Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part III

I’ve lost my touch – I’m several days behind in my news from the Wedding Trail. Sometimes when you are on the trail, you can get distracted by the views, the moments. Recording them suddenly falls to the side.

We had been counseled by Jimmie’s cardiologist that the altitude at the wedding venue was not going to be possible for him. Jimmie and I were devastated. Until I got the simplest text from Whitney on the day of the rehearsal.

Hey I keep forgetting to tell you heavenly does have oxygen and two paramedics on call for events.

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Jimmie and I looked at each other and I ventured,

Why don’t we go to the rehearsal and then see how it goes. If you have trouble up there, we can turn right around and come back down. We’ll take the oxygen?

He gamely agreed. While Jimmie looked pretty terrified the whole time we were up there, we kept checking the gauge and he was fine at the top of the hill, which was beautiful. It was time to celebrate.

IMG_8221Friday night’s rehearsal dinner came off beautifully. Bill Belair, the chef at Sonney’s BBQ Shack & Grill in South Lake Tahoe prepared a sumptuous feast of BBQ chicken, pork ribs and sliced briscuit, collard greens, baked beans (the best I’ve ever had!), coleslaw and cornbread for 100. And this is what he looked like mid-way through our party. Not even breaking a sweat. His staff were amazing. Easiest party for 100 I’ve ever had to plan. Though there was one uninvited guest – more on that later.

I love throwing parties – always have. I think it’s because my mom did it with such flare. I enjoyed watching the preparation, the intensity of her practice – her sole goal to have people have a good time and to enjoy the food and company. Jimmie and I have had a lot of parties in our various homes. There was my fortieth birthday, which fell that year on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and when I went to pick up the Honey-baked Ham I’d ordered for the forty guests, the franchise was closed. I went home and made three trays of lasagna to complement the ten cooked fresh dungeness crabs my brother Larry had sent down on ice to celebrate with. It turned out to be one of the better parties.  At any rate, successes and flops aside, this one will probably top them off – never had we had so many family members from so many different branches of our family come together to celebrate such a happy occasion.

Friends and family gathered to celebrate and unwind after a hard day of driving and recreating. The twelve round tables draped with white cloths and teepees of utensils wrapped in cloth napkins awaited our flower arrangements when we arrived.IMG_8230

A turbo heating unit sat surrounded by two foot tall stumps of trees that provided a perfect play area for the party’s children, who numbered about twelve, all under the age of five.These are Skylar’s peeps, and they came ready to party.  When I sat down to schmooze with the kids, Canyon stood next to me, wearing BBQ sauce like war paint, indolently rolling his half eaten rib along the top of the stump. The others watched him with reverence.

There was more than enough food – guests were invited to take home left overs. I know ours got eaten the next day at lunch and we were very happy to have them.

Oh! About that uninvited guest. Late in the party, after the shuttle had begun returning people to the hotel, I looked over just beyond the buffet table to see a large group of people gathered by the fence, Iphones hoisted high and low, intently capturing something there.

Oh, I thought, isn’t that lovely? There’s probably a fox in the grass.

I wandered over and through the slats of the now-very-flimsy-looking fence, there was a small black bear next to a bush, nose aloft, sucking in the intense barbecue flavored air. He or she didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by the audience of paparazzi gathered there. Isn’t it nice to have a bear crash your party who doesn’t really crash your party!

The big day finally arrived. Saturday morning, we awoke to the same gorgeous blue watery view; the two people on the beach behind our condo sat drinking in the sunshine that had left me looking a tad lobsterish. In spite of having applied sunscreen fairly regularly, the morning of the wedding, I was quite red around the neck and shoulders. Nothing better than a well-BBQed MOG, I always say.

 

 

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part II

The families and friends are gathering by the lake for the upcoming nuptuals like a flock of intrepid Canadian geese, mimicking the flock of a dozen or so near our back steps. Only much less pesky. First to arrive after Jimmie and me on Monday were the bridal party, Justin and Sammy. Justin and Chris were best friends throughout their teen years; their adventures together over the years could fill another series of notes. Continue reading

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part I

We are in beautiful South Lake Tahoe, ensconced in a condo the back steps of which are lavishly licked by the cool clear lake’s waters. We arrived on Monday afternoon, after an intense two days of driving from Los Angeles through some of the most beautiful parts of California, the Eastern Sierras. I was reminded that we must live in the most beautiful state in the country.

The occasion is the wedding of our son Chris, to his beautiful fiancéé, Whitney. They met about three years ago in San Francisco; the star witness to the fact that they both knew it was right is their eighteen-month-old daughter, Skylar, whom they pass deftly between them according to their needs and her desires. Visiting with her over the past few days since our arrival has been thrilling. IMG_8127

Weddings are such joyous events. I remember ours, thirty-three years ago, a simple ceremony preceded by the heady confusion of all one’s relatives in the world converging on one place – in our case, New York City. Jimmie and I planned our own wedding. At the time, we lived on W. 70th Street on the Upper West Side. There were no websites to help you organize the tasks. I used my favorite organizational tool – lists – paper and pen and the generous contributions from so many friends and family.

Our wedding invitation was a clever confection, elegantly designed by our friend Barbara Grzeslo. Printed on clear vellum, it folded in a complex but fun way that when opened, revealed the details of our wedding day.

Our wedding plan was pretty simple: find the church, find the restaurant where we wanted to celebrate, order the cake. Send the invitations. Alter my grandmother’s wedding dress, order the tux. Done. No sweat. Or that’s the way I remember it now from the safe distance of over thirty years.

The night before our wedding, my maternal grandparents threw the rehearsal dinner at our mutually shared University Club in the city, suitable due to the fact that I had followed his lead there and many of my friends now at the wedding had, too. After a raucous rehearsal at the church, where Susan, who played the flute, played the song she would play the next day, standing on the steps in her bare feet. Jimmie, who looked like he was being led to slaughter, and continued to do so through the rehearsal and I practiced our vows, two poems by Yeats and the regular vows. The adage about a terrible final dress, fantastic opening prevailed.

The church, Grace & St. Paul’s Church,Grace & St. Paul's Church was a small Christian-friendly church exactly one block north of our apartment on 71st St. Even though it was only one block from our apartment, we rented a black stretch limo to ferry us all to the church and the reception. To save money, we said we’d get home from the reception ourselves, which resulted in the easiest hailing of a taxi ever – bridal gown train draped over my arm.

The first trip in the limo, my mother, myself, and our dear friend, Susan Smith, maid of honor, ended in confusion and consternation when we pulled up behind the construction dumpster parked directly in front of the church (in the photo above, imagine it directly to the right of that smaller red door). There being no other solution, we gamely hopped out of the limo and somewhat abashedly managed the last half block to the church doors.

The ceremony came off with a hitch.

Our dear NY friends had ideas about entertainment, no doubt spurred by the reception venue, the cabaret space above Pallson’s restaurant where Forbidden Broadway had been playing for years. Led by Marco Martinez-Gallarcé, our adhoc musical director, they compiled a short wedding show regaling our family and friends with songs about our love, our pets and a particularly silly riff on “Tonight” from “West Side Story”, where they replaced Maria with Elsbeth.  I’ll give you a second to think about how that played out… Sincerest apologies to Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein.

It was silly, delightful, and entertaining. Jimmie and I had secretly been rehearsing a song from the musical “Baby,”  with Marco for several weeks. I think he told each of us that we would be surprising the other and we believed him. At the appropriate moment, we turned to each other and delivered the songs verses, singing the chorus together. I’m not sure how we kept it together.

Our venue’s small size prevented us from having dancing, so simplicity was pre-ordained. Marco planned and threw a post reception party at the nearby brownstone where he lived, and we were able to let our hair down and visit with our friends. It was perhaps the most exhausting day of our lives. I remember sitting on the curb of the brownstone, waiting for a cab, leaning my head on Jimmie’s shoulder, both of us holding Tiffany’s boxes on our laps at the end of that long and happy day. You’ll have to wait for those pictures because they are 4×6″ prints sitting in a box under my bureau at home…

My one regret was that we eschewed formal photos. Our dear friend Sylvan Epstein was our wedding photographer. He took some great candid photos and we have those to remember the day, but we had no place to hold our guests while we took the photos and didn’t want to wait to greet them so we just didn’t take them.

Now that I’ve blathered on about my wedding, in the next installment, I’ll share the excitement of Chris and Whitney’s pre-wedding events. IMG_8146

 

Writing with Me: Stories Just For Us

Just checking in to report that the book is underway. I’m spending a few hours each week to write (not nearly enough), and it’s unfolding as planned. I’m reading a book recommended to me by my friend Bob, entitled If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland. I highly recommend it, a balm for those get queasy at the thought of writing a book. So today, I’m digressing to write about things that probably won’t appear in the book, as they aren’t flattering things about my practice as a stage manager. I can see you all leaning in.

Oh good – here comes the dish….

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of Festival Supervising USC School of Dramatic Arts’ New Works Festival at the Pasadena Playhouse, two concert readings of plays written by the graduating writers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts Dramatic Writing Program. These play readings are cast with professional actors, directed by professional directors, an SDA offering in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse.

My participation in the past few years has been one step removed; on behalf of the school I’ve hired someone else to supervise the festivals, and due to the timing, have been unable to even attend the readings at the Playhouse. This year, I was pleased to be able to do both – supervise and attend the readings, which were highly entertaining and festive. I recommend you seek them out next year. They happen in the middle of May, this year landing on a weekend of cultural wealth in Pasadena, opposite the Lit Fest, the Directors’ Lab, an open house at JPL, two U2 Concerts at the Rose Bowl, and an AMGEN bike ride, all of which brought 200,000 visitors to spend a sweaty Saturday in Pasadena, where temperatures hovered at 92 degrees midday. I’d warrant a guess that anyone who braved the traffic to see Rebin Zangana’s Everybody’s Moving to Fiji, and Inda Craig-Galván’s award winning Black Super Hero Magic Mama was happy that they had made the trip.

I had spent about six years working on and off at the Pasadena Playhouse, back in the early nineties, and have several credits at the State Theatre of California, including a production of “On Borrowed Time” in 1992, where I met Wren Brown for the first time. You can read about that in the post linked above; the production was noteworthy for many reasons, most important of which was that I survived the opening night ride home. Other highlights included productions of “Camping with Henry and Tom” which began with a model-T Ford, entering upstage left,  rolling down a sharp incline, where it banged into a tree, the tree fell over, smoke came out of the car and the denizens of the car, Henry Ford, Warren Harding, and Thomas Edison emerged. The show had been done in New York the previous year, so our rehearsal period was fairly brief, our tech table still in the center of the house, and the house quite well-filled for an invited dress. I made the standard invited dress disclaimer over the god mic about perhaps having to stop the show then cued the top of the show. Nothing happened. The car refused to budge. We tried to start again, and still no movement from the car. From the tech table, using the god mic, I said,

Well, I think this is going rather well, don’t you?

Big laugh. Fortunately, the next attempt at the car starting went as planned, and the dress rehearsal began.

I gave a ride home the other night to two of our three junior stage managers who stage managed the readings at the Carrie Hamilton, and I told them a few stories about my time at the Playhouse back in the nineties – before they were born, I noted, wryly.

A lot of crazy things happened in those years, many that taught me how to manage crises in a live theatre situation and a few how not to handle them.

Late during the previews of A Lion in Winter, actress Carole Cook, playing Eleanor of Aquitaine to her husband Tom Troupe’s King Henry, lost her voice and arrived at the theatre willing but unable to go on. The Playhouse, a LORT B theatre, had no understudies, and I along with the director, and artistic staff, and with Carole’s rather surprising agreement, decided that rather than cancel the performance that night and send six hundred people and Ms. Cook home, I’d set up a music stand on the apron down stage right with a script, and I would read the lines while Carole acted the part. Crazy, right? But I’d been listening to her deliver the lines for the previous five weeks, and knew where she took breaths, etc. My assistant, Ando, called the show that night.

Maybe it was like watching a car accident, but I was told afterwards that no patrons went to the box office to get their money back. Audiences love that stuff, right? It’s live theatre. In this case, I am not sure where I got the gumption to perform, and I’m quite sure that it would not be considered best practice, but I received two calls the next day – one from the artistic director, Lars Hansen, thanking me for “saving the performance,” and one from the Equity Rep, letting me know that I’d be receiving an additional 1/8th pay for “going on” as Eleanor of Aquitaine. I wouldn’t recommend this as a course of action, but just as an example of thinking really far outside the box.

I stage managed “Lettice and Lovage,” a satire by Peter Shaffer, directed by David Galligan, starring Jane CarrJane Carr as the dotty and overly-inventive tour guide at a large English manor house, and Mary Jo Catlett as her officious boss. The play called for an ensemble of tourists, and the Playhouse, ever conscious of the costs of large casts, decided they would partner with the large volunteer organization, Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, who manage the ushering needs and support the Playhouse. The idea was quickly embraced that the ten to fifteen ensemble of tourists would be played by Friends on a rotating basis. Every night, we had a different group of volunteers whom we trained to follow Jane around the stage and hear her inventive history of the house.  Logistics were tough, but my assistant, Ando and I enjoyed their great energy and their commitment to the show. There’s no doubt that they were critical to the success of the play. It helped to boost ticket sales as well, since they all lived in Pasadena and had lots of friends to invite. Win win.

Last weekend, I became reacquainted with Patrick Corbin, a current house manager, who had just begun ushering around the time of Lettice and Lovage, and he dryly noted that he met a new usher one night and the next night had seen her on stage and thought, what a meteoric rise! He had no idea about the arrangement of the Friends as ensemble.

Managing the rotating handful of volunteers was a challenge, and their attendance was sometimes sporadic. One night we were down two volunteers, and so the director, David, and I decided we would don the running suits of these two tourists and head out for the first scene, which took place at the foot of a large staircase from the top of which Jane addressed the masses. Yes, we were being extremely naughty, and unprofessional, because we didn’t tell Jane that we were going on for the tourists. Lights up, Els and David facing upstage to hide our hysterics, our shoulders shaking like jello jewels in our garishly colored track suits.

Jane entered at the top of the stairs, took one look down at us and went into kill mode. She put a bead on the two of us and addressed the entire speech down at us, never breaking for a moment with a death grip of concentration. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of Jane’s onstage ire. The two of us were falling apart, and ashamed of our poor performance as the tourists. Jane never let us forget that one.

Those were critically important years for me in my development as a stage manager. I know that the examples cited above lead you to believe that the development was not in a positive or professional direction, but they tell the story of the types of things that stage managers deal with routinely.  Creative solutions are needed. The ones we come up with may or may not be effective. So we’ll just let these be our little secret, eh?

Writing with Me: Declaration of Intention

I’ve been a derelict blogger of late; April is the cruelest month and certainly in academic theatre, where we had seven shows opening and running their brief allotted four to ten performances, barely longer than the lifecycle of a mayfly.

Mayfly Life Cycle

I will leave you to ponder that metaphor for just a few moments.

Moving on.

I’ve been such a poor blogger of late because I have turned my sights to a book project. In addition, there’s been some affectionate razzing by a colleague about “blogging”. Not discouraging exactly, but making me self-conscious (isn’t that what blogging is about you ask?) If I’m honest, I can’t really lay the blame on this colleague, who shall remain nameless, but whose initials are M.E. I also can’t really lay the blame on the book, because, truth be told, the progress on that is slow as well.

Anyone who has written a book can tell you that it is an extremely hostile environment. I’m speaking about mentally, in the writer’s own head. All sorts of questions assault your writerly core:

  1. Who will read it?

  2. What is new about your approach to this topic?

  3. How long will this take to complete?

  4. What am I going to make Jimmie for lunch?

  5. When do I need to take the dry cleaning in to be ready for my departure on June 11th?

  6. Who can I ask to go with me tonight to the theatre?

You get the picture. There are an infinity of tough questions that barrage one’s mind every day. How could I possibly fit the writing of a book or a blog for that matter into the folds of my  active neocortex? Note how I’m now inserting scientific terms into my blog to broaden my readership. So that could be added as #7 above.

If you know nothing else from reading my previous blogs, you should know that I am fundamentally competitive. My son still teases me about our blood sport tennis matches when he was ten and I was forty on the Studio City Tennis courts. Add to the mix my husband’s completing his memoir this year, the fact that I filled in the first eyeball on the Dharma Doll that my colleague Natsuko gave Jimmie at his book party in December knowing it wasn’t for a second book he’d write, but for a first book I’d write. It’s all a big tsunami of expectation eddying just off the shores of my brain, right behind the upturned face of my laptop.

That and the fact that I’ve never begun the process of writing a book before.

I know, because I’m a fairly rational and methodical planner, that any long piece of writing needs an outline and then a series of goals to hit. My outline consists of three pages in a small brown leather notebook that my Dad gave us a few of at Christmas time – episodes in my work as a stage manager where I learned something valuable or painful and valuable, or just something painful. This is one of the sticking points because as I’ve written so much about the necessity for stage managers to be discreet. Disclosing the secrets of painful learning about stage management necessitates pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard, and sometimes, the Wizard is someone we recognize.  I think about the Julia Phillips book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again and my resolve pales. I already know that my book lacks the sizzle of her rogue’s gallery of players. Certainly the drug history.

I do have a title. I’m withholding the title because this blog makes the writing of the book inevitable – my competitive soul has now committed me to doing it because the alternative would be too embarrassing. My followers, small in number, but mighty in support; you know who you are and thank you for sticking with me through the fallow periods like every April, now know that I have declared the game on with regard to this book.

And now, gentle reader, please do not judge too much. Here’s a bit from the introduction to dare I say it? My book:

Introduction

One of the consequences of marrying someone thirty-three years older than you is you develop the habit of looking over your shoulder with dreadful anticipation of the future without them. I can safely say that even when I was in my forties, I was attempting to reconcile myself to the moment when I would need to give up my work to care for my husband. This quotidian awareness of the finality of life seems unusual for someone in her forties, but even then, I knew that every day spent with him was precious. Perhaps that’s why we don’t quarrel, and greet each other with giddy relief at the end of the long days I spend at the university. As I turn the key in the door each evening, my eyes sweep the path to the couch to see him eagerly welcoming me as I enter our home.

It’s always been that way. Friends used to comment that when Jimmie would see me coming, he would begin to wiggle like an eager pup, his face breaking out into a grin, his hands outstretched, calling me into his arms. My wish is for everyone to have such a love in their life, and that it might last at least as long as our love has lasted. That is true prosperity.

Recently I flashed on the phrase “My heart in my mouth” in the contexts of the finiteness of our love, but also with regard to stage management, my life’s work. I have been a stage manager since I was in college, and professionally for over thirty years. I have learned my artistry from many mentors whom I assisted, watching as they called complex sequences, dealt with artists of difficult and different temperaments, handled intricate personal and political relationships and institutions.

Stage Management requires the facility to call complex and nerve-inducing cue sequences, often engendering the feeling of having your heart in your mouth. In addition, we must speak kindly to our constituents, whether they be cast or crew, or designers, or producers. Our hearts must be literally in our mouths because it is the truth and respect we convey through our words and actions that make us good or not so good at our jobs.

 

Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

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Maskirovka as a tool on College Campus

There was a fascinating story on the front page of the New York Times yesterday by Andrew E. Kramer entitled Decoys in  Service of an Inflated Russian Might about the use of inflatable “dummy” military lures by the Russians. There were so many things that intrigued me about the article:

  1. That there were photos of these inflatable MIG-31 fighter jets taken by the New York Times (James Hill) from a distance of what looked to be less than 10′. This in and of itself contradicted the secretive purpose of the objects. The descriptions of their inflation, the company that makes them, etc. indicate that it’s common knowledge that they exist. The article even cited the fact that you could see in radar images the inflation and deflation of the devices, but obviously the trickery must work or the Russians wouldn’t go to the expense of fabricating them and then rolling them out.
  2. The theatricality of these objects and their deployment is extraordinary. It is mind boggling that somewhere in Russia in a Rusbal warehouse there are people stitching together these set pieces (you can see the video on their website – looks like a costume shop). That military TDs then are sent out to load them into temporary sites and strike them immediately afterwards, so that they appear and disappear with the ephemeralness of a site-specific theatre piece is extraordinary. This underscored again the relevance of theatre to the larger human condition. Of course, I would prefer to not see theatre militarized in such a fashion. Not the first time, of course; we have had all too many examples of the militarization of personalities using theatrical practice – Hitler comes to mind.

But the article stayed with me last night and I sat down to blog about it but didn’t yet have the hook as to it’s staying power. It is a much more personal issue that the concept of Maskirovka awakens in me.

Recent press about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s sexual bravado (last Sunday) and accused sexual assault (by Wednesday) made tangible what I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. After watching students deal with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted, these inflatables seem metaphoric to the campus experience. I don’t just speak about my university – the statistics about young women on college campuses and sexual assault are staggering.

Putting aside the grossest metaphor  of “inflatables” in a sexual sense, I am haunted by the image of the representation of a real object with a decoy as it relates to the aftermath of sexual assault. Disclaimer – I was the victim of a sexual assault in college, after leaving my eating club one night, having had way too much to drink. The episode, which I did not report because I was embarrassed to not remember what had happened, has remained with me for 35 years. I am a resilient person, and the event has less power in my life at this point; I have confronted it, examined it, flogged it, and more or less put it away. I do recall the time immediately following the event, when I had to continue attending classes, work at my student job, show up at the theatre at night as a stage manager, inflate myself with enough confidence to even come out of my dorm and not be afraid of every man on campus because I had no memory of what “he” looked like. I was a walking decoy for my wounded and vulnerable self. Classic Maskirovka.

Spending time on campus now as an adult and professor,  I am aware of events that unfold for many young women, and I see the aftermath of the abuse, but in a peripheral way, like the Times photographer standing close by and watching the military decoys inflate and deflate.  The other aspects of Maskirovka, denial and deception, are very much at play in these circumstances. In my own case, I practiced a huge amount  of denial with myself and with my closest friends, concealing from them any and all details of the event, not discussing it with anyone, and stuffing it away. It was only 25 years later when I had some counseling that I realized, AHA! I could have dealt with it more directly, treated myself more kindly by accepting assistance in processing the event with counselors who were, even in the early 1980s, available to me on my campus.

Hear me, Donald Trump, 25 years had passed since the event before I sought to explore it in any way.

A sexual assault is a lot to process. Time doesn’t slow down while one does or doesn’t do the processing. The daily demands to remain connected, far more than when I was in college with no email, rudimentary computers, no cell phones, places even more pressure on young women to conceal their panic, their grief, their heartbreak about what has happened to them.

Last night I listened to a CNN panel discussion about the “opportunistic” timing of Jessica Leeds’ and Rachel Crooks’ accounts of inappropriate touching by Donald Trump as a means to slander him. It made me furious just as obviously his statements galvanized something in both of them on Sunday night to make them reach out to tell their stories.

The story about decoy, denial and deception is an old story for many of us and a painful new story for many young women. We all need to be aware of the people around us, some of whom are not themselves, but inflated stand-ins passing for themselves as they move through processing their experiences.

So, as if I needed any more reasons to be with Her, thank you Donald Trump for triggering this last one.

Keeping Us In Stitches

A few years ago, shortly after our son Chris returned from a year long sojourn through Europe, living the dream, as it were, I joked that he and I should write a book. It would be an adult Mommy and Me book, the format of which might be text, as in traditional text, alternating with texts, as in the sporadic digital conversation he and I have had over the last five years via our phones as he has attained maturity. And I do mean attained. It has been a bit of an uphill slog at times, but he has arrived at what I’d call the tree-line of adulthood. If he stands there, he can turn back and see the forest, mysterious and dark and dank; looking forward, a path more clearcut, less encumbered with obvious trip hazards, but now a matter of planning his next steps, footholds and handholds, avoiding gravel slides and icy patches.

Over the years our texts have been personal, confessional, irreverent, insulting, loving, funny, heartbreaking. We have hiked through the woods together in a continual conversation about loss and redemption, self-sacrifice and self-sabotage.

Chris has, since the time he was about five, had an impulsive side, which resulted in a parade of random events and many many trips to the ER. We’ve been to the ER more times than one family deserves to go. I joked with Chris that our book should be entitled “Scar” featuring on the cover a full body photo of Chris, with little arrows pointing to all the scars on his body, annotated with post-its

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Image cropped to minimize the “yuck” factor

 

Last night he added another one to his collection. During the adult hockey game after the adult hockey game he went to play (a decision he derided as the reason he’d been injured -“I could have been on the couch at home, Mom”) , he made contact with his inner left thigh and his skate, resulting in about a 2 inch gash on his inner thigh. In typical gritty form, he called me on the way to the ER, then texted me the before and after pictures of the wound and stitches. I’ve become sensitive to any nocturnal conversation with Chris that begins with the words

Mom, you aren’t going to believe what happened…

I had just plugged in my phone to charge for the night, and when I picked it up, Jimmie’s eyes followed me back over to the couch, tracking my worried looks and listening intently to my subtle repeat of the gory details to fill him in.

It may seem creepy, but this is a ritual of bonding that the three of us have practiced for 24 years. Looking back over the years, in more or less descending chronological order:

  • 1 gash on the left inner thigh- hockey accident, age 27 (8/24/16)
  • 1 left shin gouge from pole on the dock – fishing accident, approximate age 24
  • 1 cut on the inside of his left arm – the broken glass had “nicked” a small artery which required a small surgery. He had a cut under his right eye requiring 3 stitches and another one needing 2 stitches on the top of his head. June 26, 2012 Barcelona Beach Bash
  •  1 tear of left hand between thumb and fore finger, car accident, age 17
  • 2 broken collarbones – hockey accident, age 15
  • 1 left wrist laceration requiring extensive hand surgery – hockey accident, age 12
  • 1 right pinky laceration causing damage to nerve – razor blade incident, Age 8
  • 1 injury to legs from jumping off the roof, age 5

See what I mean? That’s a hell of a lot of bonding. We are probably lucky to have not been called before the Department of Childrens’ Services for child abuse.

Some of our texts veered toward discussions of automotive injuries. The car I gifted to Chris did not take so well to the Fisherman’s Wharf environment resulting in many many trips to the Automotive ER. I considered at one point buying stock in Honda just to increase my ROI.

But the most important texts have been about the discoveries and growth in Chris’ life, including his pursuit of and discovery of his birth Mom in March of 2015, the gestation and birth of his own baby, and the flourishing of his daughter Skylar and fiancée, Whitney.

March 2015 text to Chris (edited somewhat)

Me: I was just filling up the feeder when a spider crawled over my hand in the sink.

Me: dropped half of the stuff in the sink

Me: Even worse I don’t know where the f—ing spider went

Me: I had an epiphany today in spin class – I know, how SoCal of me; but it was this; why would a mother disclose in the first conversation with her newly discovered son such dark details about his parents’ misfortunes? (Both Jimmie and I had asked ourselves this question when Chris told us about his first conversation with his birth mom.)

Me: But the more salient question, I realized, as I sweated and strained up the “hill” today, was “Why would Chris share that information as the very first information we received about his long lost family?”  “Wasn’t that really the question he had asked us a dozen times over the years with decisions that were reckless and dangerous and self-sabotaging of his own life path?

Me: The question was  – will you (adoptive Mom and Dad) still love me if I show you what I’m made of? What darkness and depths I am capable of reaching? Will you have my back? Legally, medically, financially? How much do you really love me?

Isn’t that the question we all ask ourselves in our life journeys? How true to us will our parents, friends, spouses, children remain? How much will we allow ourselves to cherish our bodies and psyches?

And the answer is, we are in it for the long haul. Thick and thin, we’ve got your back, son.

The Time To Start Measuring Up is Now

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

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

Paul Backer, tall, with boyish good looks, a large head filled with facts about the theatre, and the broadest spectrum of interests, was a fixture of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC since 1984 when he began teaching there. He attended all the productions, both those that were curricular, as well as all the Independent Student Productions. As the production manager, I am the last person to sign off on the ISP contracts, and Paul was the faculty advisor for 99.9% of them. He was a sterling director, directing the first show of each fall semester in the McClintock Theatre. This was a tight rehearsal period, four weeks to tech, one which required exquisite preparation. The plays were challenging contemporary, open-ended types of plays, and Paul somehow found the time to sit with the play, conceptualize his approach, get the research done, and send off no less than 30 pages of analysis with research images, with metaphors for what he wanted to achieve in his/our production.

thumb_IMG_5149 3_1024His production last fall, Love and Information, was a huge learning experience for our production and design students. A few weeks ago, I received his first ideas about how  he wanted to stage Julie Jensen’s Mockingbird, with the casual tag line, “details to follow. Pb.” That made me smile, typically understated.

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

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

USC School of Dramatic Arts

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

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

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

The time to start measuring up is now.

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

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

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Rest in peace, dear Paul.

Writing with My Best Friend -Distractions

As Jimmie and I continue on the path to getting his book published in time for his 90th birthday – imagine a birthday party/publishing event on or around December 1, 2016 (evite to follow!), I’ve begun to actively source the process of self-publishing, finding many helpful blogs along the way. I’ve downloaded checklists of steps needed to self-publish by people who have books on best seller lists. The checklists are predictably overwhelming – one had one of ten or so items which was “Come up with 100 ways to market your book” which swelled the simple one page checklist to soul-crushing magnitude. And yet, we soldier on.

Last weekend, I began formatting the book with a template I downloaded from Lulu.com, and it suddenly became fun to see the book taking shape through the easy 6×9 style template. As I taught myself how to use the various style formatting for chapter headings and the body of the text, I flourished, reveling in creating chapter headings which didn’t yet exist, except as indicated in the manuscript by asterisks between sections. My favorite was “Chapter 11: I’ll never work again”, which happened to coincide with a period of Jimmie’s life where it appeared that work was drying up. The glorious part of this process is that Jimmie has had such a rich and successful life as an actor, spanning close to 70 years. Performing in over 26 shows on Broadway and close to 50 off-Broadway, he’s worked with the Lionesses and Lions of the American Theatre, and film and TV.

When Jimmie wrote the bulk of his memoir, it was in the mid 1990s, shortly after we had adopted our son; he was in his mid to late 60s at the time. The catalyst was Chris; as I mentioned before, the impetus to leave Chris with a record of his father’s life, but Jimmie found the process of writing rejuvenating. Writing is therapeutic, right? He eagerly embraced the work of recalling and ordering the events of his life, and countless filled pages of yellow-lined notebook spooled from his pen. It was a happy and productive time and when he finished it, he shared it eagerly with his closest friends. The number of friends who read the previously spiral-bound copy of the manuscript likely killed the sales impact of the book; I recognize the need to come up with 99 other ways of marketing the book. But that aside, Jimmie’s return to finishing the book by including events from the last 10-15 years, has been a different and more challenging process.

For one thing, Jimmie is 89. The physical impact of arthritis in his fingers has made the process of recording his writing arduous and discouraging. Other influences like the frequency for men his age to make trips to “see a man about a pair of ski-bindings,” as my father recently quipped, takes time out of his day, and creates both mental and physical interruptions to the writing. We have faced a recent and radical weight loss for him, that we began to take note of in May.

We’ve begun the formal investigation into these health issues. As one ages, the trips to the doctors increase in logarithmic proportion to those made earlier in one’s life. The impact of these trips on one’s spirit and body is profound. Getting into the car, walking down the long medical building hallways, getting undressed then redressed after the exams – all of these things take a chunk out of your soul and leave you enervated. Writing is probably certainly not the first thing on Jimmie’s mind.

IMG_6643 2We’ve been tallying our weights. Ironically, I’m in the 8th or 9th week of a diet. I desperately try to lose weight that Jimmie is urgently working to gain. Our daily log looks like one of our scrabble score sheets. It’s hard to see who’s winning.

The recent tests intensify my focus on editing Jimmie’s memoir into shape to be published by fall. I spent this weekend editing the manuscript and urging him to begin re-reading it saying to him, “You tend to use a lot of paired adjectives to describe people. I’d encourage you to limit yourself to one whenever possible, and to dig deep for the most accurate, least flattering descriptor you can use. In addition, you should  eliminate the passive voice as much as possible in the manuscript.”

Jimmie looked balefully up at me from his Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle as though I had taken his bowl of ice cream away.

“I am being specific because this book is amazing and I want it to be as great as I know it can be. You’re hearing the negative in my comments, but  I really care about getting this done by your birthday.” What I don’t say is that the tests have spurred my focus on the book and the opportunity to work closely with Jimmie on something that might take both of our minds off his changing health. It goes unsaid, but is tangible.

Health issues that people face in their 80s can be debilitating. Where my focus on the book has become laser-like, Jimmie’s focus is on battling gastric distress, the increased frequency of labored bathroom visits, the pain in his knees and feet. When I come home from work and ask if he’s worked on the book, he feels ashamed at not having done more, but explains that he’s gotten tired from writing. It is hard to not judge because I have no frame of reference for his discomfort.

That’s the thing that’s  unnerving about aging: the fact that you really can’t relate to it until it happens to you. It struck home at the Cape, when, walking on the beach with our nephew Liam, as we approached the beach breakwaters, rather than scampering over them as I might have done even just three years ago, I found myself assessing the best approach so that I didn’t strain myself climbing over, or lose my balance. Aging is a bit like that – slowing down to accommodate things that didn’t phase you at 25 and which have now become hurdles at 56.

A 56-year-old writer with facility on a computer equates to the 25-year-old scampering over the breakwater. I want to assist Jimmie over the breakwaters of completing this book at his own pace, so that he is secure and relaxed and enjoys the process. So that the journey is as important as the destination.

IMG_6644We will get as far as we can on this book project in the time we have. The distractions are part of the journey. They are part of our story. Like the family movies I sent this week to be digitized,  there will be good memories and maybe some not so good memories in that box, as there are in life. But we will be grateful to have all of them. The most important thing is to be present and conscious of making memories while we can.