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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

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.

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

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

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

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

Baby Don’t Go (Karla Bonoff)

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

Karla Bonoff

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

Carole King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My listening tonight:

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

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

So Proud of Our Son, Proud of All of Them

I’ve been spending a lot of time with some very proud parents this week. During the Move In Day Parent Welcome event last night, I met so many proud parents bursting with enthusiasm about the accomplishments of children. Have you ever noticed, that just like cops, parents get younger and younger when you work at a University? When I started, they were roughly my age, because our children were the same age. Now, their children remain the same age, but the parents are all getting younger. It’s sort of alarming, but in a grandmotherly sort of way. I’m getting used to it, after 15 years in the institution of teaching.

Oh yes, I need to define who the Our is from this post’s title. By Our, I mean Sean’s, Chris’s birth mother, Jimmie and me, his adoptive parents, and ultimately, too, Chris’ birth father, who remains a mystery to me.

Our son turns thirty this week, and he is definitely someone to be proud of. By thirty he has:

  • Focused first on his family and made choices that support them
  • Dedicated himself to bettering his skills as a hockey coach and to his players’ growth
  • Nurtured enormous integrity and self-awareness
  • Taken enough risks to make choices and decisions that advance him professionally and personally.
  • Made enough poor choices and decisions to know that they lead in a direction he doesn’t want to go.
  • Incorporated knowledge of those choices to better counsel young people about the perils of that path
  • Taught himself how to coach, recruit and inhabit the skin of a hockey coach.
  • Found and married the most perfect and amazing partner to spend his life with
  • Parented two beautiful girls, one into a fearless bug-loving, mud-slinging, brash and confident almost four-year-old, and the other, as of yet to be defined, but exceptionally calm and happy almost five-month-old.

Yes, clearly I’ve drunk the KoolAid on this young man. But believe me when I tell you that he is warm, charismatic, observant, funny, sardonic, intelligent and living life in a very large way.

You can blame this blog on him. Not just this post, but the entire blog. During his stint as a fisherman, he started a blog on WordPress. In a typically competitive pattern which began when we played tennis together, he at age eight or so, me at thirty-seven, I began my blog, causing him to abruptly drop his. I feel pretty safe telling you that because I’m 99% sure he will never read this. Neither of us play tennis any more either, much to my chagrin. Hey, son, I challenge you to a game next time we’re together.

Some more fun stats on our son: We’ve spent at least 40 hours (a full workweek) in various ERs with him.

  • Broken collarbones (2)
  • Injuries to hands and wrists (4)
  • Hand surgeries (1)

That doesn’t include the injuries he sustained out of our supervision. I once unsuccessfully pitched a book he should write to be entitled Scar, the cover art for which would have been a picture of him with various Post-its near the visible scars annotating dates and cause. I thought he’d go for it because of the innumerable hours I’d spent driving him and his friends to places while listening to them all heroically recount their injuries and display their scars to each other while I giggled in the front seat. I thought it could have been a best seller in the 14-17 year old set. Or for the Moms of that age group.

Other scars less visible, but certainly equally impactful are those left from his loss of his birth mom and the resulting cavity in his origin story. I didn’t understand, no matter how much our adoption social worker tried to prepare us, the gravity of that loss. Leave it to our son to have searched and found his birth mom and reconnected not just with her but with his step sister. This alone demonstrates his intrepid curiosity and commitment to self-knowledge. I’m so happy for him to have found his other family.

Back to my USC Move in Day Event. I love this event, not because I sit on the panel, though I feel honored and pleased to do so, but because of the radiating pride that is emitted from the audience seated before us. Their questions are focussed, and discerning and candid. My favorite question last night was to the students on the panel, “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” What a great question! The students responses were mature, and worldly and impressive, even for those of us who’ve witnessed their journeys. We’ve witnessed some of their “failures,” though to me, there is no such thing. I chalk them up to character/intellect/heart building experiences (which I remind myself every (mostly) morning at the gym as I pant to myself “You can take it easy here. Just coast it in.” Nope. The clarity I gained from hearing them self-assess their pitfalls was great. And that was just one of the questions.

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

I (and probably all those parents) am asking myself the very same question, now. “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” Which is really directing you to look at the future four years to see how you might change the course of them now, from the starting gate, from the Move In Day, if you will. This is the greatest question we can all take forward in our lives. So thank you to that perceptive parent in the fourth row last night.

To Our Son, Happy Birthday, and as you move forward, keep asking yourself about how those earlier stumbles have formed you to be the amazing and strong man you are today, the one who can talk to your players so that they have dubbed your coaching “Chrisicisms,” the most loving tribute that chokes me up every time I think of it. You are a role model, someone who lives your life with integrity and power. I had a long history of skepticisms that you’d grow up, like the trenchant belief that you would never learn to tie your shoes, or skates, or might be 30 and still wearing shorts. I can now confess, somewhat sheepishly, that there were moments I wasn’t sure how you would turn out, but you have made yourself someone of whom we can all be proud.

And for me as a really empty nest parent, many of those whom I also met yesterday, revel in the clearing of your charges from that nest, feather it again the way you want, for you, for the next phase of your life, and enjoy living your best life, mistakes and stumbles and all.

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.

Final Days of My Roman Holiday

The last day in Rome, I visited the Vatican. I got adventurous, and took the metro from the Spagna stop (at the base of the Spanish Steps). This was my first immersion in Rome, far from the selfie-snapping tourists and close to the daily press of flesh which is the metro. I wisely waited two minutes for the second train and wedged myself in next to a woman with kind eyes and a universal sense of “What can I do about it?”

I made my way to the tourism office where the tour was meeting. They rented Vespas there. Can you imagine renting a Vespa in Rome? I’d seen three young girls on bikes the previous day at the Coliseum walking them more than riding them through the hordes of boisterous tourists. The tour I’d booked through ItaliaRail was called “Show and Go” and was $116. for the two tours of the Coliseum and Vatican. The beauty of them was that you could show up any time to join the tour. “No waiting in lines.” This proved to be ludicrous. There are nothing but lines in Rome in July. Get used to it. I can say I saw the Sistine Chapel, even without the benefit of having a selfie, unlike the woman at St. Peter’s in front of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It did feel sometimes like the pictures were being taken more to prove we’d been there than to experience these great artifacts and sculptures.

I’m guilty too.

My final night in Rome, I was feted by an old friend in his home with two indulgent Italian professionals, who let me struggle more than I had on the trip to date with my rusty Italian. It was a great evening and a wonderful way to close out the International part of my summer holiday.

The next morning, I winged my way back to Washington, DC, suitcase bulging with a few treats and my feet snuggly in my compression socks that my friend had generously loaned me.

I may have told you how much I loathe the phrase “to unpack the meaning of something.” I mean I really loathe it.

So when I say unpack, I mean literally unpack from my trip. The last leg of my trip was a visit to my Dad and his wife, Sally’s in Washington, DC. If I need any encouragement in continuing to travel as a measure of a life well-lived, I need look no further than my Dad and Sally. They have traveled all over the world, and now, as conditions keep them closer to home, it would be hard to impress them with stories of an Italian trip. But they were extremely indulgent, looking at my Ipad slide show of Umbrian hill towns, Venetian churches, and Roman ruins.

I remember as a child sitting through my maternal grandparents’ endless slide shows, with an actual slide projector, loaded with slides, and then reloaded with perhaps a second tray of slides. My grandfather was an architect, with a good eye and terrific composition in his photos, but as an eight or ten-year-old, one’s attention span is limited.

We sat in the breakfast room, watching as wildlife flitted by: three raccoons, a doe and her dappled faun, a cowbird and a dozen other varieties of seed-eating birds. It was delightful. The heat outside fogged up the refrigerated interior of the house.

They had a lot of things planned for my four day visit. I had seen an article about the new Spy Museum, and after an aborted attempt to get in, complicated by the parking at an unreasonable distance and poor planning in booking tickets ahead, sent us scurrying instead to the National Gallery, where we drank in the visiting exhibit covering 17 centuries of animals in Japanese Art; though they’d already seen it of course, they graciously accompanied me, then treated me to a lunch in the cafeteria connecting the two wings of the Gallery. When the exhibit comes to Los Angeles Sept. 22-December 19, 2019 don’t miss it! These are just two examples of the whimsy and elegance of this exhibit.

After lunch, we visited the Tintoretto exhibit upstairs in the West Wing. It was particularly satisfying to think that I’d just seen so much of his work in situ in Venice. There was a particularly interesting room of portraits which brought to mind Rembrandt, rather than the usual luscious, quick strokes of Tintoretto’s angels and suffering saints.

This richness made me realize that over the past 10 years or so, I’ve not been taking advantage of the cultural opportunities that Los Angeles affords us. Full time work, care taking my husband, who in the later years, tired easily. So many excuses, so many lost opportunities. The future gleams with potential.

Thursday evening, which was July 4th, they had planned a family dinner with some local relatives, which was lovely. Meanwhile, only a few thousand miles away, my home city was rocking and rolling from earthquakes. I didn’t feel the least bit disadvantaged by missing these shakes. Instead, we watched the rather insipid July 4th celebration on TV, hosted by John Stamos and the Muppets. After dinner each night, we worked diligently on their diabolically complicated Stave puzzle which we finally finished on July 4th.

Friday evening found the three of us in the Kennedy Center, watching the touring production of Hello, Dolly! starring Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlin as Horace Vandergelder. It was a lively, satisfying show with a powerhouse performance by Buckley. In the gift store before the show, I picked up a replacement fan so that I could continue my Venetian tradition of staving off the heat. I bought a second fan to send off to Caro in Venice, because I’d put some kilometers (chilometri) on hers while there.

Saturday we made our way over to the Hillwood Estate, Manor and Gardens of Marjorie Merriweather Post, and spent the morning steeping ourselves in the hostess’s meticulous and lavish lifestyle, beautifully preserved in the park and mansion exhibits.

That evening we had dinner out and called it an early night, so that I’d be ready for my trip home on Sunday, July 7th. A spectacular trip and one which I’ll remember fondly for a long time.

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.

Be a Good Little Widow

Friday night’s adventure consisted of a theatre outing to the Odyssey Theatre on the Westside with my neighbor/griever-in-common, Marilyn, to see a play entitled Be a Good Little Widow. When I signed up for the tickets, I confess that I thought the title was How to… That sounded incredibly instructive. Then I discovered that two of our current stage management students were working on the show, and it was closing weekend, so I thought it’s now or never for me to get instruction on the new path my life has taken. On closer reflection, I don’t think I need instruction, and if I did, would I want to be a good little widow? Or a raging, bigger than life WIDOW! The latter seems more inviting.

Given the title, I expected that the Odyssey lobby would be filled with lonely hearted and unwilling singles. Partially accurate. What I did not expect was the full on life-force of current and former USC School of Dramatic Arts students clamoring at the gate. The show starred Adrienne Visnic, and was directed by Brendan Baer, both alumni. The lobby was filled with about a dozen young artists, skewing the average demographic by about forty years.

Kate Harrow (of Bow and Harrow ) and Christina Bryan (Stage Manager Extraordinaire)

Bekah Brunstetter’s play is technically well constructed, introducing us to the newlywed couple, Melody and Craig, in their first days living in their tidy, tiny new split story home, rendered effectively by Scenic Designer Pete Hickok. Brunstetter fakes us out, by introducing Craig’s mother, Hope, a widow, into thinking she might be the titular tutor. But any self-respecting playgoer knows that the adjectives good and little probably don’t refer to the mother of the young couple, however youthful she looks. It’s with a growing sense of dread that we hear about Craig’s frequent air travel for his work. In spite of their visible affection, we become aware of Melody’s honeymoon jitters about her marriage and her mother-in-law. Visnic aptly captures the shock and entropy of the newly widowed in the aftermath of the inevitable plane crash,. She succumbs to the planning expertise of Hope, who overtakes and executes the offstage funeral for her son, Craig. Melody soon exhibits the expected raw grief of a young and vibrant widow. Visnic excels in physical abandon, beginning with the ragged breathing of her anything-but-flowing yoga practice, to the uninhibited half-dressed dancing, vodka bottle vertically poised over her mouth. I was going to say it was the universal dread of every widow to lose oneself in numbing self-debasement, but I realize that without researching this further, I can only say I dread that image and path.

On the way home from the play, Marilyn and I talked non-stop. She’d joined some of the other audience members in the ladies room afterwards, where she reported the camaraderie of so many widows in seclusion bordered on an open therapy session. Fortified by the dramatization of loss we’d shared, she and I confided the origin stories of our widowhood. The comfort of sharing these intimate details is what happens between widows and widowers, but not generally with the public at large, who frankly, don’t particularly want to hear it.

Keeping these stories contained on a “need to know basis” is part of how our society defines “being a good little widow.” I reject this model. It’s something we all eventually experience and there’s nothing to be ashamed about learning how to grieve. And here’s the thing. As in anything in life, death isn’t only sad. The moments around a loved one’s death can be full of love and laughter, profound feelings, expressions of fear, superficial worries, triumphs of resilience, gestures of trust and faith. I remember the night after my grandmother’s death, my brothers and I were bunked in our childhood beds in the bedroom above the kitchen in our grandparent’s home. In the dark, we lay there exchanging our best recipes, my brother Larry sharing his recipe for macaroni and cheese in minute detail. For a reason I can’t even remember now, though it may have been his serious tone about building the mac and cheese, but we couldn’t stop laughing. We giggled into the middle of the night, relieved from the events of the day by the instantaneous melting away of twenty years – by becoming children again in the dark under the duvets on those big wooden beds up in the attic bedroom. A moment I still remember another twenty-five years later.

Since discovering it, I’ve immersed myself in each episode of the podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking. They can’t come fast enough. I’m obsessed with Nora McInerny’s communal platform for not just looking back at grief and its origins, but looking forward to forging new lives.

My new strategy is to “Say yes to everything” but now manifest it in buying airplane tickets. Obviously I won’t be able to go everywhere, given my professorial constraints, both in free time and finances. Last week I booked a trip to the Fall Production Managers’ Forum conference hosted by The American Players’ Theatre in mid-September. Privileged to have been in the Forum for several years I’ve been constrained from traveling to the annual conferences. I’m now actively pursuing professional curiosities and deepening my work in my chosen field of Stage and Production Management.

Today was the day when I was supposed to get everything done for my trip to Italy. On the advise of another widow pal, I went to Michael’s to pick up the tiniest little jar you’ve ever seen so that a little bit of Jimmie can go with me to Italy and ride a vaporetto (water bus) in Venice, or climb a hill with me in Umbria. Nails done, haircut, dinner with friends two nights in a row. I’m making room for life to find its way back in.

Latest Artwork from my granddaughter: L to R. Pink (Cupid the Dog), Green (sassy self-portrait of the artist), light green (Mom), Teal (Nana with seaweed in her hair), little teal blob with two arms (artist’s little sister) being held by Dad (extremely active and apparently hard to render).

Life is good. Be in nature as frequently as you can, see the art, laugh and be as irreverent as you can be serious. Know your foibles. Keep perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. Let those whom you love know it often.

My beautiful tribe.

Ecdysis of Grief- Life Goes Forward

I’m assembling one of my emeals tonight, an orange rosemary pork loin, with gluten-free spaghetti and broccoli on the side. While the pork was reaching room temp, after marinading for a whole day in it’s delicious garlicky dressing, I had thirty minutes to go try on the dress I’m wearing tomorrow to probably the fanciest wedding I’ve ever been to. (No offense meant to the scores of beautiful weddings I’ve attended in lavish settings – this is just a hunch.)

Slithering in a reverse ecdysis into the satiny foundation garment, yes, the one with teutonic cups, (I choose that one over the other that has no escape hatch; ladies you know what I mean, right?), even though the other girdle is softer and a little less confining, there would be nothing worse than having to completely disrobe at the Jonathan Club, to the mortification of the bride’s family and friends.

Next comes the heavily beaded Mother of the Groom dress, which I step my sausage-link-like torso into, raising the beaded sleeves up and over my shoulders. I reach back and start to zip up the dress. Oops. Can’t get there from here.

The last time I wore the dress was, obviously, for our son’s wedding. The last time I wore the dress, I had a husband to zip me up. I say this as much for dramatic effect as for truth. Surprisingly, I’m not emotional about this right now. We widows have discoveries like this all the time, at the most ridiculous moments, while attempting to sheath the body deemed 10 pounds too heavy by the doctor earlier in the week. In fumbling for the zipper, I’m brought back to ground zero. The source of my tsuris. The reason I need to lose 10 pounds, because grief is assuaged by late night snacking while watching the umpteen different series about grief that are we can now stream and binge watch. It’s a classic Catch-22.

By the way, Dr. S., I’m well on my way to fitting into that dress, because just between you and me, the gluten-free pasta was completely inedible. Gluten-free pasta is like near beer. Too close and yet too far away. What’s the point?

Seriously. Have you noticed? It started last November with The Kominsky Method, featuring Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas as two best friends dealing with the death of Alan Arkin’s wife among other things. I found the show sometime in late November, literally right after Jimmie went to the great casting office in the sky. The first episode featured the definitely first-world problem of what to do with Arkin’s dead wife’s Beverly Hills closet full of purses valued way higher than the salary of any random Associate Professor. I’m just saying. I binge watched all of those, laughing through my tears.

Being human and being hurt are the same damn thing.

Alan Arkin The Kominsky Method

I moved on to Dead to Me, starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and the latest, After Life, starting Ricky Gervais, who is prone to considerably worse decisions than snacking at night. Somewhere along the way, a friend told me about the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Nora McInerny’s compassionate, funny and personal answer to life’s challenges. I find myself soaking up these comic voices of doom hungrily – the one thing they all have in common is that everyone speaks the truth with gusto and no small amount of panache, and it’s funny, as the truth often is. It’s healing, too. So now I’m reading Lori Gottlieb’s latest book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone because I heard her speaking on the TTfA podcast mentioned above. I wish I could say I was taking a scholarly approach to my choices of viewing and reading, but if I’m honest, and have we learned nothing but how important that is?My approach is more like watching the slinky on the steps Christmas morning. Each discovery cascading into the next.

I’ve always found solace in books, and find reading especially grounding lately. Tonight, I came home from work, dropped my bag at the apartment, picked up my kindle, and strode out the door to the park to our bench, where I read for a while until it got too cold, then did about five laps around the park, reading, while competitively counting my steps for the end of the workweek challenge. Nevertheless, Christopher won. Oh well, there’s always next week. And wait till I get to Italy!

There are only about three weeks until I leave for my Italian adventure, and the plans have come together. In between now and then, I’ve planned a weekend jaunt to the mountains to practice my grandparenting skills which are just adequate if my three-year-old granddaughter is any judge. And she is, by the way. I loved the Grandmother’s Mother’s Day card which I received after my Easter visit. Chosen with love by my daughter-in-law, and annotated with three-year-old love.

I’m keeping busy, hosted the first Survivor’s Supper last night, with two of my friends recently bereft of their spouses. After dinner, two of us headed over to see the latest work by director Nancy Keystone, entitled A Jordan Downs Illumination. You should check it out; this is the last weekend it’s running. An amazing evening of immersive theatre in R & D over the past two years and presented by The Cornerstone Theatre and members of Jordan Downs, shares the history of Watts and the Jordan Downs Housing Projects now undergoing a massive redevelopment. The work, which strove to retain and share the history even as the construction advances, was personal, fascinating, and also hands on. The audience gets to be actively involved in being witness to history happening. I highly recommend it.