Actually… it should be required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing with Me: Stories Just For Us

Just checking in to report that the book is underway. I’m spending a few hours each week to write (not nearly enough), and it’s unfolding as planned. I’m reading a book recommended to me by my friend Bob, entitled If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland. I highly recommend it, a balm for those get queasy at the thought of writing a book. So today, I’m digressing to write about things that probably won’t appear in the book, as they aren’t flattering things about my practice as a stage manager. I can see you all leaning in.

Oh good – here comes the dish….

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of Festival Supervising USC School of Dramatic Arts’ New Works Festival at the Pasadena Playhouse, two concert readings of plays written by the graduating writers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts Dramatic Writing Program. These play readings are cast with professional actors, directed by professional directors, an SDA offering in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse.

My participation in the past few years has been one step removed; on behalf of the school I’ve hired someone else to supervise the festivals, and due to the timing, have been unable to even attend the readings at the Playhouse. This year, I was pleased to be able to do both – supervise and attend the readings, which were highly entertaining and festive. I recommend you seek them out next year. They happen in the middle of May, this year landing on a weekend of cultural wealth in Pasadena, opposite the Lit Fest, the Directors’ Lab, an open house at JPL, two U2 Concerts at the Rose Bowl, and an AMGEN bike ride, all of which brought 200,000 visitors to spend a sweaty Saturday in Pasadena, where temperatures hovered at 92 degrees midday. I’d warrant a guess that anyone who braved the traffic to see Rebin Zangana’s Everybody’s Moving to Fiji, and Inda Craig-Galván’s award winning Black Super Hero Magic Mama was happy that they had made the trip.

I had spent about six years working on and off at the Pasadena Playhouse, back in the early nineties, and have several credits at the State Theatre of California, including a production of “On Borrowed Time” in 1992, where I met Wren Brown for the first time. You can read about that in the post linked above; the production was noteworthy for many reasons, most important of which was that I survived the opening night ride home. Other highlights included productions of “Camping with Henry and Tom” which began with a model-T Ford, entering upstage left,  rolling down a sharp incline, where it banged into a tree, the tree fell over, smoke came out of the car and the denizens of the car, Henry Ford, Warren Harding, and Thomas Edison emerged. The show had been done in New York the previous year, so our rehearsal period was fairly brief, our tech table still in the center of the house, and the house quite well-filled for an invited dress. I made the standard invited dress disclaimer over the god mic about perhaps having to stop the show then cued the top of the show. Nothing happened. The car refused to budge. We tried to start again, and still no movement from the car. From the tech table, using the god mic, I said,

Well, I think this is going rather well, don’t you?

Big laugh. Fortunately, the next attempt at the car starting went as planned, and the dress rehearsal began.

I gave a ride home the other night to two of our three junior stage managers who stage managed the readings at the Carrie Hamilton, and I told them a few stories about my time at the Playhouse back in the nineties – before they were born, I noted, wryly.

A lot of crazy things happened in those years, many that taught me how to manage crises in a live theatre situation and a few how not to handle them.

Late during the previews of A Lion in Winter, actress Carole Cook, playing Eleanor of Aquitaine to her husband Tom Troupe’s King Henry, lost her voice and arrived at the theatre willing but unable to go on. The Playhouse, a LORT B theatre, had no understudies, and I along with the director, and artistic staff, and with Carole’s rather surprising agreement, decided that rather than cancel the performance that night and send six hundred people and Ms. Cook home, I’d set up a music stand on the apron down stage right with a script, and I would read the lines while Carole acted the part. Crazy, right? But I’d been listening to her deliver the lines for the previous five weeks, and knew where she took breaths, etc. My assistant, Ando, called the show that night.

Maybe it was like watching a car accident, but I was told afterwards that no patrons went to the box office to get their money back. Audiences love that stuff, right? It’s live theatre. In this case, I am not sure where I got the gumption to perform, and I’m quite sure that it would not be considered best practice, but I received two calls the next day – one from the artistic director, Lars Hansen, thanking me for “saving the performance,” and one from the Equity Rep, letting me know that I’d be receiving an additional 1/8th pay for “going on” as Eleanor of Aquitaine. I wouldn’t recommend this as a course of action, but just as an example of thinking really far outside the box.

I stage managed “Lettice and Lovage,” a satire by Peter Shaffer, directed by David Galligan, starring Jane CarrJane Carr as the dotty and overly-inventive tour guide at a large English manor house, and Mary Jo Catlett as her officious boss. The play called for an ensemble of tourists, and the Playhouse, ever conscious of the costs of large casts, decided they would partner with the large volunteer organization, Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, who manage the ushering needs and support the Playhouse. The idea was quickly embraced that the ten to fifteen ensemble of tourists would be played by Friends on a rotating basis. Every night, we had a different group of volunteers whom we trained to follow Jane around the stage and hear her inventive history of the house.  Logistics were tough, but my assistant, Ando and I enjoyed their great energy and their commitment to the show. There’s no doubt that they were critical to the success of the play. It helped to boost ticket sales as well, since they all lived in Pasadena and had lots of friends to invite. Win win.

Last weekend, I became reacquainted with Patrick Corbin, a current house manager, who had just begun ushering around the time of Lettice and Lovage, and he dryly noted that he met a new usher one night and the next night had seen her on stage and thought, what a meteoric rise! He had no idea about the arrangement of the Friends as ensemble.

Managing the rotating handful of volunteers was a challenge, and their attendance was sometimes sporadic. One night we were down two volunteers, and so the director, David, and I decided we would don the running suits of these two tourists and head out for the first scene, which took place at the foot of a large staircase from the top of which Jane addressed the masses. Yes, we were being extremely naughty, and unprofessional, because we didn’t tell Jane that we were going on for the tourists. Lights up, Els and David facing upstage to hide our hysterics, our shoulders shaking like jello jewels in our garishly colored track suits.

Jane entered at the top of the stairs, took one look down at us and went into kill mode. She put a bead on the two of us and addressed the entire speech down at us, never breaking for a moment with a death grip of concentration. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of Jane’s onstage ire. The two of us were falling apart, and ashamed of our poor performance as the tourists. Jane never let us forget that one.

Those were critically important years for me in my development as a stage manager. I know that the examples cited above lead you to believe that the development was not in a positive or professional direction, but they tell the story of the types of things that stage managers deal with routinely.  Creative solutions are needed. The ones we come up with may or may not be effective. So we’ll just let these be our little secret, eh?

A Hero of Stage Managers

A hero of Stage Managers is defined as a group of stage managers.

I just made up a new collective noun. Feel free to use it. Incidentally, the collective noun for a group of heroes is a frailty of heroes (according to a questionable link which I will not attach here.) That’s kind of lovely in a mathematical stage manager sort of equation.

Hero=Stage Managers x 3

Frailty = Heroes x 3

9 Stage Managers = A Heroic frailty

But I digress. A Hero of stage managers. I can’t think of a better description. Stage managers, who, in the face of danger, combat adversity through impressive feats. I think it’s perfect. It’s also exquisitely apt for a description of the event I hosted last Monday night to celebrate the twenty years of teaching of stage managers by my colleague at USC, Mary K Klinger, who has continued to maintain a fruitful professional career as a stage manager while she taught and sent out into the world a hero of stage managers a very few of them who are depicted below.

Stage management is a rarified profession, and Los Angeles had limited professional venues for stage managers who sought to make a living. I met Mary early on when we moved to LA in 1986. She was one of four top-dog SMs who rotated through their shows at the Mark Taper Forum and the ones we upstart stage managers strove to unseat – er, I mean learn from.

Stage management is a competitive sport, and I looked up to this hero of stage managers with reverence and also extreme envy. We all studied at the elbow of former stage manager Gordon Davidson, who was a stern yet loving taskmaster. I invited all four of them to come on Monday and it was a testament to Mary that they all came to celebrate her accomplishments as a teacher and former colleague.

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L to R. Jonathan Barlow Lee, Mary K Klinger, Neila Lee, Michele Miner, Jimmie McDermott

Jonathan Lee, still the PM at the Taper, was the SM of the first show I PAed, a musical called Roza, directed by Hal Prince, starring Georgia Brown in May, 1987 in its pre-Broadway tryout. As PA, my main duty was to drive Georgia Brown, this torch singer with a gravelly voice, described in the Roza review as “ground cigarettes and glass” from her home in Beverly Hills, to the rehearsals downtown. At the time, Jimmie and I were newly married, I was twenty-seven, and trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. I shudder at the chutzpah of the young PA confessing such an inappropriate thing to the actor she’s driving, but won’t ever forget how Georgia told me to solve this “conceptual” problem.

Honey, put the legs of the bed up on a pile of bricks, drink a bottle of champagne and just fuck your brains out.

Mary straightened me out as to appropriate PA behavior on the next show where I met her and Jimmie McDermott on two Joe Orton Plays they did in Rep opening that July. The director, Joey Tillinger, was an extremely prolific NY director and a generally friendly fellow. One day I was talking with him during a break, and Mary called me over to the stage management table and reminded me to not distract the director during breaks. Later when I was a stage manager (like ten years later), I realized the import of what she had said. Mary occasionally still teaches with a delayed punchline, or Aha moment, but is always kind and very direct.

I marveled at how she and Jimmie McDermott organized that rehearsal room, at how they effortlessly managed the rules while providing creative safety to the cast and director. After rehearsals ended, we sat another hour or so while they took turns typing the report, which I was sent to Xerox, and file the copies neatly into the cardboard cubby slots in Rehearsal Room A. There was no email distribution at the time. On the sturdy black landline phone in the room (which we silenced during rehearsals to only flash it’s light when there was an incoming call,) they called the designers with notes, and then later recorded the rehearsal schedule for everyone to call, using the number on their wallet cards. All the while, with an easy camaraderie that revealed their deep affection for each other and for the process we were engaged in. These folks taught me everything I know about the soft skills of stage management. And many of the hard.

That’s how we learn as stage managers. By observing and doing. Succeeding and failing. For the past twenty years at USC, we’ve been fortunate to have a skilled and patient spirit guide in Mary K Klinger. When I started at USC in 2005, Mary was already well into her teaching career. I watched Mary train the next generation of stage managers, by informally and patiently explaining the practical steps of stage management, answering their questions, demonstrating best practices in creating paperwork, and discussing with them how they might deal with artists of all persuasions. They adored her.

Some of Mary’s former students sent comments which I was able to read at the party. A few are below. This one from a current executive in a large entertainment project management firm:

…I was in one of Mary’s first stage management classes at USC. Mary was one of the first teachers I remember being an active working professional in the field she was teaching, and I think that was very important for me to see. Up until taking that class, I had started to question my major choice, but I credit Mary with helping give me the support, guidance, and real world examples I needed to have confidence in my path. Two random things have stuck in my head from my stage management class are: 1) we should always be happy if we are working on a holiday, as that means we are employed, and 2) when making coffee backstage or in the rehearsal room, never re-use the coffee filter! I think these things have stuck with me because, beyond just teaching stage management tools and techniques, we were taught how to develop our work ethic, be ready to work hard and jump on opportunities and generally how to be employable. And while I have ultimately pursued other avenues of production, I often credit my strong stage management foundations from USC as a reason for my career success.

Mary’s students have always recognized that she had their backs and there was probably not much that they could tell her that would surprise her. Many of our graduates have gone on to illustrious careers as stage managers, and branched out in other directions as well as prominent lighting designers, managers in theme parks and project-based work, things that Mary allowed them to explore in her Stage Management II Class.

Another former student, now a television producer, wrote:

I had the great opportunity to work with Mary in one of my first professional experiences. As her PA on the Taper production of Expecting Isabel I watched her implement so many of the lessons we had learned in class. She was a great example to me of a strong leader whose guidance and support allowed the creative process to thrive. I use so many of the skills I learned from Mary and the incredible Stage Management professors of the SOT still to this day. Congrats Mary on 20 years of teaching! We are very lucky to have learned from you.

Mary has taught us all so much about living and facing challenges with grace. She faced her frailty of heroes in the past few years with grace and fortitude, then strode back to teaching and her professional work sporting a new bobbed silvery mane.

What will the next chapter bring? I’m hoping it will bring the next chapter as Mary’s talked about writing a book on stage management for years.IMG_7897 I slipped a dharma doll into her gift bag to help the process along.

For now, on behalf of the School of Dramatic Arts, I want to thank you, Mary for the legacy of learning and excellence and perseverance you will leave behind at USC, and thank you for twenty years of teaching.

Current and former students spoke at the party, and current and former colleagues as well, because as Mary has always told her students, if you are no longer my student, you are my colleague. You are under the watchful and loving eye of the hero of stage managers.

Writing with Me: Declaration of Intention

I’ve been a derelict blogger of late; April is the cruelest month and certainly in academic theatre, where we had seven shows opening and running their brief allotted four to ten performances, barely longer than the lifecycle of a mayfly.

Mayfly Life Cycle

I will leave you to ponder that metaphor for just a few moments.

Moving on.

I’ve been such a poor blogger of late because I have turned my sights to a book project. In addition, there’s been some affectionate razzing by a colleague about “blogging”. Not discouraging exactly, but making me self-conscious (isn’t that what blogging is about you ask?) If I’m honest, I can’t really lay the blame on this colleague, who shall remain nameless, but whose initials are M.E. I also can’t really lay the blame on the book, because, truth be told, the progress on that is slow as well.

Anyone who has written a book can tell you that it is an extremely hostile environment. I’m speaking about mentally, in the writer’s own head. All sorts of questions assault your writerly core:

  1. Who will read it?

  2. What is new about your approach to this topic?

  3. How long will this take to complete?

  4. What am I going to make Jimmie for lunch?

  5. When do I need to take the dry cleaning in to be ready for my departure on June 11th?

  6. Who can I ask to go with me tonight to the theatre?

You get the picture. There are an infinity of tough questions that barrage one’s mind every day. How could I possibly fit the writing of a book or a blog for that matter into the folds of my  active neocortex? Note how I’m now inserting scientific terms into my blog to broaden my readership. So that could be added as #7 above.

If you know nothing else from reading my previous blogs, you should know that I am fundamentally competitive. My son still teases me about our blood sport tennis matches when he was ten and I was forty on the Studio City Tennis courts. Add to the mix my husband’s completing his memoir this year, the fact that I filled in the first eyeball on the Dharma Doll that my colleague Natsuko gave Jimmie at his book party in December knowing it wasn’t for a second book he’d write, but for a first book I’d write. It’s all a big tsunami of expectation eddying just off the shores of my brain, right behind the upturned face of my laptop.

That and the fact that I’ve never begun the process of writing a book before.

I know, because I’m a fairly rational and methodical planner, that any long piece of writing needs an outline and then a series of goals to hit. My outline consists of three pages in a small brown leather notebook that my Dad gave us a few of at Christmas time – episodes in my work as a stage manager where I learned something valuable or painful and valuable, or just something painful. This is one of the sticking points because as I’ve written so much about the necessity for stage managers to be discreet. Disclosing the secrets of painful learning about stage management necessitates pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard, and sometimes, the Wizard is someone we recognize.  I think about the Julia Phillips book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again and my resolve pales. I already know that my book lacks the sizzle of her rogue’s gallery of players. Certainly the drug history.

I do have a title. I’m withholding the title because this blog makes the writing of the book inevitable – my competitive soul has now committed me to doing it because the alternative would be too embarrassing. My followers, small in number, but mighty in support; you know who you are and thank you for sticking with me through the fallow periods like every April, now know that I have declared the game on with regard to this book.

And now, gentle reader, please do not judge too much. Here’s a bit from the introduction to dare I say it? My book:

Introduction

One of the consequences of marrying someone thirty-three years older than you is you develop the habit of looking over your shoulder with dreadful anticipation of the future without them. I can safely say that even when I was in my forties, I was attempting to reconcile myself to the moment when I would need to give up my work to care for my husband. This quotidian awareness of the finality of life seems unusual for someone in her forties, but even then, I knew that every day spent with him was precious. Perhaps that’s why we don’t quarrel, and greet each other with giddy relief at the end of the long days I spend at the university. As I turn the key in the door each evening, my eyes sweep the path to the couch to see him eagerly welcoming me as I enter our home.

It’s always been that way. Friends used to comment that when Jimmie would see me coming, he would begin to wiggle like an eager pup, his face breaking out into a grin, his hands outstretched, calling me into his arms. My wish is for everyone to have such a love in their life, and that it might last at least as long as our love has lasted. That is true prosperity.

Recently I flashed on the phrase “My heart in my mouth” in the contexts of the finiteness of our love, but also with regard to stage management, my life’s work. I have been a stage manager since I was in college, and professionally for over thirty years. I have learned my artistry from many mentors whom I assisted, watching as they called complex sequences, dealt with artists of difficult and different temperaments, handled intricate personal and political relationships and institutions.

Stage Management requires the facility to call complex and nerve-inducing cue sequences, often engendering the feeling of having your heart in your mouth. In addition, we must speak kindly to our constituents, whether they be cast or crew, or designers, or producers. Our hearts must be literally in our mouths because it is the truth and respect we convey through our words and actions that make us good or not so good at our jobs.

 

Theatre and Her Ability to Forecast

Sometimes I can’t be sure if what I’m reading in the paper is news, because it so frequently feels like a moment of déjà vu. Take this morning’s LA Times article by Teresa Watanabe about the recent renovations of the Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley, in which she reports a removal of 135,000 books from the library to make more study areas, nap zones in futuristic “nap pods.” The photos show students hunkered down over their computers reading, or on the modernistic equivalent of a back porch, where they work on their computers while looking through a wall of glass at surrounding trees. It is positively bucolic. The only thing missing is a frosty glass of lemonade on the side table. And the book. And yet… where have I seen this idea before?

In the theatre of course. Only seven years ago. Back in 2010, in a production entitled futura  at the Theatre @ Boston Court, we learned about the terrifying possibility that a future society would lose respect for and possession of all our books, in a rush to embrace technology. In today’s article, Libraries turn the page, the change happened because

students kept asking, ‘In the spirit of challenging the status quo, why is this library filled with dusty books no one looks at and I can’t get a study space?’

Teresa Watanabe, Libraries turn the page,

Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17

As a denizen of the theatre, I and countless other audience members confronted this unimaginable future by attending the theatre, where Jordan Harrison’s powerful play unspooled this to us, realized with pulpable (ouch) power by director Jessica Kubzansky.

I also stage managed a play at the Geffen Playhouse years ago, a two-hander by playwright Lee Kalcheim, starring Jason Alexander and Peter Falk, entitled Defiled, which depicted what happened when a computer threatened to replace a library’s card catalogue. How many card catalogues are still in use in the Moffitt Library, I wonder?

One only needs to see a play like the current one we are presenting at USC School of Dramatic Arts, which shall remain nameless, where after a nuclear apocalypse “we” are left literally powerless to fend for ourselves in communities of fearful survivors. These survivors amuse/distract/cling to each other by sharing stories/episodes of a familiar tv series around a campfire, and in subsequent acts re-create theatre around these shared stories.

My take away from this current production is that as a society, we’re potentially nuclear nano-seconds away losing everything we take for granted; we are nano-seconds from a moment when study and nap pods could be pointless without the electricity.

But what tantalizes me today isn’t thinking about our carelessness with our legacy of dusty old books no one looks at, but really about the Cassandra-like power of theatre.

This week has been busy – filled with dress rehearsals of the two main stage plays, one of which is Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, the second referenced above, and a third workshop play of MFA Dramatic Writer Hannah Langley’s Losing My Religion (in 140 characters or less).

Wedekind’s play, written in the late 19th Century, spookily forecasts the sexual awakening of teens in a repressive German society, and their missteps due to ignorance and the unwillingness of the adults to be honest about the changes they are experiencing. But the reason it’s still relevant is that these issues are ever present in our society today.

As I write this, the TV blares with the news about a certain anchor’s dismissal from Fox News for sexual harassment charges, ostensibly, but we all know it’s actually because of the loss of advertising minutes they’ve sustained recently. Déjà vu? Well, unfortunately, yes, because we just watched the head of that network be unseated only a month ago. But so long ago, on stage, we watched David Mamet’s Oleanna, which premiered in May of 1992, and has had many subsequent productions, most recently in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in June, 2009.

The power of theatre to forewarn us, to remind us of our foibles and their ultimate destructive and redemptive capacity is one of the things that I have always thrilled to, perhaps with the exception of Center Theatre Group’s production of Vicuna, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. I happened to see it the week before the most recent Presidential election. How smug I was, as I sat in the theatre watching the buffoonishly theatricalized character so like Donald Trump preen and provoke us.

That will never happen to us. Phew!

While I watched the show, I also thought about how bold it was of Jon Robin Baitz to write a play with such a short shelf life and how extraordinary it was that Center Theatre Group would produce it. What a risk! How could it be relevant to us after the election when we had the first woman President in the White House? A week or so later, I listened to a radio interview with actor Harry Groener, who played the Trump character as he recounted that the week after the election, the audience reactions were completely different. There were many fewer laughs, and the communal grief was palpable.

Years ago, when my Mom was still alive, an inveterate death-long smoker, she wrote an op-ed piece for the small local Pennsylvania newspaper where she imagined a day when we wouldn’t be allowed to smoke in our own homes. There would be smoke-police, and dire consequences for those who continued to light up. I was impressed with her Swift-like satire about the future, unimaginable when she wrote it in the early 90s. Now I know she wasn’t satirizing, but prognosticating about the future world, much as Baitz, Wedekind, Kalcheim, Mamet and the playwright who shall remain nameless have done. I feel fortunate to be a member of a theatre tribe where the work we do carries that magical lens through which we can view our past, present and future as a society. Aside from the poignancy and the humor and the immediacy of the work, playwrights have the visionary power to take us forward in time.

All of this seems pretty far from the study room at the new Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley. But maybe one of those students, feet up on the wall, looking out through the trees might prop up a script of Spring Awakening on his or her legs and think about what Frank Wedekind is telling us about the future so distant from and yet so relevant to his past. Or better yet, this student may elect to attend a play this weekend to see first hand what the magic is all about.

Excuse me, your Freudian slip is showing…

Today I attended our Spring musical, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita along with several hundred prospective students and their families. We had a full morning of workshops for students who have been accepted to our programs and are currently weighing whether to attend USC next fall.

I participated in two – the first was a panel of the Design and Production Faculty, where Sibyl Wickersheimer and Tina Haatainen-Jones shared some of their stunning scenic and costume portfolio work; Phillip G. Allen shared a personal story about where his passion for the theatre came from; Duncan Mahoney shared about his career trajectory to USC; I talked a little about my career as a stage manager prior to coming to USC and what makes USC so special.

At 11:00AM, we held a panel of the most of the designers and stage managers of Evita, on the stage at the Bing, where led by their accomplished director, Tim Dang, described in detail the process of collaborating to conceive the design elements of the show and then realize them through rehearsals and tech to the final product. All the prospective students were going to see the performance after lunch.

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Framed by Scenic Designer Grace Wang’s show proscenium, L. to R. some of the Creative Staff of USC Dramatic Arts’ production of Evita: Tim Dang, Director, Emma Bramble ’13, A2, Briana Billups ’18, Sound Engineer, Stephen Jensen, ’17, Sound Designer, Lexi Hettick ’18, ASM, Savannah Harrow ’18, ASM, Jessica Major ’17, SM, Edina Hiser, ’19, Asst. Costume Designer,    Liam Sterbinsky, ’17 Lighting Designer 

It was a great discussion, after which the visitors looked at a lobby display featuring the designers’ process paperwork and research. Duncan then led everyone on a tour of several of our facilities.

After lunch, we sat in our seats in the Bing. I had been offered a front row seat by our Director of Special Events (and the coordinator of all today’s yummy dining events), Marissa Gonzalez. She dashed in as the lights were going down and we entered the world of Argentina in the 1930s. The last time I’d seen the show was in a second dress rehearsal while there was still quite a bit of work going on in all departments. It really cemented for me the importance of seeing a performance to really appreciate the scope of the work and the tremendous attention to detail that is necessary to bring a show to excellence. Today’s performance was precise, and spirited, with the hard-won technical moments supporting the acting, singing and dancing of the twenty-nine cast members.

If you’re familiar with the plot of Evita, throughout the first act, we watch Eva Duarte’s ambitious rise from squalid beginnings through a succession of relationships, where she eventually lands on the arm of Colonel Juan Perón at the end of Act I.

At the end of Act I, Marissa again dashed up the aisle to the front of the theatre, and I, without thinking, stood up and turned to the woman on my right whom I had been talking with before the show and who was attending with her high-school-aged daughter and politely said

Excuse me, but I’m going to go spread my legs…..

The woman and her daughter, looked quizzically up at me and as if in slow motion, I replayed my own words as I realized what I’d just said….

I mean STRETCH my legs.

One of the best instagram accounts I follow is entitled @hashtagwelcometomyday. Julia, this one’s for you…It’s been a long week!

 

 

 

“We Wrangle Crazy People for a Living”

Spring 2017 brought along with the rain we so desperately needed, a hearty serving of teaching practice for our BFA Stage Management cohort. The recently endowed Alice M. Pollitt Professorship in Stage Management, the first in the nation’s endowed professorship in Stage Management, kicked off an international search for the best candidate. In the past several weeks, four outstanding finalists have visited the campus, each teaching a class to our stage management cohort. Continue reading

Racing Walkers

One of the main reasons we have visited Chatham so often in the past dozen years was to see Jimmie’s sister, his sole sibling. She has lived in Chatham ‘nigh long as I can remember ‘- our first trip out to visit Jimmie’s sisters was when we were still young newlyweds, perhaps even before we married, so that’s 32 years ago. Claire, Jimmie’s and Kate’s older sister succumbed to cancer in 1992. She is memorialized in our hearts of course, but also tangibly by a brick marker in the paved brick base of the Oyster Pond flagpole in Chatham, a spot we return to each time we come to town.There are benches there and we sit and spend a few minutes looking at the beautiful scenery, and remembering Claire.

Kate embraced Chatham with a vengeance. She moved there originally to live with and care for Claire in her last years, and then moved permanently to Chatham with her husband, Marnie, where they lived until he passed away about 7 years ago. She’s been on her own since.

Kate actively participated in Chatham life, as a bookstore owner (she has had three different locations in Chatham), and in many organizations providing services to poor and underprivileged year round residents. There are, surprisingly, a lot of year round residents in Chatham. It isn’t just a summer tourist spot. As in all towns, the residents age, and need help with care as they are left behind by spouses, families, and our youth-conscious world in general. Kate’s most recent job was at the Senior Center in Chatham, an organization that provides services for seniors-a weekly meal for those who can’t prepare their own, and subsidies of gas/oil bills, groceries, and transportation. Kate has long said that Chatham is a wonderful place to grow old, because of services like these.

Two and a half years ago, Kate moved from the saltbox Cape Cod rental house she had long lived in on Orleans Road. It was a nice three bedroom house, with an upstairs which Kate rarely used. The kitchenette met her simple needs, and she had a lovely writing nook overlooking a freshwater marsh behind the house. When we came to visit her, we’d sit in her living room and watch the Red Sox games, then we’d go out for dinner somewhere in town: Pate’s, or the Chatham Squire, the Impudent Oyster, or any number of the other hot spots in Chatham.

Until recently, Kate was living in a City-run residential facility which houses 17 residents. Kate had a room, which faced out into a communal dining room where she and the other residents received a hot meal each day at noon. She managed the rest of her meals herself in her kitchenette in her room. The facility provided assistance with shopping, and had a common area with a TV where Kate could watch the Red Sox games.

When we told Kate that we were coming back to the Cape after 3 years away, her emotion was audible over the phone. A recent accident left her with perpetual back pain, and made her unable to travel. Last October, when she was getting into a car that was going to take some of the residents shopping, the driver backed up before she had gotten in, and Kate fell, breaking a bone in her back. It was a terrible accident, one, oddly that the man driving the car has taken no accountability for and which has had far-reaching effect on Kate’s life and current living situation.

Kate has had a long rehabilitation and uses a walker. Jimmie and I joked that the two of them could have walker races together, and in fact, when we first arrived at the facility last summer, the two of them dashed off with their walkers for the front door.

Kate and Jimmie adore each other, and always have. As the years piled on, it became clear that our visits would be less frequent, and I’d been acutely aware that last summer’s trip might have been our last visit with Kate. Jimmie says that Kate reminds him so much of their mother now. Kate is plain spoken, with a keen observational capacity. She’s been a writer for a long time, and while we were there, she told us the backstory on all the residents of the home, introducing us to some. We saw her just about every day we were in Chatham. Some of the meetings were great, and some less so.

One night I called her up at about 6pm and invited her to go out to dinner with us to Pate’s, a roast beef restaurant on Rte. 28 just outside of the main part of Chatham. We swung by to pick her up at Captain’s Landing, and arrived at Pate’s by about 7:00PM. It was already abuzz with diners. Miraculously, a parking spot opened up right by the ramp to the restaurant, and I extracted the two walkers from the car, managing not to smash my thumb again. We rolled on in, and were seated in the dining room. The host quickly wheeled the walkers away and stowed them out of the path of other diners. We have yet to lose a walker in a restaurant, and I can appreciate that they are an obstacle, but Kate became visibly upset by the removal of the walkers, snapping at me when I said it was in the path of other diners’ tables. I let it go, and she seemed to as well. Soon we were ordering drinks. Kate ordered a martini straight up with a twist of lemon, and Jimmie and I ordered our standard sparkling waters. Everything was humming along, nicely, and when Jimmie’s prime rib arrived, it was the size of the 10″ plate, red and juicy looking. Kate’s salmon was dressed with a lovely lemon dill sauce, and garnished with two pieces of asparagus crossed like lances over the fish. Kate took one look at her plate and said,

Two pieces of asparagus? Are they kidding me? That’s not vegetables!

I had ordered the filet mignon, eschewed the potatoes, so there was a small pile of appeasement carrots next to the meat. I hid them behind the steak to hopefully quell Kate’s vegetable revolt.

Kate’s martini eventually kicked in, and after eating about half of her salmon, enjoying it greatly, she began watching Jimmie’s attack on the prime rib with a horrified fascination; and she seemed unable or not interested in concealing her horror. Facing me, thankfully, Jimmie couldn’t see her expression of distaste as he raised each bite to his lips. Her eyes tracked the meat from the plate to his mouth, and each of his bites elicited a little moué of displeasure, a tiny shake of her head and a grimace of disgust. This went on until it became comical, and I tried to get Jimmie’s attention. Kate’s tongue pushed out of her lips in a repetitive lip lave which I’d not seen her do before.

After dinner, I retrieved the walkers, and we got out to the car without incident. We took Kate home and dropped her off at her room.

One of the better visits we had was around the task of helping her to hang some of her paintings in her room, something she hadn’t been able to accomplish on her own. Over the course of about an hour, we hung 5 pictures,  and she shared the details of how she had acquired each painting, reminding me of how involved she had once been with artists in the Chatham community. My skills as a picture hanger are just a little better developed than my skills as a wallpaper hanger. My last task was hanging a series of five small pen and ink drawings that Kate and her husband Marnie had made back in the early 70s. By this point, there were few vacancies on the walls of her room, but we spotted the band of wall above the closet, and I started to hang them up there. I was standing on a small step stool on my tip toes, and reaching full arm extended to place the nails, so it was inevitable that they would be uneven. At this point, I was overheated and it was time for dinner. After struggling to measure each nail position, I placed the drawings on the nails, and Kate, across the room, shook her head to say this positioning wasn’t working for her. Just as well, because a small tap against the wall sent four of the five drawings to the floor, so we removed the five nails and called it a day. But Kate was very with it throughout the work, and we were having a nice visit.

Nine months have passed since we had this visit in Chatham, and Kate is now a resident in a nursing facility in Chatham called Liberty Commons. When we spoke with her recently by phone, she commented,

They sure like to move me around.

Which I think was a commentary on her back and forth trips from Brigham Women’s Hospital in Boston to Liberty Commons and back and less a comment on the care where she is now. Our conversations by phone are brief and Jimmie has graduated to a Go-Go 3 Elite 3 Wheel travel scooter to get around to the park and to the car. But our hearts are still in Chatham with Kate even though travel seems less likely now. thumb_IMG_5380_1024

A Day at the Races

About a year ago, we changed financial advisors, choosing Thrivent Financial, to manage our funds. The Christians part aside, we liked their directness, availability, and the opportunity to look at how we might get the money out of the retirement fund when it comes that time. If you haven’t noticed, everyone is really good about telling you how to put it in the account. Not so good about how to extract it and how to diversify your options so that some of them are tax free. Ben and Isaac were really clear and we made some significant changes in the way we were putting it in. Since then they’ve done well for us and Isaac recently invited us to join them at the Thrivent Financial Day at Santa Anita. Last year we hadn’t been able to go, but this year Jimmie and I were free to go and so we added it to our calendar.

We had no idea what to expect, but when we arrived at the track, we found relatively close parking, and easy access to the ground floor entrance to the private party area. thumb_img_5678_1024There, we found our financial advisor, Isaac, near the buffet table, which was only feet from a bank of windows where we’d be able to conveniently place our bets throughout the day.

I had only ever been to the track once before, in Reno, with my Dad and Stepmother when I was about 14. There, he’d placed a bet for me and I’d won, $14, as I recall. Somehow I avoided the allure of winning at the track, and it’s only taken me forty-three years to return. But after today, I may not stay away as long next time. We had a blast.

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Our Irish Three-Year-Old Filly, Siberian Iris, who won in Race 4, netting us $25.10.

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That’s Tattooed Kitty in the front, my choice in race 5, bet $6 and won $15.80.

In the car on the way out to Santa Anita, Jimmie told me the things we should do in our betting today. Back when he was a late teen, he’d go to the track  with his mom and dad in Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. He remembered there is a $2.00 ticket that allows you to bet on one horse to Win, Place and Show (it’s actually $6.00 for all three of those options), but then you are really covered. Later, some of his dear friends, Jackie and Steve in New York, were part owners of a horse, and they used to go to the track. He warned me about the touts, who would come and tell you a tip about a race, then come back expecting a cut of your winnings.

They’re not going to let a tout into a private party area, I scoffed.

Today, as I stood in line for dessert behind a tall, attractive brunette woman, we ogled the plates of desserts passing by but it was the woman with the single oatmeal cookie that caused us to both giggle and begin talking.

How’re you doing today? I quipped.

Great, she said. (beat)  I don’t bet.

That’s when we laughed about the irony of being invited to gamble away our hard earned investments at the race track. She said her husband liked to tease their investment manager that he was going to bet it all on one horse.

And the tout? img_7585There was a board inside the party area which listed his choices. I more or less followed them, and did pretty well today. And he ended up addressing the crowd through a mic right in front of our table. Periodically he’d check in with us to see how we were doing.

I really wanted to know how to get a ride in the surrey without the fringe on top.thumb_img_5704_1024

At one point, I said to Jimmie

It’s so nice to be out with you at something other than a theatrical event.

Or a doctor’s office, he quipped.

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And then I swallowed the canary.

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Stage Managers in the Starting Blocks

We’re recruiting at the School of Dramatic Arts. The BFA Audition Tour.

For the past two weekends, we’ve met with aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts BFA programs in acting, stage management, technical direction, design and sound design.

We’re led by our fearless leader, the indomitable Lori Ray Fisher, our Asst. Dean of Academic Affairs, and her intrepid “touring company” staff, Meghan Laughlin and Ramón Valdez. Over the past two weekends, in classrooms all over the McClintock Theatre building, aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts arrived with their best materials and selves to show the acting and production faculty. Lori, Meghan and Ramón met with every one of them, briefing them on curricular and logistical details of becoming a USC student while the faculty put them through their paces in auditions and portfolio reviews.

The tour dates fell earlier in this year’s calendar, landing with a thud just after the school’s own casting audition cycle ended. In the first week of classes, in rehearsal halls across the campus, we cast nine shows.

Lacking a stage manager for one of the shows, I stepped in to administer the auditions for one of the New Works plays, and sat in the hallway of PED watching the actors pace hither and yon in anticipation of their auditions, the gracious and welcoming stage managers at their tidy tables outside those audition rooms.

I listened intently to the sweet sounds of musical auditions seeping through the walls of PED 207 from Evita. I listened to stage managers shushing over-excited actors who shared their audition battle stories with their friends sometimes a little too enthusiastically.

I peered into PED 208, where forty-plus young men and women, eyes fixed eagerly, desperately as they replicated the choreographer’s dance sequences. Some of them floundered  with the novelty of the moves, working the sequences over and over until their brows were shiny and their arms graceful, their smiles confident. You have to love casting week.

Usually a stranger to these hallways, I saw many of my THTR 130 students, most of whom are out of their element 8:00AM on Tuesday mornings in a technical theatre class. Now, I was there, in their zone, and they relished the chance to show me their true actor colors.

These are the stakes for the aspiring applicants we met last week in the auditions for the freshman class. The chance to participate in casting week, to land a part in the spring musical, or in a brand new play by a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing program. Or a design position on a future spring musical. Or the chance to sit in the hall outside the audition room to support the casting process. The stakes are high.

The school is also in the process of searching to hire a newly named Chair of the Stage Management Program, the first named chair in stage management in the country, due to a generous gift. I serve on the search committee, and can’t divulge anything about the process or the people who have applied. But this weekend, after considering who might become the Director of the program, followed by a weekend of meeting the students some of whom will join the program next fall, I’ve thought a lot about stage management skills and training.

What makes a good stage manager? There are dozens if not hundreds of books about the practice of stage management. They detail the importance of clear and detailed paperwork, good communication skills, an organized approach to the chronology of a play’s rehearsals, technical rehearsals and performances. Other qualities include the support of the director’s vision, good time management skills, a good sense of humor, etc. But I think the most important aspect of excellence in stage management is less measurable, certainly less systematic. It parallels the qualities and skills that make an actor or designer or technician good:

Listening

A good actor listens and responds truthfully and with the appropriate emotions and lines as rehearsed.

A good stage manager listens and processes, then, after separating the logistical consequences from the emotional underlying message, responds. Unemotionally whenever possible. A good stage manager does not take any information personally, and whenever possible, removes his or her ego from the room/process.

Being Present

A good actor remains in the moment, responding with truth to what he or she receives from the other actor.

A good stage manager similarly responds to information, not being thrown by unexpected events on stage or off.

  • Lamp burned out? Check the magic sheet and come up with an alternative to add to the cue, or text the theatre manager to be standing by at intermission with the appropriate lamp and a ladder.
  • Actor in tears in front of you? Wrap your arms around them and just let them cry. Kleenex and a cookie works pretty well, too, but only after that initial human response that lets them know you can see their humanness, too.
  • Actors refusing to perform until conditions have been improved? Contact the technical director and discuss a timeline for doing the work necessary to make them feel safe again.

I remember back in 1992 when we were in tech at the Los Angeles Theatre Center with Boogeyman,hollywood-squares Reza Abdoh’s wildly exuberant rant against corporate America’s response (or lack thereof) to the Aids epidemic. Timion Alsacker’s set was a nightmarish iteration of the Hollywood Squares set. Paul Lynde’s uppermost left square instead sported a tank of water over which a winch suspended an actor upside down and submerged him head first into the water. Another square had a shower, another an upside down hospital bed where an actor was strapped in for a scene. Another was a submarine room. All of these rooms were joined by a series of steps leading to doors. Reza’s pace was inhumanly demanding, and the actors were sprinting up and down the stairs, in and out of the rooms; at a certain point in the tech rehearsals, Tom Fitzpatrick, the Equity Deputy, came to me to say that the cast was refusing to go on until certain things were fixed related to the set and safety. And so, I took the list and went to visit David Mac in the production office, and he quickly resolved the issues so that we could proceed with the tech process.

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This picture doesn’t do the Boogeyman set justice.

I once had a very esteemed actor stand in his dressing room and tell me that I sided with the management too often – didn’t side with the actors enough. Sometimes as stage managers, we have to hear things we don’t want to hear or don’t know how to solve, but we have to listen and proceed with our next steps as best we can.

Our interviews with prospective stage management students go like this; first we ask them what they like about stage management/design/technical direction. We ask them to show us what they’ve brought, and then we share with them the curriculum, emphasizing features of the program like “20 shows, no waiting.” “Professional directors to work with.” They bring a range of experiences into the interview – some of them have just stumbled on stage management as the tonic to rectify what is difficult for them in their personal lives. Some admit proudly that they like to be “in control.”  Others describe their roles as stage managers as supporting the production. Their essays are vulnerable and heartfelt. So many of them have such outstanding grades now that it’s hard to judge them on their academics. More relevant is their passion for the theatre, or eagerness to learn. How well do they listen? What questions do they ask to understand? Tidy contact sheets or blocking notation are swell, but why are they in this room looking at this program in the first place?

I don’t know that the soft skills of stage management are even teachable. But I sure enjoy giving it a try.