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.

Getting Into College without the Strings and Tutorial 2.0

There are things that are predictable in the cycle of a university year, which is distinctly seasonal. In the late fall, High School seniors create their applications, visit the campus to see a production, determine whether they will throw their hat in the ring. Months pass, and with the advent of spring, the acceptance and rejection letters go out.

Today at the Open House, I had the privilege of meeting many prospective students, who have been accepted to USC School of Dramatic Arts where I work as Head of Production. They visited the campus to participate in workshops in acting and production, and to meet the faculty they may study with over the next four years. As I looked around the room this morning at my colleagues on the Production/Design Faculty, and at the freshly scrubbed faces of stage managers, technical directors, and scenic designers, I flashed on the hours of collaborative work we’ve engaged in this year with our current students. How quickly we traverse the distance from this pre-matriculation meeting to the next workshop I hosted, the portfolio presentations by the designers of the Spring Musical, all seniors this year. The years fly by.

Those of us who are involved even peripherally in college admissions these days are sensitive – one could say feeling bruised by the admissions scandal. As the miscreants parade across our news feeds, those of us who go through the sincere process of reviewing, assessing, encouraging applicants to our programs feel like we’ve been sucker punched. We forge ahead because we know the rewards at the end of the rainbow.

The most heartbreaking thing for me about the big tacky admissions scandal is the lack of faith in their children these parents demonstrated. It’s clear that not everyone is cut out for college or needs it to succeed. My son eschewed the college experience. When I began working at USC, he was fourteen, and I had high hopes of taking advantage of the tuition remission. While I was initially heartbroken that he wouldn’t follow in my footsteps by going to college, I knew that the route he’d chosen would be hard but that he’d be okay. He worked for several years as a commercial fisherman. The only strings I was able to pull there were asking my brother to help him get work in that field. He embraced the work. I was humbled by his commitment and hard work and what he learned during those years of backbreaking work.

The parents today at lunch bemoaned the entire process of the admissions process. How much more complicated the process seems than when I’d gone through it! I applied to two colleges, one early admissions, and one back up school. How different my life might have been had I ended up there. It’s not unusual for our current students to have applied to more than a dozen colleges, made multiple college visits with their beleaguered parents, who want the best for them.

We have some extraordinary senior designers and stage managers and technical directors who are exiting our programs with their degrees in about a month. They are scenic designers, sound designers, lighting and projection designers, stage managers, costume designers, and budding production managers/TDs, a self-proclaimed costume designer and sewist.

Listening to them recount their design and stage manager processes to the incoming students today made me feel as proud as the parents who’d accompanied our guests to campus today. These students have worked hard to earn their degrees and build professional portfolios. Through their diligence they have also assumed the roles of ambassadors to our next freshman production/design cohort.

USC School of Dramatic Arts performance of “Sunday in the Park with George” on Mar. 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)

Recently when I posted the picture of the bracelet I bought to keep f***ing going, Chris reminded me of my “warm and fuzzy” response to him when he called me once during his fishing days.

13 stitches in my leg, in the middle of the ocean complaining about shushing 2 tons of ice to you (to which you said) “You’re either a winner or a whiner? Which one are you?”

We hung up shortly after and I didn’t go to bed until the job was done.

While there was a time when we lost a lot of sleep about how our son would turn out and considered concerted intervention in the trajectory of his life, I no longer worry about the choices he makes. He’s the head coach of a prestigious elite hockey prep team and demonstrates daily to his players about the importance of life choices and the skills and practice they continue to refine under his and his colleagues coaching. He utilizes discoveries he’s made finding his path as a powerful teaching tool. Just as our college designers do. Strengthening their practice through self-examination, sometime failure and recovery and building collaborative relationships.

As I make my way in this new single life I’ve been thinking a lot about the closed circle that is a marriage. Often to the withering of long standing friendships. Add to that working in the theatre where the hours are already a severe deterrent to having a social life. Married couples tend to socialize with other married couples who are similarly distanced by their own bubbles of connubial bliss. What happens when a marriage ends, either through divorce, or the death of one’s partner? How do you re-enter the world? Re-activate relationships that were important to you? How do those people respond to your attempts to re-activate? Is this a healthy exercise? Too nostalgic? Should one be looking forward to forming new relationships instead? Is it fair to expect that people will be willing to re-activate long dormant relationships?

These are some of the topics I’m considering. They coincide with my increasing nausea about social media. This week I’m convinced it’s a matter of days before I unplug. I’ve already removed the book of Face from my phone as an initial step.

Then, there’s the Tutorial reboot.

I had what I thought was the brilliant idea to reach out to reconnect with a group of my high school friends, who shared a very special moment in time and mentorship with our Theatre Professor from 1977 – more than forty years ago. We called them our Tutorials, weekly gatherings where we sipped our tea, listened to the radio and talked about the problems of the world before trundling off to chapel.

Utilizing the old fashioned medium of email, some internet sleuthing and the promise of revisiting a special and formative time in our young lives, I invited the group to have a zoom tutorial. Scheduling this online group chat was one of the more challenging scheduling problems I’ve tackled (even as a life-long stage manager). All was set for tomorrow morning at 6:10AM PDT, 9:10AM EST when the participants started dropping like flies. The excuses were among the more creative ones I’ve ever encountered.

The yoga class that I teach with incarcerated men has been changed to Sunday morning.

And I’m thinking I can’t even bend at the waist any more….

I’ll be in the Louvre at the time of our call and will try to make it work.

Can you stand in front of the Mona Lisa to prove this outrageous claim?

I’ll be in Sydney and it will be 11:10PM and I may need to get to sleep.

For crying out loud! We have four time zones to coordinate here.

Clearly these are interesting and worthwhile connections to resuscitate; it may take olympic level scheduling skills work out the next chat. That and the willingness of the others to re-boot these friendships.

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”

 

Don’t Go

The image above is one of those perfectly encapsulated generational images. On the left, our son, age 2 and 3 months, poised in his dandy finery next to the knob on Thanksgiving, impish smile as he reached for the doorknob, his favorite talisman of the terrible twos. On the right, a photo of his daughter, age 2 and 4 months, hand extended in an eerily familiar manifestation of her DNA. Both photos say “Don’t go.” But in the one on the left, it was we who were saying “Don’t go” and on the right, it is our granddaughter who wears the universal mien of the child who wants her parent to stay. I haven’t asked Chris who took the shot, but I’m assuming from his Instagram post that he evoked this tragic look of loss on her little face.

April has been a month rich with visits, starting with a spring break visit from our son and his wife and daughter, three days full of flurried energy. Our guest bedroom isn’t the comfiest spot for a family of three, but we’ve hungered for connection, so it was great to have them here.  This last visit was taxing because unbeknownst to me, Jimmie was becoming dangerously anemic.

Our second visit was from our dear friend Susan, who resides in South Africa. Her trips are about the clearest demonstration of a friend’s love that I’ve ever witnessed. Two legs of travel, the first 10 hours, the second 16. Each way. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to stay awake while here to visit, and to watch baseball with Jimmie while I head off to work. The last day of our visit was cut short, when I drove Jimmie to Hotel Good Samaritan to find out why he was so exhausted. Susan, ever gracious, had cleaned the house and left us flowers reminiscent of those she left 34 years ago in our honeymoon suite after executing the Maid of Honor duties for our wedding.

The third visit was Jimmie’s niece, Martha, come to support me through the last weekend of productions in the spring semester. I called her on Wednesday, she arrived Thursday evening and began taking care of us selflessly, as she has done so many times before. She cooked for us, spent time with Jimmie, and still managed to make discoveries around downtown LA, checking in on the progress of the mural in Pershing Square.  She discovered a new dangerous french bakery/cafe opposite Pershing Square, where she picked up the best blueberry scones I’ve had ever. Martha has an enormous zest for life and such style that I am constantly finding myself wanting to emulate her. She was as ever, a good sport, when I cajoled her into participating in one of the spring productions at USC, entitled Don’t Go.

Don’t Go was a devised, exploration in collaboration with the Sojourn Theatre Company, under the auspices of USC’s Arts Initiative, “Visions and Voices” of what happens when strangers meet, form a relationship, then discuss a topic that they may not see through the same lens. For a year, we’ve been planning this artist residency, and for the past four months or so, we’ve cast the seven student actors, and then the Strangers. The rehearsal period and performances were the culmination of this phase of the project, which I suspect will have a future life in the capable hands of the Sojourn Theatre.

I’ve come to appreciate the kindness of Strangers. Both at work and at home. Yes, capital S because the Strangers I met at work this month were many, curated from the USC campus and from among friends, family and neighbors within the larger Los Angeles area. The play demanded participation of seven of these curated souls each night, and finding them initially seemed impossible given the constraints of our other productions and the fact that each day only had 24 hours. Guided by the directors of the piece, Nikki Zaleski and Rebecca Martinez, we reached out to create bridges across the campus and with other theatrical institutions, such as The Pasadena Playhouse, which yielded willing participants to this theatrical and social experiment. Potential Strangers were asked to fill out a brief survey, indicating their availability for specific dates and performances or rehearsals, and some brief questions to unearth issues that they might feel strongly about. Meanwhile, the directors were building a structure for the conversations to take place while guest scenic designer and artist Aubree Lynn simultaneously designed a habitat. Student Costume and Projection Designer Mallory Gabbard worked to create clear instructional projections and a curated wardrobe to support the desired environment.

Student Lighting Designer Abby Light created a flexible plot which could both color and provide movement around the space for the conversations to unfold. Student Sound Designers Jacob Magnin and Noah Donner Klein grappled with the physics of reinforcing sound in unpredictable places throughout the theatre.

Most impressive to me was the ingenuity of the Stage Management team, students Lexi Hettick and Domenica Diaz, who communicated throughout the process with our Props Manager, Hannah Burnham, as the tasks to foster relationships evolved. In tech and performance, Lexi created an improvised tracking system to call lighting, sound and projections as determined by Sojourn artists, Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd, who took us all on the journey each night. It was different each night, because the topics selected were different. Lexi’s and Domenica’s focus in tech was laser clear and sound, live mixed by Noah was integral to the audience’s ability to follow the show.

The take away for me from the month of April is the blessing of generosity in the people around us all the time were we only to be aware. As negative as the current news cycle is, it is sometimes easy to think we are surrounded by danger all the time. My personal visits at home and the circumstances of the Sojourn piece allowed me to appreciate that we can easily share our common humanity with a complete stranger over the course of anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes of getting to know them. We may present ourselves to the world in a way which may be very different from what is in our hearts.

Yesterday, a new visiting nurse came to check up on Jimmie, post-hospital stay. She and I had been playing phone tag a bit, and we were expecting her between 6 and 7pm. Starving, Jimmie and I downed a bowl of potato chips, and I went to see what of Martha’s magical leftovers were in the refrigerator, not intending to prepare them until the nurse left. She arrived, a young woman in her early to mid-twenties, clad in blue scrub pants, a gray t-shirt, and sneakers, a bounce in her stride that jostled her braids. Within the ten minutes of our meeting, she knew that I taught theatre (which surprised her), and we knew that she lived in the neighborhood and had a four year old with brain trauma. How do we know these things? Because we allow ourselves to be interested in each other. To take advantage of the most cursory and peripheral engagements to be curious about who they are. What do they think about this? That?

With our hands on the doorknob, poised for flight, we have the opportunity to say to each other, Don’t Go. Stay a while. Let’s share our common humanity.

 

The Invisible Life of a College Professor

Lately I’ve become obsessed with what I’ve started calling the “invisible work.” All the non-evident administrative tasks that are needed to the move processes forward. Lest you think this is going to be one big whinge-a-thon, you can relax. I’m gonna peel back the curtain and let you see some of what we college professors really do. Disclaimer: I love my job so those of you sniffing around the edges for a potential job opening, it’s not here. I hopefully have many more years of happy invisibility. But, having said that, it riles me to hear someone say,

You professors have really cushy jobs.

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Disclaimer: Quite old photo of this college professor at her desk and at her target weight.

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