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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

Lucky Koi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the seasons they go round and round….”

This is the first week of classes, and my Freshman Seminar “Theatre Scene” is all the way across the campus from my office in the Scene Dock Theatre. It’s a joy, walking across the campus, in my brightly colored silk blouse, taking my steps to share knowledge and passion for my topic with my inquisitive students. Today, I plugged in my earplugs and let my music boost me across campus. Truly great songwriters tell stories and it’s been so long since I heard music through an optimistic filter. There’s something stunning about listening to the lyrics that I know by heart, but instead of from my single just-north-of-twenty-year old self, listening from the other side, single and just-south-of-sixty.

The USC School of Dramatic Arts 2019 Move in Day event on August 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

I don’t know when exactly it was that I reached out to Karla Bonoff recently, but I am relishing the reconnection. Full disclosure, I don’t know Karla Bonoff, but I’ve got her as my current station on Pandora. No, thank you for thinking so, but it’s the free Pandora, the one with the irritating ads. “….spa inspired bathtub….” Yeah, yeah.

Baby Don’t Go (Karla Bonoff)

Taking all I’ve got and now you’re leaving….

Karla Bonoff

Been to Canaan and I won’t rest until I go back again.

Carole King

After work today, I jumped in my car to pick up a brown tiger’s eye bead necklace from the repair place over on Sunset. I’m in that sort of mood these days. Clearing off desks, putting TVs up on the wall to free up table space for my puzzles. My TV now hangs out on an arm that tilts it towards the kitchen so I can watch while I cook. I know I sound like I’m well on my way to being a cat lady. But what you may not know is that I’ve been there, done that. With five cats at one time. So I swear I don’t have a cat. I don’t need a cat. I don’t want a cat. I am doing what I want right now. Planning the next phase of my life. Consulting with professionals. Asking embarrassing and probing questions of myself and only myself. A bit of good old navel gazing, I think we used to call it.

Anyway, today in the car as I toodled up Vermont Avenue, I belted along listened to some of my old faves:
Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)

…Moons and Junes and ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really…

The copyright police will come after me, but I just wanted to drive home the point that we’ve come a long way since our feckless twenties. Life looks quite different from this angle. But the music is still so great. Joni Mitchell was 25 when she wrote that song in 1968.

If you are of the vintage when Karla Bonoff’s, Jackson Browne’s, James Taylor’s, Linda Rondstadt’s, Joni Mitchell’s, Carly Simon’s and The Eagles’ songs spoke loudly to you, do yourself a favor – give another listen.

My listening tonight:

  • Blackbird (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
  • After The Thrill is Gone (Eagles)
  • Carry Me Home (Karla Bonoff)
  • When Will I Be Loved (Linda Rondstadt)
  • Rock Me on the Water (Jackson Browne)
  • Angel (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Blue Bayou (Linda Rondstadt)

After I shared this post, my colleague Luis Alfaro guided me to this astonishing rendition of Both Sides Now. Thank you, Luis!

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

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

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

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

That and getting trompled by horses.

Or struck by lightning.

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

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

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

Resilience and Absence

I’m reading Tara Westover’s riveting and horrifying memoir, Educated currently. Meanwhile, I’m watching friends go through struggles and losses more profound than Job’s. I’m in awe of the some people’s ability to withstand inhuman struggle, fear and grief. Their resilience is stunning. And yes, I get that these roles are unwanted, but have been assumed with grace and integrity and more than a modicum of optimism.

There seems to be no reason or equity in the weight or loss some humans bear. Earlier this week, in the twilight residual of my decennial colonoscopy, I welcomed the mental euphoria, the permission to return home and sleep until I woke, refreshed and hungry for the post Tony-Party bounty of my refrigerator. Seven months after my loss, some people still tilt their heads in concern before asking me “How are you doing?” The owner of the dry cleaners assumes that expression even as I’m mounting the stairs to her shop, my steps responding with an exaggerated collegiate spring, my lips turning up in a furious smile. I know that she lost her husband several years ago, and yet I resist the boggy company of her grief.

Yes, I had a terrible loss when my husband died, but I’ve always been an optimist, facing forward, and I know how blessed I am. Blessed to have a meaningful job that I love, supportive friends, many of whom are also my colleagues; a body that is surprisingly healthy considering the mileage I’ve put on. Like Peter Pan, I’m perched on the ledge of a new life of travel and friendship. The uncertainty of all the details makes me nervous, of course; I experienced more than a frisson about my rusty Italian, causing me to resume study via Duolingo today. I couldn’t remember the word for book or apple (Libro and Mela).

And then, out of nowhere, the absence comes. Standing in the hot shower, water streaming over my body, I suddenly realized (again) that my husband, once so physically present in my life, was just gone. Like he’d never been there. Hot tears joined the water streaming down my cheeks as I sobbed convulsively in the shower. And then it passed, I toweled my body and my spirit off and stepped into my clothes.

Yesterday I’d run into a colleague on campus whom I hadn’t seen since November, and when he asked what was new, I told him the only thing that a newly grieving person feels is new, which is about my loss. He gave me a hug, and we shared some thoughts about the process of loss, including the fear of forgetting and losing the physicality of the other. After dealing with the disposal of clothing, all the physical manifestations of the person we’ve lost, there’s a sense that they are irretrievably lost, and one worries that as time passes, the important moments shared will also be lost. He reassuringly said, they come back. He can’t know how meaningful that statement was to me. I have daily reminders around the apartment of my husband, old photos, recent photos, but his physical presence is gone. Always a vivid dreamer, I’ve only recently returned to an active dream life, but my dreams aren’t populated by the person I hunger for most. I guess that means he was ready to go and has gone to the happy casting waiting room in the sky, but for me, bereft of his physical presence, it is a cold reminder of his absence.

Resilience is a bitch. Absence is an affront. Back to the Duo Lingo. Stay tuned.

Finding Joy

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

Sorry, but I have to dine al desco today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for the answer at the end of the blog.

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

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

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

Hugh Jackman Impersonator at right.

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

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

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

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

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

Memories, Manifestos and Mariachis

This weekend marked the final productions of the school year, and the launching of our three MFA Dramatic Writing 2019 graduates, Mariana Carreno-King, Aja Houston, and Gideon Wabvuta via the New Works Festival YIII at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Three powerful plays, dare I say personal manifestos about dystopias: political, mental and war-related, all with plot twists that took your breath away. The festival is a collaboration between The Pasadena Playhouse and USC School of Dramatic Arts. It features professional actors and directors and student stage managers, who get to practice what they’ve learned on campus in a professional venue. Each of the plays perform once, witnessed by an enthusiastic audience, then critiqued by a panel of responders (dramaturges), several local professionals, and one national responder, this year Celise Kalke, who came from Atlanta, Georgia’s Synchronicity Theatre to share her feedback with the three authors. The local responders were Oanh Nyugen, Artistic Director of The Chance Theatre, and Brian Nelson, television and feature writer, Co-Producer and Writer of Netflix’s Altered Carbon.

The directors are equally prestigious, Elisa Bocanegra (Hero Theatre), Jon Lawrence Rivera (Playwright’s Arena) and SDA Associate Professor and Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Anita Dashiell-Sparks.

In years past, the festival has been presented in the intimate Carrie Hamilton Theatre, but due to some scheduling challenges, was moved to the main stage, where the three plays were showcased beautifully against the 1925 proscenium arch erected through the fundraising efforts of theatre impresario Gilmor Brown. Sitting in the house for the first afternoon’s rehearsals catapulted me back to the early 90s when I was a stage manager at the Playhouse. Standing in the green room after nearly twenty years away had a similarly breath stopping effect to the plays going on above me. One of the students who was there this week as our festival’s ASM came up to me on the final night and showed me an antique looking picture she had taken on her phone. I stood looking at the screen, mumbling, “What am I looking at here?” , while Maya practically quivered next to me waiting for it to hit me. Aah. Lower right corner, kneeling on one knee, a thirty-seven year old Els with the cast of Equus.

Many dear friends in this photo arresting a moment in time so long ago. Photographer Maya Concepcion’s silhouette is visible in the reflection.

I learned so much on that show twenty-two years ago. I left the show in the last weeks of the run to assist my mother with her radiation treatments, by driving her to the hospital daily and caring for her for about a month. She had metastatic lung cancer. I was leaving the production in the capable hands of my assistant stage manager, Dan Munson. I remember the difficult conversations with the director questioning my professionalism. It was the first time I stepped away from my job for compelling personal reasons and I think I felt worse about the excision of myself from my work than I did about my mother. The minute I got there I knew I’d made the right decision, of course. When we’re young-ish, sometimes it feels like the show must go on and you’re the only one who can make it so. I’m here to tell you that is definitely not the case. If you’ve done your job well, you are replaceable. And if you haven’t, you are even more so.

The second thing I learned on that show, which featured nudity on stage, was that not all fan mail is welcome. The young man, who played Alan Strang, the boy, received a particularly horrible letter which he opened at or after half hour, and which understandably enraged him. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure what the solution was, because you can’t not deliver someone their mail, but my timing was poorly executed. And fortunately, the fire in the wastebasket was easily extinguished.

Memory is a tricky beast. As I stood in the Green Room and did the pano-shot above of the basement, so many memories flooded into my consciousness. In 1992, when Jimmie was called upon to step into the role of Henry Saunders in Lend Me A Tenor after the opening, due to an injury of an actor, Jimmie and I did our parental pass off of our three-year old son Chris, who came with Jimmie to the theatre in the evening for the show, and I was just finishing up with rehearsals for On Borrowed Time, upstairs in the then third floor rehearsal room. We exchanged hugs and child also in that dressing room. On Borrowed Time was also the first show I did at the Playhouse, and one where our dog, Molly Dogg was featured on stage. Among other things, I learned about how to and not to deal with an earthquake during the run, which makes me particularly attuned to instructions that Stage Managers have about procedures in the case of emergencies.

I will also always associate that corner dressing room with Bea Arthur, her rough directness and sweet affection for her cast mates in After Play in November of 1997, immediately following my mother’s death. There was something soothing about working on that play at that time. The long table hosted so many Saturday afternoon dinners, provided to the casts and crews by the Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, the volunteer army of playhouse devotees who staff the front of house and provide this important service, too.

So, you’re wondering, how do the Mariachis fit in? They were purely celebratory, serenading us at the opening responder’s dinner for the MFA Dramatic Writing New Works Festival. As the playwrights broke chips and salsa and guacamole with the responders, the friends and family and faculty cheered the process at the adjacent table, and raised our glasses to the launch of their hopefully long and memory-filled careers.

What is Easter?

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

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

Easter embodied in the Chocolate Bunny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

First photo of Nana with Gdaughter 2.

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

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

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

Time to heft the Collins axe once again.

Lessons in Narcissism and Recovery

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

James Greene, 1971 as James McLowery in Doc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you keep f&*king going?

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

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

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

None of us is doing this human thing alone.

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

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

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

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

Getting Into College without the Strings and Tutorial 2.0

There are things that are predictable in the cycle of a university year, which is distinctly seasonal. In the late fall, High School seniors create their applications, visit the campus to see a production, determine whether they will throw their hat in the ring. Months pass, and with the advent of spring, the acceptance and rejection letters go out.

Today at the Open House, I had the privilege of meeting many prospective students, who have been accepted to USC School of Dramatic Arts where I work as Head of Production. They visited the campus to participate in workshops in acting and production, and to meet the faculty they may study with over the next four years. As I looked around the room this morning at my colleagues on the Production/Design Faculty, and at the freshly scrubbed faces of stage managers, technical directors, and scenic designers, I flashed on the hours of collaborative work we’ve engaged in this year with our current students. How quickly we traverse the distance from this pre-matriculation meeting to the next workshop I hosted, the portfolio presentations by the designers of the Spring Musical, all seniors this year. The years fly by.

Those of us who are involved even peripherally in college admissions these days are sensitive – one could say feeling bruised by the admissions scandal. As the miscreants parade across our news feeds, those of us who go through the sincere process of reviewing, assessing, encouraging applicants to our programs feel like we’ve been sucker punched. We forge ahead because we know the rewards at the end of the rainbow.

The most heartbreaking thing for me about the big tacky admissions scandal is the lack of faith in their children these parents demonstrated. It’s clear that not everyone is cut out for college or needs it to succeed. My son eschewed the college experience. When I began working at USC, he was fourteen, and I had high hopes of taking advantage of the tuition remission. While I was initially heartbroken that he wouldn’t follow in my footsteps by going to college, I knew that the route he’d chosen would be hard but that he’d be okay. He worked for several years as a commercial fisherman. The only strings I was able to pull there were asking my brother to help him get work in that field. He embraced the work. I was humbled by his commitment and hard work and what he learned during those years of backbreaking work.

The parents today at lunch bemoaned the entire process of the admissions process. How much more complicated the process seems than when I’d gone through it! I applied to two colleges, one early admissions, and one back up school. How different my life might have been had I ended up there. It’s not unusual for our current students to have applied to more than a dozen colleges, made multiple college visits with their beleaguered parents, who want the best for them.

We have some extraordinary senior designers and stage managers and technical directors who are exiting our programs with their degrees in about a month. They are scenic designers, sound designers, lighting and projection designers, stage managers, costume designers, and budding production managers/TDs, a self-proclaimed costume designer and sewist.

Listening to them recount their design and stage manager processes to the incoming students today made me feel as proud as the parents who’d accompanied our guests to campus today. These students have worked hard to earn their degrees and build professional portfolios. Through their diligence they have also assumed the roles of ambassadors to our next freshman production/design cohort.

USC School of Dramatic Arts performance of “Sunday in the Park with George” on Mar. 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)

Recently when I posted the picture of the bracelet I bought to keep f***ing going, Chris reminded me of my “warm and fuzzy” response to him when he called me once during his fishing days.

13 stitches in my leg, in the middle of the ocean complaining about shushing 2 tons of ice to you (to which you said) “You’re either a winner or a whiner? Which one are you?”

We hung up shortly after and I didn’t go to bed until the job was done.

While there was a time when we lost a lot of sleep about how our son would turn out and considered concerted intervention in the trajectory of his life, I no longer worry about the choices he makes. He’s the head coach of a prestigious elite hockey prep team and demonstrates daily to his players about the importance of life choices and the skills and practice they continue to refine under his and his colleagues coaching. He utilizes discoveries he’s made finding his path as a powerful teaching tool. Just as our college designers do. Strengthening their practice through self-examination, sometime failure and recovery and building collaborative relationships.

As I make my way in this new single life I’ve been thinking a lot about the closed circle that is a marriage. Often to the withering of long standing friendships. Add to that working in the theatre where the hours are already a severe deterrent to having a social life. Married couples tend to socialize with other married couples who are similarly distanced by their own bubbles of connubial bliss. What happens when a marriage ends, either through divorce, or the death of one’s partner? How do you re-enter the world? Re-activate relationships that were important to you? How do those people respond to your attempts to re-activate? Is this a healthy exercise? Too nostalgic? Should one be looking forward to forming new relationships instead? Is it fair to expect that people will be willing to re-activate long dormant relationships?

These are some of the topics I’m considering. They coincide with my increasing nausea about social media. This week I’m convinced it’s a matter of days before I unplug. I’ve already removed the book of Face from my phone as an initial step.

Then, there’s the Tutorial reboot.

I had what I thought was the brilliant idea to reach out to reconnect with a group of my high school friends, who shared a very special moment in time and mentorship with our Theatre Professor from 1977 – more than forty years ago. We called them our Tutorials, weekly gatherings where we sipped our tea, listened to the radio and talked about the problems of the world before trundling off to chapel.

Utilizing the old fashioned medium of email, some internet sleuthing and the promise of revisiting a special and formative time in our young lives, I invited the group to have a zoom tutorial. Scheduling this online group chat was one of the more challenging scheduling problems I’ve tackled (even as a life-long stage manager). All was set for tomorrow morning at 6:10AM PDT, 9:10AM EST when the participants started dropping like flies. The excuses were among the more creative ones I’ve ever encountered.

The yoga class that I teach with incarcerated men has been changed to Sunday morning.

And I’m thinking I can’t even bend at the waist any more….

I’ll be in the Louvre at the time of our call and will try to make it work.

Can you stand in front of the Mona Lisa to prove this outrageous claim?

I’ll be in Sydney and it will be 11:10PM and I may need to get to sleep.

For crying out loud! We have four time zones to coordinate here.

Clearly these are interesting and worthwhile connections to resuscitate; it may take olympic level scheduling skills work out the next chat. That and the willingness of the others to re-boot these friendships.