Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

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A Little More Night Music

Life has a funny way of rolling by, faster and faster.Recently, when the offer to do Endgame again presented itself to my husband after 31 years, we were stunned that the time had passed so quickly. It happened again this week as I sat at the edge of the orchestra pit at the Bing Theatre, listening to the first orchestra read of the score for USC School of Dramatic Arts’ production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music,” (opening March 31, 2016, and running through Sunday, April 10, 2016.)

In April of 1991, a mere (gulp) 25 years ago, I had the privilege of Assistant Stage Managing on the Center Theatre production of “A Little Night Music”, presented at the James A. Doolittle Theatre during the second of four years when The Ahmanson housed “The Phantom of the Opera.” I was the 2nd Assistant Stage Manager to James T. McDermott (SM) and Mark Wright (PSM). The show was directed by Gordon Davidson, with Choreography by Onna White, and Vocal Staging by David Craig.

Lois Nettleton and John McMartin
Lois Nettleton and John McMartin, 1991 Photo by Craig Schwartz

The play’s rehearsals were thrilling – from the first day’s meet and greet in the Taper Annex Rehearsal Room A, where the illustrious cast assembled; Glynis Johns as Madame Armfeldt, Lois Nettleton as her daughter Desiree, John McMartin as the lawyer Frederik Egerman. There were a number of people in the cast with whom I had worked (again, the theatre’s incestuous cross-pollination at work): Michelle Nicastro, a soprano who I’d had the privilege of stage managing for in “Blame It On The Movies” at the Coast Playhouse, Teri Ralston and Robert Yacko, friends from my work on the S.T.A.G.E. Benefits. I had worked with Glynis Johns before, also on the second S.T.A.G.E. benefit exclusively dedicated to the work of Stephen Sondheim.

That particular cross-pollination was not my most shining moment as a neophyte stage manager. Recently having moved to Los Angeles, I met Susan Obrow, a local director and co-producer of the S.T.A.G.E. Benefits, by answering a Backstage West ad for a stage manager for a new comedy called “High Hopes.” From there, Susan had introduced me to director David Galligan, who asked me to ASM for the third annual S.T.A.G.E. Benefit, celebrating the songs of Stephen Sondheim (1987),  at the Variety Arts Center on 9th St. and Figueroa, in downtown L.A.. About a month before the actual performances, the PSM of the benefit withdrew and I was “promoted” to PSM. I was completely unprepared and unqualified for such a promotion, but my youthful folly engendered a conviction that I could easily learn-by-doing how to manage a show with 50 performers, including Glynis Johns and many other theatrical illuminati.

My most ignominious training moment happened the night of the sound checks, where, in my ignorance, I had scheduled everyone’s check in chronological order, rather than in order of theatrical gravitas. In addition, the sound checks started late and ran long, so we ended with Miss Johns’ mic check happening at 11:00PM and her leaving after the mic check at midnight;  on her way to the freeway, she drove the wrong way on 9th St. and ended up beaching her Mercedes on a median divider. This was before cell phones were in use, and well before the gentrification of South Park, so one can only imagine how unpleasant this episode was.

Stage managers earn their stripes of ignominy with blood, sweat and tears, and these are some of my hardest earned. The next day, first came the call from Glynis’ agent (who was also my husband’s agent); this was followed by an irate call from Glynis herself blaming me for poor directions away from the theatre (again, this was pre-GPS, so poor directions from a stage manager could be lethal). The director and I received both calls in the booth in the back of the Variety Arts Theatre;  by the end of the calls, we looked at each other and burst into tears. That’s when I learned the danger as a woman in a position of leadership of crying under duress. Hasn’t happened again, except maybe privately, like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.  David and I were able to laugh about it years later, but that day it was mortifying. It’s still mortifying, but the distance and time have allowed us to recover.

I have many vivid memories of the 1991 production of A Little Night Music. The first day of rehearsal, Susan Obrow, (then an assistant to Gordon Davidson) and I talked in Rehearsal Room A about how we would greet Glynis. Glynis entered the room (this was 4 years after the infamous sound check night); as she approached us, looking first at me,  brow furrowing, turned toward Susan, we simultaneously made the decision to gaslight her.

Oh, Miss Johns, it is such a pleasure to meet you! I have been such a big fan of yours for years, we both gushed.

She had a befuddled look, caught between her brain’s associating us with some disastrous and pain-soaked midnight Mercedes memory and the visual of our two earnest, smiling faces selling that we were meeting her for the first time and were delighted about it. We never mentioned it again, and continued for the next 13 weeks through rehearsals and performances to maintain our fiction.

Glynis Johns as Madame Armfeldt
Polly Heard (Frederika) and Glynis Johns (Mme Armfeldt) in her Angel encrusted wheelchair. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Other moments rekindle my fondness for the experience – the moment when Glynis stopped a tech rehearsals to present Gordon Davidson, the director, with a gift of an angel (she was mildly and charmingly obsessed with them – the back of her wicker wheelchair was graced with them). She had originated the role of Desiree in 1973 in the original Broadway production to Hermione Gingold’s Mme Armfeldt, and was now playing the role at the Doolittle Theatre. I can’t remember why it was so important to give him the angel then, but I do remember the impact it had on our rehearsal timing that day.

Jimmie McDermott and I ran the deck. I was the Stage left ASM; that was the stage door and dressing room side; my position afforded me many opportunities to see human dynamics and foibles paralleled by those  Wheeler and Sondheim so deftly depict in the musical’s book and lyrics. There was at least one offstage affair; restraint prevents me from sharing the lurid details, but suffice it to say, my regular 15-minute call and collection of valuables should have cued these individuals to better time their assignation. It was heady stuff for a young stage manager, and I was so fortunate to learn from two masters of the stage management profession; Jimmie McDermott and Mark Wright demonstrated how to deal with a variety of situations.

One evening, at places, I stood by my music stand adjacent to the stairwell, awaiting the arrival of the cast for the prologue and waltz. The off-stage area was incredibly crowded with props – the full sized bed, the rolling hedges, and the I.A.T.S.E. stage hands standing by for the carefully choreographed opening and closing of the doors to the salon in Act I.

Robert Israel was the Scenic Designer; the Act I scenic design depicted a formal drawing room with symmetrical double doors and a metaphoric portrait foreshadowing the blue sky of the Act II country hovering over the mantlepiece in the center of the stage. At The end of Act I, the upstage drawing room walls flew out as the side walls pivoted out, revealing the blue sky of the upstage drop, during “A Weekend In The Country.” We affectionately called the painting over the mantle “the blue blob” and someone in made opening night t-shirts sporting the blue blob prominently on the back. (Was it me? I can’t remember). All other props were stashed in the wings, except the two roadsters, which were parked out back behind the Doolittle and brought in during Intermission, causing the house curtain to billow out into the house due to the air pressure from the front doors in the lobby being open.

But I digress. This one night at the places call, I stood at my music stand. Glynis entered the stage from her dressing room, and looking around left and right, she dramatically swooned, her body crumpling cautiously to the stage. I looked across the dark expanse at Les and Harold the crew members DS  and US of the door, stifled a giggle, then quickly alerted Jimmie and Mark  over the headset that Glynis had fallen, hurried to her side, taking her hand in mine. Mark was there in less than a minute, and grasping her hand, patted it rapidly, cooing reassuringly. Out of one side of his mouth –

Glynis, Glynis, are you all right?

while out of the other side,

Els, get Pat ready.

Pat was Glynis’ understudy and she was ready within about 5 minutes, rolling out onto the stage through the double doors in the angel-encrusted wheelchair for the opening scene between Grandmother and the young Fredrika.

These were all of the memories that rushed through my brain yesterday as I listened to the orchestra at USC playing through the charts under the excellent stewardship of Parmer Fuller, our musical director. The actors available to be at the theatre (not in class) were scattered;when their numbers came up in the rehearsal, they gravitated to the stage and sang through their numbers with the orchestra. Kelly Ward, our director and choreographer, jumped to the stage to the sides of the working actors, giving them notes about beats in the songs, and working out his own choreography over the lush charts.

At one point, stepping from the stage, he appeared at my side and said with an impish grin,

This is when it gets fun. The stakes are raised when the orchestra arrives!

Agreed. Now, twenty five years later, I am working as the Production Manager for this production, watching the fierce team of BFA Stage Managers figuring out the logistics of all the scene changes. Philip G. Allen, an up and coming sound engineer in 1991, learning at the elbow of Sound Designer, Jon Gottlieb; this time around, his sound design students are designing. So much history behind us, and so much history in front of them! They will have stories of their own to tell.

It’s an exciting time. Won’t you buy some tickets and come see their work?

Anticipating Endgame

Wednesday marked the beginning of an important journey for four yeoman actors. In My Nagg, I shared with you the past journey of both my husband in his role as Nagg in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and our journey together as man and wife from our marriage 32 years ago beginning with our imprompt work/honeymoon to Israel where he performed Nagg with Alvin Epstein, Peter Evans and Alice Drummond.

But now, it’s time to look forward, to the start of rehearsals for the upcoming production at The Kirk Douglas Theatre, directed by and starring Alan Mandell. It is an important production; not only are three of the actors (Alan, Charlotte Rae and Barry McGovern) one degree of separation from the playwright Samuel Beckett, but three of the performers are also over the age of 88.

The combined 266 years of these three thespians has not been squandered. All three have had vital careers in theatre, film and television.  I will let you peruse the interweb for the details of their artistic endeavors. They have crossed paths in their dramatic peregrinations.  But what interests me most is not looking back at their illustrious careers, but looking forward at the challenge before them; I realize that if we are lucky, and it comes unencumbered with serious illness or dementia, age does not diminish the passion one feels for creative work. Many of you know this already. Forgive me if it is already obvious.

Old age is a shipwreck.

Charles DeGaulle

Jimmie frequently invokes DeGaulle’s immortal words, usually in the morning when he stumbles out to the kitchen, one eye closed, pirate-like, with a request  for me to turn on the coffee pot, or in the evening when removing his knee brace, or climbing into bed. But what I see is that the work is rejuvenating; the act of studying and memorizing lines peels away the years like no other activity.

Alan called me on Monday. That’s the other refreshing thing about our elders. With a few exceptions, they prefer to communicate by speaking human to human through a telephone. I frequently bemoan that this generation of stage managers misses that human connection when emailing rehearsal schedules to their actors rather than calling them on the phone to leave the first day’s details with them.  I relish the first conversation with a new colleague, because it’s when you learn some detail about his/her connection with the director, or the piece, or in the case of Alan Mandell, the playwright, Beckett, about whom you only have ever had text book familiarity. In this case, for me, it is like touching noses with the gods.

Alan wanted to set up a coffee meeting with Charlotte, Jimmie and himself in advance of the first rehearsal. Two phone calls arranged a meeting first at Alan’s home and then a trip to Charlotte’s… Continue reading “Anticipating Endgame”

My Nagg

Endgame Photo
1984 Production of “Endgame” at the Harold Clurman Theatre. L to R, Alice Drummond, James Greene, Alvin Epstein, also the Director, and Peter Evans

 

In the summer of 1984, as my fiancé, James Greene and I made preparations for our upcoming wedding, he was involved in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. It was produced in a small, off off Broadway theatre, The Harold Clurman Theatre, on 42nd St. west of 8th Avenue, and he was playing the role of Nagg. He had elaborate white chalky makeup to disguise his youthful 57-year-old features, and wore a jaunty night cap atop his head as he emerged from the ash can down stage right. His entrances were throughout the play, but he was able to retire to the comfort of his dressing room in between his perches, due to the escape stairs under his and Nell’s barrels. During the wedding week, when family were beginning to gather for our nuptuals, Jimmie showed his thoughtfulness when, on the evening that my Grandmother was coming to see the play, he moved quickly from his dressing table, where he sat, dabbing on his white makeup to across the street from the theatre at the West Bank Café, where he knew that my Grandmother Betsey, my father and his wife, Joan, and I were all eating a pre-performance dinner. Horrified that she might “meet him” for the first time when he emerged from his barrel as an 80-year-old man, he had quickly scrubbed off his makeup and run across the street to shake hands with her. For the rest of her life, she always remarked about how thoughtful that had been of him.

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Standing under the sign for the Peace Forest, where the Endgame company planted trees in Alan Schneider’s memory.
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The Cultural Center in Jerusalem where Endgame was performed in 1985.

The following year, in June of 1985, the production was invited to perform at the Jerusalem Theatre Festival. The production was supposed to have been directed by veteran theatre director, Alan Schneider, but he had been killed in May the previous year, while,  looking the wrong way while crossing the street in London, apparently on his way to mailing a letter to Samuel Beckett. The festival participants in Jerusalem went to a hillside, where we planted trees in Alan’s memory, prior to their performing Endgame for the first time. Jimmie and I both wore goofy white tennis hats acquired at the airport to ward off the sun while we planted the trees.

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A dramatic photo of Jimmie taken backstage at the Gerald Behar Center.

The festival performances of Endgame took place in the Gerard Behar Centre, where Adolph Eichmann was tried and convicted; there, the historic status of the building and the location of the barrels down stage right where Eichmann’s glass booth had been precluded a trap door to the basement.  Jimmie and Alice crouched heroically for 90 minutes, clutching onto small metal handles attached to the sides of the barrels. Jimmie was still a runner at the time, so this did not pose the perils it would  if he were asked to do the same today.

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Jimmie floating in the Dead Sea, blissfully unaware that he had just lost his wedding ring.

Another Israel episode was the day we drove down to the Dead Sea, behind some military trucks. We arrived at the edge of the sea, and Jimmie was first in, frolicking in the dense salt water, which would not allow you to sink, due to its viscosity. I approached the shore, bent down and touched the water, feeling how slimy and salty it was. I shouted out to Jimmie,

Did you take off your wedding ring?

Jimmie looked down at his hand in horror and the day was ruined, as we realized his ring had fallen to the bottom of the Dead Sea. This did not seem the least bit auspicious for the newlywed couple that we were, but we returned to New York and went back to the jewelry store to replace it. 31 years later, we’re still going strong, so I guess we survived the incident.

Alan Mandell, the director and Hamm of the upcoming Kirk Douglas Production of Endgame, called us several weeks ago, to see if Jimmie might consider standing by for actor Rick Cluchey, in the upcoming production. Alan was being cautious, he had spoken earlier that evening with a very weak Cluchey; he called to see if Jimmie might be interested. Jimmie considered the offer carefully, and when he called Alan the next morning at 10:00AM to accept, learned from a shaken Alan that Rick had passed away the night before shortly after Jimmie and Alan had hung up. Alan then offered Jimmie the role of Nagg. Jimmie accepted. Just last week it was made official. He is so pleased, but regretful he it was due to another actor’s death.

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Jason Wingreen, b. October 9, 1920, d. December 25, 2015.

All of us in the theatre have had several  weeks of terrible loss, losing such theatrical giants as Rick Cluchey, Brian Bedford, Alan Rickman, David Margulies, and our dear friend Jason Wingreen.

Jason, whom I wrote about in a previous post, passed away quietly in his sleep on December 25, 2015 at about 11:00PM. The ideal way to go, if there is one, at the ripe age of 95, at home, having bid his son good-bye, and quietly without pain. We should all be so lucky. There is a strange limbo period between the time that an actor dies and the world learns of it. It was strange in the ensuing weeks, until the obituaries of Jason and Rick began to appear; for those few days the news had not hit the internet yet. It was almost as though they were still alive.  A Google search still listed them in the present tense.

Earlier this week my friend Lynn Johnson Minney, with whom I had stage managed a production of “Camping with Henry and Tom” at the Pasadena Playhouse called to tell us that she and her husband and daughter were going to be in LA, and she wanted to get together. It never occurred to me until much later in the week that she was coming to attend Rick’s celebration of life, until I remembered that she had stage managed a production of Krapp’s Last Tape also 20 years or so ago. She had met Cluchey when she was in her early 20s and had worked on numerous productions with him. It is startling sometimes how concentrically our lives revolve around each other. I thought of Lynn this morning as I did my yoga practice, because she practiced Bikram yoga when we worked together those many years ago, and frankly, I thought she was crazy.

Other circles – Jimmie worked for months with Brian Bedford at The Phoenix Repertory Theatre, in the 1971 production of “The School for Wives,”which began at the Lyceum Theatre in NY before touring to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. David Margulies had been in “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” with Jimmie, and I had worked with him on “Conversations with My Father.” That’s how it works in the theatre – we drive around in our little artistic bumper cars, careening off and then back together. You never know when you will reunite with a former colleague and friend, but you know that when you do, for good or for bad, you have a deep connection. Our work is so intimate that it begets connections that are significant.

My thoughts drift to the current producers of Endgame, Center Theatre Group. They must be sobered by the fact that their cast members range in age from the youthful Irish Barry McGovern, 67, to Charlotte Rae, in her late 80s, and Alan and Jimmie at 88 and 89, respectively. When Jimmie got the call, my brain immediately kicked into production/stage manager mode, asking Alan,

Who are the Stage Managers?

They will need to have a special understanding of the needs and niceties for aging actors.

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Endgame’s senior happy bus

Jimmie doesn’t drive any more; the same may be true for the other actors.  I fantasized that the theatre would organize some sort of senior actor happy bus to shuttle around town to get the actors for their daily rehearsals? Would they modify rehearsal hours?  These are important questions when revving older actors up to an 8 performance week after a rehearsal and tech period. Alan already has tackled the issue of the comfort of the ash cans, remarking with a laugh that scenic designer, John Iacovelli, had responded:

They will be so comfortable they will want to move in!

After Alan’s call,  I drove to the Samuel French bookstore in Hollywood, to buy a copy of Endgame. Picking out the script, I went home and put it into Jimmie’s eager, outstretched hands. Later in the afternoon, at the nail salon, I turned to look at Jimmie, whose hands cradled the script, his face modeling the behavior I had fallen in love with those many years ago, that of an actor in complete concentration. He repeated the lines silently, gaze falling slightly down, eyes fixed alternately on the script and then at some vague point in the air in front of him. Anyone married to an actor knows this far-away-look in their partner’s eye. Jimmie used to pace around the room, or go outside in the back yard to speak his lines out loud. Just now, I found him pacing near the dining room table. This phase typically precedes the moment maybe a day later when said actor will turn lovingly and say,

Would you mind cueing me? I think I’m ready to give it a shot.

We have shared that moment so many times in our lives together, and Jimmie has practiced it for decades before we ever met. I don’t think either of us thought we would experience that again. I am so thrilled for Jimmie with this opportunity. He is so ready and willing to get back on the boards, back in the can, back in the saddle, whatever the lame metaphor I choose. He is, after all, my Nagg.

 

Explore at 4- The Performing Arts

This week, the USC Career Center, in collaboration with the Theatre Student Association of the School of Dramatic Arts hosted a panel in the Martin Massman Theatre for The Performing Arts, as part of their Explore at 4 series.

LevarQA-808c59dfThe panelists included actor, entrepreneur LeVar Burton, Camille Schenkkan, Program Manager Next Generation Initiatives, Center Theatre Group (CTG), CTG Casting director Mark Simon, playwright and Co-literary Manager for the Theatre at Boston Court, Emilie Beck, and David Mack, Strategic Director of the Heidi Druckler Dance Theatre. Meghan Laughlin, who helped coordinate the event with the Career Center  asked me to moderate the panel. This was a first for me at USC.

The purpose of the panel was to show alternative pathways to students on the brink of forging a life in the performing arts. To provide a safe place for them to ask questions of a prestigious panel of people who had already made their way in a variety of directions. Approximately 55 students attended. Career Center’s Senior Career Counselor and organizer of the event, David Ginchansky, took a quick survey which revealed all but three students in attendance were Thespians.

I have an embarrassing confession. I was really nervous about moderating this panel. That probably sounds silly, and after a lifetime of stretching out of my comfort zone, the experience has reminded me yet again of a valuable lesson for those about to seek a life in an uncertain profession.  The wonderful thing about being asked to do something new is that following that initial frisson of fear, one’s creative habits and training kick in. Which is, of course, what the panel was addressing. How do we take the training we have received in school and go out into the profession to find our way? The students who attended the discussion heard the same idea expressed many ways throughout the hour-long discussion:

Find your authentic self.

Keep your ego healthy. In a business where exposing your authentic self is de rigueur, find a way to protect your ego from being bruised without sacrificing what makes you authentic.

Be kind. To everyone.
Take risks and do things that are unfamiliar because you never know when you will stumble into your perfect career in the arts.
Dare to fail.

We covered topics such as how to navigate new media as actors. Who better to discuss that then LeVar Burton, with 1.7 million Twitter followers? Burton refashioned his long running Reading Rainbow television show into an app which has allowed students to read over 16 million books on their tablets. He modified his original premise of bringing reading to young children via the current technology  (television in 1983 when the series started) to embrace the latest technology. He took what he knew and adapted himself and his vision, creating a successful kick starter campaign with over 105,000 contributors, raising over five times his $1,000,000 goal. Burton asked to see a show of hands for how many of the students had Instagram accounts. Every single one rose in unison. Roots_25th_Anniversary_Edition

Burton discussed how he had been cast as the lead in Alex Haley’s “Roots” when he was 19, a sophomore at USC. He attributed everything he knows about acting to the training he received at USC, in the earliest days of what is now the School of Dramatic Arts.

Mark Simon and others talked about researching the company you are approaching for a job and knowing before you interview about the type of work they do. Before auditioning, he advised, “Read the play.” He said that if he found that an actor hadn’t read the play he was likely to lose all interest in that actor. Good advice!

The universal advice from the panelists was to get out and go to the theatre. See the plays, talk about them, write about them, hone and train your ability to think about plays in critical terms and to have opinions.

Several of the panelists talked about how they had started as actors and migrated in another direction. Camille Schenkkan began as an actor, and realized that she really didn’t like commuting to auditions. She had a formative internship while in college, which developed into a full-time job. She became active in the Arts Alliance and other organizations, and soon landed at Center Theatre Group. She is responsible for overseeing the internships offered to students at Center Theatre Group, now a highly competitive process.

Emilie Beck began as an actor in Chicago, an environment she loved, and which I later overheard her telling some students about more. When she moved to Los Angeles, she discovered she no longer wanted to be an actress, and because she was writing plays by then, sought a job which could support her creative work.

David Mack described his rewarding work in coordinating the logistics for a dance company doing events in non-traditional performance spaces. Again, the theme was adaptation, flexibility, not being afraid to try something that hadn’t been tried before. It was a wonderful conversation.

I had joked with my husband before the event  that moderating a panel is just like hosting a dinner party, except without the shopping, cooking, and doing the dishes. The moderator’s task is exactly what the dinner party host’s is: to draw out your guests, to tease out the stories and the experiences that fascinate the other dinner guests. I love hosting dinner parties.

The dessert was hearing these generous panelists respond to the questions of the students, who were so eager to hear what they had to say. It was a dynamic and positive conversation which left everyone in the room, both students and panelists, feeling charged and hopeful about their future lives in the arts.

Following the question and answer period, the panelists stayed to talk with the students one on one before heading out into the early evening. Everyone left this dinner party fully sated.

Luna Gale

Luna Gale – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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