Itinerancy – A Life In The Theatre

This weekend, during the School of Dramatic Arts faculty retreat,  Oliver Mayer, one of our Playwriting faculty members used  a wonderful word in the context of our School’s need for a shared space.

Itinerancy (as defined by Merriam-Webster) n. A system of rotating ministers who itinerate.

Itinerate is then described as “to travel a preaching or judicial circuit.”(Crossword fans remember Iter is Latin for road, right? Well, itinerans is Latin for to travel.)

This Moebius strip of a definition seems fitting because an itinerant is always itinerating, yet the action seems defined by the iter and not what it is that the itinerant does while he/she itinerates. I would also take Merriam-Webster a bit to task for the limiting the defined parties only to the  ministerial and judicial spheres, but given that the word came into being in the 1789 when those professions may have been more forward in peoples’ minds, I guess it is excusable.

As a life long member of theatre’s itinerant tribe, I feel a complete comfort and  affinity with this lifestyle. In fact, Itinerancy is one of the most appealing things about a life in the theatre.

We are on the go a lot, which while tiring, perhaps, is always invigorating. I don’t mean necessarily being on the road on tour, either.  I recognize that  unique theatrical productions provide islands of community from which we hop to and fro. I tell anyone who will listen that “there are only 100 people who work in the theatre,” because that is what it can feel like when you find yourself in the room at a theatrical opening, or indeed, at a first rehearsal of a play. We experience warm reunions or sometimes cool nods of the head with people we may not be so pleased to see or be seen by. My life itself is not itinerant in any significant sense, but I welcome my daily work jaunts to these theatrical islands not as vacations, but as the norm.

Being itinerant requires a blend of flexibility, spontaneity and extreme planning . We theatre artists blend these into our  lives and work.  I talked a few posts ago about the kleptomania of theatre artists who steal anything and everything from their daily encounters for use in their current work. Well, we also find pleasure in the constant encounters happening in the intensely human interactions of rehearsals or techs. We add these feather weight talismans to our psychic suitcases like pretty travel stickers of trips gone by.

Travel stickers

This week provided the perfect illustration of the beauty of itinerancy.

When faced with an over scheduled week, I am  not relaxed, or pleased or without stress. This weekend was shaping up something like this:
Friday – 11:00-5:00PM           Faculty Retreat (Hotel on the westside)

Friday 6-10PM                             Tech at the Bing (Shift Rehearsal)

Saturday 9:00-5:00PM            Faculty Retreat (Hotel on the westside)

Saturday 6:00-10:00PM         10 out of 12’s at the Bing

Sunday 10:30AM                          Walk through of area needing painting at my condo

Sunday 12:00PM                         10 out of 12s continue at the Bing

Sunday 4:30PM                             Strike Set for Summer Brave

Sunday 6:00-11:00PM              Attend LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards (Black Tie event) (San Gabriel)

This schedule with all its geographic breadth is a macro version of what we do at USC all the time – walking all over the campus to visit the spaces in which we work. Hence the use by Oliver of the word itinerancy. You have noticed that there is more than a hint of martyrdom in any good self-respecting itinerant. I or others of my tribe might list a schedule like the one above to impress with how busy we are, the subtext of which is “Look how much more I can fit than is humanly possible into my schedule.” You know the boring old cliché of human doings and not human beings? See above.

Well the beauty of my schedule was that sometime around 2:00PM today, after leaving the house ready to trudge from assignment to assignment,  I was suddenly free to return home for 3 unscheduled hours! I was positively giddy.


And now, in the luxury of that unexpected island of time, I can prepare myself to attend the LA Stage Ovation Awards. It will be like stepping onto a tropical island, filled with other itinerants drawn to the sandy, sunny, and familiar shores.

Pass me the sunscreen, won’t you?


Summer Brave Strike Notes

Summer Brave at the McClintock Theatre

What does it mean when you have no incentive to write? Are you muse-less? A-mused? I don’t know if I am just too tuckered out to be creative, or we have reached that point in the semester where tech upon tech upon opening upon strike has set in, but the creative juices aren’t juicing right now.

However, some nice things have happened. I can tell you about those.

I got to sit in the theatre last weekend with the beautiful set for Summer Brave, that open-faced, honest Midwestern wooden bungalow with lace curtains and well worn paint on its siding, courtesy of senior design student Dreem Qin. It had the same effect on everyone who ventured into the space- “We’re home and we’re not leaving” was the vibe. I asked if we could keep the precious haven in the theatre just through Christmas, so that we might decorate it with fat evergreen boughs and candles in each of the windows- you know, a place for faculty, students and staff to retreat to and do yoga, or meditation or just sip a cup of tea with cookies.The warm lamps would beckon us into the rooms beyond the front screen door, which now clatters with the current show’s familial traffic: Flo Owens and her two spirited daughters, Millie, the bookish one, and Madge the “prettiest girl in town” and the bitter, but determined Rosemary Sydney, a schoolteacher whose long term sights are set on businessman Howard Evans.

But alas, we will need to strike this set on Sunday so that the 1950’s Cubo-Floridian world of Nilo Cruz’s Anna In The Tropics can take up residency in the space.

Sad is my plight, that even as I sit waiting for the first dress rehearsal to begin, I am taking a mental inventory of the props and scenic elements so that I can prepare strike notes for the following Sunday. It is a telescoping of time that may be familiar to others in my age bracket. That same omniscience of the overall arc of the process prevents me, a life-long pet owner, from getting a new puppy. I already know how the cycle ends. And yet this cycle I embrace fully and with passion.

I’m not sure that anyone besides the stage manager even reads my strike notes, but they are my informal way of giving structure to the process of demolition, my eulogy to the ephemera that is a college production. What is any production, really, other than a list of objects assembled from the psyches and sweat of so many people to bring shape from a mere wisp of a dramatic idea to full fruition. The sketch that pours from the pencil then turns into the AutoCad drawing, that morphs into a wooden or steel structure encrusted with layers of paint. All is dressed with props that have appeared in so many productions that if they were to begin whispering among themselves,  the roar would overtake the current play like the flames that destroy the redwood stand yet upon which the redwoods depend for their continuity and rebirth. My strike notes are banal, cold, unrepresentative of the caring caresses of the artists whose decisions and considered groupings bring life to them as denizens of Inge’s story.

First- remove birdies from under eaves

  • Remove curtains from windows
  • Return To Shrine
  • Table on porch
  • Radio( remove speaker)
  • Flower pots
  • Two porch chairs and cushions
  • Bench
  • Wicker Ottoman
  • Stool
  • Two chairs inside house
  • Two lamps inside
  • Bentwood coatrack
  • Wicker basket
  • Sheets and pillowcases
  • Porch swing and chain.
  • Welcome mat
  • Curtains from windows
  • Curtains to offstage
  • Tree branches

Rentals- yellow watering can

Bench in living room

Broom goes back to the Bing

Last week’s strike notes had included a graphic I found after deciding that all the strike notes needed a visual brand. Perhaps my blogging has impacted my work. Anyway, the strike notes for The Dream of The Burning Boy had this heading on them. Burning Boy

 I haven’t yet chosen the image for Summer Brave’s notes.

But yes, spending time in rural Kansas in the 1950s -that has been nice.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing two college friends with their accomplished graduate school and college ready children come through to sample what USC might provide them. We met for lunch under the awnings of the Tutor Campus Center. Charlie and I had both attended St. Paul’s and Princeton; his wife, Penny and I, just Princeton. The time telescope was soundly closed as we rambled briefly through the ivied portals of our shared educations, their children listening politely. We spoke about what the future would look like for their two children, both embarking on lives enriched by the arts. Selfishly, I hope their journeys include time spent at USC; how lovely it would be to reconnect with Charlie and Penny, and to get to know their next generation.

But for now, the busy days unfurl ahead. The lists of construction and destruction. The strike note flames of Summer Brave begin to lap and flicker up around the beautiful little cottage in the McClintock Theatre even as the remaining four performances still lay ahead this weekend.

Won’t you please come and pass some time with us in William Inge’s painful yet pretty landscape?

The Great ShakeOut Flash Theatre Day

They just kept pouring floor after floor. We had bets on whether we would lose the US Bank building view. We can just see the crown now.

The other day, Brian James Polak, a recent graduate of the USC MFA in Dramatic Writing posted on his FB page that his play was being produced in a Flash Theatre Event sponsored by the Chalk Repertory Company, directed by Larissa Kokernot, performed in the new high-rise apartments at 8th and Hope in Downtown LA.

Nearing the top with the exterior glass.

Our family  has watched this building rise over the past several years. In recent weeks, we watched from afar as the hip denizens of downtown began to move into the building. The particularly irksome thing over the past few weeks has been watching every damn light in the place on at night, exposing empty apartment after empty apartment. I guess that’s the point, it makes us want to move in, right?

So when I saw Brian’s post, I was intrigued and also frustrated, because I will be working this weekend, unable to attend.

Today was a particularly long and tiring day at work. As anyone with a pulse who lives in California knows, today was the Great ShakeOut, the statewide earthquake preparedness drill which we have practiced for about 4 years. At the University, this drill has been so fine-tuned that today, when we set up our DOC – sorry, I can’t remember what that acronym stands for – designated outside center? Departmental Outside Center  we BERTs were like old pros. (Building Emergency Response Team members)

The drill instructed us to set up our DOCs, and then to do the duck and cover drill at 10:16AM. We had a great time setting up our DOC, pitching the pop up tent, and wiring up the inverter to the battery on the utility cart so that we would have power to charge our phones should the need arise.IMG_2942

The SDA Status Board
We visited the School of Cinematic Arts’ DOC on our way back to the office.

The whole exercise, setting up our station two hours before the scheduled earthquake is a touch ridiculous, because of course, we won’t have that kind of notice when the real thing happens. However, having seen the Ebola situation in Dallas unfold, I am a new and staunch believer in the value of practicing a protocol until everyone feels pretty damn secure with it.

Virginia and Helga are ready for any challenge that this drill brings! Virginia even brought breakfast for us all.

Having set this station up twice now, we know where everything is, and we all know what needs to be done. So when the day comes, and it is coming, my friends, instead of running around like chickens with our heads cut off, we will know exactly where the bullhorn is, the emergency triage supplies, etc. The DOC status board, which listed the rather mundane tasks we accomplished in checking our inventory today, may one day list important information about the location and condition of SDA Staff and faculty and students. There was an air of joviality today, as we got ready for a major earthquake event.

Once the drill was over, we returned to the office and finished the day out with two production meetings. I arrived home at about 7:30PM.

My husband and I sat in our dining room to eat the pizza I had resorted to ordering when I got home. I looked up and out the window toward the brightly lit 8th and Hope building. There, I saw a group of adults standing in an empty apartment, and I said to Jimmie, “Hey, I think that is the audience for Brian’s play over there.” We both went to the window to look across, and could see the audience members and a trio of actors having what looked like an argument in the center of the room. Trippy,  right?
So I took some photos.IMG_4112 This is pretty much what it looks like from our balcony without any magnification.IMG_4110 And this is what we can see when we use the 30X camera lens. I went back to the Flash Face book page and this is where it got really weird. I posted the pictures and within about 4 minutes, I had heard from both Brian and Larissa. This world is just too wild. Real time reporting and  reaction. Are there any limits to what is possible given the technology and tools we have?

So close and yet so far away

The other night we drove to the Sierra Madre Playhouse to attend the production of “4,000 Miles.” We left home at 6:00, planning to have dinner at a local restaurant in the town before attending the show. Our friend, Mimi Cozzens, one of the show’s stars, had told us there were a lot of dining options there. Playhouse Xmas PlayersThe drive wasn’t bad for a Friday heading toward Pasadena, and we found a little Italian bistro diagonally across the street from the theatre. It was about 7:00 when we arrived, and the waiter assured me that he could get us to the theatre by 8:00PM. Through the window of the restaurant, we could see the loopy green neon letters spelling “Playhouse” on the facade of the theatre.

The restaurant was quite full, families and friends deep in conversation, laughing and unwinding after a week of work. The table right next to us filled immediately after we arrived. A family of six, two parents, and four children ranging in age from high chair toddler to old-enough-to-know-better-than-Mom-and-Dad. But the most striking thing about them was that five out of six of them were sitting at the table, and they were all looking into their cell phones. All, that is, except Mom, who was basically very alone.

I looked across at Jimmie, and indicated with a sharp head wag that he should look over to the table to our right. He did, eyes widening as he observed what had caught my attention.  They were deeply engaged with their devices. Even the toddler was playing a game, probably on Mom’s phone, hence her digital solitude.  Jimmie indicated that behind me at another table were two young girls playing games on their phones, their parents talking while the digital sitter kept the children quiet.

The play was great, our friend Mimi alternately funny and touching. It was a very professional production, though the theatre was a bit on the cold side.

Later when we talked about the family at the table next to us,  Jimmie asked with true befuddlement-  “What are they looking for?”  And I found myself unable to answer. What are we looking for when we pick up our phones in the middle of a family dinner? When I was a kid we ignored the phone when it rang at dinner time. If we tried to go answer it, we got in a heap o’ trouble. Now, it is easy to find a teenager with his/her phone under the table, eyes forward, texting secretly while carrying on the charade of a conversation with his/her parents.

The next day, we went to celebrate a belated birthday with our dear friend, Jason. After visiting with him, we walked back out to the car. I was juggling my phone, the empty Ralph’s bag, my purse, and while I fumbled for my keys, my cell phone slipped out of my hand and landed face down on the pavement. I bent over to retrieve it, turned it over, and was dismayed to see that the face of the phone had smashed, scored with a radiating pattern of destructive veins reaching to all four corners of the face. I pressed the home button and it lit up, but every time I tried to swipe my thumb across the face, it snagged at the dry skin on my thumb.

“Shit Shit Shit. I broke my phone!” And I looked up at Jimmie, while trying to get the trunk open. He looked at me, aware of my distress, but like his earlier question, “What are they looking for?” he didn’t really have any idea of why I was so upset. I fumed for about 20 minutes, muttering under my breath about my own stupidity, until I realized that there really wasn’t any point in getting so exercised about it. We went on about the rest of our afternoon – a trip to the Nail Salon on 9th, then home, where I cooked us a healthy dinner.

Sunday morning, I made a pilgrimage to the Apple Shrine at the Grove. It seemed appropriate that I arrived at 11:00AM on a Sunday morning. It felt a little like going to church to atone for my sin of clutziness. The Apple Genii lined the top of the acrylic staircase, a vision in blue; angels with iPads poised to assist. A young blond genius greeted me with kind eyes.”What brings you here?” Mutely, I turned the wounded face of my magic pocket computer up to her eye level.  She made a sad face and then checked me in, urging me to sit at the bar where someone would be along to help me. Genius Evan came along soon and walked me through the exchange of my broken friend for a new one and within 20 minutes and only about $118 lighter, I left the store, a spring back in my step.

I still don’t know what we are all looking for from our devices. You can call me shallow and no doubt will, but it sure felt good to be reunited with my unblemished iPhone on a Sunday morning.

Saying Goodbye

Some of Phil’s biggest fans.

Today we attended the memorial for Phil Sparta who passed away, September 3, 2014.

We gathered under the cool green foliage of the Dallidet Adobe Gardens in San Luis Obispo. We had driven up the night before from Los Angeles,  staying overnight with some generous friends of Phil’s and his wife Martha’s along with Stella, one of my husband’s nieces by marriage.

IMG_2838The memorial began as  eight Marine Color-Guard members in full regalia performed  military honors for Phi, a veteran of the Vietnam War. There were three rifle volleys, the shell casings, gathered from the sandy floor of the garden, and presented in a pouch by a Marine who knelt in front of  Martha. The American flag, unfurled and held tautly by two of the Marines while taps was played, was then refolded and presented. The pageantry of the ceremony was intensely moving and sobs were audible among the assembled friends and family.

Martha’s mom was my husband’ older sister.  And it was Phil’s extended illness, ironically, that allowed us to get to know him and Martha so well. Martha has always been a role model for me. It was she who resuscitated my interest in the piano after 45 years away, when she announced on one of our visits that she had taken up piano lessons.

“I could do that, ” I remember thinking to myself.

She owned her own business and always speaks her mind. She is practical about everything and always seems so sure of herself.

Phil had contracted hep C from a transfusion back in his service days in Nam, and thereafter,  his liver had been prodded, tested and photographed by his medical team at USC.  But you would never have known from looking at Phil that he was ill. He was warm and funny, irreverent and spiritually deep,  gruff, and tender – a lover of people and good music and good food.  He always had a big smile on his face.

IMG_2869 We heard a lot about his love of BBQ ribs today from his loving and loyal friends, and about his skills as a chef. He and Martha came to LA for his medical visits. We fell into a predictable pattern. They would arrive on Monday afternoon, and we would meet them for dinner, either at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where they often stayed, or at CPK, and after a cheery dinner with them, they would go to the hospital in the morning, have his tests and then drive home to Los Osos.

Their visits  were about every six months, and no matter where I was in my crazy work schedule, I was able to schedule that dinner with them, and always looked forward to it. Martha gave us about two weeks notice, and it was on the calendar and we made it happen.  And last year, a few times they stayed with us at our apartment, which was like a high school coed sleepover except without the booze and backstabbing and panty raids.

On one of the last visits to LA, we went to dinner at the LA Athletic Club on a Thursday,  Jazz Thursday; where they had a  combo with an extremely vivacious and dynamic singer. Phil and Martha had just been down the weekend before to attend a Zydeco music festival with some old friends, and they recognized her from the festival. Getting up between sets, they went to greet her, and she beamed with happy recognition at both of them as they neared her. I know the feeling. People were always  happy to see Martha and Phil coming. They brought the singer back to the table to meet us and I thought to myself “How wonderful that Phil and Martha have such talented and friendly, interesting people in their lives. “

In the last year, Phil’s doctor visits became more frequent, – the numbers had changed – again, information we received with concern; and yet, Martha was always so matter-of-fact about it and Phil looked so well and was so jovial at our Monday dinners.

Martha and Phil ‘s daughter, Bianca, married Dustin about two years ago at a colorful and joyous wedding in Oakland which we attended, and recently, Bianca and Dustin welcomed their son Percy into the world.

We attended the baby shower on Mother’s Day weekend, meeting all of Martha and Phil’s friends and watching the young expectant couple unwrap a promising array of baby gifts. Phil spent most of the time that day cooking truckloads of meat out on the grill. Why  hadn’t I sought him out that day to talk in the cool air while he cooked for all of us? Phil did have a brief visit with baby Percy, just before his condition worsened and he came back to LA. He beamed when he talked about his grandson.

Phil was colorful. He told great stories. On our last visit with him in the hospital, about a week before he died,  he shared the story of his near death experience in 1971. He told about losing consciousness, and being bathed in the white light, and feeling a terrific sense of compassion and love. He said he heard a voice saying “Go back. It’s not time yet.” He was weak, but recounted this to us with calmness and serenity; he said he felt ready and he had lived a good life, and he wasn’t afraid of dying. He was secure in the love of Jesus Christ and he knew that he would be taken care of.

See, Phil always had a way of making you feel better. He would make you laugh with a joke, or a quirky way of looking at things. He had complete integrity. You always knew where you stood with him. And the time we had with him and with Martha was precious.

Today, under the IMG_2842trees at the Garden with all their friends,  it was almost as if Phil was there, urging us back to the buffet, cranking up the music so that we would all enjoy ourselves. That would have been so like Phil.

Complete Works

Complete WorksLast night I decided to stay after work to attend  a screening of a web series conceived and executed by three former USC School of Dramatic Arts students, Lili Fuller, Adam North, and Joe Sofranko. Entitled “Complete Works”, the five episode series charts the foibles of a Midwestern college student (Sofranko)  whose life long love affair with all things Shakespearean takes him on an international voyage of self-realization as an actor and person.

You can see these on Hulu if you didn’t make it to the screening last night. Here’s their facebook page.

When I heard about the project two years ago, I knew that many students and SDA faculty were participating in the filming. But what I hadn’t expected to see last night  was the sophistication and comic subtlety of the script, and the film’s elegance. I knew that Adam North had stayed beyond his four years as an SDA student to attend the School of Cinematic Arts. I knew that Lili was an accomplished choreographer who is even now working with our BFA Junior class on their Bing production of Dark Of The Moon. Joe and Lili and Lili’s wonderful parents have a non-profit called ETC which produces powerful theatre and dance collaborations. Joe and Adam recently finished in the top 200 Of the Greenlight Project.

So what is it that surprised me last night? Why did I not expect to be wowed by this powerhouse trio?

I think it came down to the fact that each of them is so humble and hardworking that their mastery and aptitude in a completely new arena outside of that which I knew them from came as a shock.

I thrilled last night to their humor and good taste, the lengths that each of their cast members was willing to go to tell their collective story. They used the many pieces of their education to assemble the multifaceted webisodes. Put to use were their critical studies, their acting training, their ironic lampooning of both good and bad training. They took aim at both actors and academics with oversized egos, both with skill and deadly accuracy. I was just so incredibly proud of them.

Afterwards we came out of the theatre to find cookies and juice set out on the bar in and the Bing Lobby was full of the squeals and laughter of returning alums greeting each other and celebrating their friends’ success.

These three created this project by using their training, skills, entrepreneurial spirit and the alchemy of their friendship.

Today I spent all day talking with current students, former students, and soon-to-be-former students. The theme  was “what is possible to accomplish?” How can we stretch reinvent, rebrand ourselves to make our way in the world as artists and collaborators and teams?  Thanks to my detour on the way home last night,  I realized again that there are a refreshing number of ways. The way you define yourself today, say by the degree you are earning in college, may be far far away from who you are even three or four years from now.  Make and keep good friends who support your growth as artists and whom you can trust to have your back. The Complete Works,  are never really Complete. It’s all a work in progress.

Happy Days

HappyDaysBrookeAdamsThis afternoon, escaping for a few hours from the 104 degree temperatures of Pasadena, California, I had a life affirming experience in the theatre that reminded me why it has such a profound importance in my life.

In the Theatre at Boston Court, I watched this afternoon as Brooke Adams played Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” with her husband, Tony Shalhoub as Willie, in a beautiful production directed by Andrei Belgrader.

First, a disclaimer. I have a personal and historic connection with this play.  Back in high school, at the age of  seventeen or eighteen, Bob Edgar, my teacher and my theatre mentor, encouraged me to do the role of Winnie. Fellow student and friend,  Will Schwalbe, played Willie; he was sixteen or seventeen.

We  learned all 60 plus pages of lines, which was not easy, and we rehearsed the play and performed it in Memorial Hall,  a 500 seat auditorium. Who came? Can’t remember. Who decided this would be a good idea? Bob or I?  Don’t remember. How long did we rehearse? Not a clue. What was the nature of our conversation about the play when Will and I had no relevant life experience? How did we discuss the sexual innuendo in the play while knowing nothing about it? What were we all thinking?!

I remember learning by failing – how weak and reedy my voice was, what it took  to sustain what was basically a  monologue while buried up to my waist or neck in a mound of dirt. It took vocal variety, which I did not yet have, but strove to acquire in the four weeks of the rehearsals.  Laughable now. It took physical endurance and extreme mental agility to find connections where there didn’t seem  any connecting the text from the end of one beat to the beginning of the next. I remember the pride of being able to learn the lines and the fear of not being able to remember them when I needed to. I remember the joy of taking on a project for which I was monumentally ill-suited. The warm feeling that my teacher, a smart, witty, and well-read adult, had enough faith in my abilities to try something so that we could have “a positive learning outcome.” Hell, it was like winning the educational lottery.

Flash forward to Los Angeles, 36 years later. I sat in the theatre, next to my husband, felt the usual frisson when the house lights faded before the play began, listened to the sounds of someone getting into the beautifully designed and painted mound. (Takeshi Kata did the set.) Lights up, (thank you Tom Ontiveros!) , and there she was, Winnie, in all her glory. Brooke Adams seemed illuminated from within. Her 150-watt smile and can-do attitude was inspiring. What made the play so moving was  simple. She made it plausible that even though buried to her waist in dirt, she would survive and happily so. The simple daily objects she pulled from her bag were talismans of her optimism. Willie was still there, within range of her voice; talking to someone who occasionally responded brought her joy.

And though I can’t remember what “Happy Days” meant to me as a seventeen or eighteen-year-old,  today, the play was about aging. Beckett’s  portrayal of a powerful woman freeing herself from  prison of a mound of dirt with just her mind and her love was moving and funny and familiar. We take for granted our bodies when we are young, and our worlds become more closely circumscribed as our anatomy ages and fails. And in spite of that, our humanity affords us the ability to greet each day generously and with love and joy just as Winnie does.

I thought  today about our niece who lost her husband of 44 years a week ago and  in a week’s time. I thought about how Winnie would be able to go on without Willie. I thought about how someday I will have to go on without my darling husband. And on stage, we saw that terror and uncertainty and fear in Winnie’s eyes.  And we saw her recover again and again.

Ah yes, if only I could bear to be alone, I mean prattle away with not a soul to hear.
Not that I flatter myself you hear much, no Willie, God forbid.
Days perhaps when you hear nothing. But days too when you answer.
So that I may say at all times (even when you do not answer and perhaps hear
nothing) something of this is being heard. I am not merely talking to myself.
That is, in the wilderness. Something I could never bear to do – for any length of time.
That is what enables me to go on, go on talking that is.
Whereas, if you were to die – or go away and leave me, then what would I do, what
could I do all day long?
Simply gaze before me with compressed lips.
Or a brief… gale of laughter, should I happen to see the old joke again.

 Winnie, “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett

Winnie is a survivor. And while we are on this mound we call earth, we love our stuff for the comfort it brings us, and we love the other inhabitants of the mound. And if the mound and its inhabitants change, we can still survive and find  a way to express our love and joy.

Go see “Happy Days” at the Theatre at Boston Court

The Pink Lady

Several years ago, an old friend of my husband’s from back in his “Greenwich Village days,” in the 1950s, Peter Harvey, notified us that he would be coming to town for an exhibition of his paintings at a little gallery on Melrose, just west of La Cienega. Did we want to attend? This was in about 2008, I think.

Peter is an accomplished painter, as well as a very experienced theatrical scenic designer, and Jimmie had worked with Peter and known him well socially back in New York.

Of course we wanted to go to the show, and before going, we had discussed rather seriously that we would  buy one of his works at the gallery to support him.

We arrived at the gallery at about 7pm, I from work, and Jimmie from home.  I went to park the car nearby, returning to the small gallery, which was filled with jovial friends of Peter’s – mostly gay men, but there were some women there as well. I found Jimmie, and we began to circulate around the room, enjoying the colorful, large-scale paintings on display.

Text/Eros was the name of the show

It soon became clear to us – I don’t know, call me provincial, prudish, too straight, narrow-minded – that we were unlikely to find a painting for our living room among the canvases in front of us.  However, one painting was really lovely and G-rated enough for our lives.

IMG_4090There were many paintings in the gallery with text incorporated into the body of the painting, and this one, though inherently a bit sad, had a warmth and theatricality to it that caused us to gravitate to it.

I sent this photo to Peter because he said he liked to see where his paintings had gone to live

We made the deal and after the show closed a few weeks later, picked up the painting and hung it in our dining room. I actually painted the walls of the dining room to better show it off.

While we were at the gallery, I also thumbed through a portfolio of water colors, and stumbled upon a lovely and saucy watercolor of a “woman of a certain age” flaunting her zoftig body with insouciance  on a coverlet splashed with bright pink flowers and Peter’s jaunty signature at the bottom of the blanket. I fell in love with the Pink Lady. After the show closed and Peter went back to New York, I thought about her.

My 50th birthday was coming up and Jimmie asked me if there was anything I wanted for my birthday. I said wistfully, “I can’t stop thinking about the Pink Lady. She is just the epitome of what I feel like 50 is about. Take it or leave it.”

And so, the Pink Lady came to live with us. She graces the wall above my desk at home, and I can glance up at her when we are reading in bed before turning out the light.

And as I lay on the couch tonight in the living room, I was looking up at the Ode On Melancholy painting that we had bought originally, and decided to look up the ode which inspired it.

Ode on Melancholy


No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
       Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
       By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
               Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
       Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
               Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
       For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
               And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
       Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
       And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
       Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
               Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
       Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
               And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
       Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
               Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
       Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
               And be among her cloudy trophies hung.


Poked by Death

IMG_2274As I shared with you, in previous posts,  last weekend was one of the happiest in recent memory, as my husband and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary at the Disneyland for Debutantes, the 5 Star Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena (celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014).

Amidst these happy celebrations, we were coming to grips with the demise of our niece’s husband of 44 years and ultimately, his extremely untimely and sudden death on Wednesday of this past week.

These events which were sandwiched into a period of about 10 days have served to remind me that there is nothing so precious as our loved ones – and that the  shocks of the end of life are always present in our lives, or in the periphery of our lives, however happy and full they seem at the moment.

IMG_1958This dark and unsettling reminder is just a poke, like a “poke” on FB (I have never really understood what that is, but have enthusiastically poked the poker back in response). “Hey, I’m here. Don’t stop what you are doing, but just know that I’m out here and I think of you occasionally, and I’m letting you know that I can reach you when I need to.”

Having been poked by death this week has been instructive. Devastating, but instructive.   I have learned this week to:

1.  Live your life with the intention of making every day count. Remove obstacles that get in the way of each day’s mattering to you.

2. Let your loved ones know you are thinking of them before tragedy strikes, or even begins to circle them. Letters, postcards, hugs when possible are recommended.

3. Plan ahead. Get your affairs in order. No matter how young you are, it is critical that you share your end of life intentions with your loved ones, parents, children, whoever will be in charge should something unexpected happen to you.

4. Bring as much joy into your life as is possible.  Do this in whatever way makes you the happiest – attending cultural events, watching a football game, going for a long walk and talking over important things with a friend, eating chocolates and watching the Foresyte Saga. (yes, that’s what we did last night.)

5. Breathe. Laugh. Cry. Frequently and with gusto.



The Time to Start Measuring Up is Now

Events in the past three weeks have been shocking and have smacked me upside the head. On the macro level, more young black men were gunned down in the streets, more cops assassinated. Every time I turned on the TV it seems like ISIS or some wannabe fringe extremist has killed another 125 people.  I’ve become de-sensitized to random acts of terrorism, both international and national. And it’s not because I don’t care about my fellow human beings. It’s just not possible to be in a constant state of shock or rage or worry or grief. Especially if you’re a “there-must-be-a-pony-here-somewhere” type of person like I am. Unfortunately, events like these have hardened me enough  that I don’t have to curl up in a corner 24-7. Because if there were no auto-protective features, that’s where we’d all be, right?

But on Monday,  when I received a call from Virginia, our guiding Senior Business Officer about the recent and sudden death of one of my faculty colleagues, Paul Backer, I cried out. “What?” So shocking was the loss of someone so integral to our work place, and ostensibly so healthy, that the news reached out of the phone and punched me in the gut. “I wanted you to know before you heard it from someone else,” she said.

Paul Backer, tall, with boyish good looks, a large head filled with facts about the theatre, and the broadest spectrum of interests, was a fixture of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC since 1984 when he began teaching there. He attend all the productions, both those that were curricular, as well as all the Independent Student Productions. As the production manager, I am the last person to sign off on the ISP contracts, and Paul was the faculty advisor for 99.9% of them. He was a sterling director, directing the first show of each fall semester in the McClintock Theatre. This was a tight rehearsal period, four weeks to tech, one which required exquisite preparation. The plays were challenging contemporary, open-ended types of plays, and Paul somehow found the time to sit with the play, conceptualize his approach, get the research done, and send off no less than 30 pages of analysis with research images, with metaphors for what he wanted to achieve in his/our production. thumb_IMG_5149 3_1024His production last fall, Love and Information, was a huge learning experience for our production and design students. A few weeks ago, I received his first ideas about how  he wanted to stage Julie Jensen’s Mockingbird, with the casual tag line, “details to follow. Pb.” That made me smile, typically understated.

To get an idea of how ecumenically Paul approached his productions you only have to read a little about the subject of his dissertation, to quote SDA’s website: 

“Shakespeare, Alchemy and Dao: The Inner Alchemical Theatre. It was an interdisciplinary and cross cultural analysis of Shakespeare and the Renaissance esoteric traditions as seen through the lens of classical Chinese Daoism, particularly the philosophy and practice of “Inner Alchemy” or neidan.

USC School of Dramatic Arts

Paul slipped off this mortal coil in his sleep, at 59 years of youth, sometime before Monday when I heard about it from Virginia. And as I processed the news, even before the official email came telling his SDA family about our tragic loss, the ripple effect among Paul’s “children,” his former and current students, was immediate, tsunamic.  I saw Paul’s last post on FB honored an alum, who passed away July 2nd. Paul attended his memorial just last Tuesday, spending an hour  after the memorial in the parking lot chatting with one of his former students. She called me to commiserate that afternoon. She shared that she had asked Paul about what to say to a parent who demands “when are you going to give up this theatre stuff and get a real job?” They’d talked about how hard it must be for a parent to bury their child, and how attending services like these felt terrible in the same way.

Paul was there for his students. He was there for his colleagues, picking up the role of interim chair of Critical Studies when his supervisor had to step away to deal with her own tragedy.

Paul’s death has got me thinking a lot about legacy. As we watched Paul’s legacy unfurl through the devastated testimonies from former students, I thought that Paul probably never ever thought about what his legacy would be. He just built it one relationship at a time. He showed up. He witnessed the work. He demonstrated how he cared, one conversation, one hug at a time. And then he was gone. One of my colleagues said in a recent emotional email,

The time to start measuring up is now.

My tribute to Paul on FB garnered 270 views. That’s a whole lot for me, like by a multiple of ten. We are Paul’s family, vast and interesting and varied, just like his mind, his theatre practice, and his life.

I am and I know the rest of the SDA/SOT community are in a stunned state of grief about the loss of Paul Backer. There is a significant hole in the fabric of the universe. Paul was always there, always supportive, always creative and collaborative. He attended all the shows, was witness to people’s important life events. He gave all of himself to us. Thank you for your calls today to talk about Paul Backer and to cry a little about our loss. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the posts from students and alumni about the impact Paul had on your lives. It really helps to try to understand this loss. I took this photo last September during tech of Love and Information. I wish I’d waited until he turned around.

Love and Information, Fall 2015: Scenic Design, Projections and Lighting by G. Austin Allen

Rest in peace, dear Paul.