Mr. Burns, a post covid-19 remembrance

Several years ago, in Spring of 2017, University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts did a production of Anne Washburn and Michael Friedman’s play, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. The play’s three acts span a very specific 82 years in a world without electricity. Washburn is uncharacteristically prescriptive (for a playwright) about the lighting for each act.

  • Act I – firelight, outdoors
  • Act II – In an interior under a skylight in the afternoon
  • Act III – after nightfall, in an interior stage, lit with non-electric instrumentation: candles and oil lamps, probably, or gas
  • Act III finale features an assortment of old theatrical instruments, Christmas lights, etc.

Act I takes place in a forest “in the very near future”, where we find a group of four campers sitting around a fire made in a wash tub turned on it’s side.

They are reconstructing a story – an episode from the popular show, The Simpsons. We soon realize that they are there not to get closer to nature by choice, but because of the failure of the nuclear power plants which has caused the end of electricity, and the end of life as they know it. Early in the first act, they are surprised by a new arrival, a fellow traveler. His arrival into the firelight elicits a heavy show of firearms, and we soon know we are not “in Kansas” anymore. Gibson, who’s just arrived, carries a book, and the initial four, hungry to hear who he might have met along the road listen to the names he’s written in a composition book. It is eerie to hear the list of names in light of the mounting count of fatalities from the COVID-19.

10,000 today in Italy, over 2,000 in the US. Tonight, I stepped outside onto my balcony and saw this:

I’ve been thinking a lot about Washburn’s play in the past few days, especially about how the characters in her play adapt to circumstances beyond their ability to comprehend. Sort of the way we’ve all been forced to adapt.

33338515994_9f51982e7a_kAct II of the play, seven years later, takes place in what we soon realize is a commercial studio, where the re-telling of the Simpson’s episodes has become a cottage industry and way by which these actors or re-enactors support themselves. Washburn has cleverly structured her play to mimic the history of theatre making. In Act II, we learn that there is competition between the various re-enactors and that people will go to great lengths to steal effective bits from one company. Finally, with many apologies to Ann Washburn for this emaciated synopsis of her amazing play, we find ourselves in Act III, where theatre has become ritualized beyond the secular appreciation to have almost a holy feeling. Oh, and did I forget to mention, Act III is a full musical, complete with full costumes, and takes place 75 years after Act II.

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All photos from the USC School of Dramatic Arts production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play were taken by Craig Schwartz.

The play is stunning and odd, but until the last two months, it felt like a far-fetched scenario. That is, until people started hoarding toilet paper and water. Until I started to see people reporting in their Facebook feeds the loss of close family members from the Coronavirus. Workplaces are shuttered, leaving 2.3 Million people unemployed.

Suddenly Ann Washburn seemed like a freaking genius.

I wrote a few posts ago about the beautiful letters we used to get from our dear friend Candasa, and inspired by her, I began to write to friends “Letters from the Pandemic,” each clearly labeled as such, full of deep feelings and fondnesses rarely expressed. It’s not that I think I won’t get to see them and say those things to them when we next embrace, but I’m coming to realize that I really may not get to see them again any time soon, either because they live across the country, or are advanced in age. I started mailing them on March 22nd and sent another batch tonight, and am starting to hear back from the recipients, by phone, or email, or text.

In the meantime, adjusting the syllabus from a class which had half its learning outcomes tied to the performance as a backstage crew member to something they can do while sitting at home is challenging. Fortunately, there are a lot of really good resources out there. When this is over, (another phrase which has multiple meanings, some of which are chilling), I have thought about the series of videos that we will need to make to demonstrate how we made theatre happen. Meanwhile, while we wait, the content making abounds. Every day there are more examples of frustrated, siloed artists trying to make connections from the confines of their own individual firepits. And what will the children who have suddenly found themselves in an unexpected golden age of time with parents take away from all this?

A brief list of comments from friends who’ve shared with me some of the unexpected boons that have resulted from our mass quarantine:

  • I was having a really hard time with my boss, and now I don’t have to deal with him/her because I’m working from home.
  • I’d been wanting to spend more time with my kids but was working such long hours that I never got to see them.
  • I suddenly have so much more time to read/write/think.

As Aesop said, “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” Be safe and know that the world has changed and we will change with it. And keep writing your form of “Letters from the Pandemic,” whatever that may be. 

Pandemic Prep

Here are the things I did this morning to prepare for potential total isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Read the newspapers
  • Made a few eggs and bacon for breakfast
  • Vacuumed the crumbs around my chair at the dining table
  • FaceTimed with my Dad and his wife
  • Mailed a box of birthday presents to my grandbaby ironically marked Imperfect Foods
  • Made more sugar water for my hummingbirds
  • Watered my grateful plants
  • Cooked some green beans
  • Watched the rain come down against the BLOC parking structure while listening to the slick sound of tires through the wet streets
  • Did some research/planning for upcoming online classes and communications
  • Did some stress writing (Is there such a thing? It doesn’t matter. For me there is and congratulations on getting to read it.)

Pretty much like any average Saturday morning (without tech). Usually, if I lean over my balcony, I can see the fairly quotidian life on 9th Street in DTLA. Starbucks clientele meets the Homeless. I wish it weren’t so, but that is my usual view. The last few days through the raindrops. It wasn’t until I walked over to the UPS store to mail my grandbaby’s birthday present that I realized things had shifted.

The doors to the Ralph’s Market were closed, and there was a line of about twenty five people standing outside, down the ramp to the street waiting to be let in to shop, looking miserable. I’ve never seen that before. Well I’ve seen the misery on peoples’ faces in Ralphs. Again, that’s an average event. Who likes to shop? But the halted line sobered me up considerably, and had me doing an internal mental inventory of the food I have in my house.

  • Rice, pasta, beans, canned tomatoes
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, kale, onions, tomatoes)
  • Cereal, Milk
  • Fruit (won’t get scurvy for a while)
  • TP ( have plenty thanks to hints from my colleagues to stock up)

I thought about all the Girl Scout cookies still on the shelf down in my office? What are the hazards of bringing those into my house in a time of stress? Probably significant.

Monday, I go to do my taxes. Some things are not subject to exemptions in pandemic times. Death and Taxes.


Be safe everyone. And let me know if you need to come over for supper. Proper social distancing practiced. 🙂

Early Christmas Present

This Christmas I’ve done better than last, when I had no heart for shopping, for thinking of others. Last year, I licked my widowly wounds, spending the holiday in Seattle with Chris and his family at her Dad’s place. I remember feeling both there, and not – feeling as my friend Bob recently called it, “ashy.” The state of knowing that you inhabit your body but don’t quite know how to make the limbs move, or how to move with intention because you’re without a partner to fuss over, to find the perfect present for, to strive to make the holiday special for. This year, I combined cleaning out the storage unit with bringing the tree supplies up really early – a week before Thanksgiving. I put the tree up, and turned it on, and it hasn’t been turned off yet. No worries – it’s rabidly artificial- not even attempting to look like a natural tree. Yes, it has the familiar conic shape, it’s green, but there the similarity ends. It has sixteen settings of LED lights, the last of which is the one I like – amber static lights. I think there’s probably a karaoke plug-in for the tree if I hadn’t thrown out the manual. Yesterday I mailed all the packages to my Tahoe family members so that I can breeze in Sunday with just my makeup kit like a glamorous Hollywood starlet from the 1950s.

Keeping a journal has been helpful in getting my feet back under me this year. My formerly tamed stationery fetish recently raised it’s ugly head, and as though on cue, my ex-neighbor, Chewy gifted me with a small bucketload of Paper Source journals, of many sizes, all entwined with flowers, a pack of floral pencils and a pen to match last week when we went to see Jitney at the Mark Taper Forum. The journal entry from that night records the richness of our outing, from discovering we were sitting behind Al Pacino and in front of Stephen Tobolowski and wife, Anne Hearn. We ran into many SDA colleagues, and set designer Joe Celli and that was all in the front of house before the play began. On top of those happy reunions, seeing Ruben Santiago Hudson’s muscular production of Wilson’s 1970s Pittsburgh was so satisfying. I know the play well, but from behind the scenes. I ASMed the last time Jitney played at the Taper, directed by Marion McClinton and starring Carl Lumbly (Booster) Shabaka Henley (Doub), Russell Hornsby (Youngblood) and Willis Burks II (Shealy). One of my jobs off stage right was to apply a spot of blood on the cheek of Stephen Henderson’s Turnbo when he ran out the door after being slugged by Youngblood, and then returned with his gun waving it like a mad man. I was so pleased to see Anthony Chisholm reprising the role of Fielding – having his gravelly-throated way with the sartorial sot – the man’s a comic genius. When he tells Becker’s son, Booster, newly returned from twenty years in prison about his wife (22 years gone), he made me laugh and cry again within a span of two minutes.

FIELDING

You got to have somebody you can count on you know. Now my wife . . . we been separated for twenty-two years now . . . but I ain’t never loved nobody the way I loved that woman. You know what I mean?
BOOSTER
Yeah, I know.
FIELDING

She the only thing in the world that I got. I had a dream once. It just touched me so. I was climbing this ladder. It was a solid gold ladder and I was climbing up into heaven. I get to the top of the ladder and I can see all the saints sitting around . . . and I could see her too . . . sitting there in her place in glory. Just as I reached the top my hand started to slip and I called out for help. All them saints and angels . . . St. Peter and everybody . . . they just sat there and looked at me. She was the only one who left her seat in glory and tried to help me to keep from falling back down that ladder. I ain’t never forgot that. When I woke up . . . tears was all over my face, just running all down in my ears and I laid there and cried like a baby . . . cause that meant so much to me. To find out after all these years, that she still loved me.

August Wilson, Jitney, Act I, Sc. 3

So, like I said, I’m filling my days with spectacular events rather than things. I visited at the Posthumous Party for Eddie Jones on Saturday, reconnecting with so many of our old friends from Interact Theatre Company. Tonight I participated in an active shooter drill at USC. My theatre training gets me all the plummy roles – I got to make the first call kicking off the drill, and the primo seat in front of the Campus Center to watch the drill unfold. Better than Christmas shopping, I quipped, down in the ballroom as we awaited instructions.

Busy is better than not busy. In moments like my bus ride home tonight, Carla Bonoff blasting in my ears, reading a book on Leadership, pausing to think about my upcoming Christmas travel, I recognize that I’m jamming it all in to a gaping hole of loss. As a friend recently posted “I need to slow down.” Just a few days until the Winter Recess begins for real and then we can all slow down.

Tonight, after coming home and making a quick dinner, I opened the mail. Not to get too revelatory, but the thing is that when one of two partners passes away, lets just say that the other one is sometimes left with the short end of the financial stick. So I’ve been focussing on events rather than things, too, because funds are more limited this year. In fact, as I sat there eating my dinner, I was strategizing about how to come up with the gift for our building staff at the my condo. I kept opening the mail, reading and enjoying cards from friends, then came upon the familiar SAG-AFTRA residuals envelope. I opened it and out fell a statement for Patch Adams and Seabiscuit and a check for $1,209.63. Gulp. Pause.

The thing about Seabiscuit is that Jimmie ended up on the cutting room floor. You millenials may not know that quaint expression but it harkens back to a time when films were shot on celluloid, which had to be physically cut during editing, and actors would bemoan the fact that their parts of the film would fall in thick tresses onto the floor of the editing room and they wouldn’t end up being in the movie. In fact, now I remember going to the screening of Seabiscuit, all dressed up, hanging like a starlet on Jimmie’s arm, only to realize as the final credits rolled (Jimmie’s amongst them) that we hadn’t seen him at all. We then skulked out of the theatre after we realized he hadn’t survived the editor’s shears. But, good news! I remember from Saturday’s reel of Eddie is that he had a big role in that one, so I hope his widow Anita gets a lovely check this week, too. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I burst into tears when I opened the check, my heart racing, “tears was all over my face, running all down in my ears…to find out after all these years that he still loved me.”

So that was my early Christmas present, and the proof that getting out and about is the best antidote to loss. Thanks, Jimmie, for looking out for me while I learn to look out for myself.

Oh, and I apologize for the tease of a photo. Maybe more on that another day.

“EMC gets list of forbidden words: Hematuria, Christmas Cards, Schedule A Deductions”

It’s funny sometimes the synchronicity in the world. I don’t know how or why these things seem to happen, but soon after the CDC received the list of seven forbidden words for future budget documents, I, too, received a list of forbidden words and phrases for future planning purposes.

The CDC’s forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

 December 15 at 6:53 PM

Our list came from God, Jimmie’s urologist and our tax man. The fact that our list’s verbage is verboten is welcome news in our household, and ironically, included some of the same words from the CDC’s list. “Vulnerable” and “entitlement” were also on our list and due to the duplication, leads us to believe that vulnerability and entitlement might very well be an eighth and ninth sin.

My thinking is, (and no doubt the hard-working doctors and scientists at the CDC feel the same way) that if some great powerful bureaucrat or government agency has banned these words or feels they are no longer relevant, then they must no longer exist, right? Now there’s some evidence-based relief!

Also on our list are “hematuria,” “agonist”, “hormones” (because after what we’ve both been through there aren’t any “hormones” left anywhere in the vicinity), “Christmas cards” are disallowed, though a dispensation has been made for reciprocating Xmas greetings to those well-meaning family and friends who have kept the light of Christmas burning by sending photos of themselves with their beautiful children.

Additional taboo topics are “Schedule A deductions;” when the GOP has it’s way, early next week, professional actors like Jimmie will no longer be able to deduct entertainment, union dues, state taxes withheld and all other business expenses they are taking so we can all just tear up that Schedule A paper. Talk about progress! And did you hear? We may soon be able to file our taxes on a post card!

The Post reported that, according to a source, policy analysts were given some phrases to use instead of the prohibited words, such as instead of saying “science-based” or “evidence-based” using the phrase, “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

ABC News Reporters Morgan Winsor and Dan Childs Dec. 16, 2017 2:10PM

This approach certainly works for me. I definitely would not wish hematuria on anyone and as the urologist said the other day, “this hormone shot is the only treatment you’re getting, so you have to put up with it no matter how uncomfortable you are.” Maybe it’s time to add “hot flash” to the list. It’s sort of like a negative Christmas list.

As far as community wishes go, we were informed by our tax accountant that the Schedule A deductions will go away as of Spring 2019. But he also wrote:

No state is required to conform to the proposed new tax law. For our clients, primarily in California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Massachusetts, we strongly suggest writing or calling your state assembly representatives to encourage filing independent of the Internal Revenue Service, including allowing state and local taxes, employee business expenses, total property taxes and total mortgage interest deductions. Here’s how to contact your representative. Call 844-899-9913. Tell them your zip code and you’ll get connected with your representative. Also, contact your union and have them lobby on your behalf.

Oh, and feel free to include in your letter that “EMC bases her recommendations on science in consideration of community standards and wishes.”