Road Trip!

I have always loved road trips. As kids we spent a lot of time fighting over the “back back” of our wood-paneled station wagon on the five-hour drives from our home in Greensburg, PA to my Mom’s parents’ home in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Those of you with station wagons in the 60s may remember that  the “back back” was a narrow, coffin-shaped slot between the stacked up suitcases and the side of the car, where a lucky sibling could stretch out his or her legs and sleep through the numbing hours along the Pennsylvania turnpike. That is, during the hours when we weren’t playing the Cow Game, or the Animal, Vegetable or Mineral Game. Alternate configurations included a backward facing bench seat with seat belts that accommodated two to three children making obnoxious faces at the drivers behind us. We played rocks, papers, scissors to determine who would be in the back back on those 4-5 hour trips to Wilkes-Barre and back. Or bribery worked as well.

Old Mother Hubbard
Old Mother Hubbard Shoe Tying Toy

Road trips as a kid are frustrating segments of your life where you can’t get a lot done, like stretching your legs, or running maniacally in circles,  but I did learn to tie my shoes on the Old Mother Hubbard Shoe Toy somewhere between Altoona and Hazelton, PA. My brothers begrudgingly helped me. They had more patience back then.   Later, I mastered reading by the  headlamps of the cars behind us, holding “My Antonia” up in the 6″ band of faint light, pretending not to hear my mother’s warnings about straining my eyes. Of course, one of the three of us always had to go to the bathroom, and the carefully rationed stops contributed as much to my bladder strength as the later  E.S.T training sessions.

Adult road trips are much more fun; I don’t ever remember a friend not allowing us to stop to use the bathroom, or to take pictures of the cows on the side of the road, or as when I was in Sicily once for a job, to sing at the tops of our lungs to schmaltzy Italian pop songs. Yes, road trips are great fun.

Mission project
Not what Chris’ Mission Project looked like except in my fantasy.

Road trips with my husband have been wonderful. We have driven to San Francisco,  and many times, to Los Osos, where his niece Martha lives. We took Chris on a road trip in the fourth grade, to the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, where we attempted to expose him to enough research material to complete his fourth grade Mission project. However, I think the most impactful thing from that trip was the overnight stay at the Madonna Inn in the Old Mill Room. At the time, Chris was way more interested in his GI Joe action figures, which he promptly put in the water wheel on the wall of the room, forgetting anything about the mission project once and for all.

Madonna Inn – The Old Mill Room

There were, of course,  many hockey road trips, to San Diego, to Valencia, to Las Vegas. There were literally dozens of them that transpired over the ten years that Chris played hockey; I tried not to be the potty czar to varying degrees of success.

1985 Bonneville
This is not my grandma’s Bonneville, but an image I got off the internet.

But some of my favorite road trips have been those bookending our lives as parents of a young sports aficionado. Early in our marriage, after the death of my maternal grandmother, and my inheritance of her navy blue 1985 Bonneville, Jimmie and I drove across the country from Wilkes-Barre to Los Angeles.. We were moving from New York to live in Los Angeles, where Jimmie had been cast in the TV series “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.” With us on this cross-country adventure, was our preternaturally smart German Shepherd, Jasper.

Jasper was a small part of the reason that I fell in love with Jimmie in the first place. At the McCarter Theatre, in fall of 1983, I was hired as a dresser for the play, “Play Memory” by Johanna Glass, starring Donald Moffatt, Jo Henderson, and Valerie Mahaffey; among others, James Greene was in the cast. One day Jimmie received a bouquet of balloons from a female admirer. I walked them to his fourth floor dressing room, and there he sat, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, in ink, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Jasper lying calmly at his feet. When Jimmie was on stage, Jasper sat quietly in the aisle of auditorium, head resting patiently on his outstretched paws. The two of them were both so distinguished, I developed a crush of enormous size. Later, I found out that Jimmie walked Jasper without a leash, in Manhattan, from his apartment on the upper west side to Central Park. Jasper would stop at the corner with the light and look expectantly up at Jimmie, who waited until the light changed and exhaled, “Go!” Jasper would dash across the street and sit on the other side until Jimmie had crossed. He was an amazing dog. So, our road trip from Wilkes-Barre to Los Angeles was going to be an adventure with a dog in tow. We took turns driving, and stopped frequently for water and chances to stretch our legs along the way. We stayed in some literal flea-bag motels including one in Elko, Nevada.

One of the games that Jimmie taught me on this trip was the game where one person thinks of a word with five letters. He had learned the game years before from his actor buddy, Tom Carlin. The game starts when one of us says, “Ok, I have a word.” The other person, then, guesses the word such as, Jimmie’s word,  ‘banal.’ (Don’t go looking for hidden meaning in my use of this word, I don’t want to use good words to teach you the game.)

I would say ‘apple.’ He would say, “zero.” That’s because there are no letters in my word that match the position of the letters in his word. Had I said, “Canal,” he would have said “Four.”Our young minds, mine twenty-six at the time, and his fifty-nine, worked quickly and methodically through the puzzles. We growled at each other with fierce affection when Jimmie used words like “abyss.”  We played it for hours;  it was a great way to pass the time as we crossed the country. Not as exciting as getting stopped for my first speeding ticket just outside the Grand Canyon, mind you, but it was a great distraction. I think Jasper played along silently in the back seat. Or, come to think of it, maybe he just kept score.

During the hockey years, I had tried to play the word game, but Jimmie’s hearing loss and Chris’s disinterest made it impossible to play in the car, so we abandoned the game.

We just finished our most recent road trip, a three-day adventure to Los Osos, where we joined family members to celebrate Christmas on the Central Coast. The recent rains had left the gently terraced slopes of the central coast a green color reminiscent of the old country. I tried to get Jimmie to document the color with my iPhone while I drove home, but the camera didn’t capture the saturated color of the tilted fields bathed in the clear early afternoon sun.

We spent three lovely and eventful days with close family. Jimmie is the paterfamilias now. Gathered at Martha’s house were nieces and nephews, great nieces and a great great niece and nephew. Our son Chris and his girlfriend, Whitney met us for all three days and we stayed in the Bay Side Inn, a B & B about three minutes from Martha’s house. My Dad and his wife, Sally drove down from San Francisco for one day of the festivities.

Martha’s Very productive Christmas Kitchen Photo by Liam Nolan

Martha has a huge kitchen-heavy house, with plenty of space for people to sneak away if they get overwhelmed from too much family time. She and her husband, Phil, had modified the small upstairs kitchen and living room years ago to create a TV room and a living room with a pool table in the middle of it. Nothing is missing for a great entertainment space except for  Phil, who’s untimely death in early September cast a pall over the fall for all of us. Having the family together for these few days was comforting for Martha and Bianca, their daughter,  but also for each of us, who has felt Phil’s absence profoundly.

That's a lotta crab
Picking Crab at Christmas – That’s a lotta crab! Photo by Liam Nolan

Chris and Whitney had brought down twelve Dungeness crabs with them, which he cleaned with a hose in the front yard; a happy group then picked the meat out of for about an hour until there was a huge platter of crab on the counter. We had it for dinner on Christmas along with a spectacular pork crown roast, and squash terrines topped with sliced truffles. We had crab cakes for Boxing Day dinner. Everyone contributed to the preparation or clean up after the meals. There were many games of pool, and hours of enjoyment from watching the next generation play with their Christmas toys, or the young parents play with their next generation.

Driving home today,out of the blue, I said, “I have a word.” And without missing a beat, Jimmie said a five letter word. And so, some ten years later, we resumed the game. It was much easier for him to play with his new hearing aids in place, but both of our older brains have more trouble with the word matching. I was spelling the words out loud, visualizing the letters of his guess next to my word. I sounded like a kindergartener in a spelling bee. Mortifying. Furthermore, I couldn’t remember what words I had already guessed. Jimmie told me today that he tried to use the word “xerox” back in the day with Tom Carlin. But Tom wouldn’t accept it as a word, even though Jimmie used it in a very acceptable sentence (for the time). “Miss Simpson, would you please Xerox that report for me? ” Oh well.  I think it’s time that we  get going with that brain exercise program. We had some good words, though. My best was cacti and his was ounce. I’d say we have a few more good road trips left in us yet.

Myrna, Put The Kettle On

William and MyrnaWe live in a high rise Condominium in downtown Los Angeles.  Walking through the wide white marble lobbies feels like you are in another, more glamorous time. From our unit on the 11th floor, we have a privileged view of the ever-changing Los Angeles Skyline, which features three major construction projects that we can see from our windows. I recently told you about the decorating service which has left our lobby looking like a Christmas window at Macy’s – oh, wait a minute, the Macy’s Plaza Macy’s doesn’t have any windows- but they are rectifying that as we speak with a massive renovation of the Bloc, or old Macy’s Plaza.

Back in the early days of our courtship, Jimmie introduced me to the Thin Man movies, starring ever-so-elegant Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles, who solved crimes in between strolls along Manhattan streets, their dog, Asta, in tow. When we have a party, Jimmie or I say without fail, “Serve the nuts. I mean, serve the guests the nuts.”

The Thin Man was on TV the other night and we sat together on the couch, watching the familiar scenes unfold. The Christmas morning scene where Nora wears her new mink coat, and Nick  plays with his new BB gun, shooting out the ornaments on the tree until finally one goes through a window. Saucily, Nora responds, “Well, I hope you are satisfied.”

You could say we have modeled our lives on the Charleses, but only in the past 6 years since we moved downtown, have we begun to attain the heady urbanity of our cinematic heroes.

However,  notices  appearing in our elevator threaten how we identify ourselves. First there was the gas leak notice, which necessitated shutting off the gas and losing our heat. The heat part doesn’t impact you when you live in a clime that is in the high 70s just days before Christmas. The hot water is more impactful.

Then the notice  about replacing a gas pipe that ran the length of the building, 1st floor to 15th. The Gas Company, who was standing on call to restore the service, would do so once this work was finished.  I began to make excuses to go down to the lobby so I could see the notices in the elevators, and report back to Nick about when the services would be restored.

Living without hot water isn’t glamorous at all.  I don’t know how Nick and Nora  would have dealt with this situation, but our current conditions look less like the Thin Man and more like the Howells on Gilligan’s Island.The Howells

Our morning ablutions consist of a first sacred kettle of boiling water mixed with cold water in the kitchen sink. Towel, check. Shampoo, check. Husband,…. – “Hey, honey, time for your shampoo!” Check. Then from the shampoo, off he goes to the bathroom sink, where another kettle of water fills a large ceramic salad bowl for shaving, and a third slurry for the sponge bath.  Rinse and repeat as I then step in.

But hey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Helena and Rick and MomToday, we had  lunch with our friends, Helena and Rick, Helena’s mom and their two daughters in our apartment. Helena was most recently the head of the hair department on the TV show, “Parks and Recreation,” and we were reunited after about 13 years; she and I had worked together in the Canon Theatre doing “The Vagina Monologues”  for thirteen months in 2001 and 2002. We had created a basement cocoon for all those famous and wonderful Vaginas who came to perform in two week cycles over the course of that year. Helena did hair and makeup, and her easy banter relaxed the casts, many of whom had left stage careers for TV or film. I was the stage manager, and our friend Ando made the basement of the Canon Theatre a place everyone wanted to congregate, with fresh flowers and fluffy slippers for each cast member. Jim Freydberg, the producer, made that possible,  and Jenny Sullivan, the director who put the women into the show.  Our company manager, Friar, kept our spirits up as well. It was a great year, full of happy memories. When Jimmie was cast  on Parks and Recreation, I was happy  to reconnect with Helena. Their daughters were with them today, Eliana, whose baby shower we had hosted at our house in Van Nuys 13 years ago supported by many of the celebrities who loved Helena’s nurturing support of them.

Before they arrived, I ran to the grocery store and bought paper plates. My mother would be spiraling in her grave over this faux pas of hostessing, but you know, the damn kettle business was getting tiresome.  And  a girl’s gotta do….

Mom made do, back in 1981, when she decided after her divorce, to go to The Columbia School of Journalism to become a journalist. For that year she was in the program, she lived in a room in a very old woman’s upper west side apartment. She had one room, with a dark mahogany canopy bed and a private bathroom- pretty swank,  but she shared the kitchen, whose patterned oilcloth table cloth didn’t hide the roaches that scurried around when you turned the kitchen light on. This was inconceivable for my elegant mother, Shirley. It was during a visit to her New York space that I learned that “a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”

I will suck it up, and put up with this kettle business until it is repaired. And I will rely on Myrna’s wit to help me through.




James Greene on His Association with Robert Downey Sr.

Andersonville trialI met the filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., (A Prince) in 1959. We were in the Broadway production of the Civil War drama “The Andersonville Trial,” which featured George C. Scott and Albert Dekker as opposing attorneys and Herbert Berghof as the ex-commandant of the infamous Civil War prison camp. I played one of several witnesses at the trial, an ex-prisoner of the confederate camp. The cast of about 15 included to non-speaking roles, two guards in uniform carrying muskets standing by the entrance to the trial room over at stage left. The young tall gangly one was Robert, whose vision even then was not so much to act but to write and direct movies, films that would bring to cinematic life his jumbled, oddball, comedic observations of life.

Watching “The Andersonville Trial” night after night during its six-month run he conceived his own Civil War story: a Yankee soldier is shot and wounded and when he wakes he finds himself wandering in present-day Manhattan.  He stops passersby asking directions to get off this strange island and back to his base camp. Bob told me he borrowed someone’s camera and stole some film. He sneaked his Andersonville Trial costume and the musket out of the theater and the next day with a couple of pals following him with camera and mic he set out to accost perfect strangers with his personal dilemma and and seek their advice. He was making his first movie.

Most of the people he interviewed didn’t give him the time of day, of course, quickly moving away from this nut with the funny looking gun. But surprisingly there were others who were intrigued by his predicament and even offered their advice. Nuns he approached were quick to express their concern for his plight and offer him their sympathies.

Ball's BluffIn his wanderings around the various boroughs he came upon Grant’s Tomb and stared at it in shock and consternation. “They got Ulysses” he seems to be saying. And in the Bronx he does a giddy jig in front of Yankee Stadium, believing he’s found his company headquarters.

I got a phone call from Bob the night before he shot that scene: Moose Skowron“I’m going to walk onto the field during the game tomorrow and have a scene with Moose Skowron at first base.” “Oh my God, Bob, whatever you do don’t take the musket with you. You’ll get shot!”

Happy to say, he heeded my advice. But he got his shot and Moose Skowron lives on in “Balls Bluff.”

Babo 73
Taylor Mead as The President of the United Status and James Greene as Chester Kittylitter from “Babo ’73”

Shortly after completing his Civil War fantasy, he started work on another short film, a political satire called, for some obscure reason, “Babo  ’73.” He phoned to tell me he had lined up the eccentric Greenwich Village actor/writer Taylor Mead to play the lead part -the President of the United Status – and asked me to play his left wing advisor, Chester Kittylitter. By this time I had seen and enjoyed a cut of his first film so I happily agreed to join on. I figured if nothing else, it would be a barrel of laughs and of course it was. It was a romp.

Robert continued making short films and later-but not that much later – he got the backing to make his first feature film. By this time he was married and had a son named Robert Downey Jr.

This film – a clever satire of the black – white dichotomy in America as seen through the prism of Madison Avenue advertising world – was called “Putney Swope.” It opened at a first run the movie theater on Third Avenue and, much to everyone’s surprise, including Bob’s, was an immediate hit. Bob phoned me shortly after the movie opened. “Jimmie, I can’t believe it. They’re lining up for blocks to see my movie!” He sounded both thrilled and bewildered at this sudden change in his life, this new appreciation of what he was doing, not only by the film industry but by movie fans as well.Putney Swope Poster

The success of “Putney Swope” led to more financial backing for Bob and spurred him to write and eventually film his second feature, a comedy called “Pound.”

“Pound,” which was shot all around town, but primarily in the west side of Greenwich Village, opens with a shot of a variety of stray dogs being rounded up by the authorities and take into a cold, prison-like facility which fills them with dread and stirs them to make their escape.

Bob shot actual dogs being led through the entrance to the pound, but once inside (Voilà!) they were real people, actors who could physically reflect the disparate qualities of the various breeds – a bald Chihuahua, a sexy female poodle, a shepherd with a German accent, a tall and lean greyhound, and so on.

Bob even had a role for his son, now about four years old and cute as a button. Robert Downey Je. made his film debut playing an adorable puppy. His one line in the film is a question posed to the Chihuahua (a very bald Larry Wolf )- “Do you have hair on your balls?” Robert Downey Jr. Pound Puppy

Bob, probably realizing he shouldn’t stay within the confines of an ugly dog pound for the entire movie, added a sub-plot featuring a sexually frustrated young white man who roamed the city murdering amorous young white couples and then taunting the police by phoning them pretending to be black. He became known in the media (and in Bob’s screenplay) as The Honky Killer.

Bob cast me in the part and for one summer back in the early 60s I raced around Manhattan with both the rifle and revolver popping off young amorous couples – young amorous white couples, that is.

Soon after my scenes were shot, the film was completed and edited (Bob told me the editing, not the shooting was the fun part of filmmaking for him) and opened over on third avenue movie house where it had a moderately successful run.

Greaser's Palace PosterAfter that Bob went West to shoot his epic western “Greaser’s Palace,” and I went to Spain to shoot my Western, a Frank Perry film called “Doc” starring Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway. Our careers had suddenly diverged, and Bob and I not only did not work together again; we didn’t even see each other for many, many years.

Then, about two weeks ago, I opened the Calendar section of the LA Times and there was a picture of Robert Downey Sr. and Robert Downey Jr.  with an accompanying article about an upcoming retrospective showing of Robert Downey Sr’s films.

On Saturday night of that week they would be showing both “Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace.”  I hadn’t seen either movie in over 40 years. My wife, Els, had never seen them.

I called her at work with my exciting news, and she immediately set about getting us tickets for the two films: “Pound” for obvious reasons, and “Greaser’s Palace” because a very dear friend of ours, Allan Arbus, who died this year, had a featured role in that film.

Above all it was a chance to meet up again with my old pal and colleague, the inimitable Robert Downey Sr.

In the crush of fans and acolytes that wasn’t easy, but it came to be thanks to the efforts of my beautiful dear wife, Legs Collins.

Losers on Thanksgiving

First, a few caveats.

A. I am not looking for a lifelong invitation to your Thanksgiving Table.

B. Nor to invite you to our small but fierce Thanksgiving gathering.

Okay, phew. Glad I got that off my chest. Now, on the eve of Thanksgiving, one of the most important American holidays ever, these are the embarrassing admissions of one who claims to live her life with intentionality.

I have not invited anyone to dinner tomorrow. It will be my husband and me.

We are not invited to anyone’s home for dinner tomorrow.

Our son, the commercial fisherman, is off on Thanksgiving, but is in San Francisco, about 7 hours away with a work start time of Thursday evening at 10PM. They call it Black Friday Crab Fishing. So he will not be coming. Can you blame him? He doesn’t even like turkey.

I am a vegetarian, though I will use this forum to out myself. NEWS FLASH!!!!

Last night, hungry and tired after a long day at work, I came home and reheated the stuffed green peppers I had made for my husband on Sunday and we ate them. Yes, beef and rice and tomato sauce. I was not happy, but I was less happy about eating a lean cuisine from the freezer. It’s all about choices, people.

Monday night, after dinner, I determined two things with intentionality.

1. That we would be home and eating food on Thanksgiving Day.

2. That I would choose to create a memorable meal for us both. That I would honor my husband’s carnivorous inclinations and would make a turkey. My path to pure vegetarianism is already splattered with the carcasses of chickens and green peppers stuffed with beef, and of course, bacon, the condiment. So, I figured one more day this week of eating turkey flesh wouldn’t kill me.

I picked up my plastic shopping bags and crossed the street to Ralph’s and in about 15 minutes, acquired all the things that every good red-blooded carnivore grabs at the grocery store in the week leading up to Thanksgiving:

An 8 lb. fresh turkey – (it felt amazingly like the frozen bird in the next case, but hey, I had three days to thaw it out)


Green Beans

A Pumpkin pie to bake in the oven that day

A can of Cranberry relish

An appealing box of generic cube stuffing

Fresh herbs – tarragon, Thyme, Sage and something else seasonably appropriate

1 large white onion

I was feeling pretty smug as I crossed back to the apartment and loaded the makings into the fridge and pantry. I calmly folded the bags and put them in the closet, returning to the couch where Jimmie sat watching the Lakers lose. Again.

Yesterday, I talked with friends at work about what their plans would be and everyone seemed to have managed in spite of their work load, to cough up a festive holiday plan or at least one that sounded much less lame than my own.

And, to add insult to injury, this morning, I picked up the New York Times Food section and found two articles to make me feel even worse about my planning skills:

“Framing the Feast With Style” by Sam Sifton, NY Times  and “A Script for the Role of Guest Star”, by Pete Wells, NY Times

Funny stuff, right? So here’s the thing. It is highly unlikely that I am going to spend a lot of time making the table look like the one depicted in the NY times. I do not have a prop stylist to make the organic brussel sprouts and adorable little pumpkinettes cavort up and down the table runner. For crying out loud, I don’t even have an appropriate Thanksgiving table runner. I feel like we will be lucky to have the living room vacuumed and the turkey cooked to the appropriate temperature. My yams will be orange and hot and steaming. The green beans will be cooked, and buttered, and probably not in some delicious green bean casserole, but some way which my subpar internet connection will elicit from the unending recipes available online. And you know what? It will be all right anyway. Because it is about giving thanks, right? Not about whether my napkins match my tablecloth – which they will by the way, just because they generally do every day. My mother raised me right. And besides, white paper napkins go with just about anything.

So, here’s the important message I take away even if I’m a loser party planner. Tomorrow, on Thanksgiving, I will be with my husband whom I adore and who adores me. Thank you. I am in good health and so is he. Thank you. Our son is gainfully employed and loves us and we love him and give thanks for him every day. Thank you. I am gainfully employed in a job and occupation which feeds me every day. Thank you. My husband has worked his whole life to do the work of an actor and has supported us with his work both now and in semi-retirement. Thank you. We both have loving families with whom we happen not to be celebrating Thanksgiving this year, but with whom we have in the past and will in the future. Thank you.

I hope your Thanksgivings are rich and as full of thanks as ours will be.

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.