Off the Grid with Nana

I’ve been off the grid for the past 8 days, spending the Christmas holiday with my son and his wife and their two adorable girls, S, a recently-turned four-year-old, and B, a recently turned 9-month-old. My son and his wife run a beautiful home – chaotically creative – the best kind. There are lots of toys, and lots of entertainment units of the organizational sort to keep Nana busy after the sun goes down. My OCD kicked in in a serious way. I don’t want to get all judgy — in a minute, you’ll see why–they get the job done brilliantly with a minimum of fuss, and don’t let the little things like organizing shoe piles spoil their afternoon. They are Present, yes, with a capital P, at all moments that their children are awake, and they thrive on the triumphs and squalors that constitute growing up well and happy.

I arrived on December 22nd, just in time to assist and attend S’s fourth birthday party, at the local bowling alley, a festive affair, with sparkling Spindrifts and Pellegrinos, and a beautiful fresh fruit platter from the local grocery store, as well as a veggie and dip tray. Perfectly and easily organized. (My producer’s brain noted “Know your audience.”)There were about 20 unicorn themed gift bags. Each bag had a very sparkly beaded wrist wrap which went from straight to bracelet with a quick slap on your wrist. Each one sported a cat or an animal. They ranged in color from pink to Cabaret black. They were a big hit. Also in each bag, there was a bag of Frozen Pirate’s Booty – when I first heard that, I gagged, but then realized that it referred to the Disney movie, not the geothermic state of the puffs; I’ve never really understood the appeal of them when corn syrup packing peanuts are available in any Amazon shipment. Clearly the Frozen Pirate Booty is great because of the product alignment.

Parenthetically, I finally sat down and watched The Movie this holiday as well, so I will no longer have to pretend to know the claw accompanied by the hiss reference when S freezes me. Poor Ilsa. She really had it rough.

Have you ever seen almost-four-year-olds bowl? It’s spectacular. First, there are the adorable shoes, which only begin at kids’ size 10, so the wee ones just wore their own shoes. The ball is larger than their entire torso, and definitely heavier than they can manage. Their proud parent behind them. the toddlers reach the head of the lane and then unceremoniously drop the ball at their feet, where some miracle of physics and floor wax progresses it down the lane at about the speed of a very old demented tortoise. Miraculously it doesn’t stop. However, if one gets impatient, one can just line up the next ball to be ready.

Bumpers UP!

After a few seconds, the tot turns away disinterestedly and resumes animated dance or conversation with their friends as parents and adjacent onlookers wait for the next minute-and-a-half as the ball makes it’s tortured way down to the end before shuttling off into the gutter. If they’re lucky, they might hit one pin. As the afternoon went on, S got a little better and was knocking a few pins down. But it didn’t matter. Bowling was just the setting. Ever so much more important was the giggling and chasing each around the bowling alley.

These Tahoe Toddlers’ parents are nice people in addition to their accomplishments. I met several of Whitney’s school colleagues and their children. My main job was to hold B so that Whitney and Chris could host the big kids and their folks. B is a magnet, so charming and smiley. She has this lovely full-body wiggle she does when she eats something she likes, or if someone smiles in her direction. I mean anywhere in her direction. She must be the happiest baby I’ve ever met. Everyone in her family now emulates the B wiggle when they want to see her smile. Adorable.

S is iconoclastic, a leader in the same way her daddy is. Rebel, comic sense of holding for a laugh and then letting herself laugh with abandon. Her friends all arrived with various packages of Playdoh products, again many of the gifts were this season’s favorite, Frozen. Unicorns and Ilsa are big in the under 5 market.

In addition to coming to spend the holidays, I ended up staying in this beautiful part of the world so that Chris and Whitney could attend a wedding after Christmas. I’d agreed to babysit for the dynamic duo for an overnight trip. When I arrived, I realized it was actually for two days, which was fine. I’m always up for a challenge. Being a Grandparent is a dance. I’ve never been a particularly good dancer, save for the disco competition I won in a state of extreme inebriation in the college pub. It’s harder than it looks in books, movies and TV. My practice unfortunately looks more like George Wilson to Dennis the Menace – you know- the cranky neighbor trope. Four year olds (and fifty-nine-year-olds, for that matter) can be mercurial. We can go from chill to chilly in a heartbeat. One of my corrections to some benign four-year-old action resulted with her responding, “Why don’t you go outside, Nana, and die in a snowbank?”

Beat….

I consider a moment whether this is a witty musical reference to Grandma got run over by a reindeer….Nope. And before you jump to conclusions and decide either that my granddaughter is a psycho or I’m Emily Gone Postal, let’s just say transitioning from a single, urban life style into the afore-mentioned creative home combined with the onset of a serial stomach flu suffered on the 23rd by Whitney, the 24th by Chris, and my hypochondriacal certainty that I would be next on Christmas Day made me less than nimble. And she told me so.

Note to self. Nana’s is to remain chill. Assume the corrective mantle only when necessary when someone is about to die.

On Christmas Day I fell into a slough of despondency the likes of which I’ve not felt since last Christmas, the first without my husband. Leaden limbs, near total disinterest in presents, a need to fall asleep on the couch by 10 in the morning. It was bizarre and I was incredibly relieved (as I’m sure Chris and Whitney were) when I mostly recovered the next day. (And I didn’t get the flu, thank you, Baby Jesus.)

In spite of being somewhat physically and mentally disengaged on Christmas, I still got a charge out of S’s generosity in offering to open everyone’s presents. I had bought S a little robotic dog that pants, barks, growls, sits, wags his tail and runs on command. At one point during the weekend, B and I were sitting with the little cutie on the floor next to the chair and I was patting it, while she depilled it and ate the fluff when suddenly, the dog turned it’s head sidewise and looked up at me in the chair – like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Toys are too damn smart.

As stage managers and production managers, we manage logistics. Rehearsals have breaks taken at Equitable times, and we’re trained to track multiple people on stage at any time, and write what they are doing, where they are going and what they are carrying down. Two kids for two days? Piece of cake.

Two days later and I would challenge any Stage manager to take care of two toddlers under four. In fact, I think this might be an amazing training drill. B has her eyes on anything that can be put into her mouth, lint, pine needles, dice. Her favorite is Puffs, little colored cheerios that come in a can. Doesn’t matter if they’re from two days ago and are gummy. In it goes.

The logistics went something like this:

  • 5-7AM Wake up to the baby standing up, holding onto the crib and shrieking.
  • Take her downstairs, change her and sit her on the floor to play. She is happy.
  • 6:30-7:00AM S comes down and wants to make slime. “Nana doesn’t do slime.” The truth is that Slime is my Cryptonite. Bring out a bowl and ask for glue and I start quivering all over and not in the charming way that B does.
  • 7-9AM Negotiate about the slime. S is definitely going to be a prosecutor and a damn good one.
  • 7-9AM Make breakfast while keeping an eye on B so she doesn’t spill out the dog food or water on the floor of the kitchen or find/eat dessicated grapes under the cabinets . Find something that S will eat that has some nutritional value and sit with B giving her some bacon and blueberries. Bacon goes down, Cupid gets fed. Blueberries go down. Nana gets to do some waist bending. That’s my exercise for the day. Did I eat?
  • 9-10AM Color with S while bouncing B on my knee and handing her the lids of the markers to hold for me. This is what we call stasis.
  • 10AM Warm up some milk and bottle it while holding B on my hip.
  • Put on the TV for S and take B up to put her down for her nap.
  • 10:30AM-12:30PM Play with S, again negotiating for a more manageable game than slime…We might get dressed here or we might
  • 12:30PM Retrieve caterwauling B from the crib and bring her down. Change her.
  • Lunch. What the hell will they eat? Did I eat yet?
  • Afternoon activity – walk outside, go to the indoor childrens’ playspace nearby
  • Naps
  • 5:00PM Start dinner while making chocolate chip cookies with the neighbor children. Calculating how much raw dough will make them sick….
  • 6:00PM Eat dinner followed by a brief Gymnastics competition.
  • 6:30PM run a bath. S and B love their bath which they take together. Make sure B doesn’t fall face first into the bath. No actual hygiene seems to take place in the bath but they both look cleaner when they come out.
  • 7:00PM Prepare bottle and take B up to bed after finding something appropriate for S to watch. Kids Channel on Netflix. Oh, here’s the original Grinch movie. I came down after putting B to sleep and saw Jim Carrey in a green suit with maggots or bugs climbing all over his teeth. Slapping hand to my mouth…

Whoa! This is going to give you bad dreams, S!

Yeah, it’s scary.

I thought you told me you’d watched it before.

(Sometimes S uses her debate techniques to persuade you that she is making an actual case when it is really just a very inventive story narrative.) Correction: she’s going to be a prosecutor/novelist when she grows up.

  • 8:00PM Read books or listen to a sleep story with S.
  • 8:30PM Tiptoe downstairs and start playing the Nana OCD cleanup game.
  • 10:00PM Crawl into bed
  • 10:30PM B Caterwauling. I’ve got this! Bottle on the way.
  • 10:45PM B refuses bottle
  • 11:00AM S stumbles into the room.

You’re not going to get much sleep in here, S.

I want my Mommy!

  • Cupid starts barking manaically at something outside the window.
  • Els realizes she’s left the car in the driveway, throws on shoes, then opens the front door and Cupid goes screaming into the night, surely to be eaten by a coyote or a bear. What will I tell Chris and Whitney?
  • 12:30AM B, S and Nana cry themselves to sleep.

6:30AM the Following Day – Rinse and Repeat.

Along the way, I would occasionally pick up my phone and see people wishing each other Merry Christmas! But I didn’t have time to play those reindeer games. I was off the Grid with S and B.

And you know what? I wouldn’t trade one glorious second of it. Happy Holidays!

Production Managers Forum – Spring Green, WI

I’ve had the privilege of belonging to this mythical group for the past seven or eight years, a national group of Production Managers from Regional Theaters, Educational institutions like mine, Opera Companies, and other assorted theatrical institutions across the country. Benefits of belonging to this advanced “hive mind” are almost instantaneous solutions to problems posed to the group, ranging from seeking contacts for designers and other artists, to advice on how/whether to have a horse on stage, which was one of my first queries back in 2012. Having the lived experience of so many other theatre practitioners at your fingertips makes being a PM possible and educational as well. I’d never before been able to attend a PMF gathering – maybe once before. Last weekend was filled with professional networking, sharing of practices, and a healthy dose of relaxation and taking in the green of Spring Green, WI.

In Wisconsin, we don’t say “I haven’t hit a deer”; we say “I haven’t hit a deer yet.”

Mike Broh, Production Manager, American Players Theatre

These words reverberate like the chimes played on the Hill before the matinee at American Players Theatre. Driving to dinner from the hotel, as the slight framed deer dashed in front of the Gray Nissan rental car I’d refused extra insurance coverage on, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed down.

The road to hell is paved with the flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.

This and other funny and insightful quotes peppered many cork boards throughout the backstage and shop areas at American Players Theater. My favorite was the APT Core Values sheet, on the safety yellow paper stock that APT’s production manager, Mike Broh, reserves for only the most critical areas of safety, of which core values would obviously be.

As someone who began as a Stage Manager prior to moving to Production Management, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for SMs, as folks who will have your back to the bitter end. This PMF group may have superseded them after getting to go on this weekend fall PMF conference. Our host was Mike Broh, of American Players Theatre. Sitting in the wide circle of tables in the rehearsal room for both sessions on Friday evening and Saturday during the day was humbling in terms of the collective experience of these Production Managers but in a comfortable non-judgmental way. There were about 40 of us there. Due to the location of the conference, there were PMs from Milwaukee and Chicago, but others who came a further distance, from Boston, New Haven, and Oregon, as well as three of us from Southern California.

Saturday morning we started the day off with a tour of the APT kingdom, which is a vast network of spaces intricately designed for their individual purposes, to support simultaneously five to eight productions annually. The complexity of this was clear even from the initial board filled with the beaming pictures of the staff, and visiting artists, designers and directors. Everyone’s friendly face on a yellow card with their name and their role clearly indicated.

We toured the props domain, starting with the props woodworking shop, framed by the organized jury of chairs sitting above to watch the clean well-organized shop. We moved through the kitchen, to the upstairs clean room for props and costume work, and finally to the furniture storage, each item clearly tagged and coded for easy retrieval. The staff’s sense of humor was evident, from the prominently displayed Julius Caesar, modeled after one of their core company members, complete with 20+ stab wounds overlooking the props work room from behind his own work goggles.

The tour continued around the many acres on which the Alpha and Bravo buildings were arranged, to the rehearsal space building. I didn’t look around to see if others were salivating like I was, but I suspect they were. I had definite space envy. In addition to the workroom spaces, each of the theatres has adjacent storage spaces to handle the scenery and costumes for rotation in and out of its stages in a very active Rep. Everything’s designed, or course, with these changeovers in mind.

The Costume Domain was equally impressive. From hats to storage, Millinery and Wig rooms, and spacious fitting rooms, all spaces reflected the ethos of giving your employees what they need to succeed.

After touring the facilities, seeing the indoor Touchstone Theatre and outdoor Hill Theatre, we returned to the rehearsal room for our second round table discussing important topics. Topics of the weekend (at the risk of banishment from the group) included:

  • Trends in Theatre
  • Salary Transparency
  • Sustainability
  • Onboarding New Employees
  • Vaping
  • Social Media
  • Use of Cell Phones backstage

Mike ran the meetings beautifully, letting the conversations about each topic ebb and flow; he didn’t need to moderate – this group pretty much self-moderates, but ending each segment right on time with a droll unsardonic “Well, that was fun,” which elicited a rolling, warm shared laugh across the room every time. Aside from acute space envy, I came away from American Players Theatre with an appreciation of the effects of transparency at practice there, the self-evident respect among the staff. It was great to run into a former student, Lea Branyan, who has worked at APT for several summers, and has recently taken a job with the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Just for yucks, as I was writing this, I looked back to see the colorful and extraordinarily helpful descriptions of what could go wrong if I allowed them to bring a horse on stage back in 2012. That’s the other benefit of being a member. Not that I’d wish more email on anyone, but this group is thoughtful and funny with their responses to members’ questions. About that horse idea?

  1. Calculate the weight of the horse when standing on 2 hooves and if you have a trapped stage, figure the point load of the floor. Oversheet the floor with 1” plywood and reinforce the braces in the areas where the traps are.
  2. Hire a horse and a handler. There are plenty of people who do this in Los Angeles. They bring the horse, rehearse the horse and then ideally, take the horse out of the facility.
  3. Be aware of campus sensitivity. Everyone will be looking for you to be abusing the animal. This is usually quelled by saying you have an animal wrangler. (Emphasis is mine)
  4. Talk the handler through the expectations of what the horse would be doing, and conditions on stage.
  5. When you get to tech, if you haven’t found it too crazy, you will need to proceed really slowly to integrate the horse lest it get spooked.  You’ll want to have horse no people with work lights, then horse with people, then horse with lights, then horse with sound, then add people and sound (this is the biggest jump and the most likely to spook the horse), again then people and light.  Only after everything is good with each step do you go ahead.  We would take a week to get animals who are used to performing acclimated to being in a different production number. And then this was a long lead before audience.
  6.   And I forgot to say that the backstage traffic is almost as complicated.  With the right animal it could be quick, if the horse is jumpy, it could be disastrous.  
  7. Oh! And don’t forget you’ll need to assign someone to poop duty. 

Throughout the weekend, we ate well at a series of local restaurants, including one of the local hotspots, Slowpoke Bar and Cabaret owned by Mike and his wife Stacey. We even got to slip away Sunday morning to visit the garish House on the Rock, which until I’d travelled there, always thought referred to the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Taliesan. Oh, couldn’t have been more wrong. A kitschy must-see for when you go to Spring Green. That and the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI.

I feel lucky to be in the company of such amazing Production Managers.