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!

It’s Okay To Be Fierce. Thank you, Reza Abdoh!

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Filmmaker Adam Soch

Tonight we attended the LA Screening of Adam Soch’s film about Reza Abdoh‘s life and work, work that Adam himself had collaborated on and has now assembled from over 20 years of footage taken in the theatrical trenches with Reza and his Dar A Luz company. What struck me most in the film was the commitment of the artists in Reza’s tribe, and how much joy and laughter, lightness really, was derived during those long hours in the theatre supporting his less-than-light vision.  Reza Abdoh Documentary Film

It felt important to celebrate his work with old friends but the guest of honor wasn’t there; Reza died on May 11,1995, twenty years ago almost to the day. I think he would have been pleased with the film, which captured the gutsiness and drive of his life and work; but more likely not, because, as the film pointed out, he was not ever fully satisfied with his work. Reza always let his collaborators know that there was room to improve – to go faster and fiercer.

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Under the not-so-flattering glare of the heat lamp, yours truly with Costume Designer Alix Hester.

I look forward to being able to share the film (after it makes the documentary film circuit) with my students, friends, and family. The intensity of Reza’s passion infused all of us. Michael Angel, now a filmmaker, then a crew member on two of Reza’s productions, said

“It was very hard to say no to Reza, when he stood in front of you and said, ‘I really need for this to happen. Can you make it happen?'”

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Twenty years later, Reza’s collaborators 

IMG_4124Many of us discussed this “can-do” hangover/attitude/disease/tendency after the film tonight.

Stage managing a show as complicated as “Bogeyman” was has given me the confidence to do just about anything my heart has desired in my life. It has also made it very hard for me, and others, I found out tonight, to say “No, that isn’t possible” to directors. People call Production Managers “Dream Crushers,” because they bear bad news about limited resources and possibilities. I think my brief brush with Reza’s process simply reformulated my understanding of what is possible and what isn’t.

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David MacMurtry, Janine Silver, Laurel Meade with Filmmaker Adam Soch at the Los Angeles Screening.

All of Reza’s youthful artists are now twenty years older, no longer cherubic young theatre technicians and actors, but nonetheless still committed to their work in theatre, or academia, or film. We toughened and wised up in theatrical boot camp with Reza. Reza’s now mature Dar A Luz company members, whose beautiful bodies were tasked with grueling emotional and physical choreography twenty years ago, now have the opportunity to celebrate Abdoh and his importance to the theatrical canon and to them as individuals.
Thank you to Adam, who has been the keeper of the flame for all these years. And thank you, too, to Reza’s long time collaborator and friend, Sandy Cleary-Wade, who co-produced the film with Adam.

I urge you to see this inspiring film as soon as you can. It reminded me that it’s okay to be fierce as an individual artist, and collectively in  your chosen artistic tribe.

Explore at 4- The Performing Arts

This week, the USC Career Center, in collaboration with the Theatre Student Association of the School of Dramatic Arts hosted a panel in the Martin Massman Theatre for The Performing Arts, as part of their Explore at 4 series.

LevarQA-808c59dfThe panelists included actor, entrepreneur LeVar Burton, Camille Schenkkan, Program Manager Next Generation Initiatives, Center Theatre Group (CTG), CTG Casting director Mark Simon, playwright and Co-literary Manager for the Theatre at Boston Court, Emilie Beck, and David Mack, Strategic Director of the Heidi Druckler Dance Theatre. Meghan Laughlin, who helped coordinate the event with the Career Center  asked me to moderate the panel. This was a first for me at USC.

The purpose of the panel was to show alternative pathways to students on the brink of forging a life in the performing arts. To provide a safe place for them to ask questions of a prestigious panel of people who had already made their way in a variety of directions. Approximately 55 students attended. Career Center’s Senior Career Counselor and organizer of the event, David Ginchansky, took a quick survey which revealed all but three students in attendance were Thespians.

I have an embarrassing confession. I was really nervous about moderating this panel. That probably sounds silly, and after a lifetime of stretching out of my comfort zone, the experience has reminded me yet again of a valuable lesson for those about to seek a life in an uncertain profession.  The wonderful thing about being asked to do something new is that following that initial frisson of fear, one’s creative habits and training kick in. Which is, of course, what the panel was addressing. How do we take the training we have received in school and go out into the profession to find our way? The students who attended the discussion heard the same idea expressed many ways throughout the hour-long discussion:

Find your authentic self.

Keep your ego healthy. In a business where exposing your authentic self is de rigueur, find a way to protect your ego from being bruised without sacrificing what makes you authentic.

Be kind. To everyone.
Take risks and do things that are unfamiliar because you never know when you will stumble into your perfect career in the arts.
Dare to fail.

We covered topics such as how to navigate new media as actors. Who better to discuss that then LeVar Burton, with 1.7 million Twitter followers? Burton refashioned his long running Reading Rainbow television show into an app which has allowed students to read over 16 million books on their tablets. He modified his original premise of bringing reading to young children via the current technology  (television in 1983 when the series started) to embrace the latest technology. He took what he knew and adapted himself and his vision, creating a successful kick starter campaign with over 105,000 contributors, raising over five times his $1,000,000 goal. Burton asked to see a show of hands for how many of the students had Instagram accounts. Every single one rose in unison. Roots_25th_Anniversary_Edition

Burton discussed how he had been cast as the lead in Alex Haley’s “Roots” when he was 19, a sophomore at USC. He attributed everything he knows about acting to the training he received at USC, in the earliest days of what is now the School of Dramatic Arts.

Mark Simon and others talked about researching the company you are approaching for a job and knowing before you interview about the type of work they do. Before auditioning, he advised, “Read the play.” He said that if he found that an actor hadn’t read the play he was likely to lose all interest in that actor. Good advice!

The universal advice from the panelists was to get out and go to the theatre. See the plays, talk about them, write about them, hone and train your ability to think about plays in critical terms and to have opinions.

Several of the panelists talked about how they had started as actors and migrated in another direction. Camille Schenkkan began as an actor, and realized that she really didn’t like commuting to auditions. She had a formative internship while in college, which developed into a full-time job. She became active in the Arts Alliance and other organizations, and soon landed at Center Theatre Group. She is responsible for overseeing the internships offered to students at Center Theatre Group, now a highly competitive process.

Emilie Beck began as an actor in Chicago, an environment she loved, and which I later overheard her telling some students about more. When she moved to Los Angeles, she discovered she no longer wanted to be an actress, and because she was writing plays by then, sought a job which could support her creative work.

David Mack described his rewarding work in coordinating the logistics for a dance company doing events in non-traditional performance spaces. Again, the theme was adaptation, flexibility, not being afraid to try something that hadn’t been tried before. It was a wonderful conversation.

I had joked with my husband before the event  that moderating a panel is just like hosting a dinner party, except without the shopping, cooking, and doing the dishes. The moderator’s task is exactly what the dinner party host’s is: to draw out your guests, to tease out the stories and the experiences that fascinate the other dinner guests. I love hosting dinner parties.

The dessert was hearing these generous panelists respond to the questions of the students, who were so eager to hear what they had to say. It was a dynamic and positive conversation which left everyone in the room, both students and panelists, feeling charged and hopeful about their future lives in the arts.

Following the question and answer period, the panelists stayed to talk with the students one on one before heading out into the early evening. Everyone left this dinner party fully sated.

On the Occasion of Brent’s Baby Shower

On the Occasion of Brent’s baby Shower                           January 11, 2015

Organized by Vic at the home of Laura and Geraldine

We’ve all been to a lot of baby showers – all of us over the age of thirty or so, anyway: women probably more so than men, though times are changing on that. image1The most recent shower I attended about 8 months ago, the result of which may be the happiest baby I have ever met.

Today I have the privilege of attending the baby shower of one of my colleagues, a well-traveled, thoughtful man who teaches Applied Theatre Arts. This baby won’t be your first, Brent, though it is your first flesh and blood baby. You birthed the one-year MA program in ATA at the School of Dramatic Arts several years back, to which you brought your intellect, passion, strong core beliefs and work ethic. This time, you will be taking on an even longer term project, for sure, currently as a single Dad, and I know you will bring to this new experience the same commitments and passions which you’ve dedicated to your work of the mind.

The challenges that face you in this adoption are many. Your academic work has global reach, taking you all over the world, multiple times a year, to regions where danger is not so much lurking as expected.

As I prepared myself to go to your baby shower, I, always the worrier, had so many thoughts spinning through my head.

Who will take care of the baby when you are in Rwanda or India next? Will you take the baby with you?

How will you create the support group necessary to make your full time teaching and global work possible?

I wish I could see the baby’s room you have set up, though thank you for sharing some pictures with us via social media.

Isn’t it wonderful that children’s lives now have a digital lifespan that even my son, born 25 years ago, did not have?

Is it wonderful?

In the days leading up to today’s shower, I have thought so often about our son’s welcoming party. My husband and I adopted him from the Department of Children’s Services, in October of 1991, when he was 2 years and 2 months old. We knew very little about his history, other than the fact that his birth mother, addicted to drugs was in Sybil Brand Women’s Prison. Chris had been in two foster homes prior to his placement in our home as a fost-adopt, i.e., a child whom we intended to ultimately adopt, but to whom we were currently foster parents.

I know that you know that it’s a long process to become a foster parent, one we had embraced eagerly even while we accepted its foreignness. An adopting couple has no natural nine-month timeline during which to plan for a baby’s arrival. In our case, we didn’t even know the age or sex of the child, so securing a crib or anything, prior to the specific call about the baby would have been folly. So, we really had nothing going in, save the Ikea bed which our adoption worker, Amy, helped us to put together on the weekend during which our guest bedroom became our son’s bedroom.

At the time, I was the stage manager for Reza Abdoh’s “Bogeyman,” which was in performance at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, with amazing artists both on stage and off. My ASM, Sandy, along with her soon-to-be-husband, Galen, the sound engineer for the show, and their roommate, David, organized a baby shower for Chris at their home in Silver Lake. In attendance, if my fraying memory serves me here, were many of the beautiful actors from the show, Tom, Juliana, Tom, Tony, Peter, and others, and the indefatigable crew, Michael, Alix, Mark, Jane, Jon and others whose names have sadly withered away. See, there’s one difference – if our shower had happened now, there would have been dozens of photos on Instagram and Facebook allowing Chris and my husband and me, to access those memories in sharp detail. Alas, now our son needs to rely on that increasingly faulty source, his mother’s and father’s memories, and some photo albums with yellowing photos.

I do remember that Chris was rambunctious, and he ran around the coffee table for hours, opening his gifts (another difference with your typical baby shower). The givers of the gifts got the added bonus of seeing their gifts truly and very actively appreciated. It was moving to see these generous artists, who gave every night on the stage their seething, raging, triumphant spirit and commitment to Reza’s work, give stuffed animals, Winnie the Pooh plate sets, and many other toys to our son. It may have been the most life-affirming experience I’ve ever had.

IMG_4391And so, dear Brent, I welcome your baby into your life and my life, and the life of the school we share. You must feel free to call on us to support your new role as father, protector, nurturer and teacher of your child. It will be quite a ride, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

Lots of love to you from your extended family.

Watts Towers 1986 to 2015

Recently, while cleaning out some boxes from our storage area, i came across an old picture of our visit to the Watts Towers in about 1986. We had recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, out here temporarily due to Jimmie’s gig in a touring production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Huntington Theatre (later James A. Doolittle Theatre, and currently The Ricardo Montelban Theatre). We were staying at the Magic Hotel in Hollywood, on Franklin Avenue, at the base of the Magic Castle. Our hotel room was more of a suite, with a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen, with not much more than a hot plate and a microwave. I remember the sofa bed retracted into the kitchen right where the oven would have been. The hotel took dogs, which was critical for us, as we had brought Jasper, the smartest dog in the universe, with us to L.A. There was a seedy park across Franklin from the hotel where we would walk him throughout the day, and we took night walks up Odin St., which ran behind the hotel into the hills, and where we frequently spotted the shining eyes of coyotes late at night.

IMG_4362In the picture, Jimmie and I were leaning up against Simon Rodia’s epic exterior wall, smiling  at the photographer, while our dog, Jasper, tongue lolling, looked off to the right. Casually dressed, Jimmie wore jeans and his Tail o’ The Pup t-shirt covered by a bluejean jacket. I had rather unflattering front-pleated khakis on and a long sleeved pink T-shirt. The jewel tones of our shirts echoed the vibrant colors of the broken tiles in the walls behind us. I really wish I could remember who took the picture, because we were looking so fondly and a bit shyly at them. The towers were completely unprotected at that time, no fence, no entrance tickets, no tour guide. We were left more or less to our own devices to wander through the structure and relish the detail of this artist’s mad and spectacular life’s work.

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One of the towers stands 99 1/2′ tall, just 6″ short of the regulations of the day for structures needing permits.

Today, about 28 years later, I returned to the Watt’s Towers. IMG_4319After many years of being closed to the public due to fears about their seismic safety, they are still in the process of being restored;  the whimsy and passion of the work is so powerful. Jimmie didn’t come with us today. I was invited by a friend who was introducing a new member to the Trojan Family to some of LA’s splendors. I tagged along, and was so glad that I did. Over the course of thirty years, Simon Rodia, whose life had early on taken a somewhat tragic spin, regained control of his circumstances and sought to execute this tribute to his Italian roots. He scouted the location, in 1921, of this small lot bordered on the one side by the Red Line Trolley tracks, and on the other by a working class neighborhood. Over the next thirty years, he used stones and metal and broken shards of pottery and tiles to construct what they called today, the largest personal sculpture in the world. And it is spectacular.  I asked my friend to take a picture of me by the wall, but I will make another trip back with Jimmie to take an analogous picture to the one we took almost thirty years ago. IMG_4324 IMG_4325 IMG_4326 IMG_4327 IMG_4328IMG_4338

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