RIP Lynn Cohen

I’ve had the privilege through the yeoman actor who was my husband to meet so many talented actors. We lost one of them yesterday, dear Lynn Cohen. I met Lynn back in the mid 1980s when I married James Greene and inherited his friends, who were a spectacular group of people. Lynn and Ron were among my favorites. I remember visiting them in their upper West Side apartment which had a kitchen large enough to dine in. I remember many dinners there; Lynn was a phenomenal cook. An intimate dinner with Lynn and Ron, Marsha Mason and Brian Murray before I appreciated the rarified theatrical aristocracy with whom I was dining. Lynn and Ron were warm and Midwestern, products of their Kansas City, Missouri past. They loved to laugh, and often invited Jimmie to regale them with his stories, asking for them by punch line, and then laughing with rigorous, infectious enjoyment. I attended my first seders at Lynn and Ron’s, sitting next to Steven Hack, who was, at the time, performing in Cats at the Wintergarden Theatre and who had been a student of Lynn’s long before. Later, when Jimmie and I moved to Los Angeles, Steven remained in our lives, a member of the same company of actors that Jimmie belonged to, Interact. It was Steven who’s call punctuated a Friday morning meeting with the terrible news.

We’d last seen Lynn and Ron in summer of 2016, when, after our annual trip to the Cape, we ventured down to New York City for a visit with my Dad and his wife, and my talented Aunt Irene and her husband. We stayed at the Algonquin, one of our favorite spots, and only briefly met with Lynn and Ron in the lobby for lunch. Lynn and Ron had become increasingly busy with their acting careers. Lynn was humble about her successes in major films and television roles, speaking instead about the times when she and Ron were able to do things together on stage. They frequented the Cape May Playhouse on the Jersey Shore, and according to this article, were honored there in 2010.

I remember at that last meeting at the Algonquin, Lynn expressed a wistful desire to go on a cruise. I offered to get the cruise brochures and let them know when I found one, but alas, Jimmie’s health was not up to such an adventure, and I’m still receiving those cruise brochures occasionally. I can’t imagine a couple I’d rather have gone on a cruise with than Lynn and Ron.

Lynn and Ron didn’t frequently get to Los Angeles, nor did we get to New York that often, but when we did we’d bond over a good meal somewhere with them and sometimes others, like our dinner at LA Live a few years ago, populated by many friends of Lynn’s from all periods of her life. We stuffed ourselves into a booth at one of the restaurants long-since expired at LA Live. Our server coincidentally, was one of the graduate students from the MFA Program at USC, and I think we asked her to snap the picture below.

L. to R. Els, Jimmie, Clare O’Callaghan, Jay Willick, Lynn, Steven Hack, Ron Cohen

For the gourmand that she was, Lynn was a hoot to eat out with. She had a meticulous diet that she followed scrupulously, and waiters would do poodle turns as she ordered in her universally charming way. There was no request that was unrequited. Probably by anyone, waiters or otherwise. She was a siren, generous with her attention, and loving with her friendship.

Ironically, I don’t think I ever got to see Lynn on stage. She and Jimmie had done a play years before we met, the name of which escapes me, but they became fast friends. I feel so fortunate to have had Lynn in my life, however briefly.

I realize with each person who slips away (and couldn’t we take a pause, by the way?) how precious our interchanges are. How important the time we spend together is. That same 2006 trip to New York for Jimmie’s 80th birthday, we gathered in Bryant Park with friends Bob and Mitchell, Lee and Susan, and while we were there huddled around the table in the cold, the most miraculous sight unfolded as a flash mob of unruly Santas suddenly invaded the park cementing in our minds and hearts the events of that day.

RIP, Lynnie. I know that you and Jimmie are having wonderful meals together in heaven.

The Father

Before attending The Father by Florian Zeller at the Pasadena Playhouse, I met my friend Cathy at the Urth Caffe for dinner. It was also the first meeting of our writer’s group of two, formed when I shyly asked her to join me after my un-birthday tea. Saturday I arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes early, with a typed paper listing my goals for our writer’s group.

If it isn’t already obvious, I’ve never been in a writer’s group. I don’t know from writer group etiquette. That was clear when I created a doodle poll to figure out possible meeting times. For the two of us who were meeting in an hour for dinner…

No doodles, intoned Cathy, in her deadpan delivery that always makes me laugh.

I was fine with that, having spent the entire last week filling in my “empty time” with doodle polls at work. So many meeting seeds planted, few of them surviving.

It will be more organic, Cathy reassured me.

Organic is a terrifying concept to stage/production managers. Doodles we do just fine, organic not so much.

We ordered our food and sat down at a metal cafe table outside near the heaters. I unfurled my pretentious little sheet, which I’d brought two copies of so we could each look at a copy. Thoughtful, eh? When our salads arrived, I looked lustfully at the piles of hearts of palm. Cathy interrogated the waiter about whether that was really what she’d ordered. He smiled shyly, picking up our numbers before walking away.

After dinner, we walked away from the Urth Caffe, down the Playhouse Alley full of so much personal history, to the front courtyard where we entered the State Theatre of California. We climbed the sloping carpeted stairs to the balcony and found our seats in the rear most row. This was the second time in recent history I’d found myself closer to the booth than the stage. Saturday night, fresh inside from the unseasonably cold evening, all the heat of the theatre rose to meet us. We stripped off as many layers of clothing as we legally could, then fanned ourselves with our programs while we talked about Valentine’s Day coming up. Conspiratorially, I leaned into her and confided a secret which made us gasp and burst into uncontrolled laughter. As people started to fill in the seats around us, I became aware that given the topic of the play, our inane giggling was inappropriate, which of course made us giggle more. We riffed on the fact that we should write a scene with two women of a certain age in the week before Valentine’s Day, giggling about the unspeakable in the moments before a play about the dangers of aging.

Soon the play unfolded under the careful direction of Jessica Kubzansky, a thriller of sorts: deft scenic design by David Meyer, immersive sound by John Zalewski, and heart stopping cessations of normalcy that Elizabeth Harper provided in blackouts that punctuate each chapter of the evening. The play delivers a gut-wrenching and unreliable narrative familiar to anyone who has been dementia-adjacent. Costume Designer Denitsa Bliznakova facilitated our confusion with details that called into question who was really narrating the play. Audience members question what we’re seeing as though our own memory has begun to slip. The cleverness of the designers’ work guided by Kubzansky is breathtaking. Alfred Molina, as the titular Father, is by turns charming and reprehensible, confident then lost. He’s supported by a cast of characters with impressive range. The effect is sobering, sometimes funny and ultimately devastating.

I’ve always loved the arc of the phases of enjoyment related to theatre going.

First, there’s the delicious anticipation which begins the moment you select your seats on the theatre’s virtual seating map. Earlier in the week, I’d been warned by one of my colleagues that at the New York production, people were screaming and crying in the theatre. I can’t imagine going to the theatre and having people scream (maybe at a curtain call with positive feedback). So thinking that we might have a moment like that made me want to see it even more. I’d worked with Alfred Molina and was looking forward to seeing performances by Michael Manuel, and Pia Shah. I was looking forward to going to the play with Cathy, all of that return on investment before my ticket was even scanned at the door.

Once, my husband, Jimmie, told me about the curtain call for The Changeling at Lincoln Center, where the audience stood and booed and hissed loudly while pointing at the actors in their monstrous codpieces on stage. Have you ever had an experience like that? I haven’t, but live in eternal hope.

Phase two: there’s the play itself, approximately two hours where immersing yourself in the world of the play unpeels all the world’s worries from your brain. I’m amazed every time I go to the theatre by the creative splendors of playwrights’ stories, the artistry of a director’s vision shaping how those stories are told. For me, every theatrical outing is an opportunity to admire and critique other theatre artists’ work; it’s research, a way to expand my personal theatrical canon. From the first moments when we sat down, I admired Meyer’s beautiful Parisian apartment, imagining what I’d be like if I lived in a Parisian apartment, the heady feeling that I’d traveled somewhere wonderful, even magical, a feeling that persisted for those fifteen minutes before the play began and continued to tease me throughout the evening.

Phase three happens as the lights go up we discover and then meet the characters, listening as their relationships unfold; we experience the delicious satisfaction of spying on others, watching their worry and relief. Though they are immersed in a private hell, we have the distance afforded by our overheated balcony seats to reflect how we might have dealt differently with the circumstances unfolding, or in Cathy’s case, how she had dealt with similar circumstances. While we engage with the play, we also feel grateful about returning to our own worlds afterwards.

Then finally, after pushing back from the banquet table, we reach the moment where we digest the play through conversation and reliving specific moments in our minds, a process that goes on for me over the next week. Everything in my quotidien life becomes colored with brushstrokes from the last play that I’ve seen. The last two weeks were really something, with Metamorphoses, Eurydice, Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all churning around on my canvas.

After the play, Cathy and I retired to a bench in the courtyard to dissect and reflect about The Father. We sat huddled on the bench for fifteen minutes before retrieving our cars from the garage, as she shared details of her guardianship of a loved one embedded in the confusing whirl like what we’d just witnessed on stage. We closed our car doors and made our way home.

Sunday morning, I slept late, waking finally with the beginnings of a head hungry for caffeine, then ate my breakfast and drank my tea before calling my father, as I do every Saturday or Sunday morning via FaceTime. I caught him in his familiar green chair, and we chatted companionably for twenty or thirty minutes, he showing me his wife, sitting over his shoulder on the couch. We waved at each other. They’d been to a memorial service that morning, and he was reflective on life, and aging. I told them about the play, advising them if it ever came to Washington, they should definitely see it. About twenty-five minutes in, I asked him to redirect the camera to his face, because it had drifted to a view of the ceiling. Suddenly Dad said something vague like “I feel like a curtain is coming down sometimes and I’m…being attacked.” It was such an odd statement. I said, “What do you mean, Dad?” And from behind him, his wife said, “Yes, what do you mean, Don?” And I felt like I’d been sucked back into the play through some diabolical theatrical wormhole. I felt hot again, as though the sweaty tendrils of the balcony were reaching for me. As quickly as it happened, it passed, leaving confusion in its wake.

Maybe we should hang up and you should take a nap, Dad? Are you feeling okay?

Writing now, regretfully, I know that he’ll read this and undoubtedly feel terrible that I’ve revealed an unsettling personal detail. My father has always had the best memory of anyone in the family on either side – a penchant for capturing exquisitely detailed aspects of everyone’s story, like a prospector panning for gold and holding the shimmering pieces up for us all to see. In recent years, he’s bemoaned the dulling of his recall, but in fact, I’ve always felt his memory was at least five times better than mine or either of my brothers’. This momentary lapse was so startling, disorienting as much for me as it was for him. For me, as much because it came on the heels of the evening before like that “Aha” Refrigerator moment, or what others call Fridge Logic, when, standing in the light spilling from the fridge you understand what that curious beat in Act II that rendered you confused at the time. At 88, nearly 89, it is to be expected and yet, I found myself reacting dreadfully, in the literal sense of being filled with dread. What can I do?

I’ve had a few days to mull it over and process what it means. I’ve come to the realization, in the words of my friend Cathy, not solvable by doodle polls, this, too, will be more organic.

In spite of my unsettling post-dramatic experience, I sincerely recommend a trip to the Pasadena Playhouse to see The Father.

Alfred Molina as The Father, Pasadena Playhouse

Putting It Out There To The World

This living business is sometimes pretty daunting. I can cope with the whole get up, wash my face to face the world, step onto the bus and ride to work, engage with my colleagues and students, laugh a little, cry a little routine part. That I’ve mastered quite well. I can even fit in a few external tasks, like rolling over an IRA (to see if there’s anything under there), or sending a book back that I borrowed, or returning the white pair of sailor capri pants I ordered that arrived and looked as ridiculous as you might have expected they would. What was I thinking? But all that seems pretty manageable.

What’s more elusive is formulating the next steps in living. You know, simple things, like whether you want to start dating again. I mean, how do you even begin to think about something so foreign? It’s about as imaginable as my getting up and disco dancing again. Or wearing sailor pants at 60. You start, I guess, naturally, perusing through your mental rolodex of all your male friends:

Married, married, gay; gay?, damaged, completely celibate, out of my league, way too sensible… you get the drill. It’s daunting. And who even uses a rolodex anymore. Makes you feel like a damn dinosaur.

You toy with a new affectation that you are a freelance writer. You open an UpWork account to try to field writing jobs because a friend told you they do that and it pays well. I guess it’s like joining a dating website (no, no, no). At least the writing part is something you can enjoy in your newly minted solitude. Like a skilled needleworker, you can retire to your living room after work and tat tat tat away on your computer conjuring images of checks rolling in from an unmarked escrow account. Ahhh, speaking about fantasizing…

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Books about the upward powerful current of optimism I aspire to. I shared with my students the other morning an article by Jane Brody from the New York Times Science section how optimists have been proven to be 50% (women) to 70%(men) more likely to live to the age of 85. I polled the class using the statements late in the article with a show of hands to gauge how they looked at the world. I’m happy to report that there were many more rose-colored glasses wearers in the class than not. By the way, if I could write one tenth as well as Jane Brody, I’d be able to die (after 85) and happy.

In this phase of my life, I’m pushing through the uncertainty, grasping at things that look appealing to me, without really knowing how to trust whether they are truly what I want, or just a means of rebuffing grief. And, yes, I did intend the double meaning of rebuffing – shining it up to admire my heroic features in it, while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length so I can avoid it at all costs. I don’t know how to describe this phase I’m in, really, though I am committed to trying to. Forging ahead through it.

You know, life is really good. I had a splendid birthday trip to New York, with an escape to the Lake House, and a reunion dinner with about a quarter of the Tutorial. I’m so aware of the precious and refined oxygen of a room filled with good friends who are inquisitive and curious about the world and each other. It’s heady stuff.

Flowers from my dear friend Jackie, whom I had coffee on Saturday morning in NYC.

This week has been a reminder of why we should so value our loved ones, with the fragility of life as evidenced in the loss of Kobe Bryant and eight others. Tonight, I got off the bus near the Staples Center, where people have been gathering to pay tribute for days since the news of his and his daughter’s untimely death. I saw an endless parade of city buses, whose display panels on the front flickered back and forth between their route number and RIP KOBE in respectful fonts. The Wilshire Grand Building at 7th and Figueroa sports a huge LED image of a purple 24 on a field of gold. At the corner of Olympic and Figueroa, vendors are selling life-sized photos of Kobe and t-shirts, capitalizing on our nostalgia.

So what’s with the picture of the man on the bench? The other night, I was coming home from tech rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I grabbed the 204 bus up Vermont, exited at Olympic, and was cutting through the parking lot to wait for the 728 bus. As I passed behind the bench where a man sat, hands folded patiently on top of his cane, he uttered a quiet exhalation of breath that sounded so much like Jimmie I had to scurry past to get a discreet look at him. I took the photo surreptitiously, his pose, his cane, his cap causing my own quiet gasp; I was suddenly subsumed by a torrent of emotion for the loss of partnership, of friendship, of my other half. When you lose your partner, you are rendered from your heart. Even now, fourteen months after the event, something as tiny as an exhalation of a stranger’s breath can sucker punch you.

But I’m working to stay alert for signs from the world that I’m still viable and will move into the rest of the year with hope and transparency. And maybe a little bit of freelance writing to keep me amused.

Phoenix Rising

When last we left Nana, she had boarded the big green bus run by the South Tahoe Airporter and was speeding her way up from the lake’s edge to Reno, to fly to Washington, D.C., where she would visit her father and stepmother for the New Year’s celebration.

Freshly showered, latest Grisham book in hand, I boarded the first of two flights from Reno to D.C., enjoyed reading a bit, something which had eluded me for the past week. I relaxed into my seat on the United Flight to Los Angeles, which is only an hour, and best intentions falling aside like the book into the crevice of the seat, I immediately dozed off into intermittent sleep. I had promised myself that I’d finish my blog in L.A. while waiting for the red-eye to DC, but found I was quite content instead reading my book and relaxing in the crowded anterooms in LAX. I boarded the 10:45PM Sunday night departure with other bleary-eyed travelers, all of us anticipating a solid 5 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. At least I was, sure that with no nurseling or tot to worry about, I’d soon be out. The flight was full, and all seats and overhead bins bursting with folks heading to the nation’s capital.

The following morning, after a pricey cab to the Northwest district, I arrived at the home of my stepmother and my dad. I entered the cozy foyer, and immediately sat down to have breakfast with them, as though I’d never left since my last visit in July. They have an orderly life, attended by a loyal staff who’ve been with them for about thirty years. There is hardly a metaphoric point further flung from Tahoe than here. Complete tranquility and care for the next four days, which I was very much looking forward to.

I’d finished the Grisham (highly recommend it, too – The Guardians) – and eagerly launched into Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a novel I’d heard people raving about for weeks. Within the first 121 pages, I was struck by a quote which underscored the topic of uncertainty about the future that my coach and I’ve been discussing of late:

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

I stopped and read the quote a second time, a third time, a fourth. It had fallen almost like a love letter out of a long unopened book, and I settled into my chair to consider the happenstance of reading such a missive at this time. Just my recent two weeks of travel, visiting my son and his family for Christmas, and now my Dad and his wife for New Year’s is completely foreign to me. Traveling alone is simple, unencumbered. I would always have preferred the encumbrance of my darling husband, but I now embraced the efficacy of traveling alone.

Over summer, I’d signed up for TSA Check, and this was the first trip I’d successfully used it on. If you can call successful being stopped with a half full water bottle at the checkpoint, which I vociferously denied having, then being escorted around and coming through again for two agents to scrutinize the screen and discover a very sharp work-knife in your purse successful. I do, considering they could have done a full cavity search at that point, and they didn’t.

The five days in D.C. was lovely. I’d told my Dad I didn’t want him to fill up the time with activities, that I knew I’d be exhausted and would just like to hang out, and he followed my wishes. Aside from the three squares we all had together each day, we did a few errands together; I accompanied him to get out some stitches at the dermatologist’s office, marveling at how he knew everyone’s name in the office and used it, causing broad smiles to come over each staff member’s face. Unbiased of course, I’d say my dad is a charming guy, and it was great to see he hasn’t lost his touch with people. He has an uncanny ability to meet someone and to know their life story within fifteen minutes, then to hold onto that story like a pit bull with a rubber toy. This is probably a function of his having been a charitable foundation grantor for years; that work is about making relationships with people and determining if what they do or want to do with your foundation’s money is within the guidelines of that foundation’s mission. He’s never lost that flair for finding out what makes people tick. I’ve always admired it in him.

We took a trip to PetSmart, all three of us, to select two new finches for Sally’s indoor aviary. The zebra finch and society finch hopped about trying to evade capture by the young woman at PetSmart, but when they were inducted into their new home, a good 10x larger than their cage at the store, they tweeted happily and flitted about the aviary with joy.

I took two rambling hikes in Rock Creek Park, the first, where I felt accompanied by my dear friend Susie at my side as I walked through the well-marked trails, slipping on the leaves occasionally in my inappropriate hiking shoes, red leather Clark’s moccasins. On the New Year’s Eve day hike I took, I resolved to do fifty hikes in 2020, so unfortunately couldn’t count that day’s hike, but it felt good to get out and move my legs after a few days of complete lassitude.

On the second day of the new year, my dear friend Liz came up from Annapolis to visit me at the house. Liz and I have known each other since we were about seven and eight, respectively, and lived about .08 mile from each other in Greensburg, PA. Our escapades were too many to recount, but included much creative “free play” on the acreage of her family’s home, flinging Barbies into the tiered ponds to “swim,” serving and drinking tea in the tiny log cabin playhouse, picking so many beans from her father’s vast garden that I once thought when I went to sleep, I would see only beans in my dreams. Like Patchett’s Dutch House, Liz’s family’s house in Greensburg had an almost mythic status for me which stuck with me for years, and I would visit its magical spaces in my dreams throughout my twenties, and even occasionally in my thirties.

Academically, I followed Liz from the Valley School of Ligonier, to St. Paul’s School, but diverged as she went on to Stanford and then back to Pitt to get her medical degree. She’s been practicing Emergency Medicine for thirty years, and that was one of the things we kept marveling at during our spectacular visit – how we’d gotten to be in the sixth decade of our lives in the blink of an eye. Both with families, and grown children, successful in our fields, far away from the little midwestern town where we’d percolated as children.

What’s wonderful about staying connected with a childhood friend is the dissipation of time that happens when you reunite. You’ve come a huge distance, with full lives lived between the 53 years between the time you met and now, but it’s all telescoped into a comfortable understanding of who you are together and apart. There’s no need to try to impress; she knew you when you were nine and stupid enough to slam the door of the pool house, inciting the wasps behind the hex sign on the door to chase you around the pool and back in again to sting you both multiple times before you both realized you should jump into the pool. You’ve attended her wedding, and she’s watched from afar your husband’s life celebration. You’ve both been working mothers and wives, with busy careers and family life. You’ve harbored hopes and dreams for your partner and your children, postponing conscious self care so that at 60 it is an entirely new topic to discuss. And you do discuss that topic with ferocity like how you chatted at night trying to fall asleep during that thunderstorm, lightening and thunder ricochetting off the ceiling, as it split a tree just down the hill from Liz’s bedroom. Fears about real and imagined boogiemen have populated our conversations and letters for over fifty years. How is that possible?

The image that I’ve been thinking of recently is the Phoenix.

…a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.

a person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.

The conflagration of the past two years or so is more or less out, smoldering a bit but effectively over. Charred, a bit wounded, I nevertheless feel the upward draft of the fire’s residual flare. Feet charred, I feel willing to rise above the wreckage to fly, like Sally’s finches, to discover new relationships, to listen to the air currents, open my flaps, as it were, to explore who the new me is.

In this next decade of discovery I’m suspended in the golden amber of past discoveries, magical spaces, and the fealty of noble friendships past and present.

Dear 2020, help me to recognize the opportunities as I encounter them to become uniquely remarkable in some respect, and to recognize and perhaps create the thresholds of inspiring new spaces that beckon me to creative inspiration.

Adding Laughter Back In

I yearn for the laughter of my previous life. Seven months ago, after watching my friend Susie’s show at the Geffen, we met for dinner between the two shows. In the theatre, these interstitial social moments are the ones you tend to remember, not the slog of the eight-show week, but the human interactions that the intimate theatre process allows. Nearly every project I’ve worked on in my life includes these memories. This time, Susie and I retired to CPK in Westwood to eat. Two rawly recent widows, finding our new way in the world. Somehow the conversation came around to David Sedaris – seeing him live has been on my bucket list for years. I knew he was coming to UC Irvine on Nov. 6th, and I offered to get tickets for us both to go.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to go – I might be on a show,” Susie said.

“I know, but I’ll get the tickets and if you can’t go, I’ll find someone else to go with me.”

Little did either of us know that Susie would be unable to go for entirely different reasons. Later that summer, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The last time I sat with her at her hospice bedside, I said, “Well, I guess you won’t be up to going to UC Irvine next week to see David Sedaris.” This probably sounds like an incredibly callous thing to say and in fact, had I known she’d be gone by the following week, I probably wouldn’t have said it; but if you knew Susie, you’d know that that kind of sarcasm was right up her alley. “Sorry, don’t think I can make it.” We laughed easily, the way two old friends do, and the way in retrospect, I now know Susie did with all her old friends.

It’s vital to make plans in your life to keep your family ties and friendships alive. Stage management is an incredibly grueling path. The marquee is always emblazoned with “The Show Must Go On.” And yes, the show will go on, and you need to find ways to jump out to experience your life. This is probably not what you might hear in your training program, but make the plans, buy the tickets, build the future into your current work. When the job comes up that won’t allow you to go see David Sedaris on a Wednesday night, talk with your producer and say, “I’m not available on Nov. 6th. That’s the only day. Do you think we can work around that one date?” Not surprisingly, they will find a way. Your assistant can cover the rehearsal, you may be able to have them hire someone to cover your calling the show. If not, perhaps you don’t take that job. The most important thing is that you communicate your needs. This is part of the negotiation part that stage managers, especially women, shy away from. And God help me, brace me for the onslaught of requests.

So, last night, I went to see David Sedaris perform at the Barclay Center in Irvine, CA. Leaving USC to drive down there with my friend and colleague, Melinda, at 6:00PM was insanity. The freeways were jammed, headlights blazing across the median strip, through the newly adjusted standard time darkness, which lowers the curtains now around 5:00PM. What I know almost a year after losing my foundation with the death of my husband is that my life is still as busy, but I now appreciate more the process of being present. Melinda and I chatted the entire way down, then stopped for some salads at a Chinese fast food place near the venue, risking missing the start of the show. Fortunately, or unfortunately, “traffic is a thing” in Southern California. The show started about ten minutes after its published start time, and with the humorous and disarming grace I’ve always loved about David Sedaris, he emerged from the wings in the most amazing “costume” that we only got a brief glimpse of on his way to the podium. Was that a kilt? Arriving at the podium, he confessed that we were starting late because he’d been doing his laundry down in the basement. “It’s been a long tour,” he drolly intoned, instantly relaxing the audience and providing just what we’d come for, a deep, belly laugh of recognition of one aspect of our shared human condition – when will my event-filled life allow me to do my laundry?

The evening proceeded to deliver more of what I’d come for, deep guttural laughs, incredulous scoffs, gales of the easy kind of tears that swept through the hall from the twenty-somethings who sat to my right to the sea of NPR-loving-graying-wordsmith-appreciating sixty-somethings who made up the audience. Anyone who loves words and their sly misuse can appreciate someone like David Sedaris. He read several of his CBS Morning commentaries, including one which dissected the N-word and reeled through the alphabet, helping us to laugh about our political correctness by shredding it; the face of having the L-word be Love, and the C-word commitment.

His humor relies on the knowledge that we will head full tilt to what we assume he’s going to say, then roar with laughter as he pulls the rug out from underneath us, landing us on our butts. A lot of his material was about his childhood vacation home, in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. His writing is so dry as to almost ignite the pages he methodically pulled and unclipped from a manila folder on the lecturn. His delivery is so divorced from his own wit that sometimes you need to go back a sentence to catch up. There were several times I was puzzled for a good minute before I understood what he’d said.

At any rate, I could go on for days about David Sedaris. Suffice it to say, find the laughter in your life and routine, your own food for your imagination, that which nourishes your soul and consciously, actively build it into your life.

Sometime late in the program, he said something about friends which I can’t even remember specifically what it was, but it full-throttle invoked Susie for me, and I shut my eyes, (forgive me Melinda) imagining her beside me in the dark of the Barclay Center, sharing a moment of respite from the work and the world. Sharing a laugh with a friend.

R.I.P. Susie

We lost a great human being this week, Susie Walsh, stage manager, friend, my reluctant widow pal. There have been so many heartfelt posts about what made Susie special. I’m late to the tablet. People have noted her great sense of humor, her biting but loving wit, her talents as a stage manager to anticipate and solve problems as they arose. The length and quality of her practice as a stage manager, the depth and breadth of her friendships and impact has wowed me. Susie was very private and would probably have hated the attention she’s getting, except not really, because it is so heartfelt, and irreverent, just like Susie was. Loving, subversive, disarmingly direct sometimes, she said what she meant and rarely sugar coated it unless needed to stay within professional boundaries.

I’ve known Susie for twenty-five years, but hold her dearest in my heart for her role as PSM for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Spring of 2016. It was my hub’s last show. Having worked so many times with Susie over the years on shows, and seeing her shows, I took enormous comfort in knowing that she’d be monitoring the halls outside of the three 89+ year old actors dressing rooms. Just making sure they were behaving. Which they were, I think, for the most part.

Jimmie in his cap
Susie having a laugh at the closing night party with Jimmie and Charlotte Rae.

She let me come to a rehearsal one time upstairs so I could see how Jimmie was navigating the work as his best 89-year-old self. I’d visit Jimmie on his two show days; In the bathroom across from his dressing room, Susie would be putting on her togs for a run or bike to the beach. A runner and a complete jock, Sueis loved sports and people who loved sports and some of us who just pretended to love sports to witness her love of them and us. I went to watch a football game at her house earlier last year and feigned interest, grazing instead on the snacks, and enjoying the company of her college friends who really were invested in the game as I would never be.

Susie and I shared a secret affection for our “old men.” She and I were about eight years apart in age, and both our partners were about 30 years older than us, give or take a few years, and after all, what’s a few years when you already have 30+ years difference? Though she and Ken never married, she was loyal to him like a spouse. We shared a pretty unique set of concerns for our old men. Our stage manager, old man Venn Diagram really was fairly rare. We added a widow circle on Dec. 1, 2018.

Sure, other couples of similar ages have illness arise that they have to deal with and it is no less impactful than what we did, but ours was expected. We knew what we signed up for. It was dreaded and yet routine, and when we had lunch together after seeing her show at the Geffen about a year ago, we spent twenty minutes or so chatting about their bad knees, their home care workers. It was our dark bond, one that we shared easily like a special shared language.

When Jimmie passed away, Ken was in his home receiving carefully organized care that Susie had put together. She texted me some photos of her battle station at Ken’s.

Hey, who do I know who would appreciate my organization?

She was right, I did appreciate seeing it because the quality of her instructions was so personal, so tangible. Seeing them brought back my own diligence, and the urgency of caring for someone you love so much in decline. That was Nov. 24th, and Ken was gone by Dec. 1st, Jimmie’s birthday. We made plans in January, to go see David Sedaris on Nov. 6th this coming week at UC Irvine. It seemed so far off, and I knew we’d both need a laugh as we approached the anniversary of our shared loss. This was the perfect reflection of Susie’s sense of humor.

Susie was the fittest over-fifty person I knew, running races, inspiring us more sedentary types to exercise more. The photo above is from New Year’s eve in 2016. That morning, we took a hike in the rain and mist. At the end, I was tired, and sore for days, a fact I shared with Michele and Susie via our ongoing shared text message. We made plans for a few more hikes, each of us taking the role of organizer of the day. My go to spot was the Huntington Gardens, Michele organized a Christmas light walk in Pasadena. In each of these walks, we shared the easy comaraderie of long time colleagues and friends – the stories unfolded, with the trails. In March, 2019, it was Susie’s turn to call the walk and we’d agreed to do a hike in a spot I didn’t know about. Susie knew all the trails – we’d done several in Griffith Park and I’d seen more of Los Angeles than I dreamed existed. We followed her trustingly, sometimes discovering that the distance was more than we’d planned for, but always feeling accomplished at the end. This time, however, in the car on the way over, Susie said, casually, “I’ve got to tell you a story – I had to go to urgent care last night.” We leaned forward to listen expecting a typically light story about food poisoning, or something like that. We arrived at the spot, got out of the car and started across the parking lot. Susie was lagging a little, then she stopped and said, “Hey would it be okay if we didn’t walk? I’m having a lot of pain.” And so instead, we went to breakfast. And began to hear the ominous start of what became the beginning of her cancer odyssey. The way was unclear, and as the future unfolded, Susie met each bend in the very uneven road with her usual fierce integrity and grit and eventually resignation and grace.

In the recent weeks, when I was able to visit her, either in the hospital or the one time I was able to get away to visit her bedside, we rarely talked about death, though he was obviously in the room, shadowing the conversation, evident in the clear oxygen tubing that snaked around Susie’s ears and under her nostrils; the propulsive wheezing of the tank that spooked Maddox, her cat from sitting on the bed with her. In her living room, the room had been torqued 90 degrees from the way it liked to be, the alien hospital bed facing the door, the coffee table and couches hugging the walls, pushed aside as if to make room for the last dance of life. The photos of family, and young Ken faced her bed, her sister Katie sitting in the chair, back to the front door, her comrade in arms, as so many of Susie’s many brothers and family had done since late summer, when Susie began her chemo. I was hopelessly inept at saying what needed to be said in what turns out was the last time I saw my friend. I’m kicking myself about that and all the loss of recent weeks makes me want to rail against the gods or something. But for what?

Friday, my colleague brought me a little pink rose bush, and said how sorry he was for my loss. Thursday, the day we all lost Susie, my coach had given me an exercise to do called Roses and Thorns. As I lay in bed last night, just before I turned out the lights I documented the Good Things (Roses) vs. the Bad Things (Thorns) I marveled at the literalness of the day. Aside from literal roses, I thought about the happy reunion of Ken and Susie, Susie and her recently departed Mom, and the very happy actors, Jimmie Greene and Charlotte Rae, who now can begin rehearsals afresh with Susie monitoring the hallways of heaven.

Meet Susie, who now lives on my balcony overlooking downtown LA.

Amsterdam and Venice – Canals, Water under the Bridges and Tiny Steps

I drove my friend Caro to the airport where I bade her goodbye as she went off on the next leg of her trip to Sidney, Australia. We’d had an amazing five days visiting; the last two, she’d accompanied me twice to campus, where she observed a production meeting Monday evening, a quick dinner in the Tutor Student Center courtyard, then a workshop on Post-Dramatic Theatre with our Israeli guest director of Amsterdam, Lilach Dekel-Avneri.

Caro lives in Venice, Italy, where I visited her and her husband, Alberto, for about five days this summer. Over those days, she patiently helped me to reconstruct my geographic synapses of a city that I had known well enough to make it home late at night intoxicated, but which thirty-three years later, greeted me as a bewildering maze of indiscriminate streets and courtyards. The canals teamed with water buses and ambulances as we strode around, crossing the arching bridges to stop at shops and galleries sampling the fruits of the Venice Biennale. One of our favorite stops had been at the Lithuanian Pavilion, where we voyeuristically drank in the performance of the actors romping on the faux beach while singing the modern opera about life’s vicissitudes in a warehouse near the Arsenale.

And we laughed. We laughed about the silly things, Caro’s bright Australian accent piercing through the afternoons and evenings. I marveled at how she’s managed to keep her youthful sense of humor and life appreciation even as she’s matured into a wise, insightful woman. When I left them in Venice, we made tentative plans for her to stop in Los Angeles on her way to Australia to see their daughter.

Between then and now, classes resumed, the seven undergraduate plays were cast and rehearsals began, designers collaborated, directors directed, and we already have closed one of the shows and opened the second. The fall has been a blur of activity, and the impending anniversary of my husband’s death has begun to rattle my cage.

The other night, the night of October 3rd, I had a dream, where Jimmie and I were traveling. We were at the airport, which was clean and modern, white shining subway tile in a hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jimmie emerged from the bathroom, standing tall, no walker or scooter, shock of neatly combed white hair. I walked to his side and we began walking, but I couldn’t keep up with him and said, “Hey, I can’t keep up with you. You’re walking too fast.” He turned, and with the twinkle in his eye I always loved, he said, “I owe it all to you.” And with that, he was gone. It was only later when reviewing some photos and some writing I’d done that I realized October 3rd had been a momentous day for us. Nearly 28 years before, it had been the day we had the call from our adoption social worker, with the news about our soon-to-be son. Also, last year, Chris had been visiting us and I’d snapped this picture at home, before our last dinner out together before Jimmie’s rapid decline. October 3rd had returned to remind me of its power and the power of our love for each other. Later that morning, poor Chris called me to say hi, and I blubbered for about ten minutes.

It was in this emotional period, when I picked Caro up at the airport on Friday afternoon, the beginning of the only weekend of the semester when I didn’t have a tech rehearsal. I marveled at how we’d somehow scheduled her visit for a pocket of my life when I could pull in my PM shingle and just play for three days. We’d opened Amsterdam just the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Amsterdam has been an unfettered learning experience in mounting a non-hierarchical production. Working with Lilach has been challenging, and exciting and instructive as to how to create a play and environments through the sheer creative drive of a team. You should try to get over to USC to see it this weekend. It plays three more times this weekend. It closes Sunday 10/20.

Friday, after kidnapping Caro from the airport and driving her to Malibu, we had dinner at Gladstone’s, sitting outside, smelling the seasonal fragrance of the local fires, and watching the blood-red sun sink into the Pacific Ocean as we waited for our dessert and coffee to arrive.

There’s truth to the idea that the friends you make in your twenties are the ones you keep closest. As we looked out over the sand, I reminded Caro of the silly game we used to play at the beach at the Lido – find your physical twin. I remember my eternal body dysmorphia and how I always selected someone who looked well…. hmmm… sort of like I look today. Not as we looked then, svelte, and carefree and…twenty-two. I feel so fortunate to have managed to keep my friends close at hand.

Tonight, as I sorted through some of Jimmie’s residuals, finally made out in my name after almost a year of back and forth with the lovely folks at SAG-AFTRA, I thought about my new competencies. I’ve learned out to grieve as I need to, to pull it together when life calls for that. I know how to weigh the value of time spent with dear friends versus an extra hour of preparation for work. I’ve learned how to calendar my time to do the things that matter to me, and to keep committing to the forward actions that will make my future. I’m learning that I can be quite satisfied with a fried egg for dinner and I don’t need to beat myself up for not cooking. Or cleaning, or tidying the pile of mail before I sit down to write. When someone says they’re coming to stay, I don’t need to launch into a worry-fest about how I’ll manage house guests in the busy days of November, including November 9th, the anniversary day. Instead, I’ll think about how wonderful it will be to be surrounded by family at that time, fantasize that they might have dinner on the table when I come home, then proceed to take it one day at a time rather than drifting into a miasma of martyrdom.

I’ve spoken to several students this week who suffer from depression, anxiety and OCD. And the cold or the flu that’s going around relentlessly. I want to tell them it will be okay. Emotions are emotions. They won’t kill you. You have the power to control them. And even if you can’t for a moment, this too shall pass. That’s what they made Kleenex for. Lord knows I’ve developed a competency with Kleenex this year.

This fall, I have an amazing class of GESM 111G students. We’re learning how to read plays together, how to look at plays, how to sit and experience each dramatic outing and then come together and share our more and less favorite parts. They’re so enthusiastic and willing to share. I tortured them with an exercise this week. I’d had them do the Creative Autobiography from Twyla Tharp’s terrific book, The Creative Habit weeks ago, then carried around their little bits of heart in my bag for weeks until I finally read them. Each of them shared their creative successes and failures and aspirations with me. Across the board they all want to make a unique contribution in their field that helps people. So I thought that was worthy of some torture. I had them write what they thought that unique thing might look like, and after several iterations of sharing their ideas with each other in small groups, I wrote on the board what the tiny steps that they could take to get moving toward the goal would be. (Can you tell I’m working with a life coach and trying to emulate her? Good guess.)

Amsterdam, Venice, friendship, creativity, supporting each other. These are the tiny steps that make a life. In the end, it’s all water under the bridge.

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

Production Managers Forum – Spring Green, WI

I’ve had the privilege of belonging to this mythical group for the past seven or eight years, a national group of Production Managers from Regional Theaters, Educational institutions like mine, Opera Companies, and other assorted theatrical institutions across the country. Benefits of belonging to this advanced “hive mind” are almost instantaneous solutions to problems posed to the group, ranging from seeking contacts for designers and other artists, to advice on how/whether to have a horse on stage, which was one of my first queries back in 2012. Having the lived experience of so many other theatre practitioners at your fingertips makes being a PM possible and educational as well. I’d never before been able to attend a PMF gathering – maybe once before. Last weekend was filled with professional networking, sharing of practices, and a healthy dose of relaxation and taking in the green of Spring Green, WI.

In Wisconsin, we don’t say “I haven’t hit a deer”; we say “I haven’t hit a deer yet.”

Mike Broh, Production Manager, American Players Theatre

These words reverberate like the chimes played on the Hill before the matinee at American Players Theatre. Driving to dinner from the hotel, as the slight framed deer dashed in front of the Gray Nissan rental car I’d refused extra insurance coverage on, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed down.

The road to hell is paved with the flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.

This and other funny and insightful quotes peppered many cork boards throughout the backstage and shop areas at American Players Theater. My favorite was the APT Core Values sheet, on the safety yellow paper stock that APT’s production manager, Mike Broh, reserves for only the most critical areas of safety, of which core values would obviously be.

As someone who began as a Stage Manager prior to moving to Production Management, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for SMs, as folks who will have your back to the bitter end. This PMF group may have superseded them after getting to go on this weekend fall PMF conference. Our host was Mike Broh, of American Players Theatre. Sitting in the wide circle of tables in the rehearsal room for both sessions on Friday evening and Saturday during the day was humbling in terms of the collective experience of these Production Managers but in a comfortable non-judgmental way. There were about 40 of us there. Due to the location of the conference, there were PMs from Milwaukee and Chicago, but others who came a further distance, from Boston, New Haven, and Oregon, as well as three of us from Southern California.

Saturday morning we started the day off with a tour of the APT kingdom, which is a vast network of spaces intricately designed for their individual purposes, to support simultaneously five to eight productions annually. The complexity of this was clear even from the initial board filled with the beaming pictures of the staff, and visiting artists, designers and directors. Everyone’s friendly face on a yellow card with their name and their role clearly indicated.

We toured the props domain, starting with the props woodworking shop, framed by the organized jury of chairs sitting above to watch the clean well-organized shop. We moved through the kitchen, to the upstairs clean room for props and costume work, and finally to the furniture storage, each item clearly tagged and coded for easy retrieval. The staff’s sense of humor was evident, from the prominently displayed Julius Caesar, modeled after one of their core company members, complete with 20+ stab wounds overlooking the props work room from behind his own work goggles.

The tour continued around the many acres on which the Alpha and Bravo buildings were arranged, to the rehearsal space building. I didn’t look around to see if others were salivating like I was, but I suspect they were. I had definite space envy. In addition to the workroom spaces, each of the theatres has adjacent storage spaces to handle the scenery and costumes for rotation in and out of its stages in a very active Rep. Everything’s designed, or course, with these changeovers in mind.

The Costume Domain was equally impressive. From hats to storage, Millinery and Wig rooms, and spacious fitting rooms, all spaces reflected the ethos of giving your employees what they need to succeed.

After touring the facilities, seeing the indoor Touchstone Theatre and outdoor Hill Theatre, we returned to the rehearsal room for our second round table discussing important topics. Topics of the weekend (at the risk of banishment from the group) included:

  • Trends in Theatre
  • Salary Transparency
  • Sustainability
  • Onboarding New Employees
  • Vaping
  • Social Media
  • Use of Cell Phones backstage

Mike ran the meetings beautifully, letting the conversations about each topic ebb and flow; he didn’t need to moderate – this group pretty much self-moderates, but ending each segment right on time with a droll unsardonic “Well, that was fun,” which elicited a rolling, warm shared laugh across the room every time. Aside from acute space envy, I came away from American Players Theatre with an appreciation of the effects of transparency at practice there, the self-evident respect among the staff. It was great to run into a former student, Lea Branyan, who has worked at APT for several summers, and has recently taken a job with the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Just for yucks, as I was writing this, I looked back to see the colorful and extraordinarily helpful descriptions of what could go wrong if I allowed them to bring a horse on stage back in 2012. That’s the other benefit of being a member. Not that I’d wish more email on anyone, but this group is thoughtful and funny with their responses to members’ questions. About that horse idea?

  1. Calculate the weight of the horse when standing on 2 hooves and if you have a trapped stage, figure the point load of the floor. Oversheet the floor with 1” plywood and reinforce the braces in the areas where the traps are.
  2. Hire a horse and a handler. There are plenty of people who do this in Los Angeles. They bring the horse, rehearse the horse and then ideally, take the horse out of the facility.
  3. Be aware of campus sensitivity. Everyone will be looking for you to be abusing the animal. This is usually quelled by saying you have an animal wrangler. (Emphasis is mine)
  4. Talk the handler through the expectations of what the horse would be doing, and conditions on stage.
  5. When you get to tech, if you haven’t found it too crazy, you will need to proceed really slowly to integrate the horse lest it get spooked.  You’ll want to have horse no people with work lights, then horse with people, then horse with lights, then horse with sound, then add people and sound (this is the biggest jump and the most likely to spook the horse), again then people and light.  Only after everything is good with each step do you go ahead.  We would take a week to get animals who are used to performing acclimated to being in a different production number. And then this was a long lead before audience.
  6.   And I forgot to say that the backstage traffic is almost as complicated.  With the right animal it could be quick, if the horse is jumpy, it could be disastrous.  
  7. Oh! And don’t forget you’ll need to assign someone to poop duty. 

Throughout the weekend, we ate well at a series of local restaurants, including one of the local hotspots, Slowpoke Bar and Cabaret owned by Mike and his wife Stacey. We even got to slip away Sunday morning to visit the garish House on the Rock, which until I’d travelled there, always thought referred to the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Taliesan. Oh, couldn’t have been more wrong. A kitschy must-see for when you go to Spring Green. That and the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI.

I feel lucky to be in the company of such amazing Production Managers.

Lucky Koi

I loved the koi at the pond at the Actors Fund Home in Woodland Hills. I went out on Saturday with two colleagues from USC to visit a former colleague and also some former colleagues of my husband’s. We had lunch in “The Lodge” dining room. It was comfortable, restaurant-like, the only thing giving it away as not a typical restaurant was the high count of walkers and canes scattered around the edges of the room and the occasional interruptions by various very deferential staff members in scrubs.

I initially caused a kerfuffle as I’m wont to do when we arrived. Our host had very carefully ordered a table for four, but unbeknownst to him I’d invited two more people and a third arrived with them, so the Lead Waitress, Rosalinda, was initially displeased. But in the scheme of things, this was merely a one-ripple event, and soon, we were all seated, ordering our lunch. The food was great there, and the company even better.

During lunch we were visited by some Actors Fund Home luminaries, including a beautiful 97-year-old woman who looked better than me, and a friendly intern chaplain from UCLA who stopped by to greet the residents. We fake-sparred in the inevitable way that Bruins and Trojans do when they meet, just because we have to. It’s an exercise of saving face in these days when saving face has become increasingly important at USC. But I digress. As the chaplain-in-training walked away, our host quipped: “He’s an intern, so he can only send us to purgatory.” This caused the others at the table to roar (after it was repeated a few times for audibility). I was very impressed that the staff knew everyone’s names and addressed them respectfully and shared some laughs with them.

After lunch, we toured the grounds, seeing the cottages, the Louis B. Mayer movie theatre where first run movies are shown for the denizens (empty yesterday), the Roddy McDowell Rose Garden, replete with a larger than life-sized statue of Caesar, Roddy McDowell’s character from the Planet of the Apes Movies. This made me titter, the idea that this wonderful actor would be memorialized as his ape character. We sat on some benches in the shade – it was 107 degrees in the sun, or so the thermometer at the start had said it was. But if we stayed very still, we could imagine it was only 95 or so. Dry as it is in California, the redeeming thing about our weather.

Mary Joan points to the Lu Leonard bench plaque as our host, Michael, looks on indulgently.

The lucky koi, so diverse in their colorful array of smooth and textured skins, swam around in the large pond, bordered with tables with umbrellas, and a few chaises. We stood and watched them swim around in a frenzy for several minutes. We remarked on their beautiful colors. “That one looks like it’s wearing fishnet stockings.” Our host said it was one of his favorite places to go. The campus is 22 acres, and full of many really impressive things, including a cozy library lined with books about the business of show. I thought Jimmie would have been very comfortable in that library, and if I ever wanted to give away Jimmie’s biographies and autobiographies, that would be a good place to start.

At one point as we walked around, Mary Joan put her arm over my shoulder and said conspiratorially, “These are the important things.” I’ve been learning so much about what the important things are in recent weeks and months as I work on getting my footing back. Friends, family and self-reflection have fed me enormously, even if I don’t have enough time to do the latter very much.

I’ve begun working with a life-coach to see what the next chapter might bring. She’s someone I knew from college, so we are able to bypass a lot of the getting-to-know-you phase of our work, though after thirty-seven years apart, I look forward to getting to know her again. I can tell from our short interactions to date that she likes her work, and I trust her feedback. This week, we talked about catabolic and anabolic energies. Energy is constantly changing all day long. We have certain default tendencies. It was easy enough to come up with examples of tasks or stressors that deplete (catabolic) vs. those that energize and reinvigorate (anabolic). Picture your email inbox and imagine these various responses to the task of emptying the email.

  • Level 1 (Catabolic) -Victim of email. Avoidance of email.
  • Level 2 (Catabolic)- Mad about email. Blaming all those people for sending email. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
  • Level 3 (Anabolic)- Coping with email. Thinking about it as an opportunity to remain connected with others. Thinking of it as a necessary tool.
  • Level 4 (Anabolic) Concern for Others – Taking on the burdens of others. Helping others succeed by answering their questions.
  • Level 5 (Anabolic) -Perhaps email is a chance to build relationships or discover opportunities?
  • Level 6 (Anabolic) – Email is a writing exercise that helps me polish my craft. Email is a free writing opportunity.
  • Level 7 (Anabolic) Level of pure creation. Tap into joy while answering email. (Frankly, this is currently inconceivable, but then, I’ve just begun…)

My homework – to look at events and things that happen and try to filter more than one purely catabolic reaction to an event. I shared with her that I’d had a wonderful therapist who showed me that feelings were just feelings. In the same vein, there are many different ways to react to events. I’m practicing this week, so if I see you and it takes me longer than normal to respond to a question, I may be working on it from the inside out.

But any way you look at it, these koi are lucky. Lucky to be in a big well-aerated pond, guarded from predators by a plucky concrete owl, visited by the denizens of a beautiful residence for Show-biz types.

Stage Managers and Scary Things

There’ve been several times as a stage manager, when I received invitations to do jobs that scared me. Scared me for different reasons, but mostly due to my normal fear of the unknown. And yet every job is unknown, because stage management is virtually 100% freelance gigs. Sometimes, though you are still working contract to contract, you get lucky enough to have an artistic home, as I did for several years several times in Los Angeles over the twenty-five years that I freelanced.

I spent four years at the Geffen Playhouse and the same at Center Theatre Group. I grew to love each of the staffs of those theaters, as well as the many actors, directors and designers with whom I collaborated on dozens of shows.

I’ll always associate becoming a mother with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was stage managing Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, when the call came from our social worker at the Department of Children’s Services that they had a toddler for us to fost/adopt. My colleagues, led by the ASM, Sandy Cleary, hosted the baby shower. Even considering the complexity of the show I was doing at the time, suddenly becoming a mother of a two year old used many more brain cells and was more physically challenging.

Four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. My crew and I grew so accustomed to being at the theatre, so at home there that once we walked to the nearby Target on a two show day and bought Little Debbie’s cakes, and Twinkies, then retired to the office during the dinner break and practically made ourselves sick and giddy and ridiculous there on the floor between the stained couch and the desk. I’ll always associate Tin Pan Alley Rag with losing my Mom. In the stage management office off upstage right, I took a call one night just before half-hour from Jimmie, who was holding down the caretaker fort with my mom as she progressed through the final weeks of her life. Metastatic lung cancer, proof of which manifested itself in several very surreal episodes.

Hi, Els, can you talk? Your mother would like to speak with you. (some rustling as the phone is passed to her)

Hello, Elsbeth? (breathing heavily, and sounding frantic)

Yes, hi, Mom, how are you? What’s going on?

Elsbeth! You need to call the UN immediately. They need you to negotiate. I just heard it on McNeill-Lehrer.

Well, uh, Mom, I’m pretty sure the UN will be fine without my negotiating skills… Besides, we’re at half hour.

What a brat I was.

Stage/Production Managers have extraordinary skills of compartmentalization. It’s what made it possible for me last year to organize the home care for my husband, then go to work and focus on details that the job demanded. The occupational hazard of Stage Management is megalomania – we begin to believe that we’re the only one who can do the job. I only have one regret about last fall. That I didn’t walk away from work to be at home before it became acutely necessary for me to be there. Take away this.

Yes, the show will go on, but it can go on without you when your life calls you urgently to live it.

Opening night, she came to the theatre to watch the play with Jimmie, and afterwards, at the opening night party, clad in a new Missoni floor length gown, she mingled alongside me, with the cast and crew. I introduced her to the actor who played the lead character, Ira Gershwin. It was a day or two after the fashion designer Gianni Versace had been murdered in Florida. Ever the reporter, Mom looked at my lead actor, turned to me and hissed, “He’s the one who killed Versace!”

No, Mom, I promise you, it wasn’t David. He’s been in tech and dress rehearsals for more than a week. He wouldn’t have had time to get back and forth to Florida between rehearsals.

I am fortunate to have spent my entire life (so far) working in the theatre – a life in the theatre is a life well spent. I’ve had the opportunity to share important life markers: falling in love, marriage, parenthood, illness and even death with other theatre artists who understood how to work and live with intimacy, depth and candor. All while doing work on stage which illuminates many of those same life markers.

Sometimes a job will come along that shakes you out of your artistic home. Calls upon you to maybe move household, or take a big step back or a huge step forward. An invitation to go to Sicily to Stage Manage for Robert Wilson; or to go to Montana for the summer with the Alpine Theatre Project; or to apply for the job as Production Manager at USC School of Theatre.

Your inner scaredy-cat says

“What? Go to Italy and work with international artists? My language skills aren’t strong enough!”

“What? Move to Montana for the summer? What if my family doesn’t want to come?”

“What? Production Manage? I don’t know how to do that?”

But your strong center and your hunger for new and interesting collaborations calms down the fearful voice and says, “You lived for a year in Italy and will regain fluency and for crying out loud, it’s Robert Wilson!”

“Maybe that’s just what you need to go to Montana to shake things up. Plus you can hike and get out of the city. Your family can come join you there for vacation.”

Or maybe you are just lucky enough, as I have been, to have friends who encourage you to try something new when you are at an emotional or professional crossroads. Like the Production Management opportunity. “Els, you’ll know how to do it. It’s just like stage management but on steroids.”

And so you take the steps forward to meet the challenge. To do the work. To build the life.

I’ve shared that the loss of my husband last fall was a devastating blow. Even now, nine months later, I still tear up and some days feel unmoored, untethered from the very life we had worked so hard to build. How fortunate I am to have a strong artistic family and friends that have gathered around me in my time of need.

I haven’t felt like writing lately. I’ve been hunkered down in my post apocalyptic emotional bunker, occasionally poking my head up like those adorable prairie dogs at the zoo. I’m on watch for the next tragedy. Grief is distracting. More distracting than anything I’ve ever experienced.

In stage management a project starts and it ends. There are frequently good days and bad day no matter how illustrious a project it is. There’s a thing nothing short of magic that happens in a rehearsal room as the alchemy of playwright, director and actors is forged through the vehicle of a new and exciting script. Life’s the same as that. Except it’s a devised work. No script. You’re the producer who brings all the facets together to create your own magical alchemy. If you take the chances, the risks, to step outside the normal boundaries of your existence, you meet new people, form new experiences, participate in new adventures. And yes, it’s frequently scary, but usually okay or way better than okay in the end.

All the good days, all the bad, the pain, the heartache, the joy you feel through every phase of your life makes you who you are. You are strong and vibrant and capable. You may not be able to write about something important every day, but if you pay attention to the call, you may find pop out of your prairie hole and find something to keep you entertained and alive.