You know you’re in a pandemic when…

  • You are devastated that your DMV Real ID Appointment has been cancelled
  • You can’t donate blood at the time you’ve made an appointment to
  • You spend twenty minutes practicing a challenge issued by a local museum to replicate famous paintings with what you have at home.
  • You spend another giddy half hour trying to find the ingredients in your home to copy a Vermeer Painting to meet the collegial challenge from a friend and discover yourself at 11:00PM, standing next to your closet wearing a white collared shirt, brown sweater, pearl necklace over one ear, with a shawl (the wrong color but the closest color you have) wrapped around your head, sprouting a yellow necktie out of the top to drape over your shoulder. You look beguilingly into the mirror in what you hope looks vaguely like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and realize what an idiot you look like and are and then end up giggling like a teenager until the reality of what you are doing and why you are doing it renders you mute and very sober.

So this is where we are in the middle of the second/third week of isolation. Don’t get me wrong. I have many things to be thankful for. I have a job still, no symptoms yet of having been infected, am able to reach out to friends and family via multiple means of technological wizardry that render the distance almost fictional. Almost. I’m certainly one of the lucky ones and I’m so very aware of that.

I share the above with the hopes that it will buoy your spirits a little, and let you know that there are a lot of ways to keep your mind occupied in this strange limbo time we find ourselves.

Ah! Limbo! Oh wait – I’d need someone else to hold the stick….

Hang in there, friends.

Rabbit Holes in a Virtual Maze

We’re entering our first week of full on teaching on Zoom and here are some of the aftereffects. Any teacher whose teaching on line trial by fire week coincided with Spring Break’s start knows that we had a week to flounder around on the interwebs and try to convince everyone that we can be masters of the pedagogical online universe. There are people who do this for a living and are quite good at it. Then there are those of us who teach theatre, the foundation of which is being in the room, performer and audience, sharing an experience that shimmers across space. I hate to break it to you, but there’s nothing liminal about the experience of teaching online, no matter how successful the technology is at making you feel like “you are there.”

Here are some early findings (anecdotal and enormously unscientific, but personal to this subject.) Again, I’ve really enjoyed my time as a teacher and colleague so on my way out…

I had two production meetings yesterday. There were tops 20 people in each of the “rooms.” NB: we are not in the room together, as much as we want to convince ourselves that we are.

  • My internet connection was unstable. How did I know this? Because everytime I spoke, someone would follow by saying things like “We can’t hear you, Els,” or “You sound like you are in the bottom of a large well.” “Try turning your camera off to improve your connection.” I resorted to chatting with them in the chat, fingers flying like a fiend, my heart racing about my connectivity in conducting a class with 96, only a week away.
  • Even with my poor internet speed, the skepticism of the students about what we were doing moving forward to complete our classes this semester was vividly clear. They weren’t buying it.

Faculty are working to invent things to stay the course in this unknown abyss of online instruction. We spend huge portions of the day sharing ideas with our colleagues and reworking amended syllabi that will reflect those ideas. But basically, we’re making it up and the back and forth and to and fro with colleagues takes hours and is exhausting. Yesterday I spent from 8:30AM until 11:30PM online with a brief venture outside for two and a half hours of driving things around town for our mask project. Its’s not the students’ fault that we are here. It’s not the faculty’s fault. And as much as the president wants to lower his xenophobic disdain on the bat guano in China to whom we may owe this pandemic, it’s not China’s fault either. Globally, we were not prepared. And as it gets more and more real, and closer to home, we all feel the anxiety.

When I finally went to bed last night, my body was quivering to the point that I started asking myself if I had the CV. But no, I think I was just in a state of exhaustion, over-stimulated by the screen and being “on” all day. This after one day back from Spring Break. We know from research that exposure to screens and the blue light can be disruptive to sleep. What are the effects of spending the entire day glued to our monitors with only brief moments of respite to walk 100 feet to the refrigerator? (A well worn track in my living room carpet shows me that I need to broaden my route.)

This morning, I woke at 3:00AM, fixated on the green light from my smoke detector, which from the position on my right side where I was lying, was in the upper left corner of my “screen.” Panicked, I thought it was the recording light of the class and that someone was trying to chat a question. I found myself fully alert, pawing at the adjustable bed remote on my nightstand, thinking it was a mouse on a pad. Funny? Yes, but a little terrifying, too.

These are not the behaviors of your professor that you may want to see reported, but face it, we’re all lab rats in a great societal study.

Over the weekend, I took solace in the online fundraiser for Actors Fund, Stars in the House, a twice-a-day house party with Broadway’s finest, co-hosted by the charmingly snarky Seth Rudetsky, star of Sirius/XM Radio’s On Broadway. He and his partner, James Wesley, can be found at their kitchen table twice a day, at 2PM and 8PM Eastern Time, luring Broadway stars to their desktops to share their talents over the questionable microphones that we all are experiencing. Amazing interviews peppered with stories of the shows they’ve done over the years and songs performed to tracks or the live accompaniment of their partners. If I could sing like some of their guests, I’d be doing it rather than chatting feverishly in my chat box. (Remove the h and we are in a cat box.)

Please forgive the screed. We are all in the same situation, students and faculty. Stuck at home, far from their friends, in their childhood bedroom which may or may not have been converted into a craft space in their absence, we are aliens in this brave new world of internet pedagogy. Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that this is not where we belong. Any of us. Students of the theatre, or practitioners/professors of the theatre practice.

Take some deep breaths. Lower your shoulders. Put on your meditation app. Or better yet, don’t. Stand up and go to the nearest window and look outside at the Real World. What do you see? Breathe. Breathe again. And remember. What we do is improvise. Think outside the box. Refine and refine and refine until we get it right.

Conditions are currently not ideal. Let me say that again. Conditions are currently not ideal. And I’d warrant may not be so for some time. This is what theatre people do all day. we deal with uncertainty. Budgets are uncertain and frequently we need to adapt designs to fit into them. We adapt. It’s our greatest weapon.

Take a moment to acknowledge that despite the reassurances, our future is uncertain. I had a text from some dear friends yesterday that I shouldn’t answer because I was driving all over hell and back in my car, but it was simple:

Is there a daily limit on Rabbit Holes?

Not these days!

I then referenced the brilliant Liz Callaway. If you don’t know her Auto Tunes series, go to her website and check them out. I can’t think of a better accompaniment to these times than her car bound rendition of “Children Will Listen.”

These are things that keep me awake these days besides the blue light or the green lights of my bedroom. What does the future for our industry look like? Will we ever feel comfortable sitting elbow to elbow in the dark sharing the magical liminal space between audience and performer? What about our homey practice of greeting our theatrical colleagues with a warm hug? Will we even need the services of the new field of Intimacy Coordinator in a post COVID-19 theatrical world?

Wow. Talk about a Rabbit Hole.

Okay, rather than going to go out on a complete downer, I’ll let Liz take us out on this more hopeful note with her rendition of Beautiful City from Godspell. Check out the amazing synchronicity of the ambulance driving by at the end. As she says, “Wow.”

Let’s adapt and bring a spirit of generosity to the work that we find ourselves doing, unwillingly. Remember that each of those students and faculty members that you find yourself gazing at through the window on your laptop are characters in a play that they didn’t want to be cast in. It’s the actors’ nightmare writ large. Let’s guide each other to find our way back on stage together.

Too Soon To Write?

Sloane Crosley wagged her finger at all of us who like to call ourselves writers today in her New York Times article, Pay Deep Attention, Don’t Write Yet. I get it. It made me think back to an email I wrote to my friend and journalist Todd Purdum a few days after 9/11. I cringe about the rawness and bathos of that email. Forty-one at the time, with a young child at home, to me, 9/11 felt like the end of the world. I forgive myself for writing it, just as Sloane Crosley presumably forgave herself for writing the column abjuring herself (and all the rest of us) to not write about COVID-19 now. Yet, it was really like a starter pistol for anyone who likes to write creative non-fiction. Abject navel-gazing in what we hope will be a universally appealing way? What could be more universal than what has befallen our planet in the last two weeks?

How many other writers started a novel entitled Shelter in Place this week? Show of hands?

Everything we know about writing tells us we should be recording these moments now and yes, paying deep attention to the feelings and circumstances we find ourselves in. I’ve been shielding myself during the day from the onslaught of news, which after I leave my “office” falls like the most bedraggled wet blanket across my shoulders. I check the stock market only once (okay, twice) a day to prevent myself from running into the kitchen to commit Harakiri with the black plastic handled CUTCO knife set my son’s teenage girlfriend sold to me on a day when I was feeling rich.

You know what it’s not too soon to write? Letters. I invite you to write letters to your friends. Text them now and get their mailing addresses. Then begin a letter-writing campaign. One a day. If you’re squeamish, don’t lick the envelopes. Use the bacteria-laden sponge in your sink. Write to your friends:

  • Tell them how much they mean to you
  • Tell them how much you miss them
  • Invite them to grab a coffee with you virtually one day next week. Give them a date. Tell them you’ll text them a zoom link.
  • Tell them about a particularly awful or wonderful thing you noticed this week that happened because of this shared pandemic we are learning to live with.
  • Tell them your biggest fear about this time we’re in.
  • Tell them about the moment you thought you wouldn’t make it through this.
  • Tell them your most embarrassing worry.
  • Tell them something you laughed about until you cried.

Write it down. Put a stamp on it and mail it. One of my colleagues from work recommended a book that I’m in the heart of now, called I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman. I love the book. It is so full of detail, and the characters so deftly drawn. One of them is the teenage son of a single mother, who gets a job working in a bookmobile.

It was about this time I started to write letters to other peoples’ fathers. I wrote a lot of these letters in the bookmobile during lulls. I wrote them on the backs of overdue notices, upwards of ten notices per letter.

Howard Norman: I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place

Why not write letters to other people’s fathers? Okay, how about just to other people! Drop them in the mail. Do it. What do you have to lose? Nothing. What do you have to gain? Perspective and reassurance that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t the only one afraid or lonely or bored during these extraordinary times we find ourselves in.

A long time ago, Jimmie and I had a dear friend, Sylvan Epstein, who was a canter by night, and a trader in the stock market by day. His wife, Candasa, was a painter, and they lived largely separated for a long time, she, doing her work in Damarascotta, Maine, and he in their penthouse on 56th Street in Manhattan. I don’t think they were estranged – she was a free spirit and not beholden to the conventional ideas about matrimony. For a brief time, she was in New York and she and Sylvan entertained frequently. They had a big terrace that wrapped around the side of their apartment. Sylvan also gave singing lessons and Jimmie would walk across Central Park with our shepherd, Jasper, and take his singing lesson at Sylvan’s house. Sylvan would end the lesson by giving Jimmie a chocolate from a box and Jimmie would eat 4/5ths of it, then give the remainder to Jasper, who would lick his chops the whole way home to the Upper West Side across the Park. But really, the reason I brought them up was that Candasa wrote the most beautiful letters in addition to being an exquisite painter. Getting a letter from Candasa was like winning the lottery.

Candasa had written this letter to Jimmie while he was acting in a production of The Rainmaker in La Mirada. We’d been living in California a good ten years by then, so Candasa’s lyrical beckon to us to come back to New York was nostalgic for the beautiful evenings we’d had on their terrace. If I could write a letter to Candasa now, I would let her know how special her epistolary outreach was to us. I wish I’d saved more of her letters in retrospect. While writing this, I learned that she was no longer with us.

So, my friends, it’s never too soon to write. Your letters will brighten someone’s dreary isolation and who knows, perhaps we can save the US Postal service while we’re at it.

North/South/East/West

Here’s how it goes these days. I start the morning at the south end of my dining room table, eating my breakfast, drinking my tea, reading my newspaper (for as long as they continue to slip it under my door). I’m taking bets that I’ll get the paper maybe through Friday before they either don’t let the guy come upstairs or the New York Times stops deliveries.

This morning, I’ve added a zoom cuppa with my production staff. Five of us met for a chat over our morning tea/coffee. I met with them from the west side, my camera shooting back into my kitchen. It was comforting to chat about the chaos and see how we’re all coping.

Yesterday, at 9:00AM, I scooted over to the east side of my dining room table, where I plugged in my earplugs and my laptop and embarked on a long day’s journey into the Zoomsphere, joining meetings of my colleagues to discuss the issues of the day – course realizations, business continuity. Yesterday I did an online training about breakout rooms, which I’m sorry to report left me extremely disappointed (no offense to the instructor, who was charming), but the vicissitudes of Zoom’s breakout rooms will not advance my cause of building group morale among the students in my Introduction to Theatrical Production class.

At 1:00PM, I unplugged my earbuds, leave them on the table and walk fifteen steps to my refrigerator, currently well stocked with a variety of vegetables and cheese and eggs. I had some roasted butternut squash and the couscous salad I made yesterday. I return to my South End dining position. I worked on the crossword puzzle in pen in honor of my husband’s practice. It was Tuesday when I wrote this, so the puzzle was solvable without too much trouble.

At 2:00PM, I plugged my earbuds back in and go back to work on the East Side. What’s ironic is I’m probably seeing more of my colleagues this week than I have in all the weeks preceding this. You can see the worry on their faces, the brittle laughter at our shared commiseration in the Zoomsphere. I can’t imagine a group of people I’d rather be keeping communal cyberspace with than my colleagues at the School of Dramatic Arts. They’re positive, hard-working and funny. I love them to bits.

I worked most of the day collaboratively in the google drive which this COVID-19 crisis is forcing me to master. Apparently, I haven’t mastered the inviting-to-the-zoom-meeting yet. My invitations leave a wake of colleagues wailing “I tried to RSVP and the zoom link disappeared!” This is unsettling. But at least, due to the patient coaxing of colleagues better skilled, I now know how to work in a google doc collaboratively.

At 7:00PM, I rose from the table which has become my self-contained world and wandered over to the parlor to do some writing. I would have loved to go to the gym and walk on the treadmill, or do some rowing on the rowing machine. I can say that now enthusiastically, now that they’ve closed the gym in my building in accordance with Mayor Garcetti and the LA Dept. of Health guidelines against COVID-19. I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll weigh 300 pounds by the end of the month. My fitbit isn’t syncing properly, and my former student has invited me to the weekly step challenge; I will make a poor showing unless I figure out the synching and also get up and walk around a little more. One of the gyms where I occasionally spin is offering to let people take bikes home for rental. Would it even fit in my car?

Post workday, upstairs I could still hear the heavy padding of the dog child who has gotten heavier since last week as they run across the floor the length of the living room.

Outside I heard the buses whizzing by, and when I lean over the railing, I can see the line at Ralph’s growing, then receding as they allow people into the store on a schedule I don’t yet understand. Last night I ventured over to Ralph’s to see what I could see – ostensibly I went for yogurt I thought I might try making my own yogurt. Ridiculous, because I don’t really eat very much yogurt anyway, but I thought I would try and flex my pioneer making skills. Tomorrow I may try to darn a sock or plant some corn on my balcony. I do have a pack of seeds from the Huntington’s 100th year celebration. Oh, did I mention that they closed the Huntington to visitors as well? If you recall, they were taking precautions earlier this spring around the Lunar New Year. Well, it’s official today, and heartbreaking. There goes my plan for some exercise over the weekend.

A picture from February 7, 2020 at the Huntington.

Most of the days are spent reworking assignments of the physical making of theatre we have done all semester and can no longer do. Talk about thinking outside of the box. I miss the students and find myself thinking about them incessantly. Hoping they are all okay.

Last night, I had to stop and take a moment to FaceTime with my son and his family just to remember what matters. My four-year-old granddaughter makes it very real what matters in this world.

Hang in there, world. Try not to stress eat yourselves to death.

Home Schooling – Early Days

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on Academia (capital A) and in particular, the theatre department in my college. We just completed three test days using virtual teaching in response to the Coronavirus. After Saturday, the University heads into our Spring Break recess, followed by an additional two weeks of Virtual instruction prior to a return to campus April 14th. There are a lot of courses across the university which are taught online already, and even many which are taught in a hybrid setting, part in the physical classroom, and part online. But this nouveau social experiment we embarked on this week requires us to utilize tools that are antithetical to the work we normally do which is human interaction with live spectators. We teach theatre.

And yet, as I flitted around cyberspace the other night, visiting two different rehearsals, both in their third day of rehearsal, I found the tool of Zoom to not be so terrifying. One group, the BFA Sophomore Actors, embarking on their first class show, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, leaned forward avidly into their cameras, all in their separate housing spaces. They shared research on fairy tale archetypes, then Shakespearean archetypes. I watched as the other cast members listened, their posture and interest peaking when they heard archetypes that resonated for their characters. I stayed in their rehearsal through the first break, then flitted off to another rehearsal, one of the New Works written by a second year dramatic writing MFA student. This was a smaller cast, their windows open, filling my zoom screen a little less completely. I watched as they read several scenes, looking down at their scripts, away from their screens for the most part; one of the actors delivered his lines directly to the screen, and my imagination projected forward to the inevitable question of “What would blocking look like in a zoom production?”

Sewing together the pieces of our Zoom Corona-Quilt of online instruction, theatre practitioners and researchers must all be asking about this national case study in virtual acting. How do we make this work? It isn’t obvious. Especially when circumstances mandate that we not complete the production arc the way we commonly do it, with a performance. This week, on Thursday, our school made the heartbreaking decision to cancel all the remaining plays in our spring semester.

Honestly, I thought to myself as I stepped off the bus tonight after back to back zoom meetings from 8:15AM-6:00PM, thank goodness Friday has arrived so that I can unplug. It’s exhausting. Two days of zooming around from meeting to meeting. Focussed on multiple things – the content of the discussion, the physical settings that all the participants are in – we’re suddenly witness to peoples’ home settings which can yank you right out of the content part of the discussion. What a pretty lamp, or why is there a baker’s rack behind that person? Do they moonlight as a baker? Isn’t that a lovely shade of paint on their wall? Ooh, I love that pillow. Oh crap, what were we talking about?

There’s the chat window which beckons – everyone can see it – sometimes peoples’ questions are on point, but sometimes they are late to the discussion, or completely off topic. Then there are the individual chats – do you acknowledge the question to the group in the spirit of transparency and universality of experience? The focus required is heroic. God forbid it’s your meeting to run. It can be stressy. If you are in academia you know what I’m talking about because we’re all figuring it out together. It’s exhausting, zooming hither and yon.

As far as shutting down our productions, we’re in good company. Yesterday, Center Theatre Group announced the close of all of its shows, including the hit The Book of Mormon, playing at the Ahmanson, and Block Party at the Kirk Douglas, and The Antipodes at the Mark Taper Forum. I had tickets to see The Book of Mormon for my third time tonight, so I was disappointed, but also secretly thankful because I’d been questioning the intelligence of putting myself in a crowded theatre next to people whose spittle would fly (the show is that funny). Broadway closed its theatres until April 12th on March 12th as well. These are historic times, unprecedented, which will be devastating to the arts in this country. I have four tickets to go on a whale watch this Sunday, that I’d bought for my visiting grandbabies. I don’t think I’l go. It’s not a cruise ship, but I get queasy thinking about leaning onto the rail of the boat.

I have genuine sadness for the students, actors and designers who’ve rehearsed their hearts out until today, and now contemplate not being able to finish the show. It is devastating. The students and faculty (not just the theatre students by the way) feel as though the center stage rug has been pulled out from under them.

And yet. Let’s put it into perspective. The great stage rug has been pulled out from under all of us. All students and faculty across the country are being impacted as their learning/teaching is interrupted. I’m perennially Polly Annish. I’m not sure why I’m built that way. I am generally very optimistic, but I can just as easily go to the darkest end of the spectrum. Earlier this week I had the epiphany that of course during the coronavirus, and the incessant rains we’ve had in LA this week, of course this will be when we have the long-awaited catastrophic earthquake. I can go there. But on the other end of the spectrum, I guess I’m just an adrenalin junkie, and I also am incredibly energized by the prospect of discovering a new form of artistic expression in all this mess of virtual artistry. I asked in a meeting if it was possible to rearrange the windows in our corona quilt of zoom. If we black out our video when not speaking, and leave the two actors speaking on camera, does that help to focus “the audiences’s attention”? We should have panels hosting no more than 9 guests because that will nicely fill up the window, a la Hollywood Squares. And how do I get the Paul Lynde square top left? Or how do I put my cut up colleague Phil up there? How do I make breakout rooms according to colors that people are wearing? There are so many refinements needed.

Anyway, it’s been quite a week. As I waited for my Dash bus to go home tonight, I pulled up a recent email from President Folt, with a Coronavirus Video send off to Spring Break. A sincere and warm thanks to all the community for dealing with these strange circumstances with good spirits and optimism. Then I bade our beautiful physical campus goodbye for three weeks. See you all in zoom!

Anticipating Disaster, We Honey Bears

I’m exhausted from an eventful week. The week ended with a series of Zoom and in person meetings. Two zooms: staff meeting, communications meeting. Two physical meetings: lunch at the faculty club with some colleagues, a cultural values community discussion, a Stage Management Cohort Meeting then home to a quick bite before analyzing the results of faculty and student surveys on our recently executed Disaster Relief Teaching Pilot. We’re all in the uncomfortable state of trying to anticipate disaster. How would we respond if suddenly events conspired to not allow access to our teaching spaces. In light of COVID-19 it seems quaint that what we were originally trying to anticipate was our response to a major earthquake.

The antidote? Embracing life. Earlier this week, I had a festive dinner with my dear friend, Veronica. We go waaaayyyy back. Not sure how that’s possible given our young ages, but our gnarled roots are intertwined as far back as Princeton, New Jersey in 1980. I met Veronica when she was working at the McCarter Theatre, in their communications office. I was an Art History/Theatre student at the University. When I was a junior, living in the Princeton Inn College as a somewhat sotty RA, our mutual friend Susan, Veronica and I ended up running a theatre together in the basement of PIC. The only show I remember we produced wasThe Cradle Will Rock, which Veronica directed. She always seemed far ahead of me in terms of political awareness and sophistication. She still is. And so is Susan, by the way. In the early 90s, pregnant with her third child, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, where in the first three months, they experienced an earthquake, a major fire in Malibu and the birth of Maggie. Here are some photos of a visit we took while our friend Susan was in town.

In 1983, upon returning from a year abroad in Italy, I was hired by Susan, then the assistant production manager at the McCarter Theatre, to be a dresser on a play directed by the late great Harold Prince. Veronica was still working at McCarter. Our play, Play Memory, rehearsed in Princeton and performed there, then toured to Philadelphia. While there, as the newly promoted Wardrobe Supervisor, I started to fall for an actor in the cast. I remember talking on the pay phone in the basement of the Annenberg Theatre in a giddy whisper to Susan about him and how enamored I was before scurrying back to finish ironing the mens’ shirts in the show. When we both returned to the McCarter later that fall, me as running crew in props and Jimmie as Scrooge in Christmas Carol, both Susan and Veronica foster parented our budding romance. I owe my long and happy marriage to both of them. At dinner the other night only thirty-seven years later, Veronica and I picked up the conversation as friends do, bemoaning the state of politics on primary election night, at the Industriel Urban Farm in DTLA. We were sitting next to a bathtub over which were hung an array of honey bear bottles on strings.

Meaning?

I think all of us feel a little like honey bears on strings these days, as we contemplate a disaster of a different kind than anticipated; I peruse the LA County Department of Health’s website often and obsess about the inexorable slog of the COVID-19 to our front doors. There’s been a run on TP and hand sanitizer. I went on line to order some sanitizing wipes to stock our front of house operations and discovered some entrepreneurial patriots had hoarded them and were now selling them for $22 a canister.

So after a long week of The Academy, I’m happy to be home nestled in my apartment. I listen to the clackety clack of my fingers on my computer. Just yesterday, after discovering I’d lost the charger to my computer, I estimated that it was only about 14% away from turning into a sleek silver brickbat. Right on the eve of my needing it to teach virtually. I became so distracted that I awoke early, and stormed the campus bookstore Friday morning by 8:00AM to buy the cable, thus neatly resolving the problem. Planning ahead. That’s what these times require.

Upstairs I can hear what sounds like either a very large bull mastiff or a very small child gently padding across the living room. This is a fairly new phenomenon, hearing quiet sounds through the ceiling. I live in a solidly built 1983 downtown LA building. When we moved into the building in 2008, our deed came with CC&Rs, something foreign to us as single-dwelling owners; with a condo you also become co-owner of communal spaces, so God knows there are rules. One rule is the strict and limited use of hard flooring anywhere except the kitchen, front hallway, or bathrooms.

There used to be a voice teacher living above our condo. His name was Gary but he moved out a while ago. We would occasionally hear his piano faintly through the sliding doors onto the patio. It was pleasant because he was skilled and thoughtful about when he played; for some reason, I couldn’t actually hear the student singers, just the piano playing show tunes. I like show tunes. We frequently play them on Pandora at work as we craft theatre.

Then something changed, and when Gary was no longer the person above us there also changed their flooring. Occasionally I would hear the sound of a marble rolling slowly from one side of the room to the other. These new and diabolical marble-rolling-tenants had a dedicated housekeeping schedule involving vacuuming every Sunday morning. This didn’t bother me either, because if nothing else, it afforded me an auditory reminder that:

  • Someone had regularity in their lives
  • Our neighbor was tidy
  • Oh yeah, I haven’t vacuumed since I moved in

Yesterday I snapped a picture of the building’s titular Skyline, as the fog proceeded to roll in.

I texted it to Chris, my son, who’s response was a quick: “That’s the coronavirus moving in.” Ba dum chhh.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that this is serious. Deadly serious. I worry about my friends and colleagues in Washington state. I worry about our apparently fearless and feckless leader in Washington, D.C. and the consequences of his inattention to the seriousness of this time. It is especially challenging for those of us who are so Type A that it informs everything we do and think about. I looked around at the faces of our stage management cohort yesterday (23 of them) and saw the worry and fear and in some of the older students the jaded acceptance that what we do in the theatre is ephemeral on a good day and greatly at risk in days like these. I think a lot and strategize about how we could press on with a show if we could no longer congregate. It’s the fixer in me. It’s a job requirement for stage managers and production managers. Being the fixer, the problem solver.

And yet, there may not be an easy solution. Not to be a harbinger of doom. But sometimes we’re just honey bears hovering over the tub. It’s out of our control. We can only move forward and do what we do with passion and integrity and be present together as long as we can be together.

The world sends signals all the time. A few days ago, I walked out of the Starbucks on campus and passed this lone, lonely banana abandoned on the bike rack. Instead of saying, “Oh, yum! A perfectly good banana!” I started to look around to see if it was some sort of social experiment. I imagined a camera trained on the bike rack and a scientist in a white coat tallying how many people stopped to look, to consider taking it, picked it up, put it back down, took a photo of it.

In the anthem that I insist on singing as I move into my sixties, I joined the gym at USC for the first time last week, and attended two spin classes which were sweatastic. At the second one, I spun behind a young man who looked sort of familiar but it was early in the day and I didn’t have my glasses on. At the end of the class, we realized who each other was. After I came out of the locker room, Morgan was still standing in the lobby, his attention busy on his phone.

Morgan, we need to take a photo for Uncle Bob!

Morgan’s Uncle Bob and Aunt Sally in Civitella – June 2019

Uncle Bob being my most inspiring theatrical influence to date – the one who lit the flame for me. So, the world is sending signs that we are connected, we are alive, we can sweat it out, wipe down those bikes and get back on. So here, Uncle Bob, is proof that life goes on. Honey bears and all.

Happy Birthday x 2

This week saw two more of my comrades turn the corner into their seventh decade. One of my besties did it halfway around the world in Capetown, the other, closer in Burbank, with festivities at a little Mexican restaurant in Toluca Lake.

The Capetown Celebration took place at the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden. Because I wasn’t there, I don’t have a picture of the birthday girl, just this beautiful greensward.
The Burbank celebration took place at Cascabel in Toluca Lake where the birthday boy avoided near immolation by the sparkler on his cake.

In addition to serenading the plethora of friends who are having milestone birthdays, I’ve found myself singing the Happy Birthday song a lot, usually twice back to back, as I lather my hands with a frequency unkind to my skin, but to practice the current protocols avoiding coronavirus. At last check, there were a few cases in the state, none close to us in Los Angeles. I cross my freshly scrubbed fingers as I write this.

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed “the coronavirus is the common cold” and argued that the Democratic Party “poses a far greater threat” to the country than the virus does. 

Eliza Reisman, Feb. 27, 2020, Business Insider

Jeesh. Presidential medal winner. We have to get this right in November before DT awards Rudy Giuliani with his own Presidential Medal. Watching the field of Democratic Presidential candidates narrow- today saw Mayor Pete Buttigieg drop out – and following the fervent conversations about the appropriate candidate to vote for, leaves me with a rueful feeling that I may have thrown away my vote by voting my heart and voting early. Add the alarm of the novel coronavirus to the news front and it’s enough to send one into a complete tailspin. I spoke with my Dad yesterday and he was glued to the bad news monitor, aka the TV. I’ve decided I won’t turn it on these days. Not just because I’m never home, but because I just can’t go down the path of relentless bad news without coming out completely desperate for a cookie or six. Six is the number of cookies the state of the world engenders my desire for these days.

So to distract myself from both the television and the cookie jar, I’ve been reading the great Anne Lamott’s book about writing, certainly my favorite book on the subject to date, Bird by Bird.

I love her sensible and quirky instructions about how to get down to the act of writing and as you can see from this post, I’ve embraced fully the idea of “Shitty First Drafts.”

I’ve also been looking for synchronicities in my life, at the direction of my coach. One such synchronicity came this morning when I opened the Los Angeles Times and read the horoscope. I know it’s because I only get the paper two days a week that I really enjoy reading the horoscope, but today’s seemed important. I used to drive my teenage son crazy by reading him his horoscope. In spite of having been born under the sign of Virgo, he insisted he was a Leo. Come to think of it, I’ve never met anyone less Virgo-like than he, so I guess his instincts were reliable. But it would drive him mad when I read the horoscope to him. And of course, I had to read both Leo and Virgo so he could pick the one that best suited him.

Today’s horoscope:

Capricorn: You are now ready to wake up to something hidden in your psyche that you’ve long ignored. Relationships bring both joy and sorrow, but you benefit so much from them that you’re even happy for the sorrow.

Los Angeles Times Horoscope by Holiday Mathis

Well that rings a little too true. I’ve indeed benefited so much from my relationships of late, and have taken so much solace from my friends around the loss of important people in our circles. And around the celebrations of life, the milestone birthdays.

After reading my horoscope, I’ve been peering at myself to see what it is that I’ve been hiding in my psyche. I imagine that hiding things in your psyche must be a little like throwing things into the back of your closet – the floor is scattered with shoes. And now, my husband’s side of the closet is filled with earthquake supplies because that’s what his loss made me think of – the next catastrophe. And because I’m a Capricorn. Finding one’s psyche in the midst of boxes of MREs and water is a challenge. So instead, off I went to work.

I started around noon by playing costume fairy, going around to two of our three theaters to gather costumes whose demise I’d learned about from our stage managers’ thorough reports. Fortunately for me, one of our faculty was in the costume shop prepping the costumes for her play which begins dress rehearsals tomorrow night, so she was able to replace a zipper and repair the jagged tear in one of the actors’ pants. Have I been ignoring the fact that I actually hunger to learn how to do sewing and repairing costumes? I don’t think so, but while I was in the shop, I caught one of our freshman BFA Designers doing a bang up job on some masks for the BFA Juniors for Camino Real.

Tanner Jackson making beautiful masks at the direction of Costume Designer Joey Skinner.

Another synchronicity (read creepy AI thing) was tonight, I popped over to FaceBook and discovered in the side marketplace column on my page, a White Superlock Serger Machine. I guess my hidden psyche really wants to sew……

Sew….curtains for the lake house, maybe? I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time browsing on Lakehouse.com. I’ve always spent a little time on retail therapy online, filling my cart with cute clothes, and then just closing the window before checking out. So satisfying to pick the size and color of the ensemble, then close the browser window. A contemporary form of window shopping that doesn’t inconvenience the sales people who have to return the clothes to the rack after you’ve tried them all on. See how thoughtful I am?

It’s even easier to close that browser when shopping for a lake house. Here’s my latest favorite. I know, it may seem ridiculous, but there’s something so satisfying about shopping for waterfront property. Because what starts to happen when you do, you begin to envision the kinds of plot twists that Anne Lamott says you can and should indulge in. It’s very good for the psyche. So now, as I wash my hands and sing happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear Elsbeth, I know what the sink I’m washing them at looks like, and when I turn to pick up the towel, what the dog romping on the grass by the lake looks like, too. I pick up the cup of hot tea, smiling through the steam and head out the slider to the wooden benches lining the porch.

Year of the Stage Manager 2020

I received what I considered a writer’s prompt just a minute ago when I opened my email from AEA Vice President and Stage Manager Ira Mont. He encouraged us to share a story in celebration of February 16, 1920, when Stage Managers and Assistant Stage Managers were first recognized as members of Actors Equity Association and thereafter written into the various contracts which we still follow today. Why? Because an ASM squawked after his show closed and he argued successfully that the producers owed him two week’s pay.

Ira encouraged us to share a story about stage managers in honor of this Centennial celebration. Nineteen of us gathered for a Centennial Photo of Los Angeles Stage Managers at the urging and organization of Pat Loeb (top row, third from left). It was a beautiful day in Griffith Park, and when I arrived (at 9:30 for the 10:00AM photo), I noted wryly that I was not the first to arrive. Are we surprised? Stage Managers tend to be at least thirty minutes early. Amy Pell, Zoya Kachadurian and Mary K Klinger had beat me there. Soon, there were 19 of us accompanied by three husbands, a baby and a dog (not people-friendly, we were warned, but baby-obsessed).

Have you ever watched a group of stage managers organize themselves for a picture? There we were, half of us up on benches around the picnic table (I noted that all of us who climbed up were over 50 or maybe even 60 – see? Risking life and limb for glory and recognition!) when two more stage managers arrived, one sporting a wheelchair, when there arose a cry – NOT ACCESSIBLE! And off across the grass we gamboled, to a more appropriate spot.

In honor of Ira’s query and our Centennial, I wanted to #credityourstagemanagers specifically some of the people enshrined in the photo above taken this morning at Griffith Park.

Jimmie McDermott (red shirt) and Mary K Klinger (blue floral print, silver mane of hair) were my mentors when I started as a PA at the Taper thirty odd years ago. From the two of them, I learned that though the work we do as Stage Managers is important, it is only one facet of a rich and fulfilling life – it is also play; Jimmie taught me to laugh and to be wicked. Mary taught me first my place as a PA and then many many years later, that stage management could be taught in a classroom and taught well and individually. Mary Michele Miner, top row, second from left, in the green shirt and sunglasses taught me candor and expediency. Once, I ASMed for her for a gala event at the Taper during which, Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson rode onto the stage on an elephant. At one point, I went up to her while she was juggling metaphorical balls of fire as one does during a gala, and I asked, “What would you like me to do?” She turned and said brusquely, “Run the deck.” This meant making sure the elephant had done its business outside before coming onstage with the Artistic Director on its back. Not every job we do as stage managers is glamorous. We do shovel some shit along the way. And learn to do so autonomously. It is probably the skill that is most marketable for stage managers. I’ve got it printed on my business card: “I shovel, then wash my hands and am ready for the next job.”

Many of my family of stage managers from about 30 years ago. L to R. Front Row, Tami Toon, Lisa Jo Snodgrass, Robin Veith, me, Mary Michele Miner. Second Row L. to R., Jonathan Barlow Lee, Mary K Klinger, Gordon Davidson, Susie Walsh, Jimmie McDermott, Rear Row, L. to R. Frank Bayer, David Franklin
Twenty or so years later at Mary K’s Teaching Retirement Party, L. to. R. Jonathan Barlow Lee, Mary K Klinger, Neila Lee, Mary Michele Miner, Jimmie McDermott

There are some others in today’s picture I don’t know well, so can’t speak to their skills or practices, but there are a few that I can. Jennifer Sarvas, 2nd row far left, green shirt, was a student at USC when I began working there in Spring 2005. At the time that I arrived, Dean Madeline Puzo had arranged for about 14 acting students to be a part of CTG’s Ahmanson production of Dead End. We realized the value of a PA assignment for one of our stage management students, when Jennifer, a senior approached me about whether I could help arrange that. She went on to PA at the Taper the following year, and has had strong career since then, while taking stints on various other production and stage management roles around Los Angeles.

Taylor Anne Cullen (top row 2nd from right) graduated more recently and has worked steadily since graduating, most recently with the Antaeus Company. She has a buoyant personality and an exuberance combined with a level of organization which makes directors hunger to have her in the room.

I’m sure that every one of those stage managers in the picture have equally rich histories to those I’ve recounted. I met Christina, fourth from the left on the bottom row, a recent graduate of Yale’s graduate program, currently in Los Angeles to do an internship at Disney. Jake Perri, top row, far left, stage managing for Parson’s Nose Theatre Company in Pasadena for the past two years. Pat Loeb, top row, three from the left, currently overseeing Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill, directed by Wren Brown and currently playing at Ebony Repertory Company.

Stage Managers are fiercely loyal, achingly discrete, hard-working, optimistic organizers of people, props, information and time. We are entrusted with maintaining the artistic intentions of the entire creative team once they’ve left the building, and our work is part scout leader, disciplinarian, therapist and magician. If you don’t remember or retain what my mentors have taught me about humor, appropriateness and autonomy, it can become a brutal path or profession. In order to be a stage manager, you must love it all.

You can’t forget the life part. So, after our photo op this morning, Michele and I walked up the hill and began our hike, passing first, this happy Clown effecting her character transformation in her car. We stepped carefully past a rattlesnake on the trail, and paused in the shade of a tree to admire the downhill path ahead of us.

I always loved being a stage manager until I knew that it was time to do something else. I’ve always loved and appreciated knowing stage managers. On this 100th birthday for us, I raise a glass to the stage managers here in Los Angeles who were doing other things to mark the anniversary and to stage managers everywhere.

New Decade, New Rules. Rule Number 6

2020 has been declared the year of clarity, the year of the stage manager. Leave it to Stage Managers to get up in the business of the new decade and claim it. New decade, both for the world and for me. I’m entering my 6th decade, and have decided that many celebrations are in order. I’m really clear about that. Does that count as decadal clarity? Or just well-developed narcissism? Okay, okay. I have my answer.

Saturday, I threw the first of those many celebrations, an unbirthday party, hosting tea at The Huntington Gardens for a dozen and a half friends. I know that I left important people out and for that I’m cringing as I write this. Know that your engraved invitation is coming for another day and please forgive my brutish forgetfulness while putting the guest list together. Isn’t it always like that, life? Happy events tinged with sadness or regret? I’ve resolved to try to let the negative thoughts go, and I do hope you will, too. We’ll go another day.

So why tea? When I was in my late twenties, or early thirties, I frequently had tea at the Huntington with my starving artist theatre friends. The gardens were much less developed than they are now, but still magical; this was back in the mid eighties and early nineties before the Chinese gardens had been added. For us, the Gardens represented a place to escape to for a few hours of sunshine, appreciation of fine art and books and the embodiment of a slower, more elegant time. The gardens comprise 120 acres of botanical bliss. Still, all these years later, the same sturdy tea house still sits in the center of the rose garden, even today. I was surprised Saturday to see as many roses in bloom as there were, considering it’s January. We gathered just outside the door; they wouldn’t seat the group until everyone had arrived. Under the tree was a display of roses, a wooden table with a chair, and a big banner behind the table that said “Ask Me About the Roses.” As we milled around waiting for everyone to gather, I avoided sitting because I thought someone might approach looking to me for encyclopedic information about roses. Not Michael. He stepped up right to the table and proceeded to instruct my more gullible friend, Cathy, about the several varieties of roses on the table. He indicated delicately with his musician’s fingers, sweeping across the display tray, lingering at each flower:

Oh, that one (pointing to the yellow) is the Eisenhower, and the red one, there, is the Nixon. (pausing for effect)

Cathy took this in thoughtfully, nodding, while the other Michael covered his mouth to keep from laughing. A minute after this picture was taken, Cathy exploded with laughter when she realized what had happened. I believe there was some colorful language, but I pretended not to hear it because I was mentally preparing for tea. Clearly I didn’t get to introducing people quickly enough to have allowed that to happen. Thankfully Cathy didn’t hold a grudge about Michael’s rose bloviating.

Once inside, I quickly dealt out the place cards so that everyone could sit. There was some quick engineering to fix the sunlight-streaming-through-the-window-problem. Leave it to another stage manager to sort out the quick napkin over the door solution.

A few of us had arrived early to take a walk in the gardens. Several of them had complimented me on my new coat. “I bought it for myself for my birthday, online at the Ann Taylor sale. I bought the coat on sale at $231 only to put it in my cart and discover it was $95.” Good story, right? Enough people were graciously complimentary about my new coat so that every time someone commented about it my two friends, Lynn and Rob breathlessly doubled over. And those were the friends I brought all the way to Pasadena in my car and who needed a ride home from the party! Only your friends can remind you of what will be the most important new rule for my 60s. Rule number 6. I read about it in the wonderful book, “The Art of Possibility” by Ben Zander.

Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.

Benjamin Zander

This is hard for a Capricorn. We Capricorns are earnest. We take everything seriously. So this will be a challenge for me in the coming decade. Lynn and Rob and I laughed all the way home as I realized I’d repeated the stupid coat story about five times to different people, forgetting that all around me there were people who’d heard it anywhere between one to five times. Talk about bloviating. They were on the five end of the spectrum. They fell out every time I started in. It was a bonding moment for them, more of a bondage moment for me. Harrumph. Remember, Els, rule number 6!

The tea was spectacular. Being so supported this past year by my friends has been a gift. Speaking of gifts, I very carefully instructed that there were to be no gifts. But you know, some people can’t help themselves. My friend Jenny brought me a beautiful square box with an extravagant crenulated hat on top. “It’s just a box with some padding in it,” she said.

The aforementioned padding is the beautiful scarf wrapped around my shoulders. Not to mention the elegant hat which was on top of the box.

I’m making strides in the new year, the new decade, with the critical new rule. Rule number 6.

Check out the Hungtington when you get a chance!

There will be blog….

Recently, I left my brand new-Christmas lunch box on the Dash F bus. I was on a call with a colleague, and jumped off the bus, leaving it behind, in all it’s splendor on the seat and didn’t realize I’d even lost it until I was leaving the credit union after ordering my widow checks and didn’t have it. I stopped and cursed my luck before continuing back to my office. No lunch box. No lunch. What a terrible way to start the day.

First, you have to know why I became unhinged at losing what others might consider to be a trifle. Over the years I’ve worked at USC, fifteen this January, I’ve received many monogrammed gifts – scarf, hat, umbrella, drink tumblers, coffee mugs, water bottle. I’ve used the heck out of all of these losing the water bottle just last fall in a moment of forgetfulness after a safety training. But this lunch box and its contents was truly special, featuring many more monograms than any self-respecting faculty member deserves.

Ridiculously fabulous, right? And just in keeping with the new president’s sustainability measures.

How is all that branded swag sustainable, asked my very inquisitive friend, Bob in New York.

E: We stop using straws and plastic silverware. My helpful suggestion was to never serve bottled water again, because a few years ago they gave us all water bottles. I am, of course, on my fourth since then, but the habit stuck.

Which habit, you might be asking yourself about now. The habit of not using plastic water bottles? Or the one of buying sustainable products over and over….. I can’t honestly answer that question without blushing considerably.

My friend Susan had already started shopping for a replacement lunch box for me. Where i saw a loss, she saw an opportunity….

I left my lunch bag on the Dash bus once years ago, so I knew they had a lost and found, and walked back to my office not too worried that I’d be able to get it back.

Others of us lucky to have received this gift have lost theirs, too. But I can hardly compete with my colleague Luis, who lost his in an episode worthy of Live PD, or Cops – blame someone else for ransacking his car or burgling his apartment to lose his – way better story; it’s hard to compete with his story of loss. He’s a playwright for Christ’s sake.

Back in my office, I called the Dash office number on their website. I listened to an endless loop of muzak underscoring the announcement, “You’re Number One in line, ” punctuated with “Hi! Your call matters to us, thank you for your patience!” After about five minutes of listening to this hellish loop, I began muttering back at the speaker phone on my desk, “I guess my call doesn’t much matter considering I’ve been listening to this dreck for ten minutes,” Hannah snickering in the background. You know when there’s a particularly real sounding phone interruption that actually sounds like someone has picked up the phone and you might end up talking to a LIVE HUMAN BEING? That’s what the above punctuation “Hi! Your call matters to us…” sounded like. It got me every time. Like two dozen times.

It’s lunchtime, said Hannah wearily, though it was really only 11:45, and it was her polite way of saying, Let it Go, Els.

So I hung up. Tried again at 3:30, 4:30; same thing. They must eat lunch there a lot. So I decided after riding the Dash bus home, I’d jump in my car and go to the bus yard. I asked the evening driver if anyone had turned in a lunch box earlier that day, and he went off on a tangent talking about having seen a lunch box in the breakroom, and I felt buoyed about the prospects of my lunch box retrieval. The address on the website had said 100 N. Main St., but when I got there, it was a rolled down door at a building on Main and 1st, not a bus yard.

Wait! I’d been watching them build the new bus transit station for a year or so on the way to my gym in the arts district! So off I went – it’s on Commercial Street, parallel with the 101 Freeway, just below the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

Photos of the Dash Bus Depot by Joe Linton

I pulled up on a street behind the facility, parked at the many meters and crossed the street to the guard’s gate. It was about 7:00PM. I stood there until the guard noticed me. Wearing a jaunty tam, he slid open the window to inform me that the parking garage was on the other side of the building, and closed at 4:30PM but then graciously opened the gate and called someone on his walkie talkie to take me to Dispatch. Talk about jobs you don’t want. The Dispatcher was on the phone with a driver trying to take their break. The office was tidy. I could see a pile of what might be lost or found items on the file cabinet to the right of her desk. No lunch box. I waited patiently until she’d finished with the driver. I told her what the driver of the bus told me about someone having seen the lunch box in the breakroom, and she sent someone to look for it. Nope. She let me know that it probably wouldn’t turn up until the end of the night when the bus came back.

I’ll check back tomorrow. But before I leave, do you have a direct phone number?

She jotted it down and handed it to me, and I promptly uploaded it into my phone, triumphant that I’d no longer need to suffer the fates of the muzak.

I called later the next day, about 4:00PM, and sure enough, someone had retrieved my lunch box and it was there. The food is no longer there, she said. She told me to come by dispatch. This time went more smoothly, but Jaunty Jake was still there, still sardonic.

You’re back after hours again.

Yes, they said they’d found my lunch bag.

Back to Dispatch – this time, when the Dispatcher finished with the call they were on, he cradled the phone, shook his head and said, “Drivers. What are you going to do?” He reached up onto the file cabinet to the right of the desk and said, “This it?” Yes!

I signed the clipboard, and turned to my right, spotting Jaunty Jake holding a bag of chips. He escorted me down the stairs to the parking garage.

Well, if history holds true, you won’t see me for a couple of years, but now I know w here to come to find my lost stuff. Thanks for your help!

He laughed, as he headed over to the guard station by the back gate. I cradled my monogrammed lunch bag in my arms, and jumped into the car, pulling out of the LADOT Transit Parking garage to head home. With my monogrammed lunch box.

Speaking of monograms, here’s a million dollar business idea. You remember His and Hers towels? Isn’t it time for Theirs towels? Go for it. Make a million.