The Art of Success

We are heading into another tech weekend. I know because I sat in tech rehearsal last night and counted every person in the room so I could know how many dozens of donuts to bring tomorrow. Four. This weekend,  we are in the world of William Hogarth, complete with denizens of the bawdy Beefsteak Club and the Pleasure Garden. The play: “The Art of Success” by Nick Dear.

I arrived tonight shortly after the rehearsal had begun, more or less straight from the production meeting for our New Works plays. Fridays work that way – I started at 10 with a committee meeting, then a faculty meeting, then a production faculty meeting, then some desk jockeying, then the first meeting for the New Works Plays. Dashed to the fridge to get my salad and then went off to the McClintock Theatre  where I plunged into the tech-disheveled,thrust-configuration theatre, and pushed my bag under a chair.

The cast, the BFA Juniors from the USC School of Dramatic Arts were arrayed around the stage in a tableau reminiscent of Hogarth’s Scene in a Tavern.

William Hogarth - Scene in a Tavern

The actors, all in their rehearsal costumes, corseted, and coated, were draped about the stage like satyrs after an especially athletic night. The students on the crew sat in a section of the house watching the process, and then working on their homework as the time-consuming process of building the light cues took place. We will spend 24 of the next 48 hours in the theatre, stumbling around in the house, forcing our eyes to adjust from the hallway to the dimly lit theatre. I remember once, probably 15-20 years ago, when I returned to the stage manager podium at the Pasadena Playhouse to find that someone had affixed a little sign on the podium. It read, “Tired of working in the dark?” I thought to myself, never. And 20 years later, I keep coming back for more. It is home.

Some tech weekends are more difficult than others. I happen to really enjoy watching Stephanie Shroyer work. She has the most extraordinary sense of spatial relationships and brings out the best in her actors and designers. She demands commitment from each of her actors, and specificity of physical and emotional choices. Watching her work reminds me of Frank Hauser’s description of the director’s role.

“The Director’s Role: You are the obstetrician. You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or midwife. Your job most of the time is simply to do no harm.
When something does go wrong, however, your awareness that something is awry–and your clinical intervention to correct it–can determine whether the child will thrive or suffer, live or die.”
― Frank HauserNotes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director’s Chair

Stephanie runs her birthing suite with style and meticulous detail to the instruments needed. Because her process is so organic, it can be slower than most of our productions to gel. This can be frustrating to designers with less experience, but the results are always stunning and I’ve never seen her lose a patient yet.

Happy Valentine’s Day – Postponed

Valentine’s Day for those of us who work in the theatre, is just another day, like birthdays, Easter, etc. We are used to the harsh mistress that is the theatrical tech schedule; she who shows no leniency for affairs of the heart.

Some of my happiest birthdays have happened in the theatre, where once, following a dress rehearsal of the S.T.A.G.E. benefit, in the notes session, my friend David Galligan told the cast that it was my birthday, and I was suddenly being serenaded by Broadway performers like Kay Cole, Penny Fuller, and a full orchestra led by Ron Abel. It was magical, and I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be doing the thing I love the most on my birthday. I still feel that way.

Academic theatre is similarly dispassionate about the pillage of its practitioners’ time.

My birthday coincides with Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday holiday, providing me with a three day weekend every year after the first week of the spring semester. And I need it by then, having survived the gauntlet that is the audition bender week where 10 shows audition and get cast in the span of four days.

We “Theatre People” learn to bend the calendar to fit our social lives in somewhere. For years, as a stage manager, I had Mondays off, and so it was on Mondays that I entertained, or went to the movies, or did the laundry, or did the grocery shopping, or cooked. Actually, substitute “and” for every one of those “or”s above and it will be closer to the reality of how theatre artists manage their limited time off.

This year, I had the privilege of meeting prospective students on Valentine’s Day. And like the old hoofers we are, my husband and I exchanged  Valentine’s Day cards and an obscene amount of chocolate over the breakfast table, then separated for the next 12 hours, coming together again after the auditions were done. It isn’t ideal, but we both understand that our work precedes the social.

And here’s my advice to you – if you want a life in the theatre, prepare to explain, apologize, defend,  and explain again to those people who say, “Why can’t you go with me to the ___________?” (Insert: baseball game, baby shower, fashion show, funeral, wedding, prom, gallery, picnic, slam dance event, marathon finish line, you name it – you will miss it at some point). “I have rehearsal.”

I Can't I have Rehearsal

That’s why it is a good policy to mate with someone who is from the same tribe – I have never had to explain to my actor husband why I needed to stay at the theatre for 10 out of 12s for 7 consecutive days. He gets it because he understands the business. Does it make it easier to bear? No, not really. He gets lonely and wants me to come home. I think about him at home waiting for me and get impatient to return. But I don’t have to deal with someone who doesn’t understand why I’m not home.

And when I am home, I am home. And he is there. And we are happy to be there, grateful for our healthy relationship of understanding and mutual respect. Of the work, and of the life we have crafted together.

For years, when Chris was growing up, we had a finely tuned balance of parental duties. I remember once when I was stage managing “On Borrowed Time” at the Pasadena Playhouse, and Chris was about 3, they were in rehearsals for “Lend Me A Tenor” and the actor Paul Dooley, who was playing the Maestro, had a motorcycle accident and broke his shoulder. The artistic director, Paul Lazarus, asked me if Jimmie would be able to come in and do a few performances on book, and for the next two weeks or so, I spent the day with Chris at home, while Jimmie rehearsed at the Playhouse, and then I’d bring Chris and our dog, Molly, who was in “On Borrowed Time” to the theatre and pass Chris off to Jimmie, who took him home and fed him dinner and put him to bed.

And we did it all in stride, because we are “Theatre People” and it didn’t feel the least bit foreign to us to completely integrate our lives with our work. Chris had a blast, running all over the green room – he loved being backstage – poor kid grew up in theatres all over Los Angeles. I remember a Halloween when he bobbed for apples in a big tub down in the basement of the Doolittle theatre right outside the green room during “Jake’s Women.”

And so, missing one Valentine’s Dinner isn’t so hard. We will celebrate it tomorrow night, and so it goes. This magical life in the theatre with my true love.

Our Town

 

I was destroyed by the power of Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town” today. It was a surprise, came out of nowhere, as I sat in the first tech run-through of the MFA Year Three student production on a beautiful Saturday afternoon on the cusp of February.

I had left my husband at home this morning, gone to the bank, stopped to pick up the tech donuts,  and arrived at the theatre at 11:30 for the final run-through before adding costumes. The theatre is in a state of disarray, the audience risers littered with neat piles of cables, and stray props. We are definitely not audience-ready.

I brought in a chair from the stacks of them in the lobby and watched from the front row as the students easily became the denizens of the town. On the surface, Our Town is such a simple story. And the set for our production, beautifully designed by Takeshi Kata, unfinished wooden floorboards and slate walls, meticulously carved by our carpenters, and deftly painted by our Vika, our scenic painter. The furniture, well worn from years of use in our stock, had been newly stripped by a company whose receipt had been causing consternation all week in the purchasing office at USC. The name of the company, the Happy Stripper, combined with the illegibility of the pink copy once scanned had set off a flurry of phone calls, and the petty cash process ground to a halt, leaving us with no additional petty cash until the Happy Stripper would fill out a W-9 form and submit it.

But now, the furniture was placed by our competent assistant stage manager, the lights focussed and cued, the sound set. The director had established the rehearsal room milieu of the play- not just the furniture, but everything was stripped down to its most basic elements, the actors even generating the sound themselves.

I turned off my phone, and allowed the story to envelop me.

Now, I should say this play is already laden with personal sentimental value. My husband, Jimmie played the stage manager about 11 years ago, at the age of 76 for his acting company, Interact, and our son, Chris, 14 at the time, had shared the role of Wally Webb with his best friend, Mikey, because neither of them could commit to the full rehearsal burden due to their respective sports of ice hockey and AYSO soccer.

I remember most about that production how moving Jimmie was and how hard it was for Chris or Mikey to sit still in the Act 3 cemetery scene.

Our Town is a sneaky play- it tricks you into thinking that it is a quaint treatise of life in the early 20th century in a small rural town in New Hampshire, and then it rolls up in the third act and throws you up against your mortality and that of the ones you love the most. At least that is what happened to me this afternoon.

At this run-through,  the director asked me to set up some chairs to allow the family of a young actress who will audition for our BFA program soon observe part of the run-through with her parents. The four of them slipped into the theatre during the second intermission.

Wilder illustrated the separation of living from dead and the swift process of separation by recently dead Emily’s eager description of farm equipment purchased with Mama Webb’s  “legacy,” and dead Julia Webb’s lack of affect upon hearing the news. The sharp contrast brings one to the blunt and brutal realization that everything physical that we care about is fleeting. Just like that.

Emily’s realization that it was too painful for her to be among the living and her retreat to the cemetery just destroyed me. I was sobbing, tears streaming down my cheeks.

I went to the director, my tears the universal language of his successful realization of the play. He asked me to come talk with the visiting family, and I did, telling the young woman about our other theatres and what it means to be a part of a BFA cohort going through four years together, while I sopped my tears on my t-shirt sleeve.

The power of theatre to move me and to force me to look at the world and my life is palpable today. I have Thornton Wilder to thank for that, and the class of 2014 MFA Actors.

Tonight, I am bringing a large box of Kleenex with me when I return  for the first dress rehearsal and I am also bringing Jimmie with me.

 

http://dramaticarts.usc.edu/

MFA Y3 Actors

Christmas Eve

I just returned from a magical Christmas eve party – old friends, new friends, family members, food, singing Christmas carols until I no longer had the breath to sing. I was reminded of how fortunate I truly am to be surrounded by such loving friends and colleagues. Tomorrow we will open gifts and eat good food and share remembrances of Christmas past. Again, I am filled with the knowledge that each passing year is richer for being able to do the work I love with people who share the same passion and commitment to the theatre and to living life fully. Embracing the humanity of it.

Hope your Christmas is as special.

I received a facebook post this week from a high school friend who said we should remember that Christmas isn’t happy for everyone – that the stresses of family, job insecurities, poor health and other obstacles mar their enjoyment and that we should share the post by cutting and pasting it. As though reading that didn’t make me stop and think about those people – I needed to copy it and spread it around?

The ups and downs that we face in our lives are what make us alive. The good and bad days  remind us that we are only here for a brief time and it isn’t those events that make us who we are, but the way we see and react to them. That’s what makes it possible for me to enjoy the ridiculousness of the couch debacle this week. It really sucked and made me miserable early in the week, but  I took extra enjoyment from writing about it and sharing it with my friends. It has receded in my rear view mirror even before being completely resolved, like the speed bumps in my old neighborhood. Annoying, but just a part of the drive home.

Tonight, with the echos of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in my heart, I know that there will be future challenges far exceeding the couch story. And I will tackle them one at a time, learning a bit more about how this funny life business works in the meantime.

Merry Christmas!

Classic Stage Manager Nightmare

So last night I was trapped in what felt like an 8 hour stage manager nightmare. I apologize for using real people’s names, but that was what made it so horrifying. These names are people whom I really respect and have worked with successfully in the past, so my epic professional collapse in the dream made me wake in a sweat. And like truly great nightmares, that are detailed and fascinating, I repeatedly went back to sleep hoping it would continue, which it did.

I had been hired by Dan Ionazzi, the Production Manager of the Geffen Playhouse and a renowned Lighting Designer in his own right,  to stage manage a large opera production in an outdoor arena called the “Alhambra.” I have never been to the Alhambra in Granada, but my cursory search this morning on Wikipedia led me to a castle on a hill.

This was not at all what the theatre I had been hired to stage manage in was like. This was some multi-chambered outdoor arenas  grouped in a cluster of adjacent canyons, each requiring sure footing to make your way through them. Once inside, the tech table was perched in the middle of the “theatre” on a naturally formed table shaped stone. I arrived at dusk and made my way to the table. There were many people running around in headsets and I chatted with them, and eventually walked down to the table when Dan said they were ready to begin. My tech table was completely clean of anything. No headsets, no book, no pencils, which was when I realized I had not brought anything with me. 

I said, “Do you think I could get a headset at the tech table, please?” And one of the many headset clad people came over and said, “This isn’t the tech table. The tech table is down here,” guiding me further down into the center of the canyon, where, sure enough, there was a headset and a large contraption that looked like a boom mic on a goose lamp contraption – sort of what you would see clamped to the side of a drafting table, but with a microphone on it, not a lamp. I sat at the table (still horrified that I didn’t see my script there) and the assistant gently guided what I realized was their version of the “God” mic over my head so that it captured everything I said and broadcast it, booming, out into the canyon for all to hear. They all heard something like this: “Where is my fucking script?”

Meanwhile, I looked around and there were large tourist groups being led into the canyon at regular intervals by nun guides. Yes, nun guides. And groups of children in uniforms. I know, I should be lying down on the therapist’s couch to recount this tale.

So, without a script, not much was going to happen. I explained (over the god mic which I didn’t know how to turn off) that I would need a script to begin the tech. This flummoxed everyone as you might imagine. So, in order to save face, I said I needed to return to my car to get my script. Next thing, I was walking around for the next 2 hours or so through the similar but creepy adjacent canyons. I was hopelessly lost and had no idea how to get back to the “theatre”.

They all looked remarkably similar, but were devoid of actors carrying spears and children in uniforms being led by nuns. I could not for the life of me, find my tech.

Suddenly I stumbled across a headset clad assistant, who had clearly been sent out to look for me and who led me back to the theatre, which was literally at least a mile away through a tortured route of knee straining steps.

Additional nightmare factors to this tech – I didn’t know the play.  I never made the tech happen. When I returned to the table lo those two hours later, some of my students from SC were sitting there teching the show quite satisfactorily without me. As I climbed back up to my table, I saw Paulie Jenkins sitting in the front row of the theatre removing her headset for the night. When I got to the table, there were three copies of the script on the table – no, unfortunately, in my dream I couldn’t read or remember the title of the play – and inside each script was a note from the following people – Bryan Gale – hope you feel better soon, Els, along with a cue list of the light cues. (There were a lot of LDs on this show apparently). One from Dan Ionazzi with equally supportive language. The message I woke up with was “this is your last show.”

Like I said, classic stage manager nightmare…..Glad to be awake this morning sharing the horror with you.

Time out for Tech

It is the season of the relentless techs. We are four shows into the parade of eight fall semester shows which means that we are teching every weekend. It is extremely different to be in tech as a production manager than it was as a stage manager. I am very peripheral to the process as the PM; I get to bring donuts and make people happy at the beginning of the 10 out of 12.

I also get to take the set designer down to the props storage to pull dressing for the set, and occasionally get to swing away from campus to pick up the errant prop (though these ventures are much less necessary since the arrival of “Speak-the-truth-Hannah,” who is so superb at her job as Props Manager.

Last weekend was Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa.” This weekend is a new play by EM Lewis called “Infinite Black Suitcase.” Next weekend we will spend supporting Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” What tech now allows me to do is to observe the directors. To take note of things with a directorial eye, and to write them down, and if I am feeling bold, to send them to the director to do with what he/she will. Some directors are grateful for my notes; some do not mention them at all, but I will notice one of them having been inserted into the production when I come back to see a performance. It strokes my ego.

Makes me feel useful. But the main thing I feel during the tech season is tired. Just want to lay down and sleep for 10 hours. But it isn’t possible. So I rise and shine and buy the donuts and sit and observe. Time out for tech.

My long suffering husband waits for me at home. Saturday I am exhausted.

Sunday, after tech and a strike of the previous show’s set, we go out for dinner – always to CPK. It is a tradition now, one that began about 8 years ago when I joined the school’s production department. Strike pizza. Some couples call it date night, but for us, it is just an hour stolen from tech time to catch up and remember our lives together. To hoot in support of our team on the TV over the counter in the CPK.

So I am off to bed to sleep for 6 hours or so before the hummingbirds get up and so do I.

Who says you have to starve in the theatre?

I got bitten by the theatre bug when I was in high school. Well, high school is not representative of the time period. I had the privilege, and yes, I know it was a privilege, to attend a swanky boarding school in New England.

I also had the great good fortune of having a theatre teacher who conveyed his sense of humor and delight in things theatrical to his students. I was gone. A lifer in the theatre. And my life has been so rich from those early days on that I have become that theatre life recruiter, that booster of the wealth of theatrical insight – that purveyor of hope in the shared community of the theatre.

And my life has been rich as a result of all the paths that this hunger has taken me down. I hope to share, and apologize in advance, for the crooked path of my stories. I have been listening to Mike Daisey’s monologues this week as I work out in the gym and what I know is that this storytelling which is so much a part of one’s theatre addiction is not intuitive, but learned. I hope you will bear with me as I learn the ropes and share the path.