Hats and Passports and Moving On

On Monday, my son and his wife ushered a beautiful second daughter into the world, a process comparable in many ways, he noted, to helping his father/my husband out of life last November. Sitting bedside, hearing the breathing patterns, feeding encouragement, at one end breath expunged, followed by a terrible stillness and the onset of grief; at the other, an energetic intake of breath, a hearty kicking cry of life followed by rejoicing. Both amazing and frightening and life altering experiences for the privileged witness participants.

I wasn’t able to be there for the in-person rejoicing, as we’re in the full press of tech for two spring productions at USC. Someone, however, took a photo of Chris, holding the newly arrived baby, swaddled in her iconic blue and pink baby blanket, eyes closed. In the photo, Chris looks at the camera. Over his left shoulder on the sill of the hospital window sits his Dad’s blue Boston Red Sox baseball cap. In his eyes, the warmth of a life remembered and one anticipated.

Chris had brought his Dad along for the birth. Three years ago, Jimmie and I’d arrived from the airport about an hour after their first daughter was born. We’d all sat on that same purple couch, marveling at her perfection and the miracle of new life, then watched as she had her first bath.

Early days of Granddaughter 1’s life with Grandpa Jimmie.

Last weekend, we had tech rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George in the Bing Theatre, and Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody in the Scene Dock Theatre. Spring beckoned from outside, beautiful lush flowering bushes surrounding the Technical Theatre Lab. Periodically, I would roust myself from the hip-wrenching theatre chairs to walk the exterior perimeter of the lab, beginning appropriately on Bloom Walk, savoring the sunlight on my head, and watching the hummingbirds dart through the blue and pink flowers. Very restorative.

Last night, I sat and watched the second dress rehearsal of Sunday in the Park with George, house left in the Bing, our 551 seat proscenium theatre. It felt good to sit down because it had been a day. I came in and tossed down my backpack, falling into the comfort of the seat.

I’d started the day assisting the new Campus Emergency Response Team in their final training exercise, playing a victim in the Search and Rescue drill. There were nine of us, all but one of us CERT members from previous trainings: staff, faculty, even a local untethered middle schooler. We arrived at 7:30AM to get made up, bloodied, ready to play our roles and ready to do some serious schmacting, the kind of overwrought performances only non-actors can give. I eschewed facial blood because I had to run from the drill to film the welcome greetings for our incoming class of Production/Design students. I figured seeing the Head of Production bloodied or just looking dirty might not be a good message of welcome for them. Good call?

I’d been feeling particularly sad that I wasn’t at the birth of my second granddaughter the day before, so during the drill, I adopted two rescued CPR baby dolls with enthusiasm and purpose. Another participant, Michael, from the USC Hotel, embraced them, too, so while I came into the drill a widow, within a few hours, had two babies and a husband. Pretty quick work, my fellow victims laughed. I’m sure there is some embarrassing video and stills out there of our schmacting. Stay tuned.

Chris and I texted throughout the day, first in the morning, about his eldest daughter’s dour demeanor at breakfast. She had some particularly colorful words for her other Nana as she gruffly eschewed toast. I took the opportunity of being surrounded by the zombie apocalypse to film a little PSA instructing her to eat her toast, and what might happen if she didn’t, but Chris hadn’t shared it with her. She was busy coloring.

As I watched the start of Sondheim’s masterful treatment of art and love last night at the second dress, I thought of Jimmie, not just because Chris had texted me moving messages about the power of helping loved ones across the border from life to death and from birth to life, but because the actor playing George was wearing Jimmie’s straw hat. We’d found the hat on one of our vacations to Cape Cod, a straw panama hat with a black ribbon around the outside, with the prophetic brand “Sunday Afternoon” inside the sweat brim. I’d brought the hat in earlier this year, rescuing it from its ignominious resting place in a wooden magazine holder at home, hoping that the hat (and Jimmie) might have another go on stage, and sure enough, the costume designer designated it the place of honor. I watched the hat come to life again as George sketched studies of the characters on the banks of the river for his seminal work of Act I, Un Dimanche Apres midi a L’Ille de La Grande Jatte.

L. to R. Tyler Joseph Ellis (George), Luke Matthew Simon (Boatman), Liz Buzbee (Dot), Diego Dela Rosa(Baker), Shelby Corley (Nurse), Piper Kingston (Old Lady). Scenic Design by Mallory Gabbard, Lighting by Pablo Santiago-Brandwein, Costume Design by Edina Hiser, Projections by Derek Christiansen, Sound Design by Dom Torquato

Sondheim’s Act II meeting of 19th Century Dot with 20th Century George had me sobbing. Sometimes the confluence of art and love and life and events of life feels almost too strong to bear. But it wasn’t until after the dress rehearsal ended that I realized I’d been sitting in “Jimmie’s chair” all night. 551 seats in the Bing, and I’d plopped down my backpack in pure exhaustion settling into his seat to watch the rehearsal. Who says our loved ones are gone when they are gone?

Sheathed in it’s sleek red white and blue certified envelope, my new passport arrived earlier this week. I could barely wait to open it when I got home, backpack still on my back, ripping the top of the envelope to extract the smooth, navy booklet emblazoned with the gold eagle, turning quickly to the glossy photo page to see what this world traveler looked like.

Note to self: don’t take the photo immediately after a haircut lest you look like a newly shorn Maltipoo. While cute, remember that this image will follow you on your travels for ten years. But then, we’ve previously acknowledged my history of poor pre-Passport acquisition hairstyles. A few days later, the old passport arrived, retired by virtue of its expired date, and more evidently by its hole-pierced cover, now a testament of travel gone by, an archive of trips untaken.

The new passport, a beckoning scorecard for future adventures, a challenge to stretch from the safe commute of home to work to home. What if work can span the globe as it does for grandson George?

I’m sporting a new piece of jewelry acquired this week as well. Not quite the same message as Stephen Sondheim’s inspiring Act II number, but this, for the moment, is my new mantra. I’ve bought a dozen of these for dissemination to my “widow’s club.” Because while it’s not a club one willingly seeks membership in, it’s sure nice to have the support of others on the same journey.

Please join us this weekend and next at USC School of Dramatic Arts to see what our two current productions promise in the way of emotional border-crossing. Hope to see you there!

Recharging Our Batteries

Sometimes there’s a synchronicity in things that borders on breathtaking. This week it’s about batteries.

  • Your alta fit bit battery is low.
  • Your internet isn’t functioning (four calls and a trip to Staples to buy a new Uninterrupted Power Supply when the old one was fine) only to discover it was indeed the modem. A trip to the Beverly Center where you discover there is no Spectrum Store. A glance out the window indicates that it is at the Beverly Connection, which to the Spectrum technician on the phone was the same thing, I guess. After 15 minutes there, I finally noticed the board where our names were listed in order of being helped. I was #22. I plugged in my earbuds and waited, doing some people-watching.
  • Jimmie’s scooter battery dies while his niece Stella is visiting and they are in the park necessitating a full tilt push of the device back to the apartment. (I’ve been there before – humiliating, ridiculous, a test of the humanity of others.) God love Stella. When I returned, I found them at home drinking Starbucks beverages, so she pushed him to Starbucks and then home, something that I wouldn’t ever have done.

Anyway, you can see the theme here. Recharging batteries.

Summer is about recharging our batteries. The days at work are shorter in the summertime, and there are fewer interruptions, allowing us to organize the puzzle that is the following academic year’s season.

More time for visits from family and friends. More time to give back. This summer I’ve started recording interviews with some of the West Coast stage manager notables, for the Stage Manager’s Association “Standing in the Dark” series of podcasts. Selfishly, this allows me time with friends and mentors like Jimmie McDermott, and Mary K Klinger.

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Els and Jimmie and Mr. Bighead, of course. 6/22/18

More time for following our grandbaby’s exploits on the Insta feed.

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Granddaughter Skylar’s joyful mud discovery during a recent Father’s Day camping trip with Mom and Dad.

We had a captivating visit with Stella followed by one from Jen and S. Extraordinary people and we are so lucky to have them in our lives. On the last day, S found a green worm on its way to our tomato pot on the balcony, and brought it inside, where it writhed and danced on her tiny finger like a tiny green belly dancer before finding sanctuary on a full leaf of Romaine lettuce where she proceeded to eat several large holes in the leaf, in a perfectly round shape.

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More time for reading the Sunday paper, especially when your internet modem dies a horrible death. More time to discover to your infinite pleasure that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t seem to give a whit about social media and adores birding. I knew I felt a kinship to him.

More time for finding and using the sweat glands, more time for explosive step ups in HIIT class, and more time for fitbit Workweek Challenges posed by former students. I’m coming for you, Ashley S!

More time for reading. I just finished reading Todd Purdum’s book, Something Wonderful, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, a beautifully researched and entertaining dive into the history of American Musical Theatre, a subject high on my radar of late. Apparently high on other peoples’ reading lists as well, as this photo and Guardian article revealed. But enough of that. I’m recharging my batteries. No perp walk for me. I told my husband as I got about half-way through the book,

Lucky you! I’m going to sing all the lyrics I encounter.

Which turned into one of the sweetest pastimes we’ve had. Out of the murky depths of our long fused, long term memory banks came the swells of the live theatrical shows of his youth and mostly televised shows from mine. Granted we sounded a little closer to Archie and Edith on the piano bench than Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae,  but nevertheless, it was lovely. We beamed at each other.

Summer brings the crunchy, sweet wholesomeness of cherries, watermelon, lighter evenings and the prospect of summer vacation on the horizon. A week of unscheduled recreation with family. Time to attend book signings by friends, and to go to the movies.

In essence, time to recharge our batteries.

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”

 

The Invisible Life of a College Professor

Lately I’ve become obsessed with what I’ve started calling the “invisible work.” All the non-evident administrative tasks that are needed to the move processes forward. Lest you think this is going to be one big whinge-a-thon, you can relax. I’m gonna peel back the curtain and let you see some of what we college professors really do. Disclaimer: I love my job so those of you sniffing around the edges for a potential job opening, it’s not here. I hopefully have many more years of happy invisibility. But, having said that, it riles me to hear someone say,

You professors have really cushy jobs.

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Disclaimer: Quite old photo of this college professor at her desk and at her target weight.

Continue reading “The Invisible Life of a College Professor”

The Dangers of Living with an Actor

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m married to an actor. What I may have not mentioned is I’m married to a really good actor. This is an actor who’s plied his trade for the past sixty-five years, accumulating over twenty Broadway credits and twenty-nine off-Broadway,  has worked all over the country in regional theaters from The Mark Taper Forum in our home town, to the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, the Globe Theatre in San Diego, to Yale Rep. IMG_6046He’s gotten around, most recently, performing as Nagg in Center Theatre Group’s production of Endgame at the Kirk Douglas, in May 2016. He was one of three performers who were ninety years old when the play opened.

 

 

 

 

But perhaps his most convincing performance has been in the role of aging actor. Years ago, he played the 100-year-old man on the final “Centennial” episode of Las Vegas. The episode aired in 2005, so Jimmie was a spritely seventy-eight. He came home from his day on the set and told me that the mayor of Las Vegas had remarked to him after they shot their scene:

Hey, this acting business is tiring.

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What Jimmie looked like in 2005

For the episode of Las Vegas, they applied extensive prosthetics to achieve the 100-year-old character. I remember looking at him in his makeup and thinking

I’m going to stick around – you look damn good for 100!

But in fact, at the age of ninety, Jimmie looks decades better than he might (if the makeup artist was accurate) at 100. Now that’s talent.

I’d bet that you can’t tell which of the photos below is from 2015 and which is from 2016?

So this is how I know he’s a really good actor. Forget the convincing performances on stage and screen. He does an incredible stand-to-stasis moment when he gets up from the couch. He pulls himself up, then stands still for a moment, teeters precariously just long enough to engender a skosh of empathy from the audience (me) before he moves toward his walker. Once there, he trots away toward the bathroom. I’m pretty convinced that he doesn’t do it that way when I’m not there to witness it. But he eschewed the Nest Cam, so I won’t know for sure.

Other incredibly convincing acting techniques include the amount of time he takes to get into bed. The way he pulls his legs up and really slowly eases his toes under the sheets as though they might damage his legs – wow – it’s breath-taking.

I laugh sometimes when I see student actors struggling to convey age. They bend at the waist, use a cane; makes me want to cry out –

It’s all about the knees!

Jimmie’s use of hero props like his walker, hearing aids, and his enthusiastic insistence on the daily bottle of Ensure are foils against my incredulity about his aging.

He’s mastered his scooter for whizzing around the neighborhood, so you might lose sight of the fact that the same journey six months ago without the scooter would have taken five to six times the amount of time it takes now.

What gives him away as an actor, though, is when he lets his performance slip – shows his sharp recall of facts from the past, or launches into a brief but youthful invective against the current political situation in Washington. Or when we play Scrabble and he takes me with words like sycophant or xylophone.

The other night we had dinner with Hal Holbrook and the two of them were gossiping like teens. Talk about recall of events! Hal remembered a specific moment in a rehearsal at Lincoln Center during his put in for After the Fall. And Jimmie similarly about rehearsing a scene during The Changeling with Lanna Saunders where Elia Kazan struck him across the face to demonstrate to her how she should slap him. Twice. You can’t make this stuff up. Come on guys! You’ve gotta do better than that to convince us you’re getting older!

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L to R. James Greene, Els Collins, Rich Costabile, Randy Wilcox, Joyce Cohen, Hal Holbrook

When Jimmie and I first began dating, one of the things we liked to do was run after each other around Central Park. Actually, I usually ran after him. As an ex-marathoner, he kept me well in his rear-view mirror. That was okay with me – I liked the scenery with him in front of me. Now, I can just about believe that he was an ex-marathoner. His backstory is convincing when he plays the lack of knees in that stand-to-stasis moment.

But right now, while he pores over the New York Times, his new Nike eyewear in place, he looks only a tad bit older than when we tied the knot almost thirty-three years ago. I won’t let him know that his acting technique is failing him. He’s very proud to be an actor. It will be our little secret, okay? Unless you want to lobby to have him added to this list where he definitely belongs.

Writing with Me: Stories Just For Us

Just checking in to report that the book is underway. I’m spending a few hours each week to write (not nearly enough), and it’s unfolding as planned. I’m reading a book recommended to me by my friend Bob, entitled If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland. I highly recommend it, a balm for those get queasy at the thought of writing a book. So today, I’m digressing to write about things that probably won’t appear in the book, as they aren’t flattering things about my practice as a stage manager. I can see you all leaning in.

Oh good – here comes the dish….

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of Festival Supervising USC School of Dramatic Arts’ New Works Festival at the Pasadena Playhouse, two concert readings of plays written by the graduating writers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts Dramatic Writing Program. These play readings are cast with professional actors, directed by professional directors, an SDA offering in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse.

My participation in the past few years has been one step removed; on behalf of the school I’ve hired someone else to supervise the festivals, and due to the timing, have been unable to even attend the readings at the Playhouse. This year, I was pleased to be able to do both – supervise and attend the readings, which were highly entertaining and festive. I recommend you seek them out next year. They happen in the middle of May, this year landing on a weekend of cultural wealth in Pasadena, opposite the Lit Fest, the Directors’ Lab, an open house at JPL, two U2 Concerts at the Rose Bowl, and an AMGEN bike ride, all of which brought 200,000 visitors to spend a sweaty Saturday in Pasadena, where temperatures hovered at 92 degrees midday. I’d warrant a guess that anyone who braved the traffic to see Rebin Zangana’s Everybody’s Moving to Fiji, and Inda Craig-Galván’s award winning Black Super Hero Magic Mama was happy that they had made the trip.

I had spent about six years working on and off at the Pasadena Playhouse, back in the early nineties, and have several credits at the State Theatre of California, including a production of “On Borrowed Time” in 1992, where I met Wren Brown for the first time. You can read about that in the post linked above; the production was noteworthy for many reasons, most important of which was that I survived the opening night ride home. Other highlights included productions of “Camping with Henry and Tom” which began with a model-T Ford, entering upstage left,  rolling down a sharp incline, where it banged into a tree, the tree fell over, smoke came out of the car and the denizens of the car, Henry Ford, Warren Harding, and Thomas Edison emerged. The show had been done in New York the previous year, so our rehearsal period was fairly brief, our tech table still in the center of the house, and the house quite well-filled for an invited dress. I made the standard invited dress disclaimer over the god mic about perhaps having to stop the show then cued the top of the show. Nothing happened. The car refused to budge. We tried to start again, and still no movement from the car. From the tech table, using the god mic, I said,

Well, I think this is going rather well, don’t you?

Big laugh. Fortunately, the next attempt at the car starting went as planned, and the dress rehearsal began.

I gave a ride home the other night to two of our three junior stage managers who stage managed the readings at the Carrie Hamilton, and I told them a few stories about my time at the Playhouse back in the nineties – before they were born, I noted, wryly.

A lot of crazy things happened in those years, many that taught me how to manage crises in a live theatre situation and a few how not to handle them.

Late during the previews of A Lion in Winter, actress Carole Cook, playing Eleanor of Aquitaine to her husband Tom Troupe’s King Henry, lost her voice and arrived at the theatre willing but unable to go on. The Playhouse, a LORT B theatre, had no understudies, and I along with the director, and artistic staff, and with Carole’s rather surprising agreement, decided that rather than cancel the performance that night and send six hundred people and Ms. Cook home, I’d set up a music stand on the apron down stage right with a script, and I would read the lines while Carole acted the part. Crazy, right? But I’d been listening to her deliver the lines for the previous five weeks, and knew where she took breaths, etc. My assistant, Ando, called the show that night.

Maybe it was like watching a car accident, but I was told afterwards that no patrons went to the box office to get their money back. Audiences love that stuff, right? It’s live theatre. In this case, I am not sure where I got the gumption to perform, and I’m quite sure that it would not be considered best practice, but I received two calls the next day – one from the artistic director, Lars Hansen, thanking me for “saving the performance,” and one from the Equity Rep, letting me know that I’d be receiving an additional 1/8th pay for “going on” as Eleanor of Aquitaine. I wouldn’t recommend this as a course of action, but just as an example of thinking really far outside the box.

I stage managed “Lettice and Lovage,” a satire by Peter Shaffer, directed by David Galligan, starring Jane CarrJane Carr as the dotty and overly-inventive tour guide at a large English manor house, and Mary Jo Catlett as her officious boss. The play called for an ensemble of tourists, and the Playhouse, ever conscious of the costs of large casts, decided they would partner with the large volunteer organization, Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, who manage the ushering needs and support the Playhouse. The idea was quickly embraced that the ten to fifteen ensemble of tourists would be played by Friends on a rotating basis. Every night, we had a different group of volunteers whom we trained to follow Jane around the stage and hear her inventive history of the house.  Logistics were tough, but my assistant, Ando and I enjoyed their great energy and their commitment to the show. There’s no doubt that they were critical to the success of the play. It helped to boost ticket sales as well, since they all lived in Pasadena and had lots of friends to invite. Win win.

Last weekend, I became reacquainted with Patrick Corbin, a current house manager, who had just begun ushering around the time of Lettice and Lovage, and he dryly noted that he met a new usher one night and the next night had seen her on stage and thought, what a meteoric rise! He had no idea about the arrangement of the Friends as ensemble.

Managing the rotating handful of volunteers was a challenge, and their attendance was sometimes sporadic. One night we were down two volunteers, and so the director, David, and I decided we would don the running suits of these two tourists and head out for the first scene, which took place at the foot of a large staircase from the top of which Jane addressed the masses. Yes, we were being extremely naughty, and unprofessional, because we didn’t tell Jane that we were going on for the tourists. Lights up, Els and David facing upstage to hide our hysterics, our shoulders shaking like jello jewels in our garishly colored track suits.

Jane entered at the top of the stairs, took one look down at us and went into kill mode. She put a bead on the two of us and addressed the entire speech down at us, never breaking for a moment with a death grip of concentration. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of Jane’s onstage ire. The two of us were falling apart, and ashamed of our poor performance as the tourists. Jane never let us forget that one.

Those were critically important years for me in my development as a stage manager. I know that the examples cited above lead you to believe that the development was not in a positive or professional direction, but they tell the story of the types of things that stage managers deal with routinely.  Creative solutions are needed. The ones we come up with may or may not be effective. So we’ll just let these be our little secret, eh?

“We Wrangle Crazy People for a Living”

Spring 2017 brought along with the rain we so desperately needed, a hearty serving of teaching practice for our BFA Stage Management cohort. The recently endowed Alice M. Pollitt Professorship in Stage Management, the first in the nation’s endowed professorship in Stage Management, kicked off an international search for the best candidate. In the past several weeks, four outstanding finalists have visited the campus, each teaching a class to our stage management cohort. Continue reading ““We Wrangle Crazy People for a Living””

Stage Managers in the Starting Blocks

We’re recruiting at the School of Dramatic Arts. The BFA Audition Tour.

For the past two weekends, we’ve met with aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts BFA programs in acting, stage management, technical direction, design and sound design.

We’re led by our fearless leader, the indomitable Lori Ray Fisher, our Asst. Dean of Academic Affairs, and her intrepid “touring company” staff, Meghan Laughlin and Ramón Valdez. Over the past two weekends, in classrooms all over the McClintock Theatre building, aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts arrived with their best materials and selves to show the acting and production faculty. Lori, Meghan and Ramón met with every one of them, briefing them on curricular and logistical details of becoming a USC student while the faculty put them through their paces in auditions and portfolio reviews.

The tour dates fell earlier in this year’s calendar, landing with a thud just after the school’s own casting audition cycle ended. In the first week of classes, in rehearsal halls across the campus, we cast nine shows.

Lacking a stage manager for one of the shows, I stepped in to administer the auditions for one of the New Works plays, and sat in the hallway of PED watching the actors pace hither and yon in anticipation of their auditions, the gracious and welcoming stage managers at their tidy tables outside those audition rooms.

I listened intently to the sweet sounds of musical auditions seeping through the walls of PED 207 from Evita. I listened to stage managers shushing over-excited actors who shared their audition battle stories with their friends sometimes a little too enthusiastically.

I peered into PED 208, where forty-plus young men and women, eyes fixed eagerly, desperately as they replicated the choreographer’s dance sequences. Some of them floundered  with the novelty of the moves, working the sequences over and over until their brows were shiny and their arms graceful, their smiles confident. You have to love casting week.

Usually a stranger to these hallways, I saw many of my THTR 130 students, most of whom are out of their element 8:00AM on Tuesday mornings in a technical theatre class. Now, I was there, in their zone, and they relished the chance to show me their true actor colors.

These are the stakes for the aspiring applicants we met last week in the auditions for the freshman class. The chance to participate in casting week, to land a part in the spring musical, or in a brand new play by a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing program. Or a design position on a future spring musical. Or the chance to sit in the hall outside the audition room to support the casting process. The stakes are high.

The school is also in the process of searching to hire a newly named Chair of the Stage Management Program, the first named chair in stage management in the country, due to a generous gift. I serve on the search committee, and can’t divulge anything about the process or the people who have applied. But this weekend, after considering who might become the Director of the program, followed by a weekend of meeting the students some of whom will join the program next fall, I’ve thought a lot about stage management skills and training.

What makes a good stage manager? There are dozens if not hundreds of books about the practice of stage management. They detail the importance of clear and detailed paperwork, good communication skills, an organized approach to the chronology of a play’s rehearsals, technical rehearsals and performances. Other qualities include the support of the director’s vision, good time management skills, a good sense of humor, etc. But I think the most important aspect of excellence in stage management is less measurable, certainly less systematic. It parallels the qualities and skills that make an actor or designer or technician good:

Listening

A good actor listens and responds truthfully and with the appropriate emotions and lines as rehearsed.

A good stage manager listens and processes, then, after separating the logistical consequences from the emotional underlying message, responds. Unemotionally whenever possible. A good stage manager does not take any information personally, and whenever possible, removes his or her ego from the room/process.

Being Present

A good actor remains in the moment, responding with truth to what he or she receives from the other actor.

A good stage manager similarly responds to information, not being thrown by unexpected events on stage or off.

  • Lamp burned out? Check the magic sheet and come up with an alternative to add to the cue, or text the theatre manager to be standing by at intermission with the appropriate lamp and a ladder.
  • Actor in tears in front of you? Wrap your arms around them and just let them cry. Kleenex and a cookie works pretty well, too, but only after that initial human response that lets them know you can see their humanness, too.
  • Actors refusing to perform until conditions have been improved? Contact the technical director and discuss a timeline for doing the work necessary to make them feel safe again.

I remember back in 1992 when we were in tech at the Los Angeles Theatre Center with Boogeyman,hollywood-squares Reza Abdoh’s wildly exuberant rant against corporate America’s response (or lack thereof) to the Aids epidemic. Timion Alsacker’s set was a nightmarish iteration of the Hollywood Squares set. Paul Lynde’s uppermost left square instead sported a tank of water over which a winch suspended an actor upside down and submerged him head first into the water. Another square had a shower, another an upside down hospital bed where an actor was strapped in for a scene. Another was a submarine room. All of these rooms were joined by a series of steps leading to doors. Reza’s pace was inhumanly demanding, and the actors were sprinting up and down the stairs, in and out of the rooms; at a certain point in the tech rehearsals, Tom Fitzpatrick, the Equity Deputy, came to me to say that the cast was refusing to go on until certain things were fixed related to the set and safety. And so, I took the list and went to visit David Mac in the production office, and he quickly resolved the issues so that we could proceed with the tech process.

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This picture doesn’t do the Boogeyman set justice.

I once had a very esteemed actor stand in his dressing room and tell me that I sided with the management too often – didn’t side with the actors enough. Sometimes as stage managers, we have to hear things we don’t want to hear or don’t know how to solve, but we have to listen and proceed with our next steps as best we can.

Our interviews with prospective stage management students go like this; first we ask them what they like about stage management/design/technical direction. We ask them to show us what they’ve brought, and then we share with them the curriculum, emphasizing features of the program like “20 shows, no waiting.” “Professional directors to work with.” They bring a range of experiences into the interview – some of them have just stumbled on stage management as the tonic to rectify what is difficult for them in their personal lives. Some admit proudly that they like to be “in control.”  Others describe their roles as stage managers as supporting the production. Their essays are vulnerable and heartfelt. So many of them have such outstanding grades now that it’s hard to judge them on their academics. More relevant is their passion for the theatre, or eagerness to learn. How well do they listen? What questions do they ask to understand? Tidy contact sheets or blocking notation are swell, but why are they in this room looking at this program in the first place?

I don’t know that the soft skills of stage management are even teachable. But I sure enjoy giving it a try.

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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Hiking into the New Year

This morning at the crack of dawn, I woke and pulled on my pants and boots, grabbed some breakfast setting off to meet two old stage manager friends (okay, old as in I’ve known you a long time, not actually old. Geez, people are so sensitive) to go on a hike.

I love hiking, though you’d never know it from practice – I think today’s hike is the first one I’ve taken since the summer when we stayed up in Tahoe, and hiked from the parking lot to the beach one day. Living in California and in Los Angeles where there are an abundance of hiking trails doesn’t seem to have been sufficient to get me outside, but a simple question posed by a fellow stage manager on facebook actually got me out the door.

Anyone wanna go on a hike?

You’d think three stage managers could organize a hike through deft email execution-an email or two, right? Our arrangements were hilarious, taking about a week and 16 emails, and an actual live phone call to realize. As I pulled up outside Susie’s house at 7:40AM, I replayed the email exchanges in my head, laughing that the three choices of hikes did not include the very real possibility of rain, and as I stepped out of the car, greeted by Susie on the stone steps to her house, I proposed hike #4 to IHOP. Fortunately, she didn’t go for it.

We swung by to pick up Michele and off we went to our hiking destination, which I think was Eaton Canyon, though I can’t swear to it because I’m not apparently from this region, having lived in LA only thirty-three years. There was a heavy mist on the windshield, but I didn’t pay much attention because it was great to see good friends and colleagues from so many years and there was a lot to catch up on.

Professionally, we’ve all worked together on so many shows that I can’t really remember which ones they were, but I always credit Michele with training me to be a truly autonomous ASM. She was the PSM on one of the CTG Celebratory shows – perhaps the 20th Anniversary, when as ASM, one of my jobs was to cue Gordon Davidson onstage riding an elephant. It was early in my career, one of my first ASM assignments at the Taper, pre-renovation, where the elephant (and all scenery for that matter) had to come in through bedroom-sized doors SL. I was intimidated and also admired Michele for her years of experience as one of the top SMs at the Taper. Deferring to her, I asked her what she wanted me to do next.

Run the deck!

And so I did, learning that I was there because she trusted me to know what to do next, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there.

I’ve been admiring Susie’s penchant for strenuous hiking for several years now. I’ve wondered how she’s able to put in the miles she does with her work schedule. Kind of amazing. I was glad to be there this morning. We started down the fire road into beautiful Eaton Canyon. At least I assume it is beautiful, because the conditions were quite misty and we couldn’t see too far down the road, kind of the perfect metaphor on this eve of a New Year fraught with political uncertainty.

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Stage Manager Selfie: L. to R. Susie, Els, Michele

This was the selfie I took of the three of us, looking fresh as we started off, me sporting my GumCha, a Christmas present from my Dad and his wife; this scarf is typical of those woven by rural farming families in West Bengal, India for more than 2,000 years. The 4o year old GumCha4Health project was started by local health and development professionals to

…create a self-sufficient, self-sustaining, community-based financial model for providing long-term support for healthcare and health education programs (including contraception and HIV prevention) for poor rural farm laborers, subsistence farmers, their families and their communities.

It’s pretty and bright, and apparently gets softer every time you wash it. I’ve worn mine almost every day since Christmas and it’s in the wash for the first time as I write this.

So, what do veteran stage managers talk about on the trail for 2 hours? Taping out floors and how sore it makes us when we’re done? Yes, a little of that, but much more about our lives outside the rehearsal room. The three of us share life synchronicity which they might not appreciate my sharing with you, but which gave us plenty of good conversation over the next 5.6 miles. The first 2.8 were mostly up the hill, where we were passed by bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and other folks out and about to ring in the New Year with a good cardio workout.

We stopped periodically to huff and puff, and per Susie’s usual routine, we greeted every single person at least once, and some of them twice, the cyclists, as they lapped us up the hill and back down. This paid off at the top, when we were able to ask someone to shoot the picture of the three of us by the Henninger Flats sign.The second 2.8 miles were down hill, in the pouring rain. I was grateful to have my GumCha with me to wipe off my glasses. The lovely tree portraits below were taken by Susie.

By the time we got back to the car, we were able to wring water out of our clothes. We raced home to take showers or hot baths, and for a good nap before tonight’s festivities.

What will the New Year and the road ahead bring? Hard to say, hard to see even, but in spite of the rain and mist, we will still get there with persistence, civility, and good hiking shoes.

Happy New Year!