, building a shape to contain, in our case, twenty shows, and then working in down to the detailed microcosm of who will be on a crew to support the physical needs of each of the individual productions. As I begin, each year seems jumbled and chaotic, unachievable, until I ponder specifically, painstakingly about how it all fits together. What worked the last time? What didn’t? Where do we need to make accommodations for specific dates within the calendar?

I should have known when I was ten, sitting at the folding card table on my grandparents’ plush Persian carpet, sweeping my gaze over the 1000-not-yet-interlocking pieces of that year’s Christmas puzzle, that I would end up a production manager.  There, with my mother’s father, the architect turned bridge-maker, we sat in companionable silence, for hours at a time, hands darting with quicksilver recognition of pattern and color, brushstroke and tone. Typically we puzzled over paintings. I remember well the vexation of Rembrandt’s “The Man with the Golden Helmet.” 1200px-Rembrandt_(circle)_-_The_Man_with_the_Golden_Helmet_-_Google_Art_Project That was a challenge. Sure, the helmet was easy, the sheen on his right shoulder, but the miasma of the dark field around him was unnerving when we started. And yet, in spite of the seemingly impossible challenge, we soldiered on, until the full image lay flat and complete. Sometimes a piece would go missing, lost in the intricate patterns of the carpet beneath our feet. And like the aha moment of my later puzzling as a PM, we would find the piece that brought that particular section to a satisfying whole.

This early exposure to puzzles may be the reason I took up the study of art history in college, finding pleasure in examining the brushstrokes of various painters, languishing in the details of influence and exposure of artists to one another and the formation of schools of painting, or the iconoclasts who broke away in their painting practices. I discovered the elegance of Georgia O’Keeffe, her stout American grace, her standing as a female artist in a man’s world. I relished her heady romance with Alfred Stieglitz, thirty years her senior.

I see you taking this in and assessing how these pieces fit in my life.

The thing about puzzles is that sometimes what you are looking at isn’t really what you are seeing. In your eagerness to find the piece that slides in snugly but not with force, your brain can convince you that what you are looking for is something green when in actuality, it is part green, part yellow.

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Several years ago I went through a phase of puzzling 17th Century floral paintings…

Honing that expectation to the reality requires a stillness and mindfulness to see the edges of color, the subtleties of tiny lettering, in the case of this year’s puzzle challenge, the subtleties of dozens of different fonts of lettering.

As an adult, I rarely have the time and, in our downtown aerie, the space to have a puzzle out on a table.  Our table is the dining room table, which typically functions as the breakfast, lunch, and dinner venue. During the holidays, it sports a colorful green cloth with a festive Guatemalan runner down the center, and whatever I’ve thrown together as the centerpiece. This year, two (now desiccating) red roses, some Queen Anne’s lace, a drooping white hydrangea, a spray of evergreen, two perky carnations (death flowers to the Italians) and a festively jeweled red tennis ball on a stick that came with the discount flower concoction I bought at Ralph’s after eschewing the much more attractive centerpiece of pink tulips and evergreens because of the price. That reminds me it’s time to toss my confection.

The convergence of time (a week off between Christmas and New Year’s) and venue availability (a last-minute cancellation of plans for my Dad and his wife to visit) opened half of our table venue to puzzling, providing the pleasure of an extra-curricular puzzling respite, a break from the puzzling as PM that I get paid to do.

And so, I pulled out the puzzle that my dear friend Jennifer had given me for my birthday two years ago. It has sat on my desk at home awaiting some confluence of events as described above, and eagerly, on the 23rd of December, I opened the box and spread out the pieces.

An Antique World Map, on display at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA.

…originally designed as a frontispiece to Henricus Hondius’s 1630 revision of the long-lived Mercator/Hondius atlas, a work then being challenged by rival map publishers.

Where to begin? Initially confounding, and only when approached methodically, patiently, the edges and corners came together in a few hours, then the images of the portraits of Julius Caesar, and cartographers Claudius Ptolemy, Gerard Mercator and Jodocus Hondius, Sr. followed. What seemed impossible to imagine ever completing, the dual circles of alternating colors around the two lobes of the map, came together on day two. The colorful outlines of South America, Africa, Europe and Asia, clued together by the internal tiny names. The vast, uncharted territories of Canada and the Northwestern United States.

And yes, lest I seem callous, I was devastated by the change in plans and not getting to spend the Christmas week with my Dad and his wife. Sometimes plans are fickle, and unchartered. Happens all the time for us PMs, us humans, us explorers. As disorienting as it was to have our Christmas plans disrupted, we made the best of what we were given. And that, my friends, is the only solution to that and any puzzle.

Writing with my best friend -Black and White

This is the coda to an earlier blog entitled Writing with my best friend – Royalties? Er….No.

After disengaging from the process thinking that we’d never be able to recoup on the book, another writer in our family, Jen, encouraged me, saying that according to her writer friends, publishing the book again in black and white shouldn’t be too hard. So back into Createspace I went, and began what I hoped would be a simple process.

Continue reading “Writing with my best friend -Black and White”

Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

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Writing with my Best Friend – The Cover and Recovery

One of the most enjoyable phases of putting Jimmie’s book together has been abusing my long friendship with my college pal, Bob Stern, now a graphic designer in New York City. We had the pleasure of seeing Bob and his partner Mitchell when we were in New York this summer, and there, in the dining room of the Yale Club, the years melted away and we reconnected after a mere whisper of time since graduating from college. 34 years gone in a flash!

While we were in college, I used to visit Bob in the printmaking shop, and watched him as he designed, then laid the heavy block letters in the press,then printed out posters for our theatre shows and theatre department. The printmaking shop was housed in the same building where we had all our theatre classes; Bob and I also shared a love of theatre. We spent two summers running a theatre on the campus, traveled with about 10 of our college friends to Edinburgh, Scotland after graduating, under the guidance of our teacher and mentor, Carol MacVey. There we all re-mounted 5 productions before disbanding across the continent to broaden ourselves. I spent thirteen months living in Venice, Italy, several of them over the last summer while Bob visited, doing graduate studies from Yale, and  we cavorted among the canals with our misfit American and Australian expat friends. I wrote a series of posts, Letters from Venice,  three years ago about that time. It is easy to fall into silliness when I am with Bob.

When I got up the gumption to publish Jimmie’s book, I asked Bob if he’d consider designing the cover, and he graciously said yes. We had initial conversations about what it would entail. No slouch when I knew him in college, Bob now has an important job in New York, and is the father to a teen. Our initial book cover conversation was a Skype call at almost midnight his time. I had sent him the book a few days before, which he had read. After adjusting the lights so that we could see each other on our respective screens, we talked about the title, A View From The Wings, and how to convey the double meaning of the word wings, discussed in a previous post.

Bob came away from the Skype session with more than one interesting idea about the design of the book’s cover. He had an idea about using Jimmie’s silhouette as a window/curtain split through which one could also see him performing on stage. Trippy, right? I have a little trouble even now describing the concept, and at midnight, after strenuous days for both of us, Bob’s description wasn’t really sinking in. But I have enormous faith in his artistry, and after almost an hour of conversation, we ended the call.

Several weeks later, Bob apologized for his computer’s “crapping out.” We would have to wait to see the sketches of his idea, but in the mean time, could I find a simple full figure photo of Jimmie that we might use as the silhouette?

I don’t know about you, but my computer photo organization is in shambles. I have the photos in  my Iphotos folder, and in my photos folder, in a large box under my bureau, and in about 5 or 6 assorted old style family picture albums. I have another hard drive where I saved all the photos and I think obliterated all the dates associated with them in the process of saving them. I probably will need to spend about a month and hire a professional to figure out how to access and organize them. I suspect my inability to see and retrieve them all has more to do with the remaining size of my memory. How apt.

I mean my computer’s memory.

thumb_s6300111_1024I went back and looked at all the photos of Jimmie I have in all my photo programs, and came across this photo of him backstage during the national tour of 12 Angry Men, wearing his natty white linen suit, in whichever city it was that I joined him in. I wasn’t sure that this photo would work for what Bob wanted, but it turned out it was exactly what he was looking for.

So weeks went by, and we had the man plumbing issues to contend with and then the teeth. We spent a few days in various ERs; I have great appreciation for the nursing staff and doctors who attend ERs. They are unfailingly kind and considerate. I have also observed that 56-year-olds don’t get in to be seen as quickly as 89-year-olds. So it was Wednesday morning at about 1:00AM, after the Tuesday tooth extraction, when out of the mists of my slumber, I heard someone calling. I don’t remember what I was dreaming about -actually think I was not dreaming, but suddenly awoke to see Jimmie standing next to the bed, and his pillow looked like something out of the horse-head-in-the-bed scene from The Godfather.

And off we went, this time to the County Medical/USC Hospital. Their ER made Good Samaritan’s ER look like a kindergarten. The size of the waiting room at County General was really imposing, but once again, we went to the head of the line. (Yes, yes, I distinctly hear my privilege.) In we went, and for the next few hours we waited as they tried about three different techniques for staunching the bleeding from Jimmie’s gums.

We spend a lot of time these days seeking medical care, but it’s time we get to spend together, and for that, however unfortunate the circumstances, I am grateful. We took turns sitting on the bed and the plastic chair in the ER bay#3 and took turns napping. It was during those hellish ER limbo hours between 4:30AM and Jimmie’s 9:00AM discharge that Bob’s email arrived with ten sketches of the book cover. 10! We looked at Bob’s creative ideas, any one of which would have worked just fine. I can’t tell you how much their arrival buoyed our spirits.

We are in re-cover-y. Thanks to Bob and the kindness of local ERs.

 

 

 

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.