Actually… it should be required

IMG_8059Last week Jimmie and I attended a performance of Actually, a new play by Anna Ziegler, at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse. A co-production with Williamstown Theatre Festival  (August 9-20, 2017) and The Manhattan Theatre Club (October 31-November 14, 2017), the play addresses the issues of consent in the context of Title IX rules at Universities. Princeton, in this case (an institution close to my heart) where, through the lens of two freshmen students we see their collision in a devastating incident that is unfortunately far too possible.

This play should be required viewing for every university freshman in the first weeks of college. 

Ziegler’s characters are well and specifically written – Amber Cohen, played by Samantha Ressler, whose rapid speech and disaffected behavior reveal the trauma she has experienced. She confides to the audience about the challenges she and others faced in the first weeks of school:

  • Away from home and relieved of parental constraints
  • Overwhelmed by a surfeit of reading homework and
  • An endless barrage of parties she feels obligated to attend
  • Looking for a sense of identity in a new community and anxious to make friends

Thomas Anthony (Jerry MacKinnon), handsome and confident, faces many of the same issues as Amber, but also, black, first generation in college attending Princeton. The stakes are high.

The play demands a lot of these two actors – complete presence in all moments with each other, as well as the ability to speak directly to the audience, dropping artifice as they plead their cases. Because we, the audience, are the Title IX review board. This is uncomfortable, and challenging in the way that we or at least I expect to be challenged when I go to the theatre.  The actors, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, achieve distinctive and personal styles in their address which illuminate their characters and their vulnerabilities.

Incoming students feel the pressures that these two thespian freshmen feel. Perhaps some are better equipped to make safer choices than others. Or, are they just luckier and don’t end up having these experiences because of some random fate or karma? Who knows? As the article by Amy Levinson, “The Letter and the Law,” in the program (available online to read)  indicates, the statistics about campus rape are staggering:

  • One in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college.
  • Freshmen and sophomores are at greater risk for victimization than juniors and seniors.
  • More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
  • 63.3% of men at one university who self-reported acts qualifying as rape or attempted rape admitted to committing repeat rapes.

Ziegler’s play, in addition to addressing these issues head on, is powerfully structured. Through a series of flashbacks she allows us to reexamine the events of the evening in question, each time flipping them slightly like shards of glass, refracting a dazzling new insight based on new information. People are complicated. They bring things to human encounters that aren’t apparent, but can and do profoundly impact what happens.

Tim Mackabee’s natural wood-grained box enclosure cradles the play. Its elegant simplicity disarms us into thinking the events that are coming will be tidy and well-contained. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting along with Vincent Olivieri’s sound punctuate the box with shimmering waves of aqua and teal light pulsing along with the party music to allow seamless passage between the party flashbacks and the stark conference room where we now find ourselves as the events are dissected. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s costumes are casual, Amber’s warm orange top and pants contrasting with Thomas’ blue jeans and soft blue top.  Tyne Rafaeli’s direction is tight, well-paced. And how lovely to see a team of strong women in charge of telling this story.

It is a riveting evening, which left me wondering how to get more people to see it. So struck was I with the piece, that I reached out the next day to the playwright, to see about how to get the script into the hands of incoming freshmen.

This play should be required reading for every university freshman in the first week of college. Can’t say it enough.

Fortunately for you, if you live in Los Angeles, you can still see the play at the Geffen Playhouse through June 11th. I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.

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.

 

Theatre and Her Ability to Forecast

Sometimes I can’t be sure if what I’m reading in the paper is news, because it so frequently feels like a moment of déjà vu. Take this morning’s LA Times article by Teresa Watanabe about the recent renovations of the Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley, in which she reports a removal of 135,000 books from the library to make more study areas, nap zones in futuristic “nap pods.” The photos show students hunkered down over their computers reading, or on the modernistic equivalent of a back porch, where they work on their computers while looking through a wall of glass at surrounding trees. It is positively bucolic. The only thing missing is a frosty glass of lemonade on the side table. And the book. And yet… where have I seen this idea before?

In the theatre of course. Only seven years ago. Back in 2010, in a production entitled futura  at the Theatre @ Boston Court, we learned about the terrifying possibility that a future society would lose respect for and possession of all our books, in a rush to embrace technology. In today’s article, Libraries turn the page, the change happened because

students kept asking, ‘In the spirit of challenging the status quo, why is this library filled with dusty books no one looks at and I can’t get a study space?’

Teresa Watanabe, Libraries turn the page,

Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17

As a denizen of the theatre, I and countless other audience members confronted this unimaginable future by attending the theatre, where Jordan Harrison’s powerful play unspooled this to us, realized with pulpable (ouch) power by director Jessica Kubzansky.

I also stage managed a play at the Geffen Playhouse years ago, a two-hander by playwright Lee Kalcheim, starring Jason Alexander and Peter Falk, entitled Defiled, which depicted what happened when a computer threatened to replace a library’s card catalogue. How many card catalogues are still in use in the Moffitt Library, I wonder?

One only needs to see a play like the current one we are presenting at USC School of Dramatic Arts, which shall remain nameless, where after a nuclear apocalypse “we” are left literally powerless to fend for ourselves in communities of fearful survivors. These survivors amuse/distract/cling to each other by sharing stories/episodes of a familiar tv series around a campfire, and in subsequent acts re-create theatre around these shared stories.

My take away from this current production is that as a society, we’re potentially nuclear nano-seconds away losing everything we take for granted; we are nano-seconds from a moment when study and nap pods could be pointless without the electricity.

But what tantalizes me today isn’t thinking about our carelessness with our legacy of dusty old books no one looks at, but really about the Cassandra-like power of theatre.

This week has been busy – filled with dress rehearsals of the two main stage plays, one of which is Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, the second referenced above, and a third workshop play of MFA Dramatic Writer Hannah Langley’s Losing My Religion (in 140 characters or less).

Wedekind’s play, written in the late 19th Century, spookily forecasts the sexual awakening of teens in a repressive German society, and their missteps due to ignorance and the unwillingness of the adults to be honest about the changes they are experiencing. But the reason it’s still relevant is that these issues are ever present in our society today.

As I write this, the TV blares with the news about a certain anchor’s dismissal from Fox News for sexual harassment charges, ostensibly, but we all know it’s actually because of the loss of advertising minutes they’ve sustained recently. Déjà vu? Well, unfortunately, yes, because we just watched the head of that network be unseated only a month ago. But so long ago, on stage, we watched David Mamet’s Oleanna, which premiered in May of 1992, and has had many subsequent productions, most recently in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in June, 2009.

The power of theatre to forewarn us, to remind us of our foibles and their ultimate destructive and redemptive capacity is one of the things that I have always thrilled to, perhaps with the exception of Center Theatre Group’s production of Vicuna, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. I happened to see it the week before the most recent Presidential election. How smug I was, as I sat in the theatre watching the buffoonishly theatricalized character so like Donald Trump preen and provoke us.

That will never happen to us. Phew!

While I watched the show, I also thought about how bold it was of Jon Robin Baitz to write a play with such a short shelf life and how extraordinary it was that Center Theatre Group would produce it. What a risk! How could it be relevant to us after the election when we had the first woman President in the White House? A week or so later, I listened to a radio interview with actor Harry Groener, who played the Trump character as he recounted that the week after the election, the audience reactions were completely different. There were many fewer laughs, and the communal grief was palpable.

Years ago, when my Mom was still alive, an inveterate death-long smoker, she wrote an op-ed piece for the small local Pennsylvania newspaper where she imagined a day when we wouldn’t be allowed to smoke in our own homes. There would be smoke-police, and dire consequences for those who continued to light up. I was impressed with her Swift-like satire about the future, unimaginable when she wrote it in the early 90s. Now I know she wasn’t satirizing, but prognosticating about the future world, much as Baitz, Wedekind, Kalcheim, Mamet and the playwright who shall remain nameless have done. I feel fortunate to be a member of a theatre tribe where the work we do carries that magical lens through which we can view our past, present and future as a society. Aside from the poignancy and the humor and the immediacy of the work, playwrights have the visionary power to take us forward in time.

All of this seems pretty far from the study room at the new Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley. But maybe one of those students, feet up on the wall, looking out through the trees might prop up a script of Spring Awakening on his or her legs and think about what Frank Wedekind is telling us about the future so distant from and yet so relevant to his past. Or better yet, this student may elect to attend a play this weekend to see first hand what the magic is all about.

Excuse me, your Freudian slip is showing…

Today I attended our Spring musical, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita along with several hundred prospective students and their families. We had a full morning of workshops for students who have been accepted to our programs and are currently weighing whether to attend USC next fall.

I participated in two – the first was a panel of the Design and Production Faculty, where Sibyl Wickersheimer and Tina Haatainen-Jones shared some of their stunning scenic and costume portfolio work; Phillip G. Allen shared a personal story about where his passion for the theatre came from; Duncan Mahoney shared about his career trajectory to USC; I talked a little about my career as a stage manager prior to coming to USC and what makes USC so special.

At 11:00AM, we held a panel of the most of the designers and stage managers of Evita, on the stage at the Bing, where led by their accomplished director, Tim Dang, described in detail the process of collaborating to conceive the design elements of the show and then realize them through rehearsals and tech to the final product. All the prospective students were going to see the performance after lunch.

IMG_7831

Framed by Scenic Designer Grace Wang’s show proscenium, L. to R. some of the Creative Staff of USC Dramatic Arts’ production of Evita: Tim Dang, Director, Emma Bramble ’13, A2, Briana Billups ’18, Sound Engineer, Stephen Jensen, ’17, Sound Designer, Lexi Hettick ’18, ASM, Savannah Harrow ’18, ASM, Jessica Major ’17, SM, Edina Hiser, ’19, Asst. Costume Designer,    Liam Sterbinsky, ’17 Lighting Designer 

It was a great discussion, after which the visitors looked at a lobby display featuring the designers’ process paperwork and research. Duncan then led everyone on a tour of several of our facilities.

After lunch, we sat in our seats in the Bing. I had been offered a front row seat by our Director of Special Events (and the coordinator of all today’s yummy dining events), Marissa Gonzalez. She dashed in as the lights were going down and we entered the world of Argentina in the 1930s. The last time I’d seen the show was in a second dress rehearsal while there was still quite a bit of work going on in all departments. It really cemented for me the importance of seeing a performance to really appreciate the scope of the work and the tremendous attention to detail that is necessary to bring a show to excellence. Today’s performance was precise, and spirited, with the hard-won technical moments supporting the acting, singing and dancing of the twenty-nine cast members.

If you’re familiar with the plot of Evita, throughout the first act, we watch Eva Duarte’s ambitious rise from squalid beginnings through a succession of relationships, where she eventually lands on the arm of Colonel Juan Perón at the end of Act I.

At the end of Act I, Marissa again dashed up the aisle to the front of the theatre, and I, without thinking, stood up and turned to the woman on my right whom I had been talking with before the show and who was attending with her high-school-aged daughter and politely said

Excuse me, but I’m going to go spread my legs…..

The woman and her daughter, looked quizzically up at me and as if in slow motion, I replayed my own words as I realized what I’d just said….

I mean STRETCH my legs.

One of the best instagram accounts I follow is entitled @hashtagwelcometomyday. Julia, this one’s for you…It’s been a long week!

 

 

 

“We Wrangle Crazy People for a Living”

Spring 2017 brought along with the rain we so desperately needed, a hearty serving of teaching practice for our BFA Stage Management cohort. The recently endowed Alice M. Pollitt Professorship in Stage Management, the first in the nation’s endowed professorship in Stage Management, kicked off an international search for the best candidate. In the past several weeks, four outstanding finalists have visited the campus, each teaching a class to our stage management cohort. Continue reading

Stage Managers in the Starting Blocks

We’re recruiting at the School of Dramatic Arts. The BFA Audition Tour.

For the past two weekends, we’ve met with aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts BFA programs in acting, stage management, technical direction, design and sound design.

We’re led by our fearless leader, the indomitable Lori Ray Fisher, our Asst. Dean of Academic Affairs, and her intrepid “touring company” staff, Meghan Laughlin and Ramón Valdez. Over the past two weekends, in classrooms all over the McClintock Theatre building, aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts arrived with their best materials and selves to show the acting and production faculty. Lori, Meghan and Ramón met with every one of them, briefing them on curricular and logistical details of becoming a USC student while the faculty put them through their paces in auditions and portfolio reviews.

The tour dates fell earlier in this year’s calendar, landing with a thud just after the school’s own casting audition cycle ended. In the first week of classes, in rehearsal halls across the campus, we cast nine shows.

Lacking a stage manager for one of the shows, I stepped in to administer the auditions for one of the New Works plays, and sat in the hallway of PED watching the actors pace hither and yon in anticipation of their auditions, the gracious and welcoming stage managers at their tidy tables outside those audition rooms.

I listened intently to the sweet sounds of musical auditions seeping through the walls of PED 207 from Evita. I listened to stage managers shushing over-excited actors who shared their audition battle stories with their friends sometimes a little too enthusiastically.

I peered into PED 208, where forty-plus young men and women, eyes fixed eagerly, desperately as they replicated the choreographer’s dance sequences. Some of them floundered  with the novelty of the moves, working the sequences over and over until their brows were shiny and their arms graceful, their smiles confident. You have to love casting week.

Usually a stranger to these hallways, I saw many of my THTR 130 students, most of whom are out of their element 8:00AM on Tuesday mornings in a technical theatre class. Now, I was there, in their zone, and they relished the chance to show me their true actor colors.

These are the stakes for the aspiring applicants we met last week in the auditions for the freshman class. The chance to participate in casting week, to land a part in the spring musical, or in a brand new play by a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing program. Or a design position on a future spring musical. Or the chance to sit in the hall outside the audition room to support the casting process. The stakes are high.

The school is also in the process of searching to hire a newly named Chair of the Stage Management Program, the first named chair in stage management in the country, due to a generous gift. I serve on the search committee, and can’t divulge anything about the process or the people who have applied. But this weekend, after considering who might become the Director of the program, followed by a weekend of meeting the students some of whom will join the program next fall, I’ve thought a lot about stage management skills and training.

What makes a good stage manager? There are dozens if not hundreds of books about the practice of stage management. They detail the importance of clear and detailed paperwork, good communication skills, an organized approach to the chronology of a play’s rehearsals, technical rehearsals and performances. Other qualities include the support of the director’s vision, good time management skills, a good sense of humor, etc. But I think the most important aspect of excellence in stage management is less measurable, certainly less systematic. It parallels the qualities and skills that make an actor or designer or technician good:

Listening

A good actor listens and responds truthfully and with the appropriate emotions and lines as rehearsed.

A good stage manager listens and processes, then, after separating the logistical consequences from the emotional underlying message, responds. Unemotionally whenever possible. A good stage manager does not take any information personally, and whenever possible, removes his or her ego from the room/process.

Being Present

A good actor remains in the moment, responding with truth to what he or she receives from the other actor.

A good stage manager similarly responds to information, not being thrown by unexpected events on stage or off.

  • Lamp burned out? Check the magic sheet and come up with an alternative to add to the cue, or text the theatre manager to be standing by at intermission with the appropriate lamp and a ladder.
  • Actor in tears in front of you? Wrap your arms around them and just let them cry. Kleenex and a cookie works pretty well, too, but only after that initial human response that lets them know you can see their humanness, too.
  • Actors refusing to perform until conditions have been improved? Contact the technical director and discuss a timeline for doing the work necessary to make them feel safe again.

I remember back in 1992 when we were in tech at the Los Angeles Theatre Center with Boogeyman,hollywood-squares Reza Abdoh’s wildly exuberant rant against corporate America’s response (or lack thereof) to the Aids epidemic. Timion Alsacker’s set was a nightmarish iteration of the Hollywood Squares set. Paul Lynde’s uppermost left square instead sported a tank of water over which a winch suspended an actor upside down and submerged him head first into the water. Another square had a shower, another an upside down hospital bed where an actor was strapped in for a scene. Another was a submarine room. All of these rooms were joined by a series of steps leading to doors. Reza’s pace was inhumanly demanding, and the actors were sprinting up and down the stairs, in and out of the rooms; at a certain point in the tech rehearsals, Tom Fitzpatrick, the Equity Deputy, came to me to say that the cast was refusing to go on until certain things were fixed related to the set and safety. And so, I took the list and went to visit David Mac in the production office, and he quickly resolved the issues so that we could proceed with the tech process.

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This picture doesn’t do the Boogeyman set justice.

I once had a very esteemed actor stand in his dressing room and tell me that I sided with the management too often – didn’t side with the actors enough. Sometimes as stage managers, we have to hear things we don’t want to hear or don’t know how to solve, but we have to listen and proceed with our next steps as best we can.

Our interviews with prospective stage management students go like this; first we ask them what they like about stage management/design/technical direction. We ask them to show us what they’ve brought, and then we share with them the curriculum, emphasizing features of the program like “20 shows, no waiting.” “Professional directors to work with.” They bring a range of experiences into the interview – some of them have just stumbled on stage management as the tonic to rectify what is difficult for them in their personal lives. Some admit proudly that they like to be “in control.”  Others describe their roles as stage managers as supporting the production. Their essays are vulnerable and heartfelt. So many of them have such outstanding grades now that it’s hard to judge them on their academics. More relevant is their passion for the theatre, or eagerness to learn. How well do they listen? What questions do they ask to understand? Tidy contact sheets or blocking notation are swell, but why are they in this room looking at this program in the first place?

I don’t know that the soft skills of stage management are even teachable. But I sure enjoy giving it a try.

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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I do that-what you just did.

An artistic, theatrical experience spoke loudly to me this week and in reflecting on it as I vacuumed the apartment this morning (Writers to your vacuums!), here’s where I arrived.

We are presenting Middletown by Will Eno this weekend at the Scene Dock Theatre. It features our MFA Y2 Actors, directed by Andrei Belgrader. The play is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with a shiv. The Stage Manager of Wilder’s gentle encomium to small town life is Eno’s more-than-slightly deranged patrol officer, who tells us everything will be all right while he puts a chokehold on the Simon Stimson equivalent, an alcoholic would-be murderer, if he only had the self-esteem. Instead, Eno’s mechanic volunteers at the hospital, before dumpster-diving behind the hospital for discarded drugs.

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Photo Credit Craig Schwartz

As I sat through techs and dress rehearsals this week, I became obsessed with the vulnerable relationship between two main characters, John Dodge, a natural philosopher sans direct life path, and Mary Swanson, a recently-arrived housewife, desperately lonely, her husband always away for work. In one scene, they happen to meet in a park and end up sharing Mary’s lunch.

30731854210_afbfab630b_n.jpgTheir instantaneous intimacy lands with the heft of human gravity echoed throughout the play:

Mary: Night is hard, you know? It gets so quiet. I never know what I’m supposed to be listening to. (brief pause) But it does give me time to catch up on my needless worry.

John: I do that – what you just did.

Mary: What?

John: Use humor to distance myself from the pain.

    Will Eno, Middletown

Boom. How deftly Eno unveils our strategies.

Jimmie frequently invokes his favorite biblical character these days- Job. Job comes trippingly (oops, shouldn’t say that) to the tongue in light of our itinerary this month:

  1. Swollen foot diagnosed as broken foot.
  2. A walking cast which we fondly call Das Boot, or on most days, Das Fucking Boot (DFB).
  3. Instability which results in wifely paranoia about leaving Jimmie at home to go to work.
  4. Bloody nose = ER
  5. ER = Overnight Stay

Around the time of the hospitalization, I received a text message from Jimmie’s niece, Jen, who offered to come down and help us.

How soon can you get here?

The answer was the next day. This probably wasn’t the response she requested, but it was the one she got and responded to. As you may have read in my last post, this visit helped and healed both of us, infected as we were with the giddy laughter and creative inventions of Jen’s four-year-old daughter.

In the meantime, I have been researching and seeking assistance from numerous people to plan for a moment when assistance is actually needed. Jimmie, in his support of easing any stress on me, met with the representative from one such company. We sat at the dining table with her; she was direct and kind, understanding of what we might eventually need.

I should say here that Jimmie has absolutely zero interest in having extra unrelated people around our home. It’s always been his way. Back in the valley house, when I got it in my bonnet to remodel every square inch of the house, then went off to work leaving the house filled with strangers, I’d return and Jimmie would look woefully at me, the nascent improvements covered with a thin sheen of dust, his nerves worn raw. The results were marvelous, but the process was painful.

I didn’t expect much better results this time, but I appreciated how game he was. We planned a visit from the care giver on Thursday, Nov. 17th- four hours to start, in the afternoon. He worried about how this would go. I had gotten him a sandwich to have for lunch, and had planned to ask the home health care aid to do some grocery shopping for me, but then decided to not burden her with that task the first day, stopping instead on my way back from the gym.

I arranged for her to get a key at the guard’s desk downstairs so that she could let herself in, so that Jimmie wouldn’t have to get up to get the door. I asked them to call upstairs when she arrived. I went off to work.

She called me at ten to one, having circled the block twice already, looking for parking. I told her where to park.

Unbeknownst to me, when the guards called upstairs to Jimmie that she was there, he got up and went over and opened the door, leaving it resting in a cracked position, before returning to the couch. The door was propped open three minutes or less, the time it took her to walk to the elevator in the lobby, rise to our floor, and walk down the hall.

Jimmie said she arrived while he was eating his lunch, and he offered her half of his sandwich which she accepted.

He told me he spent a lot of time in the bedroom that day, taking naps, and when he got up, he went out to the patio with the newspaper. I’m sure just to get away.

At 4:45, she left and he relaxed. He really hadn’t enjoyed the afternoon in any shape or form, and told me that it wasn’t going to work out. When I came home, I saw that the blanket on the arm of the chaise puddled on the sofa, and thought it was nice that she’d made herself at home, but a little strange that she hadn’t tidied up the blanket.

The next morning, at 7:00AM, I went to the door to get my keys, I realized that Jimmie’s wallet was not in the dish by the door where it usually is. I turned to ask Jimmie if he’d moved his wallet to the bedroom yesterday when she was there.  He hadn’t.

I immediately went  to check if his wallet was in his pants pocket in the closet. It wasn’t. I tore through the dry cleaning bag to see if it was there in one of the pairs of pants there. It wasn’t. Jimmie hasn’t been leaving the house much because of the walking cast, so it didn’t make sense that it would have been in his pants pocket anyway, but that was of course my first understanding of what had happened.

I called the agency and told them that his wallet was missing. They promised to reach out to the employee at once.

I texted the care giver since I had her number:

This is Els, Jimmie’s wife. This morning I realized that Jimmie’s wallet was not in the dish by the door. Before I take action, I’d like you to call me please and let me know if you’ve moved it somewhere for safety.

Then, I went to the gym because it is those workouts that allow me to maintain my equilibrium in the event of events like these.

Back from the gym, I began the odious process of canceling the cards in the wallet, and finding out where we had to go to file a police report. I have a pretty high threshold for irritation, but I felt my heart constricting, my eyes filling, the bile rising in my gut, all of which I hid from Jimmie. Being on hold with Bank of America for about 10 minutes made me angrier than I’ve been in a long time.

A while later, after speaking with the supervisor at the agency and learning that this employee was “up the hill at another client’s home where the cell phone reception is poor,” and listening for five minutes about how laudatory all her clients are about her performance, I finally got us organized and at 9:45, Jimmie and I got in the car to drive to the central LA Police Station to make a report. I had told the head nurse at the agency,

Now rather than providing me with a service, hiring your agency has created a huge hassle for me and my husband, hours of appointments to replace lost cards and a complete lack of trust in humanity. Not a good outcome.

Shortly before we left for the police station, I received a text from the care giver. It read:

Good morning Elsie sorry I’m just responding I don’t get signal until after 10 o’clock but no I don’t know what this you’re referring to because when I arrived yesterday the door was already open he said he was looking for his wallet I asked him if he would like me to assist he responded no he would just wait until after I’m gone and I’m assuming he just didn’t want me to be running around in the house being my first time so he had his sandwich I had my sandwich with him at the table then in the living room he turned on the TV he said on the chair slept for a little bit then he went to the balcony with his magazine while I still watch television and then I was on my way out the door 10 minutes to 5 because I have therapy but I definitely advise you because it’s very important having all your information and having to go and get it again definitely importance

Yeah I wouldn’t have known about a dish by the door because I don’t even think about looking behind a door he stated he didn’t want me to assist him I figured he probably would find it later but I just put it in my notes that he did misplaced his wallet.

When I read this unpunctuated and grammatically horrific text message, I couldn’t believe the chutzpah of this person. Jimmie is a meticulous soul. He has a place for everything and everything in its place. On those infrequent occasions when has misplaced a set of keys or a wallet, he gets frenzied and won’t settle at all until they are found. What she describes in her text message, cradled between”Elsie” and the instruction to get the information replaced so infuriated me that my blood pressure rose to unhealthy heights. This was how I drove to the police station.

At 6th and Maple, this police station resembles a fortress in the middle of skid row. It is a windowless blond brick structure with attempted a cheerful terrazzo mural ofcentral-community-lapd life in the big city, surrounded by police cars. Perfect.

I could do a better job of describing this mural if I had found a parking space in front of the station, but instead, had to illegally park and scurry Jimmie inside the station, where at the vending machine, a large woman in a bright yellow hat raged nonsensically at an unresponsive officer as he plunked in his change and extracted his late morning snack. I reluctantly left Jimmie sitting in his walker in the lobby while I ran back to the car to find parking. I found a structure nearby, parked at the top, and walked down the steep driveway to the sidewalk, where a homeless man outside his tent and a small enclave of homeless people greeted me enthusiastically as I passed.

The officer who took Jimmie’s statement, a young Latina officer, was polite and with the neatest handwriting I’ve seen this side of a tech table. In between painstakingly printing the details of our report, she answered the phone and gave out numbers and information to those who called. The entire desk was covered in contact sheets under glass, with numbers of city services.  I realized that I had been one of those callers just an hour before, and now had 75% of her attention, which was enough to get the job done.

At 11:30, we walked out of the station with a report in our hands, and I ran back up the steep driveway to get my car. The homeless population by the garage had swelled, large enough and rowdy enough so that I crossed by them in the street, feeling bad for my avoidance, but anxious to get Jimmie home so I could get to work.

I was still pretty steamed. Before I left for work, Jimmie asked me to please calm down. By 2:30 or so, I had regained my composure. The collegiality of my faculty peers in our lunch meeting and meeting the prospective production students rebuilt my faith in humanity, and gave me a way of refocussing on why we do what we do in the theatre and theatre education.

Besides, it’s a way of avoiding my needless worry.

 

My Fitbit Flex 2 Told Me to Sleep In

In the beginning of 2016 I set a fitness challenge for myself to work out 56 days in a row in honor of my “35th” birthday. Didn’t fool you there, did I? Well, I met that challenge, and in the past few months, I have been, without a challenge, but with some effort, working out an average of 5-6 times a week.

Exercise is so critical to maintaining a healthy attitude about work and life. I am pretty sure that without the exercise I would be a quivering mass of nerves and not handling the stresses of the full production season, plus the life challenges we are facing, plus the publishing of my husband’s book.

So as a celebratory gesture, I bought myself a lilac colored Fitbit Flex 2. I had to wait almost two weeks for it to arrive, but as I discovered, Fitbit was anxious to inform me via email all information about when I would receive the product in the mail, tracking number included. I tracked it obsessively as it made it’s way from Indianapolis, through La Grange, IL, Kansas City, KS, Amarillo, TX, Continental Divide, Essex, San Bernardino, and Chino, finally arriving on my doorstep on October 1st, as promised.

After charging the tracker and downloading the app, I read about all the things my new toy would track. The number of steps I took, of course. When I completed the first 10,000 steps it shivered on my wrist and lit up in celebration of my athleticism. The first day I wore it around my ankle, like some deviant lilac colored ankle monitor. Switching the tracker between the two bracelets required me to move the clip from the small bracelet to the large bracelet. I only broke two nails in the process. Went back to the box to discover that there was not a second clip, so I ordered that and can now track its progress to my doorstep.

My Fitbit actually advised that I sleep in this morning, breaking my nearly two months long record of attendance at the gym. I had been at a dress rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the night before until 11:00PM.When I set my goals, I didn’t figure I needed to set a workout goal but I did intend to get more sleep; when the alarm went off this morning, I rolled over and obediently slapped it silent for another two hours just to make my Fitbit happy. Something tells me that I may not have read the manual correctly…