Actually… it should be required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maskirovka as a tool on College Campus

There was a fascinating story on the front page of the New York Times yesterday by Andrew E. Kramer entitled Decoys in  Service of an Inflated Russian Might about the use of inflatable “dummy” military lures by the Russians. There were so many things that intrigued me about the article:

  1. That there were photos of these inflatable MIG-31 fighter jets taken by the New York Times (James Hill) from a distance of what looked to be less than 10′. This in and of itself contradicted the secretive purpose of the objects. The descriptions of their inflation, the company that makes them, etc. indicate that it’s common knowledge that they exist. The article even cited the fact that you could see in radar images the inflation and deflation of the devices, but obviously the trickery must work or the Russians wouldn’t go to the expense of fabricating them and then rolling them out.
  2. The theatricality of these objects and their deployment is extraordinary. It is mind boggling that somewhere in Russia in a Rusbal warehouse there are people stitching together these set pieces (you can see the video on their website – looks like a costume shop). That military TDs then are sent out to load them into temporary sites and strike them immediately afterwards, so that they appear and disappear with the ephemeralness of a site-specific theatre piece is extraordinary. This underscored again the relevance of theatre to the larger human condition. Of course, I would prefer to not see theatre militarized in such a fashion. Not the first time, of course; we have had all too many examples of the militarization of personalities using theatrical practice – Hitler comes to mind.

But the article stayed with me last night and I sat down to blog about it but didn’t yet have the hook as to it’s staying power. It is a much more personal issue that the concept of Maskirovka awakens in me.

Recent press about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s sexual bravado (last Sunday) and accused sexual assault (by Wednesday) made tangible what I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. After watching students deal with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted, these inflatables seem metaphoric to the campus experience. I don’t just speak about my university – the statistics about young women on college campuses and sexual assault are staggering.

Putting aside the grossest metaphor  of “inflatables” in a sexual sense, I am haunted by the image of the representation of a real object with a decoy as it relates to the aftermath of sexual assault. Disclaimer – I was the victim of a sexual assault in college, after leaving my eating club one night, having had way too much to drink. The episode, which I did not report because I was embarrassed to not remember what had happened, has remained with me for 35 years. I am a resilient person, and the event has less power in my life at this point; I have confronted it, examined it, flogged it, and more or less put it away. I do recall the time immediately following the event, when I had to continue attending classes, work at my student job, show up at the theatre at night as a stage manager, inflate myself with enough confidence to even come out of my dorm and not be afraid of every man on campus because I had no memory of what “he” looked like. I was a walking decoy for my wounded and vulnerable self. Classic Maskirovka.

Spending time on campus now as an adult and professor,  I am aware of events that unfold for many young women, and I see the aftermath of the abuse, but in a peripheral way, like the Times photographer standing close by and watching the military decoys inflate and deflate.  The other aspects of Maskirovka, denial and deception, are very much at play in these circumstances. In my own case, I practiced a huge amount  of denial with myself and with my closest friends, concealing from them any and all details of the event, not discussing it with anyone, and stuffing it away. It was only 25 years later when I had some counseling that I realized, AHA! I could have dealt with it more directly, treated myself more kindly by accepting assistance in processing the event with counselors who were, even in the early 1980s, available to me on my campus.

Hear me, Donald Trump, 25 years had passed since the event before I sought to explore it in any way.

A sexual assault is a lot to process. Time doesn’t slow down while one does or doesn’t do the processing. The daily demands to remain connected, far more than when I was in college with no email, rudimentary computers, no cell phones, places even more pressure on young women to conceal their panic, their grief, their heartbreak about what has happened to them.

Last night I listened to a CNN panel discussion about the “opportunistic” timing of Jessica Leeds’ and Rachel Crooks’ accounts of inappropriate touching by Donald Trump as a means to slander him. It made me furious just as obviously his statements galvanized something in both of them on Sunday night to make them reach out to tell their stories.

The story about decoy, denial and deception is an old story for many of us and a painful new story for many young women. We all need to be aware of the people around us, some of whom are not themselves, but inflated stand-ins passing for themselves as they move through processing their experiences.

So, as if I needed any more reasons to be with Her, thank you Donald Trump for triggering this last one.

More Elk Confidants

The first two weeks of school are always insanely busy, but even more so this year for me. Mr. Big Head has been a great companion this week. He’s become the reason for many visits from many of my stage managers. But not just stage managers came to dote on him. Other artists of the design stripe came and saw and rendered.  Zach Blumner came one afternoon and I invited him to draw Mr. BH and within about 10 hours, I had received the drawing below. That’s the kind of idolatry we are dealing with here.

Faculty came and paid homage.

Then there were the stage managers who couldn’t take their eyes off of him.

I honestly don’t know how I got a salt lick of work done this week with all the fawning that was going on.  I think it’s probably time for you to come visit me and have your portrait taken with Mr. Big Head.

The Gospel At Colonus – Opening Night

COLONUS ARTFew events in the theatre evoke more anticipation than opening night. Events leading up to the Opening night for The Gospel at Colonus have flooded my memory with earlier openings and the elements that make them both thrilling and poignant.  Opening night is the night that a director turns the show over to the cast, and in this case, the cast, crew, band and choir. It is poignant and I am almost always sad to bid the director adieu. In this case, I am certainly sorry to bid good-bye to director Andi Chapman, with whom I have relished working.

Yes, tonight marks the night when Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting cues are set, the sound has been programmed and mixed by designer Philip G. Allen in the days leading up to tonight. Naila Aladdin Sauders’ last-minute costume adjustments will have been made. As Stage Manager, my role will be to make sure that the cast continues to do the show according to the realized visions of the director and musical director, Abdul Hamid Royal. So to that extent it is complete. We are ready to open.

Historically, Opening night is the night when a show reaches maturity, solidifies, or in the immortal words of Ethel Merman,

”Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”

IMG_4447 2

Nikki Potts and the cast of “The Gospel At Colonus” during the rousing “Lift Him Up” number has folks standing and clapping in their seats.

This is ironic considering that what we do in the theatre is the antithesis of frozen. There is nothing solid in the activity that transpires between a cast on stage and an audience in the house, which is, after all, what theatre is – the meeting of story tellers and story receivers. Our art is ephemeral in the purest and most exhilarating form.

The Gospel At Colonus’ specialness sits somewhere between the edge of the stage and the gold carpeted stairs leading into the auditorium. I have watched it over the past two nights of previews. The show is not frozen, nor is it confined to a passive experience on the part of the audience, nor by rote or perfunctory performances by anyone on stage. It is a living, breathing celebration of our humanity.

In the past several days, our preview performances coincided with the terrible events transpiring in South Carolina and the aftermath of the senseless murder of 9 people in the historic Emmanual A.M.E. Church. On Wednesday night, during our invited dress, at Intermission, when I checked my phone, I had received a CNN bulletin about the events. I shut my phone off to silence the cacophony of my emotions to finish the show. Over the next two days, as we have all processed our feelings individually, I have taken great solace in the work before me each night, both from the cast and band and choir, and from witnessing the effect of that work on the audiences, as they stood throughout the show to applaud and sway in time with the music.

The story of Oedipus’ redemption on stage was eerily mirrored yesterday by the incredible grace of the families in the courtroom as one by one, they forgave the young terrorist Dylann Roof for his unfathomable actions.

I believe in the power of theatre to heal. I believe in the spiritual power of this theatrical event. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply spiritual person with a strong belief in the power of the human experience both one on one and in a theatre as a transformative power. Whatever is happening out in the world, and there are some pretty horrible things happening out there, the theatre has always been my church. I have taken comfort post-tragedy in the shared and sacred spaces of theatrical creativity – on the night after 9/11, from the booth at the Canon Theatre, where I watched the cast of the Vagina Monologues perform their words with heavy hearts, to the first preview of The Gospel At Colonus, where the words and music of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson can’t help but be tinged with our collective heartache over the events in South Carolina.

I have been healed by the fervor and passion and raw talent gathered on the stage at the liminal space between that top step and the house.

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”[1]) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

Wikipedia

The welcome disorientation of those on stage and the audience in the house for The Gospel At Colonus is the strongest I have ever felt in the theatre.

Last night on headset, I reported to the crew during “Lift Him Up”

“The first row is standing and clapping.”

“Now the second row is up.”

IMG_4462

Another ritual of Opening Night. Flowers from my Dad and his wife.

Tonight’s Opening night promises to be thrilling as all opening nights in the theatre are, but especially keen due to the gifts of these artists in this place and in this time. This production’s scale and cost is a gamble for any theatrical producer, and Wren T. Brown along with Gayle Hooks of the Ebony Repertory Theatre have nurtured the production to beautiful fruition.

It is such an honor to be working with these artists and I celebrate continuing to break down that fourth wall with our audiences in the coming weeks.

Happy Opening!

Luna Gale

Luna Gale – 

Once in a while I have the privilege of attending a theatrical performance that moves me profoundly on many levels and reminds me why theatre is so vital to our lives.

Yesterday I attended Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman at the Kirk Douglas Theater. I had been warned both by word-of-mouth and by written reviews of the play that it was undeniably good; that the subject was difficult but powerful.

Not your normal holiday fare in any sense, the play opens in an emergency room of a hospital where two young people, one in a post meth coma, the other tweaking out of her mind and force feeding skittles into the mouth of her comatose mate. It seems like there is no one in the hospital; the window is shuttered and these two, and us with them,  are trapped in some hellish anteroom. Their behaviors are unsettling, and when the social worker emerges from the shuttered room, we learned that their baby, being treated offstage in a space they can no longer gain access to, has been taken into protective services.
As an audience, we are as hooked as these young parents are.

As the adoptive parent of a child taken into protective custody prenatally when his mother was arrested for drug use, I was mesmerized.

I’m not going to detail all the resulting scenes of the play, because the play unfolds delicately, subtly, powerfully, and to do so would spoil it for you. Ultimately, my assumptions about the social welfare system and its inner workings were shaken, and  the play reminded  me that however perfect we think we are, we are all humanly flawed. That the calm, efficient demeanor of those who help within the social welfare system could be as complex as the more visibly chaotic clients’ lives.

What moved me so much was not that, though I found that fascinating about the play. It was the power of a theatrical performance to lay it all out in front of us for our observation and betterment. It was a visceral reminder that our lives are not so much haphazard, but result from our  journeys taken, not all of which are positive or evident to the outside world.

Rembrandt

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, by Rembrandt van Rijn.  For some reason I was reminded of this painting in the deft plotting and direction of Luna Gale

Rebecca Gilman plots “Luna Gale” with surgical precision – – aided by the steady hand of director Robert Falls, who shaped the story’s arc of acting moments to unfold truthfully, strategically, and with unrelenting surprises along the route.

Mary Beth Fisher’s performance as Caroline, the social worker, who wends her way through the emotional and behavioral IED-strewn family history of baby Luna Gale, gives sanctity to playing the current beat and not ever divulging what lies ahead. She is unflappably human in the way that live theatre can render. Her journey is our journey; however dissimilar the path she has taken, her resolution is ours.

I don’t really know how to say exactly what I experienced yesterday at the Kirk Douglas. Talking about the play afterwards with my husband over dinner at the nearby Café Vida, I found myself crying.

He and I have some experience in the world of the play.  Twenty-three years ago, we adopted our son, Chris, through the Department of Children Services in Los Angeles. The process came flooding back to me while I was watching the play. The process of terminating parental rights, and the moral morass that the thought of that action created returned with a  physical gut-wrenching moment.

However, our adoption experience was very different from that in the play. So it wasn’t just the pain of the play’s specifics  that affected me, but the play’s ability to open an observation window, like the one on stage into the visitation nursery, through which we could feel the effect of the resource shortages on these specific humans. We’ve all read about the shortages and failures of the system in the paper. But yesterday, every one of us in that theatre felt it in a tangible, personal and emotional way. And that’s what made me cry.

The play reached off of the page and through the well-orchestrated production elements assembled by Robert Falls and his team of gifted designers, reached right into my heart and pulled it hard.

And that’s the value of theater. That’s why I go so often to the theater.  I need to be pulled and made to think beyond the safety of my world. I left the theater, wanting to take every person I knew to that play.

I actually considered over dinner and for the rest of the day, what would it take for me to become a social worker? I know the more cynical among you are thinking – oh, Els got her emotional Yaya’s off at the theater and then she’ll go back and continue in her daily life. Blah blah blah. What does it matter if she takes no action from this powerful event?

But I’m reminded that every day as I teach and work with students making theater, that this is what we are striving to do. This is the power of our art. This is the power of our daily work and struggles against budgets and resources and time. We all are struggling to make a play that has the impact of Luna Gale. and there is nothing wrong or dishonorable about that. Thank you,Rebecca Gilman, for reminding us all of our life’s work.

Animals Out Of Paper…In The Hallway

1050x420_Animals-Out-of-Paper_quote_aIt’s been a busy few days at my condo building. We have a closed loop water cooling AC system in our 15 story building. I had always thought that we were responsible for our personal cooling units in our apartments, and in fact we are, but I hadn’t realized until last Monday that we are all inextricably linked by an umbilical cord to the roof of our building. There, there sits a large tank, from which circulates the water that our units rely on for AC. Sometime last Monday, the AC stopped cooling and eventually, the AC Service company figured out that the tank had no water in it. We had notices taped to our doors to turn off the AC until they resolved the issue. On Friday, they realized that one of the commercial tenants, Starbucks, not to name names, had left a valve on which had drained the tank.

I’m not sure how I feel about Starbucks having the control over such an important valve. Hmmm. 200 units x two thirsty, hot residents x $4.00 for a frappuchino x 5 days= $8,000.00. Not chump change. Hit that valve, again will ya, Freddy?

Anyway, it has been a rough few days, with temperatures in the high 90s downtown. Made me glad I lived next to a Starbucks. Hey, wait a minute.

Friday night, we attended a new play called “Animals Out of Paper”, by playwright Rajiv Joseph, at East West Players. I came straight from work. We dined in Japan Town, at the Green Bamboo Cafe, incongruously called a sports bar, where a table of rowdy young men and women were drinking beers and laughing at regular  and spasmodic intervals. One of the men had a laugh like a tommy gun, the metallic scattershot ringing throughout the bar and out onto the street where we sat. The air was cooling – the week’s terrible heat finally seemed to have broken, and meandering between the tables and the storefronts were a parade of yuppies and hardcore homeless men, without shirts or shoes, some of them without their wits, conversing animatedly with themselves while meandering through the traffic on the street.

The play was great; the three characters’  relationships folded, unfolded, refolded, like the paper figures made by the origami master and her protegé in the play. The young man in the play, Kapil Taliwalker, a current student at USC, gave a  performance that was  bold and expressive. Tess Lina and C.S. Lee were strong performers as well, Tess Lina angry and self-protective, C.S. Lee funny and vulnerable. Jennifer Chang, the director, orchestrated one of the best scene transitions I have ever seen in a play, using music and choreography and the character of the boy to bring it to life. The scenic design by Naomi Kasahara, employed folding walls to create the three diverse sets, which surprised us in their versatile and unexpected openings in Act II. Striated by light, the sets were lit with depth and texture by Tom Ontiveros. Melanie Chen’s sound design was vibrant and infused the evening with energy.

We always have a great experience at the David Henry Hwang Theatre. The house manager, Danny, takes care to usher us upstairs to the theatre in the lift. Last night it was broken, so he took us up in the rear elevator, and we came through from the back stage door, through the darkened backstage, the house and into the upstairs lobby. The inside of the theatre was draped with elaborate origami creations made by audience members, I think. Because we missed the lobby, we missed the table where people could fold creations of their own.  We returned to our sweltering apartment, grateful for the time away and the edification and thought-provoking evening out.

Back in our own building, yesterday,  the AC issue was resolved. Carlos, a custodian, came to our apartment and reset the fuse for the AC unit, allowing us to turn it back on. After five days, it was a joy to feel the little arctic gust coming from the vent. Crisis averted.

Our next door neighbors were moving down to one of the garden apartments on the first floor. They had been moving themselves for two days, and with no AC in the building, were exhausted. I ran over to Ralph’s to get them some fruit and muffins for breakfast  so that they could sleep in, and had just delivered them and come back upstairs when I heard an enthusiastic ringing of the doorbell. Hearing jovial voices outside, and thinking they were coming to say thank you, I swung open the door, instead greeted by a tall young man in a gray T-shirt and shorts, and a short dark-haired girl with a striped shirt and braces. The boy thrust out his sweaty palm and introduced himself as John, and his friend, Daisy.

“We’re in a competition to earn points for a trip to Italy!” He pushed the familiar laminated ID card of sales identification  into my reluctant hand. He instructed me to flip it over to see on the back that they could in fact go to Italy. If you have ever been assaulted at your door by these sales animals,  you know the drill. Whatever you are looking at is printed with such small type that there is no way you would ever be able to read it. Meanwhile, the steady barrage of enthusiasm and guilt-inducing sales pitch came at a relentless pace. I raised my eyes from the card and tuned back into his spiel.  “And here, you are supposed to ask us how do you earn your points?!”

Since we have lived in our 24-hour secure apartment building, it’s been a very long time since I have had to say no to someone soliciting at the door, and so  I was still trying to figure our how they even got upstairs.

” I am pretty sure this building doesn’t allow people to go door to door, so what are you doing here? Do you live in the building?”

The young woman piped up, “We have just been visiting our friend Mr. Donald, who lives down the hall. Do you know Mr. Donald?” I nodded weakly. ‘Mr. Donald’ is the president of our Homeowners Association and a very savvy man. I was sure he had not encouraged these sweaty, enthusiastic teens to meander through the halls of our condo building ringing the door bells and interrupting our Saturday evening.

What is wrong with me? Why was I unable to say, “I’m not interested. Go away. I will report you to the guards downstairs.” I must have said something about the guards, because now ‘John’ was saying “I am dating the sister of one of the guards downstairs and so he let us up.” Now I knew that was patently untrue. Such an act would ensure the loss of a guard’s job. Now John was saying “They allow up to 8 of us at a time into the building.”

While he blathered, John was scribbling out  a receipt and reassuring me that I didn’t have to buy magazines, “NO! This is just about picking out a book for some children to receive,” his tone of voice implying that should I not pick out the books, one for the girls, a second for the boys, I would fall into the class of heartless miscreant. The paper he pushed toward me was filled with small writing and pictures of books. While he filled it out, he was peppering me with insanely stupid questions like “What is your favorite color? And don’t say pink or purple, all the ladies say that. What’s your favorite football team? We are supposed to ask as much information as we can to report back to win our trip to Italy. I want to be a football television announcer!”

My un-air-conditioned brain, the hallway still uncooled by the recent reactivation of the air; my Mom muscle which wanted to support hard-working teens to gain points to go to Italy;  my sadness that this pimply teen would  never reach his goal of television football announcer, these things swam in my skull as I watched them fill out their papers and thrust them toward me expectantly.  I struggled to do the math and came up with the fact that they were now asking me for $120.00 to buy two books for the girls and the boys in the hospital and they would accept a credit card or a check or cash….. WTF?

I backed into the apartment, and from the couch where Jimmie was watching the game, I heard, “Who was that?” And I mumbled, ashamed, now enslaved by their sales pitch and my middle class guilt as I reached for my wallet. “Some kids who are trying to raise money for a trip to Italy,” and then, yes, I’m mortified to tell you this, I handed them three crisp $20.00 bills and took their sweat stained receipts, one for my taxes, and one for my records. I watched numbly as they affixed a small sticker that read “Don’t bug me” on my doorbell plate, so that the 6 other teens marauding through my building would not also ring my bell. As I closed the door, I thought that sticker really says “A complete fucking moron lives in this apartment,” and I reached my hand outside and peeled it off the bell.

I closed the door,  my heart engorged with buyer’s remorse. I told my husband what happened, and then as quickly as I could, I grabbed my keys and headed out into the hallway, down to the guard’s desk, sputtering about how they told me the guards had let them upstairs because one was dating the guy’s sister, and there, at the desk,  a middle-aged Korean man who lives on the 5th floor and who’s wife had just talked with them, too, was sputtering in equal outrage. One of the guards jumped up, grabbed his walkie-talkie and ran to the elevators. I waited at the desk, and in a few minutes, saw him escorting them out. Feebly, I cried out – “That’s them!” And they turned, looking back over their shoulders at me  with disgust, as if to say “You are the reason we will not go to Italy.”

Now, as I examine the yellow and pink receipts, the language on the side mocks me, “You, the BUYER, may cancel this transaction IN WRITING at anytime prior to midnight of the third business day after the date of sale. See the notice of cancellation form on the reverse of this receipt for an explanation. NO REFUNDS AFTER THE CANCELLATION PERIOD EXPIRES.

IMG_2801I remembered that after I paid the cash to them, John had torn off my receipt without marking how I had paid, so probably I will be unable to recoup my losses, but I will go through the motions anyway. Just to regain some dignity against these animals out of paper in the hallway. 

A Classic Teacher’s Nightmare – Vacation Must be over

Last night I had a classic teacher’s nightmare. I dreamt that we were at the theater and we were having orientation for new students and we had some tables set up in the lobby of the bing. We were doing some practicum games,whatever that is, and our students were performing in teams. Sitting with me at my table I had two students whose first language was French. One’s name was Quatre-vingt-dix-neuf  and the others ones name was Trente-huit.  I had one of those moments where they each told me their names twice and I leaned in to listen carefully, before I realized that they were saying large French numbers.

“Isn’t it interesting that you both have large French numbers for names?”

In addition they were both so eager to tell me how much they preferred French 18th-century drama to anything else, that by the end of the two minute conversation I was practically weeping with intimidation.

One of my colleagues and I were on our way out of the theatre at the end of the evening because the next morning we had class with all of these students at Eight AM.

Before turning away from the students for the evening, I said to the group, “Well, did you learn anything tonight?”

Two of the six students turned to me with bored expressions and said “No.”

My colleague and I were both rushing because I had not apparently finished the syllabus.

He went to turn off the lights, but there were still about 45 people in the theater. I had to say him, “Don’t you think we should leave those lights on?” This was very uncharacteristic of my colleague.

Right then one of the returning students walked in in a hospital gown, carrying a newborn baby in her arms. More accurately, the baby was kind of strapped to her chest. I remember being much more interested in seeing who the boy’s face with her was, presumably the dad, wearing a name tag which read Jose, then taking in the fact that this student of mine had a baby strapped to her chest. Human interest I guess.

“Ellen,” I said, “when did you have the baby?”

“Oh, I just came from the hospital,” she said brightly.

“Ellen, I don’t think you’re supposed to take the baby out for the first 10 days.” (What do I know?)

“No, it’s fine,” she said in her ever present upbeat attitude. Very Ellen.

Then I woke up. Can you tell I am going back to work on Monday after three weeks off? Hmmm.

“Giving Up Is Hard To Do”

Annie Abbott

Annie Abbott’s “Giving Up Is Hard To Do” at the Santa Monica Playhouse is a play about taking intimacy risks.

Now that I think about it, attending a play at the Santa Monica Playhouse always feels a little risky. The lobby is jammed with dusty props left over from other shows- books stacked on a shelf high above the box office window seem perilously close to falling. Glasses on another high shelf seem ready to cascade off.  A gilded violin lies on it’s back at the bottom of the stairs like a stranded beetle with legs- oh no, those are artificial flowers splayed around its body. A dress form with a red T-shirt, adorned in pearls, it’s neck topped with a discarded crown, jauntily greets us as we enter. Two tiny crystal chandeliers adorn the ceiling. The lobby is a veritable cornucopia of discarded theatrical props.

Once inside, the theatre is surprisingly intimate- only about 8 rows of 10-12 seats, with two side sections of seats that look woefully divorced from the main house. It is crowned with the most derelict of lighting equipment.  Safety chains  are unnecessary because the yokes of the antique fresnels and lekos are bolted right into the tracks, their white cords and white plugs plugged into the ceiling. Here and there are 25 foot long extension cords snaking their way amidst the lights. The picture below I took just as the pre-show announcement excoriated the audience to not  record or photograph any thing.

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Surely my illicit photo does nothing to threaten the intellectual property of the lighting designer; the inventory of any other theatre has so eclipsed this one that an equivalent design would be impossible.

“Giving it Up” begins with Annie Abbott, the writer and solo performer, entering from the back of the auditorium as though she were the next speaker for a self-help meeting geared to nonagenarians, a clever device as she refers to the previous speaker whose topic I will not spoil for you.

Her energy high, her cadence quick, she blurts out a rush of personal observations, describing the prospect of online dating for the over 70 set. She is funny, truthful, unflinching throughout. She switches easily to her recent attendance at friends’ wedding, a couple who met online and have included in their ceremony’s notes their original postings that led them to each other. Annie is stunned by the candor of the woman’s post, her frank description of her sexual and sensual preferences. Her attitude seems to be  “I have felt these things as well but didn’t know it was okay to say it.”

And therein lies the success and universality of Ms. Abbott’s material.

For the hour and ten minute performance she candidly discusses her marriage and children. She challenges the privacy usually afforded breast cancer  with humor and wades through the pathos of the sudden and unexpected loss of her husband. My husband and I had known Annie’s husband, Ron,  with whom she had shared an eventful and rich life, and whose loss left a chasm in hers and her children’s lives.  The evening feels a bit longer than its 70 minutes. Occasionally, Annie could stand to project a tad more strenuously. A few patrons were overheard to say “What did she say?”

 In spite of these insignificant shortcomings, this solo performance is obviously just one of the ways Annie Abbott has found to fill the chasm and to resume her life. Her journey includes the formative voices of both her grandmother and her grandchildren; we can see her grandmother’s spirit in Annie, as well as Annie’s spirit in her daughter’s children. She provides us all a service here, through her generosity and depth, her wit and candid intimacy and by showing us the path that led her to this quirky venue.

 

The Attraction of Cults

 

Tonight, I attended Jesse Mu-En Shao’s play, “The End Times,” a play about  an extremely cultish Christian community. The play had  great resonance for me.

When I was a junior in college in Spring 1981, and still fancied myself destined to be a great actress, I had a friend in acting class named Wendy.

Wendy and I were doing a scene for  our acting class about these two little old ladies who sold lemonade on the side of the road. In the scene  it is eventually revealed that the lemonade is spiked, and the two become hammered during the scene. Wendy and I had the brilliant idea that if we made some pot brownies and ate one before rehearsing the scene, we would achieve the effect of getting high like the little old ladies in the scene. Smart, right? Sounds like a couple of dopey college students – no pun intended.

I had been given some extremely strong pot butter by one of my older brothers, and I brought the green jar over to Wendy’s dorm room, where we made a pan of brownies while discussing our “approach” to the scene.  I had also wanted to talk with Wendy was because I was taking a GE Religion class, the topic of which was Religion or Cult, and I had elected to write a paper about the  E.S.T. movement, by “infiltrating” a training and outing it as a cult. I knew that Wendy had already taken the training.

From Wikipedia:
“The Erhard Seminars Training (est), an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard, offered a two-weekend (60-hour) course known officially as “The est Standard Training”. The purpose of est was “to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself.” The est training was offered from late 1971 to late 1984.”

So, as the brownies baked,  Wendy proceeded to reel me in, and I prepared to  test my hypothesis that est was a cult, not a religion.

The brownies finished, cooled, and we cut the pan’s contents into 12 squares. We each ate one, and then rehearsed the scene. 15 minutes later, we looked at each other, and shrugged. Nothing. No high. We each ate another brownie. After another 20 minutes, nothing, so we ate a third each. After finishing a third pass at the scene and still feeling no ill or good  effects from the brownies, I left Wendy’s room, having decided that I would attend an est training in a few weeks, and went back to my room, where I proceeded to have a nightmarish  and hallucinogenic reaction to the brownies. Wasn’t pretty, and it was pretty much my last exposure to pot.

In a few weeks, Wendy drove us to the est training, located in a non-descrip industrial park in New Jersey, in a conference room  filled with about 200 chairs. Est ground rules dictated that the trainings were each 12 hours long, and there was one lunch break in the day, and very infrequent bathroom breaks. The philosophy was that difficult emotional discoveries  could not be avoided by a sudden urge to go to the bathroom if you were not allowed to leave the room. As a result, in addition to “getting it,” I have a bladder of steel and can sit through 6 hour meetings without breaking a sweat.

The thing about infiltrating a cult is that you need to do more than one visit to get the full 360 on it, and the thing about doing more than one visit is that you are in danger of getting sucked into the cult. There is intimacy in sharing a spiritual quest with others that binds you to the group.  It makes you enthusiastic about the work and about sharing the experience. That is what cults count on – that the people who come seeking spiritual sustenance are hungry for intimacy, for fellowship, and will gladly share their experiences with others.

When I had taken two trainings, and several workshops with the Werner Erhard and Associates group, I invited my Mom to come to Princeton for a workshop. She was, at the time, getting her Master’s Degree in Journalism at Columbia University, and she drove down to Princeton at the end of a long day of classes. All the poor woman wanted was a Manhattan and dinner with her daughter. But  I had an alternative agenda -to share with her this transformative experience. We went to the meeting, and there, I watched my intelligent, journalist mother look into the hollow and haunted eyes of one of the est participants. Only then as I watched her asking logical questions of them was I able to see the folly of my search for a spiritual identity. It was not going to happen in the bosom of est. Getting away from the group was not easy, again, as Jesse’s play described. I eventually left college and changed my address, even moved to Europe for a year, effectively breaking the bond with the denizens of the “human potential movement.”

The “getting away” was painted in dark hues in Jesse’s play tonight.  Listening,  we felt exhilarated by the religious fervor of the characters, then claustrophobic , stifled by the constraints of the group’s irrational rules; what was the most devastating thing was the limited  alternatives for the  characters who sought to escape the group, and the abysmal success rate of doing so. Kudos to you, Jesse Mu-En Shao. Thank you for sharing your powerful play with all of us.

New plantings in the garden

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Having passed through the festive Commencement arch a few weeks ago, I was beginning to feel the summer months approaching. I guess the 95+ temperatures in the week before Commencement should have clued me in, but with the grading and final committee meetings, portfolio reviews, awards banquets, and final exams, there just wasn’t time to get over to Home Despot to buy the plants to fill the planters on our balcony, which have sat empty of color and filled only with dessicated and dead soil.

That weekend marked the first time in a while that I didn’t have something else on my plate that I should have been doing, and so I jumped in the car and drove over to see what they had in the nursery at Home Depot.

I’m always looking for Hummingbird-compatible flowers for the boxes, but that seems less important since the feeders have satisfied them of late. I have always relied on the sales birds at Home Despot to guide me to the flowers that will interest  them. The real sales people are probably made nervous by my quiet observation of the nursery both inside and outside. That day, the birds were not in evidence, so I selected four small containers of Fuschia flowers, four small containers of lavender plants, and some lovely white daisies with blue centers for borders.

Came home and launched into the reno of the patio, tossing old dried up pots and augmenting the existing soil with a new layer of fresh potting soil. The flowers look great, and I am waiting for the birds to discover them.

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