Adding Laughter Back In

I yearn for the laughter of my previous life. Seven months ago, after watching my friend Susie’s show at the Geffen, we met for dinner between the two shows. In the theatre, these interstitial social moments are the ones you tend to remember, not the slog of the eight-show week, but the human interactions that the intimate theatre process allows. Nearly every project I’ve worked on in my life includes these memories. This time, Susie and I retired to CPK in Westwood to eat. Two rawly recent widows, finding our new way in the world. Somehow the conversation came around to David Sedaris – seeing him live has been on my bucket list for years. I knew he was coming to UC Irvine on Nov. 6th, and I offered to get tickets for us both to go.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to go – I might be on a show,” Susie said.

“I know, but I’ll get the tickets and if you can’t go, I’ll find someone else to go with me.”

Little did either of us know that Susie would be unable to go for entirely different reasons. Later that summer, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The last time I sat with her at her hospice bedside, I said, “Well, I guess you won’t be up to going to UC Irvine next week to see David Sedaris.” This probably sounds like an incredibly callous thing to say and in fact, had I known she’d be gone by the following week, I probably wouldn’t have said it; but if you knew Susie, you’d know that that kind of sarcasm was right up her alley. “Sorry, don’t think I can make it.” We laughed easily, the way two old friends do, and the way in retrospect, I now know Susie did with all her old friends.

It’s vital to make plans in your life to keep your family ties and friendships alive. Stage management is an incredibly grueling path. The marquee is always emblazoned with “The Show Must Go On.” And yes, the show will go on, and you need to find ways to jump out to experience your life. This is probably not what you might hear in your training program, but make the plans, buy the tickets, build the future into your current work. When the job comes up that won’t allow you to go see David Sedaris on a Wednesday night, talk with your producer and say, “I’m not available on Nov. 6th. That’s the only day. Do you think we can work around that one date?” Not surprisingly, they will find a way. Your assistant can cover the rehearsal, you may be able to have them hire someone to cover your calling the show. If not, perhaps you don’t take that job. The most important thing is that you communicate your needs. This is part of the negotiation part that stage managers, especially women, shy away from. And God help me, brace me for the onslaught of requests.

So, last night, I went to see David Sedaris perform at the Barclay Center in Irvine, CA. Leaving USC to drive down there with my friend and colleague, Melinda, at 6:00PM was insanity. The freeways were jammed, headlights blazing across the median strip, through the newly adjusted standard time darkness, which lowers the curtains now around 5:00PM. What I know almost a year after losing my foundation with the death of my husband is that my life is still as busy, but I now appreciate more the process of being present. Melinda and I chatted the entire way down, then stopped for some salads at a Chinese fast food place near the venue, risking missing the start of the show. Fortunately, or unfortunately, “traffic is a thing” in Southern California. The show started about ten minutes after its published start time, and with the humorous and disarming grace I’ve always loved about David Sedaris, he emerged from the wings in the most amazing “costume” that we only got a brief glimpse of on his way to the podium. Was that a kilt? Arriving at the podium, he confessed that we were starting late because he’d been doing his laundry down in the basement. “It’s been a long tour,” he drolly intoned, instantly relaxing the audience and providing just what we’d come for, a deep, belly laugh of recognition of one aspect of our shared human condition – when will my event-filled life allow me to do my laundry?

The evening proceeded to deliver more of what I’d come for, deep guttural laughs, incredulous scoffs, gales of the easy kind of tears that swept through the hall from the twenty-somethings who sat to my right to the sea of NPR-loving-graying-wordsmith-appreciating sixty-somethings who made up the audience. Anyone who loves words and their sly misuse can appreciate someone like David Sedaris. He read several of his CBS Morning commentaries, including one which dissected the N-word and reeled through the alphabet, helping us to laugh about our political correctness by shredding it; the face of having the L-word be Love, and the C-word commitment.

His humor relies on the knowledge that we will head full tilt to what we assume he’s going to say, then roar with laughter as he pulls the rug out from underneath us, landing us on our butts. A lot of his material was about his childhood vacation home, in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. His writing is so dry as to almost ignite the pages he methodically pulled and unclipped from a manila folder on the lecturn. His delivery is so divorced from his own wit that sometimes you need to go back a sentence to catch up. There were several times I was puzzled for a good minute before I understood what he’d said.

At any rate, I could go on for days about David Sedaris. Suffice it to say, find the laughter in your life and routine, your own food for your imagination, that which nourishes your soul and consciously, actively build it into your life.

Sometime late in the program, he said something about friends which I can’t even remember specifically what it was, but it full-throttle invoked Susie for me, and I shut my eyes, (forgive me Melinda) imagining her beside me in the dark of the Barclay Center, sharing a moment of respite from the work and the world. Sharing a laugh with a friend.

R.I.P. Susie

We lost a great human being this week, Susie Walsh, stage manager, friend, my reluctant widow pal. There have been so many heartfelt posts about what made Susie special. I’m late to the tablet. People have noted her great sense of humor, her biting but loving wit, her talents as a stage manager to anticipate and solve problems as they arose. The length and quality of her practice as a stage manager, the depth and breadth of her friendships and impact has wowed me. Susie was very private and would probably have hated the attention she’s getting, except not really, because it is so heartfelt, and irreverent, just like Susie was. Loving, subversive, disarmingly direct sometimes, she said what she meant and rarely sugar coated it unless needed to stay within professional boundaries.

I’ve known Susie for twenty-five years, but hold her dearest in my heart for her role as PSM for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Spring of 2016. It was my hub’s last show. Having worked so many times with Susie over the years on shows, and seeing her shows, I took enormous comfort in knowing that she’d be monitoring the halls outside of the three 89+ year old actors dressing rooms. Just making sure they were behaving. Which they were, I think, for the most part.

Jimmie in his cap
Susie having a laugh at the closing night party with Jimmie and Charlotte Rae.

She let me come to a rehearsal one time upstairs so I could see how Jimmie was navigating the work as his best 89-year-old self. I’d visit Jimmie on his two show days; In the bathroom across from his dressing room, Susie would be putting on her togs for a run or bike to the beach. A runner and a complete jock, Sueis loved sports and people who loved sports and some of us who just pretended to love sports to witness her love of them and us. I went to watch a football game at her house earlier last year and feigned interest, grazing instead on the snacks, and enjoying the company of her college friends who really were invested in the game as I would never be.

Susie and I shared a secret affection for our “old men.” She and I were about eight years apart in age, and both our partners were about 30 years older than us, give or take a few years, and after all, what’s a few years when you already have 30+ years difference? Though she and Ken never married, she was loyal to him like a spouse. We shared a pretty unique set of concerns for our old men. Our stage manager, old man Venn Diagram really was fairly rare. We added a widow circle on Dec. 1, 2018.

Sure, other couples of similar ages have illness arise that they have to deal with and it is no less impactful than what we did, but ours was expected. We knew what we signed up for. It was dreaded and yet routine, and when we had lunch together after seeing her show at the Geffen about a year ago, we spent twenty minutes or so chatting about their bad knees, their home care workers. It was our dark bond, one that we shared easily like a special shared language.

When Jimmie passed away, Ken was in his home receiving carefully organized care that Susie had put together. She texted me some photos of her battle station at Ken’s.

Hey, who do I know who would appreciate my organization?

She was right, I did appreciate seeing it because the quality of her instructions was so personal, so tangible. Seeing them brought back my own diligence, and the urgency of caring for someone you love so much in decline. That was Nov. 24th, and Ken was gone by Dec. 1st, Jimmie’s birthday. We made plans in January, to go see David Sedaris on Nov. 6th this coming week at UC Irvine. It seemed so far off, and I knew we’d both need a laugh as we approached the anniversary of our shared loss. This was the perfect reflection of Susie’s sense of humor.

Susie was the fittest over-fifty person I knew, running races, inspiring us more sedentary types to exercise more. The photo above is from New Year’s eve in 2016. That morning, we took a hike in the rain and mist. At the end, I was tired, and sore for days, a fact I shared with Michele and Susie via our ongoing shared text message. We made plans for a few more hikes, each of us taking the role of organizer of the day. My go to spot was the Huntington Gardens, Michele organized a Christmas light walk in Pasadena. In each of these walks, we shared the easy comaraderie of long time colleagues and friends – the stories unfolded, with the trails. In March, 2019, it was Susie’s turn to call the walk and we’d agreed to do a hike in a spot I didn’t know about. Susie knew all the trails – we’d done several in Griffith Park and I’d seen more of Los Angeles than I dreamed existed. We followed her trustingly, sometimes discovering that the distance was more than we’d planned for, but always feeling accomplished at the end. This time, however, in the car on the way over, Susie said, casually, “I’ve got to tell you a story – I had to go to urgent care last night.” We leaned forward to listen expecting a typically light story about food poisoning, or something like that. We arrived at the spot, got out of the car and started across the parking lot. Susie was lagging a little, then she stopped and said, “Hey would it be okay if we didn’t walk? I’m having a lot of pain.” And so instead, we went to breakfast. And began to hear the ominous start of what became the beginning of her cancer odyssey. The way was unclear, and as the future unfolded, Susie met each bend in the very uneven road with her usual fierce integrity and grit and eventually resignation and grace.

In the recent weeks, when I was able to visit her, either in the hospital or the one time I was able to get away to visit her bedside, we rarely talked about death, though he was obviously in the room, shadowing the conversation, evident in the clear oxygen tubing that snaked around Susie’s ears and under her nostrils; the propulsive wheezing of the tank that spooked Maddox, her cat from sitting on the bed with her. In her living room, the room had been torqued 90 degrees from the way it liked to be, the alien hospital bed facing the door, the coffee table and couches hugging the walls, pushed aside as if to make room for the last dance of life. The photos of family, and young Ken faced her bed, her sister Katie sitting in the chair, back to the front door, her comrade in arms, as so many of Susie’s many brothers and family had done since late summer, when Susie began her chemo. I was hopelessly inept at saying what needed to be said in what turns out was the last time I saw my friend. I’m kicking myself about that and all the loss of recent weeks makes me want to rail against the gods or something. But for what?

Friday, my colleague brought me a little pink rose bush, and said how sorry he was for my loss. Thursday, the day we all lost Susie, my coach had given me an exercise to do called Roses and Thorns. As I lay in bed last night, just before I turned out the lights I documented the Good Things (Roses) vs. the Bad Things (Thorns) I marveled at the literalness of the day. Aside from literal roses, I thought about the happy reunion of Ken and Susie, Susie and her recently departed Mom, and the very happy actors, Jimmie Greene and Charlotte Rae, who now can begin rehearsals afresh with Susie monitoring the hallways of heaven.

Meet Susie, who now lives on my balcony overlooking downtown LA.

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.

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.

Stage Managers and Scary Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a brat I was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your inner scaredy-cat says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Celebrating Moving Forward

There are few more positive things than the events that transpire around commencement: acting showcases, design showcases, awards banquets, culminations – these things pepper the final weeks before everyone moves forward.

I’ve been holding onto myself or at least my hat last week, as creative events swirled around me:

Monday – A conference of LA Stage Managers for SMA (Stage Managers Association), an association of my peers. Hosted at Center Theatre Group, in the familiar Rehearsal Room C, I met Joel Veenstra, who heads up the MFA and BFA Stage Management programs at UC Irvine and is the Western Regional Director of the SMA. The day included panels on the SMA itself, info on different avenues for stage managers to pursue with their skillsets, how to transition a show from one theatre to another, an informative and extremely sobering panel on safety and security, and a panel of stage managers discussing how they made their way through the professional maturation process. This final session I appreciated, because there were inclusive gestures from the stage about how old I was. Maybe it’s time to dye the old locks….

Wednesday marked the beginning of our portfolio review sessions with undergraduate designers and stage managers. These tabletop exercises demand that designers bring their developing pages and discuss their collaborative processes. They are informative, an iterative process, one that begins with their first one unit design assistant position, throughout to the spring, moments before the final Showcase. Over the course of four years they get quite skilled at presenting their work and defining their interests in design and stage management.

Wednesday night featured the Cabaret performance by Alexandra Billings, a fundraiser to raise money for LGBQT student scholarships. Here’s the link if you’d like to contribute. She is an amazing performer, and brought the house down that night. Another polished performance also by our by-now-beleaguered Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea and students who called, engineered the sound by Philip G. Allen.

Friday’s all day 2019 SDA Production/Design Showcase events began at 10:00AM in the Scene Dock Theatre with Faculty and Guest Designer critiques of all ten graduating Designers and TD. Each senior is given a table and a board and they spend about 24 hours decorating and preparing to showcase their work accumulated over four years to an array of faculty, guest designers, directors, and staff.

At 11:00AM, the two graduating stage managers met with a panel of both Alumni Stage Managers (now professionals) and their professor, Scott Faris to review their resumes in the form of a job interview.

Next came our family style lunch in the Technical Theatre Lab at noon, hosted in the shop by Head of Technical Direction Duncan Mahoney and featuring about fifty of our extended family. It’s so wonderful to see alumni coming back to support and give a leg up to our graduating seniors. This year we had an all vegan Indian meal, after several years of BBQ. It’s only fair, right?

At 1:00PM, the Showcase featured a panel of guests who shared their professional journeys. They included small business owner, Madison Rhoades, whose Cross Roads Escape Rooms have become a hit in Orange County; Production Designer and Alumnus Ed Haynes, who works for numerous corporate clients as well as keeping a prominent toe in theatrical design. His work recently graced the Scene Dock via his scenic design for The Busybody. Television and Film Production Designer Michael Andrew Hynes shared stories of his voluminous work with the students, starting from his roots in theatre design, as did lighting design Alum Madigan Stehly, working with Full Flood Lighting and as a freelance lighting designer. Panelist Sarah Borger, Production and Broadcast Director for ESL- Turtle Entertainment spoke about her journey from Stage Manager to Live Gaming Production Management.

SDA Head of Production, Sibyl Wickersheimer kicks off a lively panel discussion with professional guests (three out of five alumni of the SDA Production programs).

In the spirit of the rest of the week, I overbooked myself on Friday, agreeing to attend a 7:30PM Independent Student Performance, directed by a graduating senior. I like the play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph, not just because it features a young man, a hockey player, prone to injuries. Hey! I have one of those! Directed by Jordan Broberg, the two-hander was performed in the Brain and Creativity Institute, a sleek, cone shaped auditorium with acoustics by the Disney Hall acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota. Jordan’s cast members are both seniors, Ido Gal, and Cherie Carter, to whom, ironically, I had just come from awarding (in absentia) the James Pendleton Award. As I slipped into my seat, fifteen minutes late, I chuckled as I realized why Cherie had been absent from the banquet. They did a great job with the play. You could hear a pin drop in that hall, which was definitely not in my favor, 14 hours into my day and eager to squirm.

At the risk of promulgating an avalanche of back health ads, recently, I’ve been undergoing treatment for a herniated disk, via weekly chiropractic sessions, and bi-weekly massages. Aside from the fact that last week got too busy to attend to that, a few weeks ago, in the course of an hour long massage, I felt the pain melting away from all areas save for the lower back, where my back remained tightened into a rictus of resistance. The massage therapist and I discussed it at the end of the massage, and he acknowledged that we were definitely working on something there. Later that morning, my WeCroak app message seemed particularly pertinent:

Pain is always a sign that we are holding on to something – usually ourselves.

Pema Chodron (WeCroak)

My favorite gym partner, Lynn and I shared a selfie today at the Sanctuary Fitness Cinco de Mayo festivities.

This right before she shared with me a new podcast, the brainchild of Nora McIlnerny, author and notable widow, entitled Terrible, Thanks for Asking. You should definitely check it out. Here’s a link to her TED Talk. Especially if you are in the business of grieving. And not just to use a phrase of hers, “grief-adjacent.” She is very clever and speaks the truth about loss in an immediate and uplifting way, if you can imagine that combination of incongruities. And after this week of looking forward through the eyes of our talented students, I can indeed imagine the uplifting part.

Wedding without the Groom

This week I’m producing a life celebration for my husband. It’s a wedding without the groom. But I know how to do this. I’ve stage managed countless other events, even memorials before.

When you lose your spouse (every time I say that phrase I think back to Lady Bracknell’s line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”) This, in turn, makes me think of Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell which transports me to the pre-Els portion of Jimmie’s life.

(Readers are thinking, How can she have already digressed in the first paragraph? I invite you to peer inside the mind of the recently grieved person. There is no digression too unappealing to explore. In depth.)

When you lose your spouse, precisely at your rawest, most inconsolable moment, well-meaning family and friends ask about whether there will be a funeral. I know that funerals are the norm, but I can’t imagine how people pull them together at that moment. It was only about a month after my husband died that I was able to even imagine how to commemorate his life in a ritual we’ve come to call a “Life Celebration.”

Date. Venue. Guests. Speakers. Outfit. Music. Food. Flowers. Stage Manager. Program. Hotel. Transportation. Video.

This initial list can start the average stage manager panting with anticipation of things to order and to put in order. The list unfurls its own subset of questions that are more or less easy to answer once you’ve established the date, and the venue and have the Production Manager in your communication loop.

But this grieving stage manager had some additional hurdles to overcome. First, there is the sheer entropy of grief, that warm, swaddled state of incredulity; you are actually planning such an important event without the advice and counsel of your best friend. No one to bounce ideas off of, to run things by, to giggle with about what isn’t going to plan.

We pull on experience. Back in December, I began to pull together a guest list, determining that there would be 150 people who might want to come to celebrate Jimmie’s life. By the end of the month, I’d determined the venue, with a capacity of 74. Oops.

This first hiccough added a major need to the main list – web streaming.

So here’s the FB page where the event will be web streamed.

Date: Saturday, January 26, 2019 4PM

Venue: Web-streamed and some live participants

Speakers: There will be speakers!

Music: There will be some music!

Food: There will be some promised-to-be delish food from niece Niki.

Flowers: There will be flowers!

Stage Manager: I’ve hired a former student, Jennifer, to be professional me on the day when I can’t necessarily be counted on to be professional.

Program: There is a beautiful program thanks to my colleague and graphic designer, Chris.

Outfit: I went shopping with my friend and colleague, Tina, an accomplished costume designer. I knew what I wanted – a purple duster to wear over black pants and a gray top (which I already had). We went to Koi in Pasadena, parked in the 20 minute spot in front of the store, went in, bought the purple duster (believe it or not there was one), then retired to a nearby pub for a true English breakfast, complete with sausage and a eggs and a roasted tomato and a pot of tea. Success!

Hotel: Family and friends are starting to arrive today and tomorrow. There will be many opportunities to eat and talk about life and the wonderful man we’ve been so fortunate to spend my life with.

Transportation: Van to take family from hotel to venue. Organized.

Video: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with my great niece-by-marriage, Alisa Bargeski, on a video to celebrate Jimmie’s life and work and family. Putting that together has probably been the most satisfactory thing about the process and very healing.

With all these elements in place, the profoundly unsettling fact remains. The groom is gone.

I sat on the couch last night and the stillness of the interior apartment settled around me, wintry wind whistling just outside the glass patio door. I wasn’t weepy, just alone and somehow finally aware of my solitude in that moment. As I said to my dear friend Susan this afternoon, after all those years of knowing that I would be alone, I never visualized exactly what that would feel or be like. Isn’t that strange? But I know I am not alone in my life, that I’m surrounded with the life force of friends and colleagues and family. And I know I’m excited to see them at the “wedding without the groom” this Saturday.

Understudy Rehearsal

Stage managers, in the course of their work, frequently have to put actors into a show when circumstances arise that prevent a regular actor from performing. Plays have understudies, who are contracted to start, usually a week or so before a play opens. This means stage management begins rehearsals during the preview week, when rehearsals for the regular show are happening during the day, and previews at night. Everyone is exhausted at this time in the production arc, but Stage Managers know that it is critical to have at least one, if not two rehearsals that week. That way, the understudy can go on “on book” – an occurrence one wouldn’t wish on anyone, but a legitimate state of performing per our Actors Equity Association rulebooks. 

This way the producers are covered if someone gets sick, or has to leave the show abruptly due to occurrences like the ones that underlie this post. And stage managers know how to rehearse actors to put them into shows. We know the blocking, we know the intent of each scene, the director’s desires. On more complicated shows, we’ll create tracking sheets for each actor, so that if we have to insert them into the show, we know how to run a pick-up rehearsal, including just those parts of the play in which our understudy will be featured.

When you get to a certain age, you’ve accumulated things. If you are fortunate, as I am, you’ve accumulated good friends, close family, a comfortable workspace with supportive colleagues. But there’s one thing I’ve only become aware recently of how many I’ve accumulated, and that’s widowed friends.  I have a plethora of the widowed in my life.

Men and women; just counting on my fingers, I have two full fists of friends who’ve lost their loved ones, their spouses, their life partners. There’s a range of loss from 35 years ago, to 18 years ago, to 8 years ago, to just a few weeks. 

With all the other widows and widowers, I have turned my face and ear to them as a sunflower turns to the sun, drawing in their experience and wisdom, their references for books, thoughts about memorials, and life ahead, about clearing clutter. Surely that will make the path through grief easier, if it can be done. Why not do your research and make it more tenable?  And I bask in every ray of their singular and collective light as it illuminates renewal, a time when the pain is less, and when I know what my new path is. Who I am alone in the world. What my purpose is.

But it is the week-old widow (WOW) who speaks loudest to me. She and I have uncannily similar situations. Both married to actors more than thirty years older than we; both theatre workers. Neither of us religious, nor afraid to tell the truth about our circumstances. Both with irreverent senses of humor. Now we share a date of grieving that I never would have wished on either of us. But now that it is a thing, it provides me, and I hope her, with some solace. The morning of Jimmie’s birthday, while I was helping some neighbors decorate our lobby’s Christmas tree, she sent me a plaintive text that her partner had passed away.

How are we ever supposed to get over this?

Boy is that the question of the month?  And with the question came the turning point. From sunflower to sun, not that I presume to know a scintilla of what my widowed friends know, but I could keep company with her, and being three weeks ahead on the learning curve, I could share what I knew. 

And so, with my WOW friend, right in the middIe of my own “production,” I had the tracking sheets, at least for the first three weeks. I knew the blocking, the intent, the emotional pitfalls that might confront her. I knew I’d be able to push her around “backstage” and help her make her entrances.

A good stage manager allows the understudy to bring themself to the part. To interpret to a certain extent the lines so that they fit them and they can inhabit them gracefully. 

There’s nothing graceful about a five week widow. Trust me. But my WOW friend is a strong woman. And we have the history that allows us to speak honestly to each other about how we are doing. That’s a huge gift. 

One of the first things I had to confess was my obituary bitterness. Granted, I didn’t know the first thing about placing an obituary in the newspaper. Apparently, it’s something that should happen that day or the next day at the latest. I waited a week, only prompted to do so by my brother. Now my very dark advice is to write your obituary now so you’re ready.

Two days after I got the text from my WOW friend that her partner had passed, I picked up the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and saw his obituary in both papers. 

But see, those are the kinds of things you can say to an understudy. Both to help them through the terror, and also to make the process as fun as possible. Believe me, putting an understudy on is fun compared with this widow’s work. And to further impress you with the strength of my WOW friend, she conducted a real understudy rehearsal about 5 days after her own loss. 

I’ve started going to the theatre again this week – first to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Jefferson Mays at the Geffen. He’s really terrific, as are all the production values. If you can get there this week, try, because it’s the last week. My friend Jill warned me about the opening of the show, where a dark Victorian casket sits center stage, surrounded by black feathers and haze. People are very thoughtful. That wasn’t, as it turns out, a trigger for me. 

Last night I went to Come from Away at the Ahmanson Theatre, the most exuberant and life-affirming show I’ve seen in years. You’ve got longer to get yourself there. It plays until January 6th.

Last Sunday, I went for a hike with my WOW friend and another Stage Manager pal who is not on the current understudy track that we are on. Instead, we walked for five miles in Griffith Park, up and down along the North Trail, the Bee trail, admiring the morning sun and talking about life in general, and the two of our’s newly widowed status. When I got home I was sore, but felt a sense of accomplishment from the hike to remind me that I was indeed alive. Painfully so, but good pain this time. 

People are kind and considerate, calling, texting, what’s apping (sorry Mr. Strunk, I’m sure that’s not a verb)…. Life goes on. We turn our petals to the ever increasing sun and await instructions. Building our new tracking sheets to better be prepared for future performance. My WOW friend and I stand together strong in a long tradition of life and living after death.