Stage Managers and Scary Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a brat I was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your inner scaredy-cat says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crenelated Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orvieto, I think…

Be a Good Little Widow

Friday night’s adventure consisted of a theatre outing to the Odyssey Theatre on the Westside with my neighbor/griever-in-common, Marilyn, to see a play entitled Be a Good Little Widow. When I signed up for the tickets, I confess that I thought the title was How to… That sounded incredibly instructive. Then I discovered that two of our current stage management students were working on the show, and it was closing weekend, so I thought it’s now or never for me to get instruction on the new path my life has taken. On closer reflection, I don’t think I need instruction, and if I did, would I want to be a good little widow? Or a raging, bigger than life WIDOW! The latter seems more inviting.

Given the title, I expected that the Odyssey lobby would be filled with lonely hearted and unwilling singles. Partially accurate. What I did not expect was the full on life-force of current and former USC School of Dramatic Arts students clamoring at the gate. The show starred Adrienne Visnic, and was directed by Brendan Baer, both alumni. The lobby was filled with about a dozen young artists, skewing the average demographic by about forty years.

Kate Harrow (of Bow and Harrow ) and Christina Bryan (Stage Manager Extraordinaire)

Bekah Brunstetter’s play is technically well constructed, introducing us to the newlywed couple, Melody and Craig, in their first days living in their tidy, tiny new split story home, rendered effectively by Scenic Designer Pete Hickok. Brunstetter fakes us out, by introducing Craig’s mother, Hope, a widow, into thinking she might be the titular tutor. But any self-respecting playgoer knows that the adjectives good and little probably don’t refer to the mother of the young couple, however youthful she looks. It’s with a growing sense of dread that we hear about Craig’s frequent air travel for his work. In spite of their visible affection, we become aware of Melody’s honeymoon jitters about her marriage and her mother-in-law. Visnic aptly captures the shock and entropy of the newly widowed in the aftermath of the inevitable plane crash,. She succumbs to the planning expertise of Hope, who overtakes and executes the offstage funeral for her son, Craig. Melody soon exhibits the expected raw grief of a young and vibrant widow. Visnic excels in physical abandon, beginning with the ragged breathing of her anything-but-flowing yoga practice, to the uninhibited half-dressed dancing, vodka bottle vertically poised over her mouth. I was going to say it was the universal dread of every widow to lose oneself in numbing self-debasement, but I realize that without researching this further, I can only say I dread that image and path.

On the way home from the play, Marilyn and I talked non-stop. She’d joined some of the other audience members in the ladies room afterwards, where she reported the camaraderie of so many widows in seclusion bordered on an open therapy session. Fortified by the dramatization of loss we’d shared, she and I confided the origin stories of our widowhood. The comfort of sharing these intimate details is what happens between widows and widowers, but not generally with the public at large, who frankly, don’t particularly want to hear it.

Keeping these stories contained on a “need to know basis” is part of how our society defines “being a good little widow.” I reject this model. It’s something we all eventually experience and there’s nothing to be ashamed about learning how to grieve. And here’s the thing. As in anything in life, death isn’t only sad. The moments around a loved one’s death can be full of love and laughter, profound feelings, expressions of fear, superficial worries, triumphs of resilience, gestures of trust and faith. I remember the night after my grandmother’s death, my brothers and I were bunked in our childhood beds in the bedroom above the kitchen in our grandparent’s home. In the dark, we lay there exchanging our best recipes, my brother Larry sharing his recipe for macaroni and cheese in minute detail. For a reason I can’t even remember now, though it may have been his serious tone about building the mac and cheese, but we couldn’t stop laughing. We giggled into the middle of the night, relieved from the events of the day by the instantaneous melting away of twenty years – by becoming children again in the dark under the duvets on those big wooden beds up in the attic bedroom. A moment I still remember another twenty-five years later.

Since discovering it, I’ve immersed myself in each episode of the podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking. They can’t come fast enough. I’m obsessed with Nora McInerny’s communal platform for not just looking back at grief and its origins, but looking forward to forging new lives.

My new strategy is to “Say yes to everything” but now manifest it in buying airplane tickets. Obviously I won’t be able to go everywhere, given my professorial constraints, both in free time and finances. Last week I booked a trip to the Fall Production Managers’ Forum conference hosted by The American Players’ Theatre in mid-September. Privileged to have been in the Forum for several years I’ve been constrained from traveling to the annual conferences. I’m now actively pursuing professional curiosities and deepening my work in my chosen field of Stage and Production Management.

Today was the day when I was supposed to get everything done for my trip to Italy. On the advise of another widow pal, I went to Michael’s to pick up the tiniest little jar you’ve ever seen so that a little bit of Jimmie can go with me to Italy and ride a vaporetto (water bus) in Venice, or climb a hill with me in Umbria. Nails done, haircut, dinner with friends two nights in a row. I’m making room for life to find its way back in.

Latest Artwork from my granddaughter: L to R. Pink (Cupid the Dog), Green (sassy self-portrait of the artist), light green (Mom), Teal (Nana with seaweed in her hair), little teal blob with two arms (artist’s little sister) being held by Dad (extremely active and apparently hard to render).

Life is good. Be in nature as frequently as you can, see the art, laugh and be as irreverent as you can be serious. Know your foibles. Keep perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. Let those whom you love know it often.

My beautiful tribe.