Amsterdam and Venice – Canals, Water under the Bridges and Tiny Steps

I drove my friend Caro to the airport where I bade her goodbye as she went off on the next leg of her trip to Sidney, Australia. We’d had an amazing five days visiting; the last two, she’d accompanied me twice to campus, where she observed a production meeting Monday evening, a quick dinner in the Tutor Student Center courtyard, then a workshop on Post-Dramatic Theatre with our Israeli guest director of Amsterdam, Lilach Dekel-Avneri.

Caro lives in Venice, Italy, where I visited her and her husband, Alberto, for about five days this summer. Over those days, she patiently helped me to reconstruct my geographic synapses of a city that I had known well enough to make it home late at night intoxicated, but which thirty-three years later, greeted me as a bewildering maze of indiscriminate streets and courtyards. The canals teamed with water buses and ambulances as we strode around, crossing the arching bridges to stop at shops and galleries sampling the fruits of the Venice Biennale. One of our favorite stops had been at the Lithuanian Pavilion, where we voyeuristically drank in the performance of the actors romping on the faux beach while singing the modern opera about life’s vicissitudes in a warehouse near the Arsenale.

And we laughed. We laughed about the silly things, Caro’s bright Australian accent piercing through the afternoons and evenings. I marveled at how she’s managed to keep her youthful sense of humor and life appreciation even as she’s matured into a wise, insightful woman. When I left them in Venice, we made tentative plans for her to stop in Los Angeles on her way to Australia to see their daughter.

Between then and now, classes resumed, the seven undergraduate plays were cast and rehearsals began, designers collaborated, directors directed, and we already have closed one of the shows and opened the second. The fall has been a blur of activity, and the impending anniversary of my husband’s death has begun to rattle my cage.

The other night, the night of October 3rd, I had a dream, where Jimmie and I were traveling. We were at the airport, which was clean and modern, white shining subway tile in a hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jimmie emerged from the bathroom, standing tall, no walker or scooter, shock of neatly combed white hair. I walked to his side and we began walking, but I couldn’t keep up with him and said, “Hey, I can’t keep up with you. You’re walking too fast.” He turned, and with the twinkle in his eye I always loved, he said, “I owe it all to you.” And with that, he was gone. It was only later when reviewing some photos and some writing I’d done that I realized October 3rd had been a momentous day for us. Nearly 28 years before, it had been the day we had the call from our adoption social worker, with the news about our soon-to-be son. Also, last year, Chris had been visiting us and I’d snapped this picture at home, before our last dinner out together before Jimmie’s rapid decline. October 3rd had returned to remind me of its power and the power of our love for each other. Later that morning, poor Chris called me to say hi, and I blubbered for about ten minutes.

It was in this emotional period, when I picked Caro up at the airport on Friday afternoon, the beginning of the only weekend of the semester when I didn’t have a tech rehearsal. I marveled at how we’d somehow scheduled her visit for a pocket of my life when I could pull in my PM shingle and just play for three days. We’d opened Amsterdam just the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Amsterdam has been an unfettered learning experience in mounting a non-hierarchical production. Working with Lilach has been challenging, and exciting and instructive as to how to create a play and environments through the sheer creative drive of a team. You should try to get over to USC to see it this weekend. It plays three more times this weekend. It closes Sunday 10/20.

Friday, after kidnapping Caro from the airport and driving her to Malibu, we had dinner at Gladstone’s, sitting outside, smelling the seasonal fragrance of the local fires, and watching the blood-red sun sink into the Pacific Ocean as we waited for our dessert and coffee to arrive.

There’s truth to the idea that the friends you make in your twenties are the ones you keep closest. As we looked out over the sand, I reminded Caro of the silly game we used to play at the beach at the Lido – find your physical twin. I remember my eternal body dysmorphia and how I always selected someone who looked well…. hmmm… sort of like I look today. Not as we looked then, svelte, and carefree and…twenty-two. I feel so fortunate to have managed to keep my friends close at hand.

Tonight, as I sorted through some of Jimmie’s residuals, finally made out in my name after almost a year of back and forth with the lovely folks at SAG-AFTRA, I thought about my new competencies. I’ve learned out to grieve as I need to, to pull it together when life calls for that. I know how to weigh the value of time spent with dear friends versus an extra hour of preparation for work. I’ve learned how to calendar my time to do the things that matter to me, and to keep committing to the forward actions that will make my future. I’m learning that I can be quite satisfied with a fried egg for dinner and I don’t need to beat myself up for not cooking. Or cleaning, or tidying the pile of mail before I sit down to write. When someone says they’re coming to stay, I don’t need to launch into a worry-fest about how I’ll manage house guests in the busy days of November, including November 9th, the anniversary day. Instead, I’ll think about how wonderful it will be to be surrounded by family at that time, fantasize that they might have dinner on the table when I come home, then proceed to take it one day at a time rather than drifting into a miasma of martyrdom.

I’ve spoken to several students this week who suffer from depression, anxiety and OCD. And the cold or the flu that’s going around relentlessly. I want to tell them it will be okay. Emotions are emotions. They won’t kill you. You have the power to control them. And even if you can’t for a moment, this too shall pass. That’s what they made Kleenex for. Lord knows I’ve developed a competency with Kleenex this year.

This fall, I have an amazing class of GESM 111G students. We’re learning how to read plays together, how to look at plays, how to sit and experience each dramatic outing and then come together and share our more and less favorite parts. They’re so enthusiastic and willing to share. I tortured them with an exercise this week. I’d had them do the Creative Autobiography from Twyla Tharp’s terrific book, The Creative Habit weeks ago, then carried around their little bits of heart in my bag for weeks until I finally read them. Each of them shared their creative successes and failures and aspirations with me. Across the board they all want to make a unique contribution in their field that helps people. So I thought that was worthy of some torture. I had them write what they thought that unique thing might look like, and after several iterations of sharing their ideas with each other in small groups, I wrote on the board what the tiny steps that they could take to get moving toward the goal would be. (Can you tell I’m working with a life coach and trying to emulate her? Good guess.)

Amsterdam, Venice, friendship, creativity, supporting each other. These are the tiny steps that make a life. In the end, it’s all water under the bridge.

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

Production Managers Forum – Spring Green, WI

I’ve had the privilege of belonging to this mythical group for the past seven or eight years, a national group of Production Managers from Regional Theaters, Educational institutions like mine, Opera Companies, and other assorted theatrical institutions across the country. Benefits of belonging to this advanced “hive mind” are almost instantaneous solutions to problems posed to the group, ranging from seeking contacts for designers and other artists, to advice on how/whether to have a horse on stage, which was one of my first queries back in 2012. Having the lived experience of so many other theatre practitioners at your fingertips makes being a PM possible and educational as well. I’d never before been able to attend a PMF gathering – maybe once before. Last weekend was filled with professional networking, sharing of practices, and a healthy dose of relaxation and taking in the green of Spring Green, WI.

In Wisconsin, we don’t say “I haven’t hit a deer”; we say “I haven’t hit a deer yet.”

Mike Broh, Production Manager, American Players Theatre

These words reverberate like the chimes played on the Hill before the matinee at American Players Theatre. Driving to dinner from the hotel, as the slight framed deer dashed in front of the Gray Nissan rental car I’d refused extra insurance coverage on, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed down.

The road to hell is paved with the flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.

This and other funny and insightful quotes peppered many cork boards throughout the backstage and shop areas at American Players Theater. My favorite was the APT Core Values sheet, on the safety yellow paper stock that APT’s production manager, Mike Broh, reserves for only the most critical areas of safety, of which core values would obviously be.

As someone who began as a Stage Manager prior to moving to Production Management, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for SMs, as folks who will have your back to the bitter end. This PMF group may have superseded them after getting to go on this weekend fall PMF conference. Our host was Mike Broh, of American Players Theatre. Sitting in the wide circle of tables in the rehearsal room for both sessions on Friday evening and Saturday during the day was humbling in terms of the collective experience of these Production Managers but in a comfortable non-judgmental way. There were about 40 of us there. Due to the location of the conference, there were PMs from Milwaukee and Chicago, but others who came a further distance, from Boston, New Haven, and Oregon, as well as three of us from Southern California.

Saturday morning we started the day off with a tour of the APT kingdom, which is a vast network of spaces intricately designed for their individual purposes, to support simultaneously five to eight productions annually. The complexity of this was clear even from the initial board filled with the beaming pictures of the staff, and visiting artists, designers and directors. Everyone’s friendly face on a yellow card with their name and their role clearly indicated.

We toured the props domain, starting with the props woodworking shop, framed by the organized jury of chairs sitting above to watch the clean well-organized shop. We moved through the kitchen, to the upstairs clean room for props and costume work, and finally to the furniture storage, each item clearly tagged and coded for easy retrieval. The staff’s sense of humor was evident, from the prominently displayed Julius Caesar, modeled after one of their core company members, complete with 20+ stab wounds overlooking the props work room from behind his own work goggles.

The tour continued around the many acres on which the Alpha and Bravo buildings were arranged, to the rehearsal space building. I didn’t look around to see if others were salivating like I was, but I suspect they were. I had definite space envy. In addition to the workroom spaces, each of the theatres has adjacent storage spaces to handle the scenery and costumes for rotation in and out of its stages in a very active Rep. Everything’s designed, or course, with these changeovers in mind.

The Costume Domain was equally impressive. From hats to storage, Millinery and Wig rooms, and spacious fitting rooms, all spaces reflected the ethos of giving your employees what they need to succeed.

After touring the facilities, seeing the indoor Touchstone Theatre and outdoor Hill Theatre, we returned to the rehearsal room for our second round table discussing important topics. Topics of the weekend (at the risk of banishment from the group) included:

  • Trends in Theatre
  • Salary Transparency
  • Sustainability
  • Onboarding New Employees
  • Vaping
  • Social Media
  • Use of Cell Phones backstage

Mike ran the meetings beautifully, letting the conversations about each topic ebb and flow; he didn’t need to moderate – this group pretty much self-moderates, but ending each segment right on time with a droll unsardonic “Well, that was fun,” which elicited a rolling, warm shared laugh across the room every time. Aside from acute space envy, I came away from American Players Theatre with an appreciation of the effects of transparency at practice there, the self-evident respect among the staff. It was great to run into a former student, Lea Branyan, who has worked at APT for several summers, and has recently taken a job with the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Just for yucks, as I was writing this, I looked back to see the colorful and extraordinarily helpful descriptions of what could go wrong if I allowed them to bring a horse on stage back in 2012. That’s the other benefit of being a member. Not that I’d wish more email on anyone, but this group is thoughtful and funny with their responses to members’ questions. About that horse idea?

  1. Calculate the weight of the horse when standing on 2 hooves and if you have a trapped stage, figure the point load of the floor. Oversheet the floor with 1” plywood and reinforce the braces in the areas where the traps are.
  2. Hire a horse and a handler. There are plenty of people who do this in Los Angeles. They bring the horse, rehearse the horse and then ideally, take the horse out of the facility.
  3. Be aware of campus sensitivity. Everyone will be looking for you to be abusing the animal. This is usually quelled by saying you have an animal wrangler. (Emphasis is mine)
  4. Talk the handler through the expectations of what the horse would be doing, and conditions on stage.
  5. When you get to tech, if you haven’t found it too crazy, you will need to proceed really slowly to integrate the horse lest it get spooked.  You’ll want to have horse no people with work lights, then horse with people, then horse with lights, then horse with sound, then add people and sound (this is the biggest jump and the most likely to spook the horse), again then people and light.  Only after everything is good with each step do you go ahead.  We would take a week to get animals who are used to performing acclimated to being in a different production number. And then this was a long lead before audience.
  6.   And I forgot to say that the backstage traffic is almost as complicated.  With the right animal it could be quick, if the horse is jumpy, it could be disastrous.  
  7. Oh! And don’t forget you’ll need to assign someone to poop duty. 

Throughout the weekend, we ate well at a series of local restaurants, including one of the local hotspots, Slowpoke Bar and Cabaret owned by Mike and his wife Stacey. We even got to slip away Sunday morning to visit the garish House on the Rock, which until I’d travelled there, always thought referred to the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Taliesan. Oh, couldn’t have been more wrong. A kitschy must-see for when you go to Spring Green. That and the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI.

I feel lucky to be in the company of such amazing Production Managers.

Stage Managers and Scary Things

There’ve been several times as a stage manager, when I received invitations to do jobs that scared me. Scared me for different reasons, but mostly due to my normal fear of the unknown. And yet every job is unknown, because stage management is virtually 100% freelance gigs. Sometimes, though you are still working contract to contract, you get lucky enough to have an artistic home, as I did for several years several times in Los Angeles over the twenty-five years that I freelanced.

I spent four years at the Geffen Playhouse and the same at Center Theatre Group. I grew to love each of the staffs of those theaters, as well as the many actors, directors and designers with whom I collaborated on dozens of shows.

I’ll always associate becoming a mother with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was stage managing Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, when the call came from our social worker at the Department of Children’s Services that they had a toddler for us to fost/adopt. My colleagues, led by the ASM, Sandy Cleary, hosted the baby shower. Even considering the complexity of the show I was doing at the time, suddenly becoming a mother of a two year old used many more brain cells and was more physically challenging.

Four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. My crew and I grew so accustomed to being at the theatre, so at home there that once we walked to the nearby Target on a two show day and bought Little Debbie’s cakes, and Twinkies, then retired to the office during the dinner break and practically made ourselves sick and giddy and ridiculous there on the floor between the stained couch and the desk. I’ll always associate Tin Pan Alley Rag with losing my Mom. In the stage management office off upstage right, I took a call one night just before half-hour from Jimmie, who was holding down the caretaker fort with my mom as she progressed through the final weeks of her life. Metastatic lung cancer, proof of which manifested itself in several very surreal episodes.

Hi, Els, can you talk? Your mother would like to speak with you. (some rustling as the phone is passed to her)

Hello, Elsbeth? (breathing heavily, and sounding frantic)

Yes, hi, Mom, how are you? What’s going on?

Elsbeth! You need to call the UN immediately. They need you to negotiate. I just heard it on McNeill-Lehrer.

Well, uh, Mom, I’m pretty sure the UN will be fine without my negotiating skills… Besides, we’re at half hour.

What a brat I was.

Stage/Production Managers have extraordinary skills of compartmentalization. It’s what made it possible for me last year to organize the home care for my husband, then go to work and focus on details that the job demanded. The occupational hazard of Stage Management is megalomania – we begin to believe that we’re the only one who can do the job. I only have one regret about last fall. That I didn’t walk away from work to be at home before it became acutely necessary for me to be there. Take away this.

Yes, the show will go on, but it can go on without you when your life calls you urgently to live it.

Opening night, she came to the theatre to watch the play with Jimmie, and afterwards, at the opening night party, clad in a new Missoni floor length gown, she mingled alongside me, with the cast and crew. I introduced her to the actor who played the lead character, Ira Gershwin. It was a day or two after the fashion designer Gianni Versace had been murdered in Florida. Ever the reporter, Mom looked at my lead actor, turned to me and hissed, “He’s the one who killed Versace!”

No, Mom, I promise you, it wasn’t David. He’s been in tech and dress rehearsals for more than a week. He wouldn’t have had time to get back and forth to Florida between rehearsals.

I am fortunate to have spent my entire life (so far) working in the theatre – a life in the theatre is a life well spent. I’ve had the opportunity to share important life markers: falling in love, marriage, parenthood, illness and even death with other theatre artists who understood how to work and live with intimacy, depth and candor. All while doing work on stage which illuminates many of those same life markers.

Sometimes a job will come along that shakes you out of your artistic home. Calls upon you to maybe move household, or take a big step back or a huge step forward. An invitation to go to Sicily to Stage Manage for Robert Wilson; or to go to Montana for the summer with the Alpine Theatre Project; or to apply for the job as Production Manager at USC School of Theatre.

Your inner scaredy-cat says

“What? Go to Italy and work with international artists? My language skills aren’t strong enough!”

“What? Move to Montana for the summer? What if my family doesn’t want to come?”

“What? Production Manage? I don’t know how to do that?”

But your strong center and your hunger for new and interesting collaborations calms down the fearful voice and says, “You lived for a year in Italy and will regain fluency and for crying out loud, it’s Robert Wilson!”

“Maybe that’s just what you need to go to Montana to shake things up. Plus you can hike and get out of the city. Your family can come join you there for vacation.”

Or maybe you are just lucky enough, as I have been, to have friends who encourage you to try something new when you are at an emotional or professional crossroads. Like the Production Management opportunity. “Els, you’ll know how to do it. It’s just like stage management but on steroids.”

And so you take the steps forward to meet the challenge. To do the work. To build the life.

I’ve shared that the loss of my husband last fall was a devastating blow. Even now, nine months later, I still tear up and some days feel unmoored, untethered from the very life we had worked so hard to build. How fortunate I am to have a strong artistic family and friends that have gathered around me in my time of need.

I haven’t felt like writing lately. I’ve been hunkered down in my post apocalyptic emotional bunker, occasionally poking my head up like those adorable prairie dogs at the zoo. I’m on watch for the next tragedy. Grief is distracting. More distracting than anything I’ve ever experienced.

In stage management a project starts and it ends. There are frequently good days and bad day no matter how illustrious a project it is. There’s a thing nothing short of magic that happens in a rehearsal room as the alchemy of playwright, director and actors is forged through the vehicle of a new and exciting script. Life’s the same as that. Except it’s a devised work. No script. You’re the producer who brings all the facets together to create your own magical alchemy. If you take the chances, the risks, to step outside the normal boundaries of your existence, you meet new people, form new experiences, participate in new adventures. And yes, it’s frequently scary, but usually okay or way better than okay in the end.

All the good days, all the bad, the pain, the heartache, the joy you feel through every phase of your life makes you who you are. You are strong and vibrant and capable. You may not be able to write about something important every day, but if you pay attention to the call, you may find pop out of your prairie hole and find something to keep you entertained and alive.

Resilience and Absence

I’m reading Tara Westover’s riveting and horrifying memoir, Educated currently. Meanwhile, I’m watching friends go through struggles and losses more profound than Job’s. I’m in awe of the some people’s ability to withstand inhuman struggle, fear and grief. Their resilience is stunning. And yes, I get that these roles are unwanted, but have been assumed with grace and integrity and more than a modicum of optimism.

There seems to be no reason or equity in the weight or loss some humans bear. Earlier this week, in the twilight residual of my decennial colonoscopy, I welcomed the mental euphoria, the permission to return home and sleep until I woke, refreshed and hungry for the post Tony-Party bounty of my refrigerator. Seven months after my loss, some people still tilt their heads in concern before asking me “How are you doing?” The owner of the dry cleaners assumes that expression even as I’m mounting the stairs to her shop, my steps responding with an exaggerated collegiate spring, my lips turning up in a furious smile. I know that she lost her husband several years ago, and yet I resist the boggy company of her grief.

Yes, I had a terrible loss when my husband died, but I’ve always been an optimist, facing forward, and I know how blessed I am. Blessed to have a meaningful job that I love, supportive friends, many of whom are also my colleagues; a body that is surprisingly healthy considering the mileage I’ve put on. Like Peter Pan, I’m perched on the ledge of a new life of travel and friendship. The uncertainty of all the details makes me nervous, of course; I experienced more than a frisson about my rusty Italian, causing me to resume study via Duolingo today. I couldn’t remember the word for book or apple (Libro and Mela).

And then, out of nowhere, the absence comes. Standing in the hot shower, water streaming over my body, I suddenly realized (again) that my husband, once so physically present in my life, was just gone. Like he’d never been there. Hot tears joined the water streaming down my cheeks as I sobbed convulsively in the shower. And then it passed, I toweled my body and my spirit off and stepped into my clothes.

Yesterday I’d run into a colleague on campus whom I hadn’t seen since November, and when he asked what was new, I told him the only thing that a newly grieving person feels is new, which is about my loss. He gave me a hug, and we shared some thoughts about the process of loss, including the fear of forgetting and losing the physicality of the other. After dealing with the disposal of clothing, all the physical manifestations of the person we’ve lost, there’s a sense that they are irretrievably lost, and one worries that as time passes, the important moments shared will also be lost. He reassuringly said, they come back. He can’t know how meaningful that statement was to me. I have daily reminders around the apartment of my husband, old photos, recent photos, but his physical presence is gone. Always a vivid dreamer, I’ve only recently returned to an active dream life, but my dreams aren’t populated by the person I hunger for most. I guess that means he was ready to go and has gone to the happy casting waiting room in the sky, but for me, bereft of his physical presence, it is a cold reminder of his absence.

Resilience is a bitch. Absence is an affront. Back to the Duo Lingo. Stay tuned.

The Here After/Il Futuro

here·af·terDictionary result for hereafter
/hirˈaftər/
adverbFORMAL

1.
from now on.
“nothing I say hereafter is intended to relate to the second decision”synonyms:
from now on, after this, as of now, from this day on, from this time on, from this moment forth, from this day forth, from this day forward, subsequently, in future, in the future, hence, henceforth, henceforward; formalhereinafter
“nothing I say hereafter is intended to relate to the second decision”
noun
1.
life after death.
“suffering is part of our preparation for the hereafter”synonyms:
life after death, the afterlife, the life to come, the afterworld, the next world, the beyond; 

Shortly after my husband died, being a stage manager, I constructed what I entitled my hereafter list. Hopelessly pragmatic, my hereafter was not thinking about where Jimmie was in the spirit world, but how I could cope with the logistics of my life here, after his death. All the things that I had to do to notify various people and companies of his passing. Pretty much all of them required the death certificate and none of them was a simple one-step process.

Here’s what I mean. I cancelled his subscription to The New Yorker Magazine. As much as I loved the magazine, the arrival of a new issue each week was too much of a commitment, and combined with the daily arrival of two newspapers I was mentally unable to absorb, seemed wasteful and a poor use of resources. Everyone’s, not just mine. The cancellation itself was easy, but the result was a check, which I received about two weeks later, for $23.00 for the remainder of this year’s subscription. Great. However, it was made out to Jimmie. When I took it to the bank to deposit it, of course, I’d removed him from the accounts, so could no longer deposit it in the checking account. You get the picture. Cut to three months later, when I finally had a minute to call the New Yorker back and request a new check in my name, which I should have in…4-6 weeks. Done?

Now, I’m pretty plucky, if I do say so myself, so waiting 4-6 weeks is nothing. Like batting an eye. I know it will pass quickly. But imagine the list of tasks that every remaining spouse/partner faces:

Cancel credit cards, notify insurance company; write and place obituaries, notify doctors, pensions, mortgage company, suspend automatic-refills of medications, plan memorial, rejigger finances, go back to work, remain engaged in the world, redefine yourself in your singularity. It becomes a huge list of stultifying administrative and psychological tasks which can wear down even the pluckiest among us.

I thought about people who in addition to losing their spouse, become single parents charged with the 24-7 care of their children while rocking in the cradle of their own grief. I felt lucky to have a grown child with whom I can share grown grief. Through writing about my own grieving process, I discovered a wonderful blog about just such a father who lost his partner and remains the sole parent to an extraordinary child whose adventures he shares on a daily basis. Not sure how bloggers manage to meet a daily commitment to their readers, but I’m particularly impressed with this writer’s ability to share his circumstances with good humor and grace.

But I digress. Yesterday, I managed to accomplish one of the longer lasting administrative slogs from my hereafter list as well as a new, futuro-directed-this-is-for-you-Els one.

I finalized my divorce from B of A. As you may remember, this is something which I’ve been working on for some time. Well, as the post would indicate, a year ago today. And yesterday, I closed my accounts, canceled my credit card and walked away, feeling completely accomplished. I bought muffins to take to the office to celebrate. I was giddy with freedom as I shredded my debit card and remaining checks, while jamming the sticky sweet “breakfast cake” into my mouth.

The futuro task I accomplished yesterday was the purchase of a round trip ticket to Rome this summer. Yesterday, when the phrase Hereafter planted itself in my brain sometime in the middle of the afternoon, I googled “Hereafter in Italian” and discovered that sensibly, the phrase is “Il Futuro.” No shadowing of spirituality or afterlife, just a solid unwavering gaze into the future. And yet, this trip to Italy is layered with so much more that I relish the opportunity to explore and share. It’s both a look forward, and a peering backward to revisit my youthful strides into adulthood.

Passports and Punctal Plugs – Planning for My One Wild and Precious Life

This morning I bolted* out of bed at 6:28 with a startled realization that my passport might be out of date. Stop. Redefine:
*By bolted, I mean I slowly and rather painfully threw my legs over the side of the bed and cantilevered my body into a standing position.

Not quite awake, I turned on the light, put on my glasses and followed my sense memory path to the top of the bureau where I keep our passports. I pulled open the bottom right drawer and saw….a tray of earrings. Oh yeah, I moved that bureau into the other bedroom right after…. off I shuffle into the other bedroom, pulling open the crystal drawer pulls of the bottom right drawer of the wooden box my grandfather Collins made so long ago in his woodworking shop. There, I find my passport, and thumbing through the front page to the title page, peruse the dates – issued 05 Feb 2009, Expired 04 Feb 2019.

My eyes linger on my photo, a moment frozen in time when I had started trying, I guess, to look more legit as an adult woman forty-eight, polished, with my hair longer and blown out and highlighted. This was a phase I went through and one which my passport has ludicrously memorialized for me. I remember going through so many hairstyles that year that one of the acting students, looked at me and said “What’s going on with your hair, Els?” Or more injuriously, when Chris said I looked like a high school principal with helmet hair (apologies to all high school principals). I think that was the moment when I looked in the mirror and said “uncle.” And have never looked back.

We renewed our passports then for an unexpected trip to the Canary Islands to which my Dad and his wife Sally had invited us. One of many generous trips my Dad has treated us to over the years, but now particularly memorable in that it was Jimmie’s and my last European adventure. My passport says it was November of 2009, but my photos are stamped November 2007. I don’t think I supported this ridiculous hair exercise for two years, so I’m going with the government time stamp.

Anyway, the fact remains that I’m out of a passport, and since I’m starting to plan a trip to Italy this summer, I filled out the online form, printed, signed it, and sighed a huge sigh of relief that I will be able to send this passport back and get one which more accurately reflects what I look like. Seems appropriate.

Since getting this last one, they no longer allow you to wear glasses in your photo. Which is too bad, because I just got fitted for some very sassy Gwen Stefani eyeglasses this past week. Oh, and temporary punctal plugs. Yes, you can now get collagen tear duct plugs that help you retain up to 70% of the natural tears in your eyes. Who knew? The fact that I still have dry eye given the waterworks I’ve produced over the past six months is staggering, but more impressive are the new products available. I think I’ll go back for the permanent ones in a month or so. Another step in the new regimen of self care.

Cashing in on the Large Eyeglass Craze to maximize vision!

The trip to Italy came about through the generous and oddly specific invitation via email from dear old friends, illustrated with an enticing twilight photo of the view from the Umbrian farmhouse overlooking a nearby hilltop city.

You only need to arrive at the train station before cocktails (6:30) on any given day. You need to plan to stay for four to six days and feel free to bring anyone who is amusing. 

My engraved invitation….

One of the things planning this trip has afforded me, or will afford me when I actually get down to ordering tickets with my new passport, is an opportunity to fantasize about the next phase of my life. Not as a sad-sack single, but as a person with a wild and precious life to plan. It has already afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with close friends whom I last saw and knew in Venice when I lived there from 1982 to 1983.


The quote above, again from my We Croak app, from a poem by poet Mary Oliver, who died on my birthday this year, I discovered, when seeking the source of the inspirational quote above. I can’t think of a better spirit guide than this woman for the next phase of life. Punctal plugs and all.

The (all too) Humans

Some people measure years and personal growth with penciled marks on a closet wall next to their child’s name. As the child grows, the marks rise, sometimes inches above the last mark, especially during adolescent growth spurts. This sizing of our tribe is proud, grateful, sentimental, self-referential, celebratory – many of the things that mark our humanness.

As Angelenos were painfully reminded just this morning, the passing of time can also be marked through shared loss, as we read about the untimely passing of Pulitzer-Prize-winning LA Restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who’s LA Times obituary was one of the most moving I’ve read in some time (Kudos to Andrea Chang). Gold, in addition to being an exquisite writer, was a gourmand, chef, taco-truck aficionado, friend, husband, organizer, someone who celebrated the value of food in building his community and ours. In fact, several of the local annual foodie events that happen in Los Angeles came about because of him.

This building community is a feature that I’ve always appreciated about the theatre. This week, I attended The Humans, Stephen Karam’s breathtaking (and Tony Award winning) paean to our humanness.

Those of you who are diligent followers of my blog (a handful, but nevertheless profoundly appreciated) may remember that I had seen The Humans in New York a little more than two years ago. It was an emotionally draining experience, not just because of the power of the play, but really, because of the physicality of the journey itself, and the resulting realization our connubial theatre attendance was moribund; that was painful and distracting. And with that inviting introduction, if you want to, you can read about it here. 

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Jimmie in NYC June 2016

So about a week ago, when I ran into my friend Rob at Ralph’s in the dairy section, I agreed reluctantly to attend a performance of The Humans last Tuesday at The Ahmanson, where the touring production is playing (only this week, so don’t miss it!).

We agreed to meet there, and on Tuesday evening, I caught up with him at the box office window, watching as he worked to negotiate seats together (after booking them separately). Somehow he managed to pull it off, and we entered the lobby of the Ahmanson, immediately accosted by an enthusiastic subscription saleswoman. I made the eye connection, so my bad.  Rob headed off to the bar to get us some cool drinks, while I tried to figure out how to get Dear Evan Hansen tickets without mortgaging our condo. Done and done.

Viewing The Humans for a second time with none of the logistical myopia caused by getting my butt in the seat was eye-opening. I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania. However, my maternal grandparents lived in Wilkes-Barre, and we spent many happy trips there while we were growing up. Reed Birney (Erik Blake), bears an uncanny resemblance to my dearly departed Uncle Lou (at least from Row E of the Ahmanson Theatre’s mezzanine), so much of the Thanksgiving gathering and the feedback felt appropriately familial. Like those self-referential closet wall markings, we take in theatre experiences from where we stand.  Two years ago, perhaps I related more to the character of Brigid (Sarah Steele), hearing and responding to her parents’ critique of her marital status, her new apartment, her life choices.  It’s also possible (and quite likely) that I didn’t adequately hear the play, so wrapped up was I in the emotional reckoning I was having in the balcony of the Helen Hayes theatre, with my husband of thirty plus years.

Two years down the pike, last Tuesday, the play ran through a different emotional filter, as I focussed keenly on the character of Momo, played by Lauren Klein, and the effect her caregiving had on her son and wife, played with stoic durability by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. Lately, I frequently find myself mentally marinating in the role of caregiver, caretaker, whatever one calls it.  This isn’t the moment to expound, but suffice it to say, any caregiver who cares for a loved one also takes pleasure and privilege from the work, hence my confusion in the use of the terminology.

KL: What was your impulse behind writing The Humans?
SK: I was thinking a lot about the things that were keeping me up at night and that got me thinking about existential human fears: fear of poverty, sickness, losing th e love of someone…Was there a way to actually tell a story that might elicit some of those fears – or provide some thrills- while also talking about how human beings cope with them? And by the time I was done, I had written a family play, or, as I think of it now, a family thriller.

From an interview by Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D, and Playwright Stephen Karam (Original transcription by Annika Bennett)

But I digress. Theatre is prismatic. It accords us the opportunity to revisit even the same play over and over again, learning new things about ourselves and our community from the facets of our experiences. That is why a play like The Humans appeals to so many different types of people. It has the ability to mirror back to us that which we project.

Rob and I drove back down to South Park after the show, and a day later, Rob reported that he’d lost his wallet at the theatre. After multiple trips to the theatre, dealing with kindly Christine, the house manager, and searching the areas under our seats, he discovered a slot under the row where he posits his wallet might have fallen into a mysterious pocket, probably unretrievable. Somehow, this seemed a fitting end for a lost wallet at The Humans. We searched my car again to make sure his dreaded trip to the DMV was required. This morning, when I got in the car to go to the gym, I discovered I’d left the overhead lights on from our search, and felt grateful when my car started up.

My re-visit to The Humans managed to remind me about all of the things that make our shared experiences powerfully human, and I’d go so far as to say to remind me why I am so grateful to be alive and living in Los Angeles.  I’d encourage you to make a visit to see The Humans while you can to discover what experience you find reflected back at you. Then, by all means, let me know!

Recharging Our Batteries

Sometimes there’s a synchronicity in things that borders on breathtaking. This week it’s about batteries.

  • Your alta fit bit battery is low.
  • Your internet isn’t functioning (four calls and a trip to Staples to buy a new Uninterrupted Power Supply when the old one was fine) only to discover it was indeed the modem. A trip to the Beverly Center where you discover there is no Spectrum Store. A glance out the window indicates that it is at the Beverly Connection, which to the Spectrum technician on the phone was the same thing, I guess. After 15 minutes there, I finally noticed the board where our names were listed in order of being helped. I was #22. I plugged in my earbuds and waited, doing some people-watching.
  • Jimmie’s scooter battery dies while his niece Stella is visiting and they are in the park necessitating a full tilt push of the device back to the apartment. (I’ve been there before – humiliating, ridiculous, a test of the humanity of others.) God love Stella. When I returned, I found them at home drinking Starbucks beverages, so she pushed him to Starbucks and then home, something that I wouldn’t ever have done.

Anyway, you can see the theme here. Recharging batteries.

Summer is about recharging our batteries. The days at work are shorter in the summertime, and there are fewer interruptions, allowing us to organize the puzzle that is the following academic year’s season.

More time for visits from family and friends. More time to give back. This summer I’ve started recording interviews with some of the West Coast stage manager notables, for the Stage Manager’s Association “Standing in the Dark” series of podcasts. Selfishly, this allows me time with friends and mentors like Jimmie McDermott, and Mary K Klinger.

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Els and Jimmie and Mr. Bighead, of course. 6/22/18

More time for following our grandbaby’s exploits on the Insta feed.

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Granddaughter Skylar’s joyful mud discovery during a recent Father’s Day camping trip with Mom and Dad.

We had a captivating visit with Stella followed by one from Jen and S. Extraordinary people and we are so lucky to have them in our lives. On the last day, S found a green worm on its way to our tomato pot on the balcony, and brought it inside, where it writhed and danced on her tiny finger like a tiny green belly dancer before finding sanctuary on a full leaf of Romaine lettuce where she proceeded to eat several large holes in the leaf, in a perfectly round shape.

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More time for reading the Sunday paper, especially when your internet modem dies a horrible death. More time to discover to your infinite pleasure that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t seem to give a whit about social media and adores birding. I knew I felt a kinship to him.

More time for finding and using the sweat glands, more time for explosive step ups in HIIT class, and more time for fitbit Workweek Challenges posed by former students. I’m coming for you, Ashley S!

More time for reading. I just finished reading Todd Purdum’s book, Something Wonderful, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, a beautifully researched and entertaining dive into the history of American Musical Theatre, a subject high on my radar of late. Apparently high on other peoples’ reading lists as well, as this photo and Guardian article revealed. But enough of that. I’m recharging my batteries. No perp walk for me. I told my husband as I got about half-way through the book,

Lucky you! I’m going to sing all the lyrics I encounter.

Which turned into one of the sweetest pastimes we’ve had. Out of the murky depths of our long fused, long term memory banks came the swells of the live theatrical shows of his youth and mostly televised shows from mine. Granted we sounded a little closer to Archie and Edith on the piano bench than Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae,  but nevertheless, it was lovely. We beamed at each other.

Summer brings the crunchy, sweet wholesomeness of cherries, watermelon, lighter evenings and the prospect of summer vacation on the horizon. A week of unscheduled recreation with family. Time to attend book signings by friends, and to go to the movies.

In essence, time to recharge our batteries.

The Anxious Man

When I was in college, I spent a summer in San Francisco, working for the Field Polling organization, lived with my Dad and his wife in their Nob Hill Victorian flat. That summer I developed two fondnesses which have stayed with me over the years, both related to bed.

The front guest room overlooked a stretch of Chestnut Street just south of the Art Institute in North Beach as well as the island of Alcatraz; on the twin beds there were comforters, which my stepmother, Joan, called ‘doonas’, clad in vibrant orange, yellow and white striped Marimekko fabric. I liked nothing better then or now than to burrow into those cocoons of slumber after a long day at my job.

That was also the summer that I learned to value the morning newspaper, a cup of warm caffeine, and the ritual of reading up on contemporary events and planning outings to movies and plays. On a student budget, I attended many more movies than plays, but each morning, I’d peruse the SF Chronicle’s “pink section” for the distinctive clapping man icons, (designed by Warren Goodrich in the 1940s) to guide me to critically popular films.sf-chronicle-movie-review-guy-2 (Thanks to Austin Kleon for his great post about the origination and interpretation of the Little Man). That summer, I also read the daily installment of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” which my college buddies, Bob and Bill and I  discussed avidly while we roller bladed in the inventory aisles of Macy’s that summer.  Three Princeton students assembling and collating training manuals for bored Macy’s employees.  And I’d finish by reading Herb Caen’s column about all that was politically topical in San Francisco. Herb Caen

 

Recently the Little Man has returned to my life. Except now I think of him as the Anxious Man.  Somewhere between Chair 2 and Chair 3 is the posture I frequently find Jimmie in when I come home from work. Leaning forward, elbows braced on his knees, brow furrowed. This pose is also frequently caused not only by anxiety, but by an arctic chill that he just can’t shake, even when I supply him with a warm cup of tea or coffee. I’ll sometimes get a phone call mid afternoon after he’s awoken from a nap and needs to hear my voice to bring him back to a less anxious place.

We seem to have entered a new phase. Jimmie’s memory frays at the edges like the fringes of my denim shorts when I was a teen, except his fringe is unintentionally extended, whereas I’d obsessively pull the threads to make my fringe longer, the shorts shorter. I cherish our shared memories and strive to minimize the devastation or importance of the loss. Ever helpful, Jimmie puts the dishes away from the drainboard while I’m at work. The other night when I opened the cupboard where we store our glassware, I discovered two coffee mugs. I laughed until I realized that his mistake was actually intuitive – that cupboard is directly over the coffee maker. Doh!

His memory isn’t consistently rocky. Sometimes he greets my questions about the events of the day with a quizzical expression. I don’t know, he says with the blissful nonchalance of someone whose day actually isn’t polluted by the toxicity of the current political climate. It engenders in me both envy and sadness, because of the loss of depth in our discourse. And then sometimes he’s completely present, working his crossword puzzles in the familiar pen as he’s always done.

If you see us together, don’t be surprised. I had arranged for a caregiver this Tuesday, when I had tech, but when she arrived, the Anxious Man returned, shoulders hunched, fingers intertwined, sometimes even with his forehead cradled in his hands. The well-meaning woman came closer, making reassuring looks at me. But when she started speaking, her sugary voice lilted as she said “What are some of your favorite things to do? Do you want to take a walk?”

I had to take her aside after a few minutes of condescending chatter. Jimmie looked up at me, rolling his eyes, and I felt him getting even more anxious. Within 10 minutes, he asked me five times when I was leaving, and it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to be able to leave.

This happened once the week before, when I was to assist with house management for the final dress of our spring musical; so we went together. Tuesday night we ended up going to tech together. Jimmie sat quietly tucked into the corner by the door and I popped back and forth between talking to him and listening as the stage manager ran the tech.

The caregivers who come don’t always cue the return of the Anxious Man. We had a lovely woman a few months ago who was easy to be with and inspired confidence in both Jimmie and me. She’s disappeared from the roster, unfortunately.

This week, I think we’re helping the agency break in some new employees. The past two days, we’ve had a couple who surprised us. We were expecting Mrs. Wang, but when I opened the door, Mr. Wang was right behind her. He had come along to “help with translating.” You like to think that the agency has sent someone that your hearing-impaired loved one will have no trouble communicating with in the first place. Now, he had ridiculous exchanges such as “May I have some crackers and cheese?” resulting in a bowl of crackers….. What does Jimmie do? He picks up the phone and calls me at work.

(whispering furtively)

Els, I just want some crackers and cheese. They brought me a plate of just crackers.

(heroically)

Put Mr. Wang on the phone with me, Jimmie.

(As the phone passes, I can hear Jimmie desperately asking Mrs. Wang for water with ice.)

Mr. Wang, Jimmie would like some brie. It’s in the bottom drawer of the fridge.

Oh, brie, okay, says Mr. Wang brightly.

Can I please speak again with Jimmie? Phone passes to Jimmie.

Jimmie, you need to be a little patient. The Wangs don’t know how our kitchen is laid out.

When I got home, Jimmie looked drained. I asked him if he eventually got his cheese. He started gesticulating with his hands, making little chopping cube like shapes in the air in front of his chest. Reminded me of Veronica the other day interrupting me while I explained clearly how Jimmie liked his hotdogs with baked beans and applesauce. (Okay, I’m not proud of the menu, but it’s a 5-7 minute prep time, friends, and it’s all about speed and simplicity.)

Applesauce for dessert?

No, just on the same plate with the beans and franks. (she looks repulsed)

Has he ever tried hotdogs wrapped in bacon?

(Stifling my nausea)

No, Jimmie just likes his hotdogs plain. With some dijon mustard. No bacon!

I went into the kitchen tonight and opened the dishwasher to put some things away, and to check to see if The Wangs had followed my request to put the dishes away. They had!

Now I’m the first one to acknowledge that no one loads a dishwasher the same way, and that I have OCD. But when I flipped the door down, there were three spoons lying on their side on top of the silverware drawer, and the plates and bowls were facing the wrong way. My ridiculous outrage was enormous. So big that I actually made my 91-year-old husband get up off the sofa and roll his walker into the kitchen to come look at how the Wangs had loaded the dishwasher.

I just had them unload the dishwasher, so they saw how I like it!

Jimmie looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I think I actually may have lost my mind. The first day the Wangs arrived, as I was leaving, I texted our son that Mrs. Wang showed up with her husband who is very nice but that’s a lot of company. To which he responded  OMG. This is a pilot in the making.

Maybe that’s what Jimmie should be doing. Writing that pilot.

Taking it one day at a time, friends, one day at a time. Anxious me and my Anxious Man.

 

 

Summer Daze in DTLA

We’ve officially reached the shank of the summer. After the Fourth of July, just before the All-Star Game. Heat advisories in the Valley thankfully don’t seem to pertain in the downtown park where Jimmie takes his respite from the cable news talking heads before the afternoon baseball game begins, before I come home from work.

At work, the ordering of the next seasons’ plays is almost done, final strands coming together in a complex artistic and literary calculus. Design and stage management assignments formulating, the students now aware that we have bypassed our self-proclaimed deadline. Faculty are now aware that the students anxiously await the news.  A last minute delay in one title keeps us all waiting for the shared excitement that is the next season’s announcement. I anticipate the rush of questions.

When will we know our assignments, Els?

Patience is required in these summer days. Patience and presence of mind and heart.

Today on my way back from the YAS DTLA gym, Hector’s rigorous and entertaining “Fiesta Friday” workout, I passed a woman walking a black plastic milk crate on a string. From behind, she looked like any dog walker in the early morning pre-work hours. She carried herself with a regal, straight-backed air of confidence, her gait unhurried. The crate glided easily along the pavement just behind her right flank. It wasn’t too full and followed her at the companionable pace of a small dachshund. She wore black leggings and a tunic fringed with what looked like a fashionable purple sweater tied around her waist. Her hair, shoulder-length was tidy looking. Abruptly she turned, and began walking back toward me shattering the illusion. As I drew closer, I could see her dirt-smudged, tanned face, her hair in ratty unintentional dreadlocks, her eyes filled with the nervous preoccupation of one who likely hears many voices. Her black plastic crate suddenly looked less like company and more like the onus of homelessness that it was.

I suddenly felt so lucky.

I continued my walk home, passing the young sycamore tree, rescued earlier in the week by a maintenance worker at the restaurant next door. The Conservation Corps folks planted the sapling about six months ago at my request. A ranting homeless man had recently kicked away the wooden splints that held it erect. The tree, bowed from the weight of its leafy branches, bobbed over the curb into the oncoming bus traffic. When I walked by, the restaurant worker was retying the rubber stays around the trunk. I held the tree in place, two strangers collaborating on the rescue of a young life. The tree secured, I asked him what his name was, and introduced myself. This morning, he sprayed the sidewalk with soapy water and I greeted him like an old comrade in arms.

At home, in gratitude, I watered all the plants on the patio, all the orchids on hiatus from blooming, the neon-green shoots sprung from the wildflower seeds I planted in the planter late last week. The seeds, in brown packets with our names emblazoned on them had marked the seating at our son’s recent wedding. Elsbeth’s seeds are doing quite well. If they fail, you can be sure James’ seeds will be planted next.

I sat down to contemplate my good fortune. IMG_8419The early morning sunlight streamed into the living room, highlighting the carved mahogany legs of a table. A precocious orchid I had ignored,  its stem lurching out to capture the sun, is now inside, granted access for its one louche bloom. I promise myself I will pay closer attention to the other orchids to guide them straighter in their fruition. These are the things we promise ourselves in the lazy lucky days of July.IMG_8421

Today we get our car back from the body shop, newly painted hopefully with no evidence of its recent trauma on the 101. I will return the white Jeep Cherokee I’ve been driving for the past week or so, a bigger and thirstier car than I would ever choose.

We had been able to make a hellish drive to Redlands last Friday to see dear friends there in the Jeep Cherokee, a comfortable, slightly higher ride than usual. Foolishly, we drove there on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, leaving LA at 3:00, and arriving just after our 5:30 reservation. Our reunion was sweet, and after catching up on the last 10 years at dinner at Caprice Cafe, we walked them to the nearby Redlands Bowl where they were attending a trombone concert. Together, we posed for a snapshot near the patinated statue of William McKinley before heading home.

Audrey, our friend depicted above, is now a successful writer of children’s non-fiction. We discussed Jimmie’s recent book, A View from the Wings, a signed copy of which he delivered to her when we sat down in the restaurant, and Audrey recommended a book about writing: Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of A Creative Life.  I immediately went home and devoured it over the next two days. She has a lot to say that is extremely encouraging for the novice writer. It’s again ironic that reading books about writing is really just another procrastination from writing, but in spite of that, I felt re-energized about the process of telling my story and am grateful to Audrey for the infusion of creative energy.

Tuesday night, the Fourth of July, Jimmie and I drove to the campus to watch the Coliseum’s fireworks from the roof of Parking Structure A. My colleague, Duncan had told me about his excellent viewing spot for years, but until this year, I had eschewed it. This year, we were in the mood to see some explosions. It was a scene. When we first arrived, Duncan and his wife sat on a utility cart facing the south wall of the Parking Structure, a stool perched on the back of the cart for higher viewing. Sheepishly, I pulled up next to them in my Jeep Cherokee and we positioned ourselves parallel to them. For the next hour and a half, through the windshield, we watched as the skyline filled with ebullient fireworks, both those sanctioned and entrepreneurial in nature. By the time we left at about 9:30PM, there were at least twenty cars, and the parking roof was chock full of families enjoying the now smoky aftermath of the display. When we got home, the new Intercontinental Hotel displayed her patriotic colors.

So that’s what we’re doing in the summer days in DTLA. You could say that we are all pulling our crate, literally and metaphorically, and I am well aware of the precious cargo in mine.