Mr. Burns, a post covid-19 remembrance

Several years ago, in Spring of 2017, University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts did a production of Anne Washburn and Michael Friedman’s play, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. The play’s three acts span a very specific 82 years in a world without electricity. Washburn is uncharacteristically prescriptive (for a playwright) about the lighting for each act.

  • Act I – firelight, outdoors
  • Act II – In an interior under a skylight in the afternoon
  • Act III – after nightfall, in an interior stage, lit with non-electric instrumentation: candles and oil lamps, probably, or gas
  • Act III finale features an assortment of old theatrical instruments, Christmas lights, etc.

Act I takes place in a forest “in the very near future”, where we find a group of four campers sitting around a fire made in a wash tub turned on it’s side.

They are reconstructing a story – an episode from the popular show, The Simpsons. We soon realize that they are there not to get closer to nature by choice, but because of the failure of the nuclear power plants which has caused the end of electricity, and the end of life as they know it. Early in the first act, they are surprised by a new arrival, a fellow traveler. His arrival into the firelight elicits a heavy show of firearms, and we soon know we are not “in Kansas” anymore. Gibson, who’s just arrived, carries a book, and the initial four, hungry to hear who he might have met along the road listen to the names he’s written in a composition book. It is eerie to hear the list of names in light of the mounting count of fatalities from the COVID-19.

10,000 today in Italy, over 2,000 in the US. Tonight, I stepped outside onto my balcony and saw this:

I’ve been thinking a lot about Washburn’s play in the past few days, especially about how the characters in her play adapt to circumstances beyond their ability to comprehend. Sort of the way we’ve all been forced to adapt.

33338515994_9f51982e7a_kAct II of the play, seven years later, takes place in what we soon realize is a commercial studio, where the re-telling of the Simpson’s episodes has become a cottage industry and way by which these actors or re-enactors support themselves. Washburn has cleverly structured her play to mimic the history of theatre making. In Act II, we learn that there is competition between the various re-enactors and that people will go to great lengths to steal effective bits from one company. Finally, with many apologies to Ann Washburn for this emaciated synopsis of her amazing play, we find ourselves in Act III, where theatre has become ritualized beyond the secular appreciation to have almost a holy feeling. Oh, and did I forget to mention, Act III is a full musical, complete with full costumes, and takes place 75 years after Act II.

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All photos from the USC School of Dramatic Arts production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play were taken by Craig Schwartz.

The play is stunning and odd, but until the last two months, it felt like a far-fetched scenario. That is, until people started hoarding toilet paper and water. Until I started to see people reporting in their Facebook feeds the loss of close family members from the Coronavirus. Workplaces are shuttered, leaving 2.3 Million people unemployed.

Suddenly Ann Washburn seemed like a freaking genius.

I wrote a few posts ago about the beautiful letters we used to get from our dear friend Candasa, and inspired by her, I began to write to friends “Letters from the Pandemic,” each clearly labeled as such, full of deep feelings and fondnesses rarely expressed. It’s not that I think I won’t get to see them and say those things to them when we next embrace, but I’m coming to realize that I really may not get to see them again any time soon, either because they live across the country, or are advanced in age. I started mailing them on March 22nd and sent another batch tonight, and am starting to hear back from the recipients, by phone, or email, or text.

In the meantime, adjusting the syllabus from a class which had half its learning outcomes tied to the performance as a backstage crew member to something they can do while sitting at home is challenging. Fortunately, there are a lot of really good resources out there. When this is over, (another phrase which has multiple meanings, some of which are chilling), I have thought about the series of videos that we will need to make to demonstrate how we made theatre happen. Meanwhile, while we wait, the content making abounds. Every day there are more examples of frustrated, siloed artists trying to make connections from the confines of their own individual firepits. And what will the children who have suddenly found themselves in an unexpected golden age of time with parents take away from all this?

A brief list of comments from friends who’ve shared with me some of the unexpected boons that have resulted from our mass quarantine:

  • I was having a really hard time with my boss, and now I don’t have to deal with him/her because I’m working from home.
  • I’d been wanting to spend more time with my kids but was working such long hours that I never got to see them.
  • I suddenly have so much more time to read/write/think.

As Aesop said, “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” Be safe and know that the world has changed and we will change with it. And keep writing your form of “Letters from the Pandemic,” whatever that may be. 

Pandemic Prep

Here are the things I did this morning to prepare for potential total isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Read the newspapers
  • Made a few eggs and bacon for breakfast
  • Vacuumed the crumbs around my chair at the dining table
  • FaceTimed with my Dad and his wife
  • Mailed a box of birthday presents to my grandbaby ironically marked Imperfect Foods
  • Made more sugar water for my hummingbirds
  • Watered my grateful plants
  • Cooked some green beans
  • Watched the rain come down against the BLOC parking structure while listening to the slick sound of tires through the wet streets
  • Did some research/planning for upcoming online classes and communications
  • Did some stress writing (Is there such a thing? It doesn’t matter. For me there is and congratulations on getting to read it.)

Pretty much like any average Saturday morning (without tech). Usually, if I lean over my balcony, I can see the fairly quotidian life on 9th Street in DTLA. Starbucks clientele meets the Homeless. I wish it weren’t so, but that is my usual view. The last few days through the raindrops. It wasn’t until I walked over to the UPS store to mail my grandbaby’s birthday present that I realized things had shifted.

The doors to the Ralph’s Market were closed, and there was a line of about twenty five people standing outside, down the ramp to the street waiting to be let in to shop, looking miserable. I’ve never seen that before. Well I’ve seen the misery on peoples’ faces in Ralphs. Again, that’s an average event. Who likes to shop? But the halted line sobered me up considerably, and had me doing an internal mental inventory of the food I have in my house.

  • Rice, pasta, beans, canned tomatoes
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, kale, onions, tomatoes)
  • Cereal, Milk
  • Fruit (won’t get scurvy for a while)
  • TP ( have plenty thanks to hints from my colleagues to stock up)

I thought about all the Girl Scout cookies still on the shelf down in my office? What are the hazards of bringing those into my house in a time of stress? Probably significant.

Monday, I go to do my taxes. Some things are not subject to exemptions in pandemic times. Death and Taxes.


Be safe everyone. And let me know if you need to come over for supper. Proper social distancing practiced. 🙂

Putting It Out There To The World

This living business is sometimes pretty daunting. I can cope with the whole get up, wash my face to face the world, step onto the bus and ride to work, engage with my colleagues and students, laugh a little, cry a little routine part. That I’ve mastered quite well. I can even fit in a few external tasks, like rolling over an IRA (to see if there’s anything under there), or sending a book back that I borrowed, or returning the white pair of sailor capri pants I ordered that arrived and looked as ridiculous as you might have expected they would. What was I thinking? But all that seems pretty manageable.

What’s more elusive is formulating the next steps in living. You know, simple things, like whether you want to start dating again. I mean, how do you even begin to think about something so foreign? It’s about as imaginable as my getting up and disco dancing again. Or wearing sailor pants at 60. You start, I guess, naturally, perusing through your mental rolodex of all your male friends:

Married, married, gay; gay?, damaged, completely celibate, out of my league, way too sensible… you get the drill. It’s daunting. And who even uses a rolodex anymore. Makes you feel like a damn dinosaur.

You toy with a new affectation that you are a freelance writer. You open an UpWork account to try to field writing jobs because a friend told you they do that and it pays well. I guess it’s like joining a dating website (no, no, no). At least the writing part is something you can enjoy in your newly minted solitude. Like a skilled needleworker, you can retire to your living room after work and tat tat tat away on your computer conjuring images of checks rolling in from an unmarked escrow account. Ahhh, speaking about fantasizing…

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Books about the upward powerful current of optimism I aspire to. I shared with my students the other morning an article by Jane Brody from the New York Times Science section how optimists have been proven to be 50% (women) to 70%(men) more likely to live to the age of 85. I polled the class using the statements late in the article with a show of hands to gauge how they looked at the world. I’m happy to report that there were many more rose-colored glasses wearers in the class than not. By the way, if I could write one tenth as well as Jane Brody, I’d be able to die (after 85) and happy.

In this phase of my life, I’m pushing through the uncertainty, grasping at things that look appealing to me, without really knowing how to trust whether they are truly what I want, or just a means of rebuffing grief. And, yes, I did intend the double meaning of rebuffing – shining it up to admire my heroic features in it, while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length so I can avoid it at all costs. I don’t know how to describe this phase I’m in, really, though I am committed to trying to. Forging ahead through it.

You know, life is really good. I had a splendid birthday trip to New York, with an escape to the Lake House, and a reunion dinner with about a quarter of the Tutorial. I’m so aware of the precious and refined oxygen of a room filled with good friends who are inquisitive and curious about the world and each other. It’s heady stuff.

Flowers from my dear friend Jackie, whom I had coffee on Saturday morning in NYC.

This week has been a reminder of why we should so value our loved ones, with the fragility of life as evidenced in the loss of Kobe Bryant and eight others. Tonight, I got off the bus near the Staples Center, where people have been gathering to pay tribute for days since the news of his and his daughter’s untimely death. I saw an endless parade of city buses, whose display panels on the front flickered back and forth between their route number and RIP KOBE in respectful fonts. The Wilshire Grand Building at 7th and Figueroa sports a huge LED image of a purple 24 on a field of gold. At the corner of Olympic and Figueroa, vendors are selling life-sized photos of Kobe and t-shirts, capitalizing on our nostalgia.

So what’s with the picture of the man on the bench? The other night, I was coming home from tech rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I grabbed the 204 bus up Vermont, exited at Olympic, and was cutting through the parking lot to wait for the 728 bus. As I passed behind the bench where a man sat, hands folded patiently on top of his cane, he uttered a quiet exhalation of breath that sounded so much like Jimmie I had to scurry past to get a discreet look at him. I took the photo surreptitiously, his pose, his cane, his cap causing my own quiet gasp; I was suddenly subsumed by a torrent of emotion for the loss of partnership, of friendship, of my other half. When you lose your partner, you are rendered from your heart. Even now, fourteen months after the event, something as tiny as an exhalation of a stranger’s breath can sucker punch you.

But I’m working to stay alert for signs from the world that I’m still viable and will move into the rest of the year with hope and transparency. And maybe a little bit of freelance writing to keep me amused.

The Inappropriate Final and How My Students Made Me So Proud…

This has been a challenging semester for many students, faculty and staff at SDA. However, a definite bright spot in the semester was yesterday’s final with my GESM 111G Theatre Scene class, depicted above.

This is a freshman seminar, intended for non-theatre majors, so it hosts a diverse group of students (not all of whom are depicted above.) Their degree goals range from computer engineering, mechanical engineering, business administration, cinema, pre-med, to narrative studies, and other majors. Not-so-secretly I harbor the goal of “turning” them to the arts, opening them to the riches of our theatrical practice. In the past, I’ve successfully persuaded students to continue taking an acting class, or once, the THTR 130 Introduction to Theatrical Production class, where they were a crew member for one of our productions in the Spring semester. This semester, I had the privilege of teaching in tandem with my colleague, Melinda Finberg, as we guided two discreet sections of the course through our mutually defined syllabus.

We began the semester learning about the World of the Play, utilizing Elinor Fuch’s tactile treatise on the subject. We read several chapters from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, to immediately dispel the notion that making theatre is not rigorous or is somehow loosey-goosey. I had them do an exercise early-on from that book, the creative autobiography, where students shared their first creative moments, both successful and not. I read these, squirreling away some of their creative ambitions and dreams. I was delighted to read that in general, their attitudes to money, power, praise, rivals, work and play were consistent. They seemed to understand that a certain amount of money and praise were to be enjoyed if attained; they universally scoffed at power and recognized that rivals were helpful in pushing one to do their best work. Work was perceived to be necessary, play was “yay! Fun, good, etc.” My goal in having them do the exercise was to get to know them, to have a window into what made them tick. I tortured them by breaking them into groups to talk about how they would take actual steps toward reaching these fantasy creative goals and then had them report back what they would do individually advance their agendas. I’m still not sure how that exercise went. This may ring true with other teachers. Not to pull the curtain back on the wizard, but much that we do is trial and error. Certainly I am always trying to find new ways to open mental doors for my students, to encourage expression of their human aims.

We’ve since been busy, spending the fifteen weeks of the semester learning how to read plays, then how to see them; how to creatively unpeel production elements from the skeleton of the play itself, to determine what design elements serve to better tell the play’s story and which ones might not be in service to that story. They learned how to easily identify the protagonist, or to make a compelling argument for their choice. We’ve detailed the opposing forces of five plays, identified the inciting incidents, the many moments of engagement, the climaxes, the denouements, the larger dramatic question asked by each play in our dissection of the fall productions presented at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. I’ve shared the process of presenting a play, from obtaining the rights, through casting, rehearsing, and how a design team sculpts their work in four dimensions as guided by and supported by individual directors’ visions. Melinda and I’ve been blessed with participating guests in class to help make those collaborations real and tactile. Our visitors were directors and costume designers, artistic directors, directors and scenic designers, directors and lighting designers, and finally, a playwright. We’ve called in a lot of favors of my colleagues and am forever grateful to those student designers who’ve shared their processes amidst time management while juggling both their academic work and designs.

We’ve talked about the timeliness of presenting specific plays now, as in The Cider House Rules, Parts I and II in our current political climate where a woman’s right to choose is threatened daily with new legislature. Why was Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, Men On Boats so powerful at this particular moment? Can we relate to the police state that Mad Forest emerges from?

We’ve touched on the economic realities of programming plays by professional theaters, the notion of theaters’ artistic missions, and the challenges of meeting the costs of producing plays, without self-censoring. We’ve collectively bemoaned the paucity of governmental support of the arts in our country and how that exacerbates the afore-mentioned challenges.

They’ve attended five plays this semester, and written performance analyses about various aspects of the productions, a paper each about Scenic and Lighting Design, Casting and Inclusivity, Dramaturgy and Direction, Sound and Dialects, Costume, Hair and Makeup.

Other papers (yes, this is a bear of a class for reading, writing and creative exercises) included a straightforward dissection of one of the early plays to identify the parts of the play that we learned about through Carl Pritner and Scott E. Walters’ Introduction to Play Analysis, our main text. They had two creative projects intended to better examine the world of two plays, Men on Boats, and Mad Forest, by Caryl Churchill.

Ultimately, as the final project, a paper, they’ve utilized a stage direction from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to examine any one of the five plays we’ve read and seen this semester. This final assignment I owe credit to Professor Oliver Mayer for, because it came out of his shepherding of my fall 2018 class while I was caught in my own “Thundercloud of a common crisis,” while helping my husband in the waning moments of his life. Here’s the quote:

…The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent-fiercely charged-interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.

Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

So back to my final, which was really a party because the final was submitted by each of them at 2:00PM that day, via Turnitin. Over the final weeks I’d been mulling in my task-grading-saturated brain what would be a fun and celebratory way for the group to spend some relaxed downtime at our final meeting. The night before, I got up off my couch at 10:30PM, after grading papers, and went to Target, to peruse the game aisle to find a game that might be fun. I picked up a game entitled Joking Hazard, from the creators of Cyanide and Happiness. (Here’s where you can stop reading if you are an upper university administrator, please.)

The box sports two cartoon figures, which I guess are familiar to anyone under 20. Had I not been in the aisle at Target at 11:30 when they were closing at 12:00AM, I might have googled You Tube: Cyanide and Happiness and seen this video that would spare me the mortification that ensued. But no, onward I went down the aisle, buying other gifts and some containers of caramel corn for the class to eat while they played the game. Did you know that two tall containers of buttery caramel corn constitutes a party? I did.

Cut to the next afternoon, as I opened the game for the eagerly assembled students. As we had so many other exercises during the semester, we broke into smaller groups of four to five, and I handed each group their “deck” of cards. We read the rules and off they went, my enthusiasm beginning to flag as I watched one young woman turn about 6 shades of red as she rifled through the deck I’d just handed her. I had no idea of how inappropriate the game was. Talk about trial and error. She looked up and asked me if she should filter through the cards and remove the offending ones.

No, I said, brightly, we don’t self-censor, right? This still was in the innocent moments before I looked over the shoulders of each group as they began playing the game. True mortification set in within about three minutes as the really offensive cards came out. I’d say the game is about 80% really explicit either sexually or violence-wise. But the students were starting to get into the game. One student did say, “This is really sexual.” I quickly said, “We can stop playing anytime.”

But even after each group finished a round, they wanted to stay, as they were really enjoying the company of the other students they’d bonded with over the summer through theatrical literature and experiencing shows together, so they continued to play, one group beginning a deck-long story, which they collaborated over, creating a long span of cards telling a dark sexually aberrant tale. Lamely, I stood over them, as they laughed and continued to insert more cards into the invective stream, each one causing gales of laughter. But ultimately, I began to feel proud, as they did a creative exercise completely outside the framework of the game. They applied their knowledge of story, of opposing forces, of forwards, of climax (god help me), of bloody denouement. Moment of engagement took on an entirely different meaning in the context of Joking Hazard. Then a student pulled out their phone and began doing a pano shot of the story which engendered a little roil my stomach. Another student pulled their phone up above and captured the entire story on their table, which snaked three levels deep into the mires of really inappropriate comic frames. The group picture I took as they all assembled around that group’s story, again, other members of other groups inserting comic frames into the tale.

Anyway, this last semester I got to teach before the Title IX case is brought against me was probably the best one I’d had. Through the plays we examined, we caught the true quality of experience in a group of people, the cloudy, flickering, evanescent, fiercely-charged interplay of what it means to be human. At the end of the “final”, I shared with each of them postcards I’d written with the private dream they’d spilled from their creative autobiography, and urged them to reach up and grab at it. What a privilege it has been to share with each of them what I love about the theatre and hope that I’ve succeeded in planting in them the seed of a lifetime of theatre appreciation. However inappropriate their final was.

Adding Laughter Back In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Celebrating Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pema Chodron (WeCroak)

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

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