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.

Crenelated Time

In the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on the events of my recent trip to Italy. There I stayed with friends I’ve known for almost forty years. In both cases- my visit to Umbria and that to Venice, it felt as though we were picking up where we left off, and yet, we’ve all had full and rich lives between meetings.

This week, out of the blue, I got hired to do a reading, a wonderful project with interesting people, from referrals by friends from completely different segments of my life. And so, (I have to laugh because it’s so Mrs. Malaprop of me) I started thinking of the image of time as crenelated.

I laugh because what I really was thinking about was the way an accordion fan is folded, which isn’t at all what crenelate means. Crenelate means to furnish with crenels, or battlements to a wall, to fortify it. Which, ironically, could also be a little accurate in this recovery time. I’m coming up on nine months since the loss of my husband, and while things are slightly less raw, I am startled occasionally at the depth and pitch of the forgive the metaphor, crenels of grief.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful weekend in Carlsbad with my son and his wife and their beautiful daughters. Saturday, I’d made a dinner reservation for an Italian restaurant and found it on the map about twenty minutes away. We started off for a brisk walk along the beach wall overlooking the beach, arrived at the restaurant to discover that it was the wrong restaurant (there was another one with the same name two blocks from our hotel.) Hangry and more than a little annoyed, we walked back and stopped at another restaurant halfway between the two, where we had quite a nice dinner. My food came last, so I was holding the baby while her parents ate, and I gazed out the window of the restaurant at a couple who were standing still, arms around each others’ waists, watching the sun as it sank into the Pacific. They looked intently at the sun dipping into the water, then equally intently and fondly at each other. That’s all it took. I completely lost it. Tears quietly cascaded down my cheeks. I tried to hide it but with my hands full of baby, I wasn’t able to wipe them away.

My daughter-in-law said, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I blubbered. “I’m fine. Just snuck up on me.”

I proceeded to try to explain the loss of one’s other, the feeling of yearning to share life’s simplest moments, in direct contrast with intractable solitude one faces with the loss of one’s life partner. It didn’t go well, particularly because she’d been quite moved that I was so emotional about holding their darling baby. Which was part of it, I want to assure her.

But back to this feeling about time and the connection between quite disparate points in my life, and how they have remained joined to others on the same continuum. The metronome of friendship tick-tocking up to tap you from behind. I’m moved by it.

Earlier this week I came home from work and went down to swim a little in the pool at our condo. Only a year ago, my husband would have come with me, rolling his scooter with aplomb to a shady corner of the pool, where he would have watched me swim, or dozed off in the late afternoon. We might have brought crackers and cheese and some sparkling water down, and after emerging from my minimal pool laps, I would have sat and joined him in companionable silence, munching our crackers and enjoying the diminishing sun that warmed the chaises on the north side of the pool before it slipped down behind a nearby building.

I pulled my head up out of the water and looked quickly to his corner, deliriously expecting him to be there, just as I had earlier in the week as I stretched on the floor of our apartment, looking up to his picture on the table.

Damnit. You’re not coming back, are you?

No, he’s not. Anger, worry, hollowness, impatience, weariness, wallowing self-pity are some of the feelings a person in grief slogs through every day. But as time passes, it’s not always terrible. There are also moments of hope, optimism, gratitude, self-discovery, pride of accomplishment, and even some joy, too. Those are the feelings I try to steer myself toward. I’ve always been a “there must be a pony here somewhere” type of person, and now is no exception.

I’m so grateful to my friends and colleagues for their support now. I’ve learned the power of making plans to look forward to, to experience, then look back on and enjoy remembering the events of those times you’ve planned. I guess that’s what makes a good life, you could say. Even if time isn’t actually crenelated at all.

Orvieto, I think…

Final Days of My Roman Holiday

The last day in Rome, I visited the Vatican. I got adventurous, and took the metro from the Spagna stop (at the base of the Spanish Steps). This was my first immersion in Rome, far from the selfie-snapping tourists and close to the daily press of flesh which is the metro. I wisely waited two minutes for the second train and wedged myself in next to a woman with kind eyes and a universal sense of “What can I do about it?”

I made my way to the tourism office where the tour was meeting. They rented Vespas there. Can you imagine renting a Vespa in Rome? I’d seen three young girls on bikes the previous day at the Coliseum walking them more than riding them through the hordes of boisterous tourists. The tour I’d booked through ItaliaRail was called “Show and Go” and was $116. for the two tours of the Coliseum and Vatican. The beauty of them was that you could show up any time to join the tour. “No waiting in lines.” This proved to be ludicrous. There are nothing but lines in Rome in July. Get used to it. I can say I saw the Sistine Chapel, even without the benefit of having a selfie, unlike the woman at St. Peter’s in front of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It did feel sometimes like the pictures were being taken more to prove we’d been there than to experience these great artifacts and sculptures.

I’m guilty too.

My final night in Rome, I was feted by an old friend in his home with two indulgent Italian professionals, who let me struggle more than I had on the trip to date with my rusty Italian. It was a great evening and a wonderful way to close out the International part of my summer holiday.

The next morning, I winged my way back to Washington, DC, suitcase bulging with a few treats and my feet snuggly in my compression socks that my friend had generously loaned me.

I may have told you how much I loathe the phrase “to unpack the meaning of something.” I mean I really loathe it.

So when I say unpack, I mean literally unpack from my trip. The last leg of my trip was a visit to my Dad and his wife, Sally’s in Washington, DC. If I need any encouragement in continuing to travel as a measure of a life well-lived, I need look no further than my Dad and Sally. They have traveled all over the world, and now, as conditions keep them closer to home, it would be hard to impress them with stories of an Italian trip. But they were extremely indulgent, looking at my Ipad slide show of Umbrian hill towns, Venetian churches, and Roman ruins.

I remember as a child sitting through my maternal grandparents’ endless slide shows, with an actual slide projector, loaded with slides, and then reloaded with perhaps a second tray of slides. My grandfather was an architect, with a good eye and terrific composition in his photos, but as an eight or ten-year-old, one’s attention span is limited.

We sat in the breakfast room, watching as wildlife flitted by: three raccoons, a doe and her dappled faun, a cowbird and a dozen other varieties of seed-eating birds. It was delightful. The heat outside fogged up the refrigerated interior of the house.

They had a lot of things planned for my four day visit. I had seen an article about the new Spy Museum, and after an aborted attempt to get in, complicated by the parking at an unreasonable distance and poor planning in booking tickets ahead, sent us scurrying instead to the National Gallery, where we drank in the visiting exhibit covering 17 centuries of animals in Japanese Art; though they’d already seen it of course, they graciously accompanied me, then treated me to a lunch in the cafeteria connecting the two wings of the Gallery. When the exhibit comes to Los Angeles Sept. 22-December 19, 2019 don’t miss it! These are just two examples of the whimsy and elegance of this exhibit.

After lunch, we visited the Tintoretto exhibit upstairs in the West Wing. It was particularly satisfying to think that I’d just seen so much of his work in situ in Venice. There was a particularly interesting room of portraits which brought to mind Rembrandt, rather than the usual luscious, quick strokes of Tintoretto’s angels and suffering saints.

This richness made me realize that over the past 10 years or so, I’ve not been taking advantage of the cultural opportunities that Los Angeles affords us. Full time work, care taking my husband, who in the later years, tired easily. So many excuses, so many lost opportunities. The future gleams with potential.

Thursday evening, which was July 4th, they had planned a family dinner with some local relatives, which was lovely. Meanwhile, only a few thousand miles away, my home city was rocking and rolling from earthquakes. I didn’t feel the least bit disadvantaged by missing these shakes. Instead, we watched the rather insipid July 4th celebration on TV, hosted by John Stamos and the Muppets. After dinner each night, we worked diligently on their diabolically complicated Stave puzzle which we finally finished on July 4th.

Friday evening found the three of us in the Kennedy Center, watching the touring production of Hello, Dolly! starring Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlin as Horace Vandergelder. It was a lively, satisfying show with a powerhouse performance by Buckley. In the gift store before the show, I picked up a replacement fan so that I could continue my Venetian tradition of staving off the heat. I bought a second fan to send off to Caro in Venice, because I’d put some kilometers (chilometri) on hers while there.

Saturday we made our way over to the Hillwood Estate, Manor and Gardens of Marjorie Merriweather Post, and spent the morning steeping ourselves in the hostess’s meticulous and lavish lifestyle, beautifully preserved in the park and mansion exhibits.

That evening we had dinner out and called it an early night, so that I’d be ready for my trip home on Sunday, July 7th. A spectacular trip and one which I’ll remember fondly for a long time.

Thinking Heads and Voyeurs at The Venice Biennale

I’d be derelict if I didn’t share some of the photos from the two days we spent at the Biennale while I was in Venice. On the way there, though, Caro and I had a wonderful time exploring all the different countries’ pavilions. Here are some photos from our first day. If you get a chance to go to the Biennale, go. There’s a mind boggling amount of beautiful art and ideas. Beautiful for people watching. Take the largest frame below for example.

The Biennale is rife with colorful images, shapes and ideas, and could be represented by almost any of the pieces shown there. The Lara Favaretto room, in the main building of the Gardens felt like walking into a curated prop room, with shelves neatly decorated by groups of objects, identified with a descriptive word under each shelf. The most intriguing part of the exhibit was its reference to secret meetings of people in a bunker in Venice to discuss the objects. Wait, a bunker in Venice? The piece suddenly gelled as a metaphor for the whole Biennale.

I asked one of the docents who are there to help you understand what you’re looking at if there had been any meetings. An earnest young art student, he answered, “I believe that the first one was cancelled, but there may be more scheduled.” Given the top secret nature of Favaretto’s description, I figured if we went to any bar that afternoon, it would serve as the bunker for conceptual inquiry into the nature of not just these objects, but any in the various countries’ pavilions.

A wall decoration from within the Venice Arsenale

Our second day at the Biennale, Caro and I were joined by her husband, Alberto, and we explored the even more vast exhibits in the Arsenale. Here are some of the exhibits, including the studies by Lorenzo Quinn of sculptures that are currently able to be seen all over Venice, including in the Arsenale.

Earlier in the year, as I planned for my trip to Venice, I’d read about the Lithuanian Pavilion, and the first prize (Leone d’Or) they’d won for “Sun and Sea.” The exhibit was evocative and sensory, with the spectators looking down from above onto the denizens of a temporary indoor beach. Joshua Barone’s review in the New York Times, along with their photos captures the feeling of the experience. I thought it was a little critical, considering the accomplishment of this trio of artists. Try getting 30 people to commit to spending 8 hours on the sand in their bathing suits over a period of 8 months. Probably in June it’s pretty easy, but consider November, when the cold winds blow off the water whipping through the Military Arsenale into this warehouse with open windows. I have limited experience with wrangling volunteers for theatre projects with our production of “Don’t Go” a few years ago with Sojourn Theatre. It’s harder than it looks. An article in the ArtTribune.com shared the invitation they put out to get people to participate. https://www.artribune.com/arti-visive/arte-contemporanea/2019/05/biennale-di-venezia-2019-padiglione-lituania-cerca-volontari-vacanzieri-per-lopera-performance/

Seeing the performers in their swimsuits, digging in the sand with their children and dogs was pretty wild. Almost every exhibit in the Biennale this year examined in some way the impact of humans on the environment, and this one provided a chance for us to watch ourselves in microcosm. The opera itself, parts of which we saw in our thirty minute stay at the exhibit, had some both haunting and comedic, jaunty tunes. It was fun to identify which of the singers might sing next, the man with the gray chest hair, who scanned the balcony idly as his tween son ran off to play with some other children, or the woman who barked her little portion of the score, a tirade against people who bring their dogs to the beach. There were two visible at the time, well behaved little dogs who also looked like they were enjoying themselves. Periodically, cast members would sprinkle bottled water on the sand to keep the dust from kicking up into people’s faces. I was reminded of the Robert Wilson piece I stage managed in Sicily years ago, staged in a 13th Century Granary building. After a few weeks of rehearsal, they trucked in tons of sand and suddenly it became a different exercise entirely. Sun and Sea was pretty fascinating, though. I didn’t want to leave.

Some other stunning works from the two days at the Biennale.

From the Indian Pavilion (I think?) These were powerful as a group, but even more powerful specific objects.

There was quite a bit of video and theatrical experiences aside from Sun and Sea. The Istralei Pavilion hosted “Field Hospital” where you entered the exhibit, which looked like the waiting room for an urgent care facility. There you were given a number, and you waitied approximately 10 minutes, while watching reassuringly placid videos about the type of care you would receie there. Everything felt very hospital-like. All the staff were wearing white coats, and were very gentle with the visitors. Once your number was called, you went to the registration table, where you were given a paper wrist band, and the opportunity to select which video you would see in the treatment area. The videos ranted in topics from transgender bullying to The Palestinian question. Up the stairs from registration, you were guided into one of three padded rooms where you were told to follow instructions. I did, but after emerging from the booth, I realized they were not soundproof, so everyone in the outside waiting area had heard my primal screams.

On we went into the treatment room, where a large array of reclining chairs held other patients who were watching videos, and then watching additional material (second opinions ) from experts with knowledge of the topics of the videos. Once you finished watching, the “nurse” came and freed you from the chair, giving you a rubber bracelet to replace the paper one, which said “Field Hospital” on it. It was an eerie experience, especially for Caro. whose video was a little more graphic than mine. (I won’t spoil the exhibit for those of you who are going by telling you which videos we watched.) Suffice it to say that once we emerged from the Field Hospital, we were ready to go home and also to get a cold drink before taking the Vaporetto back home.

The Littlest Theatre in the World and Gratitude to the Madonna Dei Bagni

One of the last days I was in Umbria, we visited the Umbrian hilltown of Monte Castello di Vibio, another spot of unspeakable beauty. Our destination was to see Il Teatro Piu Piccolo Del Mondo. As the sign below promises, Civilization isn’t measured in square meters and volume. Built by a consortium of nine families (I’ll spare you the poor historical recall and defer to Wikipedia). But when we visited, the lobby had a fascinating exhibit by a local man who had documented his family’s history in a series of scrapbooks, only seven out of thirty-three of which were on display. There were photos, paintings of weddings on the stage, and other news clippings detailing the historic events that had taken place in the theatre. The frescoes by Luigi Agretti in the second floor lobby were really wonderful, considering he was 14 when he painted them in 1892. Yes, 14!

After relishing the tiny space, complete with playback of a recording of a musical concert so that we could experience the acoustics in the all-wooden theatre, we retired from Monte Castello di Vibio, and made our way to the Madonna Dei Bagni, a church near Deruta, which features approximately 700 votive tiles from the 17th century to the 20th century, all presented in gratitude for acts of salvation by the Madonna. Each tile has the initials P.G.R., which stands for Per Grazie Ricevuto, or For Graces Received.

The Sanctuary itself is not notable, except for these tiles, almost totemic in their iconography. Four Hundred years ago, according to the history, a man found a piece of pottery with the Madonna on it and he nailed it to an oak tree, and prayed for his ill wife’s recovery. When he returned to his home, she had recovered, and thus began the practice of these votive tiles. They represent graces received from the Madonna after accidents throughout the centuries. Did you know that the most perilous thing in Umbria is the tree and the ladder? So many people fell from trees and lived to represent it that there developed an iconography of falling out of the tree.

That and getting trompled by horses.

Or struck by lightning.

You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that just like the tree plates, there were several of the lightning and later, dozens of gnarly car and motorcycle accidents as well as war survivors and leaky rain gutters. I just didn’t take photos of them all. It’s worth going to verify my account.

But my favorite was the tile that told the story about the recovery of 140 of the tiles which had at one time been stolen (rubata) from the sanctuary. Thanks to our guide, Marina, who was able to read the tile to us and translate, we understood that an off-duty cop (Carabinieri) born in Deruta, but assigned to Perugia, had come across one of these plates at a swap meet or whatever the Italian equivalent is. He bought it, then launched an investigation and was able to recover all 140 of the stolen plates. I think the guy carrying the tile is the same one lying down in his carabinieri uniform (Art History 101).

After that, we were exhausted and of course, it was time to go get some lunch. We were very happy there as well for the graces received.

Finding Joy

Time is diminishing until I take off on my summer vacay, two weeks in Italy and half a week visiting my Dad in Washington, D.C., over the 4th of July weekend. Something about knowing that I’ve got only another week at work to get things done is making me feel particularly stressed while I’m at work. My desk sports a messy mantle of papers; I was in someone’s office last week and she had a standing desk which I immediately desired and admired, but more notably, she had not a scrap of paper on her desk. How do people do that? I know she is an incredibly organized and productive person. I said to a co-worker who dropped by for lunch on Friday,

Sorry, but I have to dine al desco today.

And that’s kind of how it’s been going.

Remember the tutorials I spoke of recently? Well, two months have passed and I’m pretty sure I missed one; maybe the others feel relieved that I haven’t poked, them. I’ve been experiencing that deja vu feeling of missing a social engagement; deja vu because it used to happen with alarming regularity in the pre-sobriety-pre-cell-phone-as-extra-brain days. You left a bar late Thursday night blithely tossing over your shoulder, Sure! I’ll see you at brunch on Sunday.” Then you got a call on Sunday saying “Hey, Els, where are you?” Yes, that’s the feeling I’ve got about my missed Tutorials. A soupcon of guilt along with a pinch of “who cares? – only you, Els.”

Good thing I’m going to be with the Tutor Supreme in just a short while. Tutor Supreme and Spouse Supreme. I fly on 6/19 to Rome. Yesterday in a day of extreme productivity and relaxation, I purchased a new suitcase, which had an appropriate sticker on with the name of my building. Also, don’t we all aspire to lightweight and durable Abs, which it also promises?

Ironically, and I know this is seasonal selective panic setting in, I’ve been finding a lot of joy in my off work hours. Last weekend I spent with my son and his family in Tahoe, hiking, eating, and absorbing the grandchildren’s energy which was an enormous boost.

This weekend, I invited my niece Martha to come down and do some fun things with me this weekend. Martha has become like a sister to me; never having had one, is a great addition to my immediate family. She drove down from the central coast where she lives, and Friday night, we made dinner which we shared with gourmet chef niece Niki. It’s intimidating to cook for a gourmet chef, but Niki is always extremely gracious and complimentary. And who doesn’t like a sweet potato black bean taco with tri-color slaw peppered with pineapple? We ate, then retired to the living room where we talked about sundry life topics until nearly midnight. Lots of joy.

On Saturday, Martha and I took a long passeggiatta (I’m going to become very annoying in the coming weeks as I pepper my writing with Italian phrases, so I’ll provide a little translation as I go). A passeggiatta is an Italian family stroll usually after dinner. I remember when I was working in Gibbelina, Sicily umpteen years ago on a project directed by Robert Wilson, there was a lovely campo (open plaza) where families with their children walked around greeting each other and shared the night air. Martha’s and my passeggiatta was during full daylight and measured about 4.5 miles at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. It was lovely, and we didn’t greet anyone. However, we ventured inside the Huntington Mansion Museum where I was temporarily stumped by the Roman numerals on this massive stained glass piece. Quick, no cheating, now. What’s the date? As I was trying to suss it out, I couldn’t help practicing the date in Italian: Milleottocentonovantotto. There, that’s your hint.

Look for the answer at the end of the blog.

We’d packed a picnic so that we after our Huntington Gardens walk we could go and join some Sanctuary Fitness pals at Victory Park for the Street Food Cinema to watch The Greatest Showman, a movie which had eluded me until last night. On the way, we stopped at Target so I could get the suitcase, some pajamas that I wouldn’t be mortified to be seen in by the Tutors Supremes and my other friends I hadn’t seen since 1983 in Venice. I know, you’re saying, it doesn’t matter, they’ll be horrified anyway, never mind the PJs, but a girl’s gotta maintain her dignity. So off to Target we went. Having had a workout early morning, plus the long walk, both Martha and I were going to be very happy to sit down on the grass in Victory Park, food trucks ringing the large lawn, and a general atmosphere of excitement to see a movie for the gazillionth time. Or the first in both Martha’s and my case.

They also had amazing chairs which we were able to rent which made it possible for us to stay to the end of the movie. No way I could have done it without the chair, in spite of my awesome core and glutes. (Irony)

The simplicity of sitting and eating on a lawn at dusk was so peaceful. It made me ponder the difference between happiness and joy. When you are surrounded by experiencing and witnessing others’ profound pain, it is important to be able to identify moments of joy and contentment. On the lawn at Victory Park was one such moment. And that was even before the crazy extrovert people started getting up dancing and lip synching.

Hugh Jackman Impersonator at right.

I didn’t get a picture of the Mother/Son duo dressed as the Bearded Lady and PT Barnum. For a minute I thought the movie was going to be like the showing of The Rocky Horror Picture show that I went to during a Christmas vacation in Wilkes-Barre, PA, with my Mom. When the locals got up in front of the screen before the movie and proceeded to do what they do in that situation, my mother gasped, Oh, Elsbeth! with a mixture of admiration, horror and incredulity that has always stayed with me. Later when she was hit in the back of her head with a hurled roll of toilet paper and doused with a squirt gun, she was delighted, and laughed and laughed. That’s where I went in my memories when I saw those folks standing in front of us. I had a moment with Shirley, which filled me with joy, too.

Last night, as we drove back from Pasadena, we witnessed the splendor of DTLA lit up for Gay Pride Month. I couldn’t take a picture from the best view because I was driving, but when I got home, I captured this picture.

Can’t see the US Bank building’s prideful colors from here. Also, the intensity of the Intercontinental Hotel’s splendor is dimmed on this side.

This morning, on the recommendation of one of my Sanctuary pals, Lynn (Hey, Lynn! you made it again!) I went to do the Showtunes Spin with Rick at Hype Silverlake. It was amazing to spin again, and to all show tunes. What could be better on Tony Award Sunday? Rick heightened the fun by asking several questions – what show is this from? Which version is this from? It was almost diverting enough to make me stop panting. Almost.

Had a great lunch at Pitchoun! on Pershing Square, and tonight we’ll celebrate the Tony’s around the TV with yummy food. A joy-filled weekend before heading into the last week before vacay. The answer above was 1898.

Ecdysis of Grief- Life Goes Forward

I’m assembling one of my emeals tonight, an orange rosemary pork loin, with gluten-free spaghetti and broccoli on the side. While the pork was reaching room temp, after marinading for a whole day in it’s delicious garlicky dressing, I had thirty minutes to go try on the dress I’m wearing tomorrow to probably the fanciest wedding I’ve ever been to. (No offense meant to the scores of beautiful weddings I’ve attended in lavish settings – this is just a hunch.)

Slithering in a reverse ecdysis into the satiny foundation garment, yes, the one with teutonic cups, (I choose that one over the other that has no escape hatch; ladies you know what I mean, right?), even though the other girdle is softer and a little less confining, there would be nothing worse than having to completely disrobe at the Jonathan Club, to the mortification of the bride’s family and friends.

Next comes the heavily beaded Mother of the Groom dress, which I step my sausage-link-like torso into, raising the beaded sleeves up and over my shoulders. I reach back and start to zip up the dress. Oops. Can’t get there from here.

The last time I wore the dress was, obviously, for our son’s wedding. The last time I wore the dress, I had a husband to zip me up. I say this as much for dramatic effect as for truth. Surprisingly, I’m not emotional about this right now. We widows have discoveries like this all the time, at the most ridiculous moments, while attempting to sheath the body deemed 10 pounds too heavy by the doctor earlier in the week. In fumbling for the zipper, I’m brought back to ground zero. The source of my tsuris. The reason I need to lose 10 pounds, because grief is assuaged by late night snacking while watching the umpteen different series about grief that are we can now stream and binge watch. It’s a classic Catch-22.

By the way, Dr. S., I’m well on my way to fitting into that dress, because just between you and me, the gluten-free pasta was completely inedible. Gluten-free pasta is like near beer. Too close and yet too far away. What’s the point?

Seriously. Have you noticed? It started last November with The Kominsky Method, featuring Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas as two best friends dealing with the death of Alan Arkin’s wife among other things. I found the show sometime in late November, literally right after Jimmie went to the great casting office in the sky. The first episode featured the definitely first-world problem of what to do with Arkin’s dead wife’s Beverly Hills closet full of purses valued way higher than the salary of any random Associate Professor. I’m just saying. I binge watched all of those, laughing through my tears.

Being human and being hurt are the same damn thing.

Alan Arkin The Kominsky Method

I moved on to Dead to Me, starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and the latest, After Life, starting Ricky Gervais, who is prone to considerably worse decisions than snacking at night. Somewhere along the way, a friend told me about the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Nora McInerny’s compassionate, funny and personal answer to life’s challenges. I find myself soaking up these comic voices of doom hungrily – the one thing they all have in common is that everyone speaks the truth with gusto and no small amount of panache, and it’s funny, as the truth often is. It’s healing, too. So now I’m reading Lori Gottlieb’s latest book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone because I heard her speaking on the TTfA podcast mentioned above. I wish I could say I was taking a scholarly approach to my choices of viewing and reading, but if I’m honest, and have we learned nothing but how important that is?My approach is more like watching the slinky on the steps Christmas morning. Each discovery cascading into the next.

I’ve always found solace in books, and find reading especially grounding lately. Tonight, I came home from work, dropped my bag at the apartment, picked up my kindle, and strode out the door to the park to our bench, where I read for a while until it got too cold, then did about five laps around the park, reading, while competitively counting my steps for the end of the workweek challenge. Nevertheless, Christopher won. Oh well, there’s always next week. And wait till I get to Italy!

There are only about three weeks until I leave for my Italian adventure, and the plans have come together. In between now and then, I’ve planned a weekend jaunt to the mountains to practice my grandparenting skills which are just adequate if my three-year-old granddaughter is any judge. And she is, by the way. I loved the Grandmother’s Mother’s Day card which I received after my Easter visit. Chosen with love by my daughter-in-law, and annotated with three-year-old love.

I’m keeping busy, hosted the first Survivor’s Supper last night, with two of my friends recently bereft of their spouses. After dinner, two of us headed over to see the latest work by director Nancy Keystone, entitled A Jordan Downs Illumination. You should check it out; this is the last weekend it’s running. An amazing evening of immersive theatre in R & D over the past two years and presented by The Cornerstone Theatre and members of Jordan Downs, shares the history of Watts and the Jordan Downs Housing Projects now undergoing a massive redevelopment. The work, which strove to retain and share the history even as the construction advances, was personal, fascinating, and also hands on. The audience gets to be actively involved in being witness to history happening. I highly recommend it.

Celebrating Moving Forward

There are few more positive things than the events that transpire around commencement: acting showcases, design showcases, awards banquets, culminations – these things pepper the final weeks before everyone moves forward.

I’ve been holding onto myself or at least my hat last week, as creative events swirled around me:

Monday – A conference of LA Stage Managers for SMA (Stage Managers Association), an association of my peers. Hosted at Center Theatre Group, in the familiar Rehearsal Room C, I met Joel Veenstra, who heads up the MFA and BFA Stage Management programs at UC Irvine and is the Western Regional Director of the SMA. The day included panels on the SMA itself, info on different avenues for stage managers to pursue with their skillsets, how to transition a show from one theatre to another, an informative and extremely sobering panel on safety and security, and a panel of stage managers discussing how they made their way through the professional maturation process. This final session I appreciated, because there were inclusive gestures from the stage about how old I was. Maybe it’s time to dye the old locks….

Wednesday marked the beginning of our portfolio review sessions with undergraduate designers and stage managers. These tabletop exercises demand that designers bring their developing pages and discuss their collaborative processes. They are informative, an iterative process, one that begins with their first one unit design assistant position, throughout to the spring, moments before the final Showcase. Over the course of four years they get quite skilled at presenting their work and defining their interests in design and stage management.

Wednesday night featured the Cabaret performance by Alexandra Billings, a fundraiser to raise money for LGBQT student scholarships. Here’s the link if you’d like to contribute. She is an amazing performer, and brought the house down that night. Another polished performance also by our by-now-beleaguered Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea and students who called, engineered the sound by Philip G. Allen.

Friday’s all day 2019 SDA Production/Design Showcase events began at 10:00AM in the Scene Dock Theatre with Faculty and Guest Designer critiques of all ten graduating Designers and TD. Each senior is given a table and a board and they spend about 24 hours decorating and preparing to showcase their work accumulated over four years to an array of faculty, guest designers, directors, and staff.

At 11:00AM, the two graduating stage managers met with a panel of both Alumni Stage Managers (now professionals) and their professor, Scott Faris to review their resumes in the form of a job interview.

Next came our family style lunch in the Technical Theatre Lab at noon, hosted in the shop by Head of Technical Direction Duncan Mahoney and featuring about fifty of our extended family. It’s so wonderful to see alumni coming back to support and give a leg up to our graduating seniors. This year we had an all vegan Indian meal, after several years of BBQ. It’s only fair, right?

At 1:00PM, the Showcase featured a panel of guests who shared their professional journeys. They included small business owner, Madison Rhoades, whose Cross Roads Escape Rooms have become a hit in Orange County; Production Designer and Alumnus Ed Haynes, who works for numerous corporate clients as well as keeping a prominent toe in theatrical design. His work recently graced the Scene Dock via his scenic design for The Busybody. Television and Film Production Designer Michael Andrew Hynes shared stories of his voluminous work with the students, starting from his roots in theatre design, as did lighting design Alum Madigan Stehly, working with Full Flood Lighting and as a freelance lighting designer. Panelist Sarah Borger, Production and Broadcast Director for ESL- Turtle Entertainment spoke about her journey from Stage Manager to Live Gaming Production Management.

SDA Head of Production, Sibyl Wickersheimer kicks off a lively panel discussion with professional guests (three out of five alumni of the SDA Production programs).

In the spirit of the rest of the week, I overbooked myself on Friday, agreeing to attend a 7:30PM Independent Student Performance, directed by a graduating senior. I like the play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph, not just because it features a young man, a hockey player, prone to injuries. Hey! I have one of those! Directed by Jordan Broberg, the two-hander was performed in the Brain and Creativity Institute, a sleek, cone shaped auditorium with acoustics by the Disney Hall acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota. Jordan’s cast members are both seniors, Ido Gal, and Cherie Carter, to whom, ironically, I had just come from awarding (in absentia) the James Pendleton Award. As I slipped into my seat, fifteen minutes late, I chuckled as I realized why Cherie had been absent from the banquet. They did a great job with the play. You could hear a pin drop in that hall, which was definitely not in my favor, 14 hours into my day and eager to squirm.

At the risk of promulgating an avalanche of back health ads, recently, I’ve been undergoing treatment for a herniated disk, via weekly chiropractic sessions, and bi-weekly massages. Aside from the fact that last week got too busy to attend to that, a few weeks ago, in the course of an hour long massage, I felt the pain melting away from all areas save for the lower back, where my back remained tightened into a rictus of resistance. The massage therapist and I discussed it at the end of the massage, and he acknowledged that we were definitely working on something there. Later that morning, my WeCroak app message seemed particularly pertinent:

Pain is always a sign that we are holding on to something – usually ourselves.

Pema Chodron (WeCroak)

My favorite gym partner, Lynn and I shared a selfie today at the Sanctuary Fitness Cinco de Mayo festivities.

This right before she shared with me a new podcast, the brainchild of Nora McIlnerny, author and notable widow, entitled Terrible, Thanks for Asking. You should definitely check it out. Here’s a link to her TED Talk. Especially if you are in the business of grieving. And not just to use a phrase of hers, “grief-adjacent.” She is very clever and speaks the truth about loss in an immediate and uplifting way, if you can imagine that combination of incongruities. And after this week of looking forward through the eyes of our talented students, I can indeed imagine the uplifting part.

What is Easter?

Ask a three-year-old raised in a non-religious household “What is Easter?” and you get pretty much what you’d expect, especially if she’s clutching the headless 12″ chocolate rabbit Nana brought her, methodically munching her way down his torso.

It’s Easter egg hunts…..(chomp) and candy….(thoughtful chewing) And the Easter Bunny. Where is the Easter Bunny?

Easter embodied in the Chocolate Bunny.

More than that, my granddaughter will likely think of Easter when she hears the fire truck go by, and may, through the slip of the tongue, refer to the Fire Bunny rather than the Easter Bunny. All of this is to be expected, when the fire department hosts the annual Easter Egg hunt at the local park and the sound that heralds the beginning of the egg hunt is a protracted blast of the firetruck’s siren.

I grew up in a fairly religious family. I now like to think of us as Public Presbyterians, our family’s worship having been more community-based rather than faith-based, though I’m pretty sure my Mom was more spiritual than the other four of us put together. We spent a lot of our youth in Sunday School in the basement of the large First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, PA, learning about Jesus, of course, but more importantly, painting small shards of glass with window paint to reassemble them into little stained glass sculptures. I also “assisted” my mother when she chaired the church fair, with little tables in the basement filled with home made crafts like these that were sold to raise money. I attended Brownies, and Girl Scouts in the same church basement. I have a faint recollection of the youth paster calling me “BeElzebub” which was only a short distance from the usual bastardization of my name by people, Elsbeth not being a common name. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s why I now call myself “Els.” Be Elz a Bub.

I associate Easter with my vestments of Easter, one year the pretty light-weight aquamarine wool coat with silky frog closures that I wore to the Easter service when I was about eight. I remember the Easter Bunny coming to deliver a basket of candy to me when I went to Florida with my Mom to stay with her parents in their condo when I was about six. I remember being very impressed that he was able to find me all the way down there. I also associate it with community, as the entire congregation was invited to Mrs. Boetticher’s house for brunch following the service on Easter Sunday. Gazelle Boetticher was a lovely Methodist minister’s widow, who, in addition to hosting this chaotic lunch, also baked birthday cakes throughout the year for all the children who attended. I don’t remember a lot about her, other than her extensive spoon and plate collection, which decorated the walls of her dining room, and the warm circle of church members who celebrated this holiday with her.

Easter was tangible for me in a way that it is for most small children, I imagine. The anticipation of the hunt, the glory of the prize of finding eggs stuffed with candy. Dyeing the eggs is a ritual I feel lucky to have learned. There is always at least the one lost egg which turns up with a spectacular reek a week or so after Easter. My daughter-in-law is smart about this, and has her daughter hide the eggs outside, where any lost eggs will merely feed the many members of the animal kingdom.

The thing about three year olds (as well as fifty-nine-year-olds), is they aren’t very clever about hiding Easter eggs. This is probably just as well, because they also aren’t very good at remembering where they hid the eggs. And when the game is both hide and seek, this is a useful shortcoming. Makes it more fun.

Aside from any religious aspect, Easter is fun. It’s especially fun if you have a brand new grand baby to meet over Easter weekend, which I did. Talk about a boost! Babies are redemptive.

First photo of Nana with Gdaughter 2.

Babies provide us with the lens to see the good, the vulnerable, to bring out the kindness and compassion that our modern society seems so desperately to want to squash. Traveling to the mountains, separated from the internet, nothing but family to focus on is centering and quelling of the worldly chaos I know I’ve physically internalized. Even when the exercise occasionally turns to the quelling of three-year-old tantrums, it is still soul-refilling.

Easter means redemption to many of a more Christian stripe than I. And there is no greater season of hopeful redemption than the first months of widowhood. Even the atheistic griever must confess to the willing suspension of disbelief that our partner or spouse will rise again from the dead, push aside the rock separating them from us, and reunite with us. Lingering on this path, however, is the way to insanity, I’ve come to realize.

Not surprisingly, I find myself thinking a lot about death lately. I’ve removed the WeCroak App from my phone after a particularly graphic quote startled me away. I guess my loss is recent enough that five daily reminders that we will die isn’t yet restorative or comforting. I’ve gravitated to dinners and theatre outings with my also-recent widows and widowers, but recognize that this desire to be helpful in others’ healing ironically may be holding me back from my own. As the semester ended yesterday, I realized I would no longer have the artificial buzz of the work hive to sustain my attentions, and that I would need to dig deeper to discover and re-discover what it is that I want to spend my time on. Just as the mountain snows’ melting reveal summer’s tools left behind, the passing days of solitude reveal the work still to be done.

Time to heft the Collins axe once again.

Lessons in Narcissism and Recovery

An American living in our times would be forgiven for diverting their gaze from narcissism as an odious and rampant practice of the higher reaches of our society. I remember one of my husband’s favorite stories was from when he’d shot the film Doc in Almeria, Spain back in 1971. He’d been on location for several weeks, and after recounting seeing someone kick a dog in the street, was told “It starts at the top with Franco.”

James Greene, 1971 as James McLowery in Doc

Yeah, well, I think we’ve beat the Spaniards on this one. So clear is the directive sent from the upper reaches of our government that the expected trickle down effect has infiltrated every corner of our society, Ponzi schemes, to #MeToo to the latest scandal in college admissions. All are fundamentally based in the tenet that my needs/truth/reality overrides yours or anyone else’s.

I’m here to tell you that sometimes narcissism is healthy if exercised in a confined timeframe. I can’t yet tell you the acceptable outer boundaries of healthy narcissism, because I haven’t yet navigated them, but some examples are:

  • Around the birth of one’s child
  • Around the care of loved ones
  • Around the death of one’s partner

There may be other examples of appropriately prescriptive narcissism. My direct observations have to do with all three bullet points above. Not sure what our Franco-equivalent in the White House would say are the rationalizations for his extreme narcissism, but I’m pretty sure they are none of the above. But then, as a (hopefully temporary) narcissist, no one’s pain is worse than mine, right?

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 24th Street Theatre, here in South Los Angeles. Running through May 19th, based on the young adult book by Kate DiCamillo, the play recounts the travails of a uniquely fashioned charmingly narcissistic china rabbit. Edward’s miraculous journey unfolds through his travels and travails, and his awakening from narcissist to empathetic being, able to learn to love again after his own loss. The 24th Street Theatre does consistently beautiful work with minimal and very theatrical elements, and again, here they don’t disappoint.

Director Debbie Devine has guided her cast of four, accompanied on a piano throughout by Bradley Brough through the intricacies of this rabbit’s tale (sorry, couldn’t resist). Funny, moving, tear jerking and ultimately satisfying, the afternoon unfolded with a welcoming curtain speech by Co-Artistic Director Jay McAdams, contextualizing this theatre’s imprimatur on the play (first production utilizing spanish supertitles, created for the production, as well as the consciously simple aesthetic which the theatre embraces). From the moment I entered the lobby of the theatre, I found my visit one of inclusion. Awkward in my singleness these days, I’m challenged in going out to see something on my own, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. It was opening weekend of the play, and the lobby was filled with 24th Street Theatre family members, board members, critics, adults, children, neighborhood folks. The step and repeat with a stool and two bunches of carrots was heavily utilized. I enjoyed seeing families posing with the carrots and huge smiles on their faces.

(I’m sorry, Jay and Debbie, issuing a spoiler alert.) If you are in the LA area, please come see this play. If you aren’t, you can benefit from a reading of this magical book.

Like Edward, I’ve been going through my own miraculous journey since my husband’s death in November. In the early phases of his rabbit destiny, Edward is cocooned in the loving embrace of his young girl owner Abilene Tulane. He wants for nothing, so embraced and supported is he. A bunny of privilege, his clothing is stylish, his position in the household secure. Then comes his loss, from which it appears he may never recover. His life pretty much goes to hell. I recognize, wear these phases of bunny privilege, then loss. The life going to hell part is less applicable, unless you describe sessions of unprovoked tears, increased impatience with things and people and a general weariness and disinterest in participating as hell. I don’t afford myself that luxury. I know that it is a process, and as hard processes go, they are not hell. They are opportunities for growth and improvement and learning.

The tears, weariness and disinterest describe the immediate aftermath of a loss, even if you are lucky as I have been, to have the consistent support of family and friends. Eventually, after the public grief cycle has “ended,” after the memorial, the funeral, the life celebration, the next phase begins. It is one of solitude with a lot of acting involved. To sustain the Edward Tulane metaphor, this might be construed as the “scarecrow” phase. Utilized as a deterrent to others, surrounded by shiny objects, the grieving widow/er is still out there in the field, showing themselves to be fierce, smiling, but feeling emotionally empty and suspended. This might be why I chose to purchase the bracelets and distribute them to my grieving friends. Upon receipt, their thank yous were heart-felt, but also tinged with a recognizable sadness and fraught with questions I don’t have the answers for.

How do you keep f&*king going?

I can keep f&*king going, but why should I?

And for me, the moment one night 34 years into my sobriety, five months into my solitude, this week, I stood in front of my cabinet in the kitchen and looked at a corked bottle of red wine left over from one of my recent visits by friends, thinking to myself, “well, no one would even know if I had a glass of red wine right now.” I promptly uncorked the bottle and poured the remaining wine down the sink. It really scared me.

The one reassuring element of this scarecrow phase is that I find myself surrounded by other scarecrows. I’m not alone in the field. Nor are any of us. I want you to hear that.

None of us is doing this human thing alone.

I’m reminded of that every day, yesterday in the hallway in the DRC as I greeted a colleague who has been on leave for several months. We clung to each other sobbing amidst the coming and going of our colleagues. In her I recognized her challenges and loss; in me, she recognized my loss and challenges.

If you were to read my bed-side table stack now, you’d be worried but really, I’m in a research phase, to prepare me for the work ahead. Because of my loss, my bunny tale, if you will, people have been reaching out for support during their own challenges. I want to say when they do, “I don’t know any more about this than you do!” And I’m certainly not an authority on caregiving, death, or anything related to human loss. And yet, I do have the capacity to listen and hear and try to help. In my own limited scarecrow capacity. As do you. And certainly my friends do.

Emotional Check in this morning with my Pals via Skype – three different time zones. So sustaining.

From now through May 19th, if you live in Los Angeles, you can and should see The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 23rd Street Theatre. It will help you in your recovery. Aren’t we all in recovery from Narcissism?