The Gospel at Colonus Remount- With Apologies to Hippocrates

COLONUS ART
COLONUS – THE REMOUNT

First, let me reconcile for a moment that what I’m about to do breaks every code of ethics in the theatre for stage managers. Spilling the dirt is verboten. Stage managers are privy to all, witness to much that is shocking and transformative, and sworn to silence except what is necessary to tell a producer should the production be in danger of flaming up. If there were a Hippocratic oath for stage managers, it might read something like this:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won artistic gains of those artists in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the cast, crew and creative team, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of coddling and artistic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to theatrical creation as well as physical reality, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the director’s note or the producer’s decision.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a production’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my actors, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a poor behavior, a toxic exchange, but a passionate human being, whose behavior may affect the person’s company and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the overburdened.

I will prevent toxicity whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as those crazy ass actors who cross my path.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of helping those who seek my aid.

Modified by Els Collins, Stage Manager, from the Modern Hippocratic Oath

Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University,

and used in many medical schools today.

I am fully aware of the severity of my breach by sharing this tale with you. I don’t share it to dissuade you from going into this esteemed profession, but merely as instruction in how to navigate its rocky shoals. For now, while the memory of these weeks’ challenges is strong, I want you to know; whatever the challenges your production brings forth are surmountable and most of the time with pleasing and astonishing revelations in the process. And you rubberneckers out there, don’t get too excited. I do have boundaries.

We had two weeks with the actors to put the show back together again. This would be a snap, right? Same cast, same band, same set, lights, sound, projections, costumes. The two new factors were the insertion of a new sound engineer, (which struck terror in my heart and, I can only presume, in the heart of Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal), and the replacement of the stage left PA, completely new to the show.

To quote Sound Designer Philip G. Allen, what sound engineer Patrick Hoyny was asked to do this week

…was like taking a leading role in the show with only three rehearsals.

I can say with certitude at this point, and only with the healthy advantage of hindsight, the re-opening of Colonus in my rear view mirror, this process was as pain-free as it could have been, in the skilled hands of the new sound engineer Patrick Hoyny, and with the gentle guidance of Sound Designer, Philip G. Allen. I can also say that the show rocked last night.

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Me in the booth in a photo taken by my brother, Don, when he visited this summer.

A remounted production falls under the aegis of the stage manager. I have never remounted a show before, so it was with some small amount of sorrow that I came to grips with this before stepping back into rehearsal mode. After ten years away from the PSM role, my director’s chops are a bit dulled.  I flattered myself to think that my directorial abilities were quite keen at one point;  my notes were on point and helpful for those actors learning the roles to be prepared should anything happen requiring them to go on. With weekly rehearsals scheduled under most LORT contracts, I had, over the years, refined my approach to the delicate task of putting different human beings into roles where they have little time to do anything other than observe another actor do their role. Usually these rehearsals are limited to 4-5 hours per week, and they don’t have the benefit many times of working with the set parts as they might be in show mode. They most likely will have access to the props, but certainly not the lighting conditions or sound cues of the regular performance.

In the case of the Colonus Remount, we had our Musical Director, Abdul Hamid Royal on the keyboards, and we did our rehearsals in the evenings to accommodate both my schedule as the Production Manager at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts and those of the musicians. Scheduled from 6-10PM, we worked about 5 days the first week, then jumped into dress rehearsals the second week. There was rarely a night when every single person was on stage to perform his/her role, because it is difficult to assemble 45 people, most of whom are busy musical professionals. However, we had been through this scenario in the past – we had several acceptable work-arounds, or short-hands for what we needed to do according to the various scenario. They ranged in severity of challenge from easiest to hardest to solve listed below:

  1. What do we do with 1 usher, not the usual quota of 2?
    1. Producer Wren Brown’s son, Brandon, had quite gracefully stepped in in the role of the second usher on several occasions, as had one of the theatre’s staff members.
  2. What do we do without all the members of the Ismene Quartet?
    1. In fairness, we (knock wood) never had to deal with this issue in performance. Do it with the members who are there and rehearse vocally when all are back. They are all solid professionals.
  3. What do we do without the actor playing the role of Choragos?
    1. Quintet member Ricke Vermont, whom I had also affectionately dubbed our dance captain, had performed twice in this role and had done a beautiful job, in the case where a family emergency called away our regular Choragos.
  4. What do we do without the Soloist who sings “Lift Him Up?”
    1. We found an extremely good alternate in cast member Sharetta Morgan-Harmon, who plays the Singer Antigone. It required some modification in blocking because she begins downstage rather than stepping out from the choir. The changes in blocking necessitated jumping over two light cues and required a change in the microphone used by her for the number.

You can see, we had worked out a number of quite challenging scenarios already in the course of previous rehearsals and performances. This time, however, there were some even more challenging scenarios awaiting us.

Code Black Promo (9:12)*****One of the Colonus performers, William Allen Young, who plays the Pastor in the show, has been shooting a new CBS primetime show called “CODE BLACK.” He had started to do this during the first run of Colonus, but by the time we began these refresher rehearsals, they were in full shooting mode for the episodes for the upcoming season. As anyone doing theatre in Los Angeles knows, in the battle between a TV gig and a theatrical gig, TV wins. It is pure economics. This is one of the most challenging factors in making live theatre in LA. Having said that, Will, ever the consummate professional, had communicated with me and with producer Wren T. Brown clearly what days were potentially problematic and had also arranged a few Fridays off from shooting completely so that the performance schedule was clear. How he can manage the work load of two full time gigs is another issue. But he’s an extremely dedicated actor and he has powered through both assignments. I can’t wait to see his show, which airs Wednesday, September 30th.

During the rehearsals, we rolled with the absences caused by work, family emergencies, etc. There were a few last-minute announcements from cast members about absences I didn’t know about, but as we had before, we accommodated them, and as per the SM Hippocratic oath above, no one died, and I didn’t need to take any lives. I feel pretty good about that part.

There were two rather challenging rehearsals, this past Tuesday, and Thursday’s final dress. I want to share the specific issues that arose and the ingenuity of the cast members and creative team in the results of the absences even though I am clearly breaking the oath. It was emotionally powerful to see the resiliency of the remaining cast as well as the teflon nature of this production – the will power that holds the fabric together and keeps the show unified.

On Tuesday, one of the leads suffered a medical issue that prevented him from coming to the theatre and even notifying me about his absence. The emotional rollercoaster of emotions that I went through was typical of any stage manager. I know, because of the 5 years of really good therapy I’ve had, that feelings are just that. Feelings. Surmountable. For a stage manager, nothing can be taken personally; coloring the facts with emotional baggage of expectation or history isn’t helpful to getting the work done on stage. But in the interest of teaching, I’ll share my emotions:

  1. Anger – “Where can he be? Who does he think he is putting 45 other people out and not calling? He better be dead if he didn’t call.”
  2. Embarrassment – “Did I not communicate the call to him? I know some people don’t follow the email. Should I have texted him to make sure he had the call?”
  3. Worry – “Why haven’t we heard from him by the 8pm start? Is he all right?”
  4. Fear – “Can someone please go check on him? What could have happened to him?”
  5. Relief – “Thank goodness he is alive.”
  6. Fear – “Is he going to be all right to do the show?” (I’m not proud of this coming so quickly on the heels of #5, but any stage manager who tells you this isn’t their first thought after the relief phase is lying.
  7. Worry – “What adjustments do we need to make to his blocking when he comes back while he recovers from this situation?”
  8. Relief – “We came up with some really good adjustments that can even work in performance if need be.” Again, these involved adding lighting instruments and creating alternative blocking options some of which we employed on the Wednesday night following his return.

So, you see, anything is possible in the theatre. That night, as Abdul Hamid sang the missing actor’s role while also  playing the guitar part on his synth, I watched in awe as Dorian Holley appeared at the pivotal moment to walk Singer Oedipus up the stairs to begin his “descent.” He dropped him off then returned to his position on the stairs upstage right.

Remember, we are making it up. Creative minds will create elegant solutions to artistic problems. Theatre is just a never ending string of gifts like this.

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The second scenario involved planning for the potential absence of Will due to his shooting schedule on Thursday. In addition, one of the ushers, Jonathan, was going to be out on Wednesday and Thursday due to another work commitment. The remaining usher, Sedale Threatt, Jr., had performed a lot of step-in assignments for actors missing in the rehearsal process. A recent graduate of USC School of Dramatic Arts’ three year MFA in Acting, Sedale is a quick study, committed to the work, and an extremely hard worker. When it became clear on Wednesday evening that Will might be held late at CBS on Thursday, Sedale offered to walk the role of The Pastor.

On Thursday, when I came into the theatre, I found him preparing to walk the part, with script in hand, while lead actor and Tony Award winner, Roger Robinson, coached him from the front row of the theatre. Watching from the booth as I readied the projector for the dress rehearsal, I could see that Sedale had a pretty good mastery of the blocking and was confident with his words. Lulled into a sense of security that things were handled, I went about my pre-show tasks. Rookie mistake. You’ve got to think it through step by step…

At 15, the PA from stage left notified me

Els, the ladies want to talk to you downstairs in the dressing room.

I quickly made my way backstage, after making the 15 minute call to the choir, and when I entered, they all turned their heads expectantly toward me. Sharetta spoke first:

Els, who is going to kidnap us if Sedale (the only remaining usher) is playing the Pastor?

Els: Crap. I’ll be right back.

I know many of you are thinking less highly of my anticipatory skills, but a quick hallway conversation with Sedale determined that he could both play the Pastor and then exit in time to re-enter with Creon as a henchman, kidnap the girls, then exit only to re-enter moments later to deliver the speech that ends Act I, echoed shortly after by the Ismene Quartet in “Numberless.”

And, believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened.
There were about 50 invited guests in the audience, and while I had to turn my face away because of the severity of the compromises we had made to get the show up that night, the audience was still completely engaged in the story and enthusiastic in their response.

So, with apologies to Hippocrates

Life is short, the art long.

You have eight performances left to get to see this amazing show. I can’t promise, and only pray you won’t see what I’ve written about here, but you do deserve to come check it out. Ebony Repertory Theatre – Buy Your Tickets here!

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Gospel at Colonus – Poolside Family Reunion

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My go-to pic for all pool party invites.

We hosted a glorious reunion of our Colonus Family yesterday. The colleagues whom I met only about two months ago have become family. That can be one of the powerful aftereffects of a theatrical venture. In certain productions, the chemistry of a company becomes larger than the vessel that holds it, and spills over, flooding your lives with the epsom-salted-soothing water of a warm bath. Or in this case, of a warm pool, as the twenty-plus guests gathered to celebrate the upcoming remount of the show in the Rec room at our condo in downtown LA. There were conspicuous absences, of course, as several cast members live back east or across the country and were not able to attend. Others, still, had work, or family engagements, or reunions planned after the flurry of the show this summer and were otherwise engaged.

Yesterday was a tough and emotional day for Jimmie and me, as one of Jimmie’s nephews passed away suddenly after a brief but impactful series of medical episodes. In the scrum of the party organization in the morning, I glanced at FB, seeing a picture of Jamie on his brother Doke’s FB page, and the dreaded words, rest in peace. Though he had lived with AIDS for over 30 years, managing his health well, his departure was a blow. His twin, Martha, herself recently widowed, had sat with Jamie every day for the past five days, in ICU, as the medical team worked nobly to stave off the inevitable. Nothing prepares you for the loss of a family member.

Death crept elsewhere around our Colonus family reunion yesterday. Jackie Gouche´ arrived, on her lips a story of the sudden passing that morning of her next door neighbor, a 56-year-old man. I am ever alert to the potential for loss. You can call me Maude Lynn;  I guarantee I will use that as my nom de plume in the future.  My hyper awareness of loss is genetic, as well as due to the large age gap between myself and my husband. The picture I select for our invites each time we host a pool party is of a woman who closely resembles my dearly departed stepmother. Her kind, limpid blue eyes, combined with the silly plastic spangled swim cap reminds me of dear Joan, and her strong impact on me as a teen and later, as a young mother. Each loss stings as a reminder of losses to come. This hopeless extra sensory perception to loss causes me sometimes to go overboard planning parties where I can more easily embrace our family and the non-blood-related families we build around us via the theatre.

I feel an urgency to make the most of each day; so, on a day when our apartment looked like a war zone due to the bathroom remodel in progress, I gathered up the necessary tools to make the Condo’s lovely rec room adequate to host a party and pushed my cart down to the 2nd floor pool level.

By 1:00pm, I was ready, plastic red and white checked table-cloth rolled out over the rec room’s tables, all the available chairs pushed up next to the long 15′ table area, buffets set up near by, and a station of cold drinks ready by the door to the outside, where 95 degree temps eagerly mashed their sweaty fingers up against glass protecting the cool, air-conditioned room. It was sunny and the grill was heating. I swooned a bit from the combination of grill and natural heat as I flipped the first burgers.

The inevitable fear of party failure loomed. Tough questions rolled through my brain:

What if no one comes? What if no one eats? What if no one has a good time? What if there is nothing to talk about? Did I make enough food? Will anyone swim? Will the lack of parking deter them from coming?

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L to R: Ricky Nelson, Els, Jackie Gouche, Andi Chapman, William Allen Young. This photo almost didn’t happen but we convinced each other it was a good idea.

One thing I should have been certain of is that there would be plenty of talk and laughter and frivolity.
At more than one point in the afternoon, the decibel level in the room exceeded the legal limit for condo rec rooms, but thankfully, the doors were closed up against the heat, and we just reveled in the sonorous ricochet of laughter.

As at all family reunions, topics of health came up. We bemoaned this family’s shared acute asthma, comparing treatments and the high cost of inhalers, and hopeful appraisal that we could still take up scuba diving in spite of the affliction. We talked about the value of the epsom salt soak, either lavender-scented, or plain.  We took turns reveling in the achievements of our children, the raucous chatter and laughter silenced for a few minutes to listen to the extraordinary vocals of Jackie’s son, featured on Tyrese’s latest and last album, Black Rose. We laughed about the Hollywood phenomenon of being in a TV Series; how a mundane drive across town could suddenly be punctuated by seeing your own face on the side of an adjacent bus, or on a nearby billboard. Surreal. Enjoy it while you can!

Did you get a selfie?

I have a selfie stick.

You do not!

I do, just not with me.

We shared Face Time with Muff, who had recently moved to Florida; we visited briefly, me sitting on the edge of the pool, feet dangling, as Angie held the phone up to my face and I struggled to see Muff through the sunny reflection of Angie’s phone. Then Angie swept her away to visit with some of the others.

It felt good to laugh, to listen, to relish the memories of the brief time that we have known each other as a group. People came and left during the afternoon as their schedules allowed. IMG_4849We had a brief visit from the Colonus Pater Familias, Wren T. Brown, his beautiful wife, Anne Hailey Brown, and their son Brandon, who had performed in the last weekend of the show as one of the Henchmen. It is because of Wren and Gayle Hooks that we exist as a family now. This two month-long hiatus, broken up by our Colonus Poolside bash allowed us to remember what bonded us. Ricky regaled us with a story about being recognized recently by several large groups of women.

Do I know you from church?

No! We saw you in the play!

How did you recognize me?

We recognized you from your hair!

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I watched affectionately, as my hostessing duties took me away from the table, and Dominique invited Jimmie closer in to the table to talk. And, at the end of the afternoon, when I realized there was another party booked in the room, I felt terrible to have to tell people it was time for us to wrap it up.

Everyone scurried to make plates of food for people to take away and to help with the clean up. Nina’s yummy baked beans! I quickly snagged some of Lantrez’ beautiful enchiladas, and I am glad I did! I missed Deante’s mac and cheese, which, I was told, was very cheesy! Oh well, next time.

With classes starting, and the beginning of the fall semester, along with the remount of Colonus for three brief weeks, I am not sure how to get another party pulled together. That’s okay. We will see each other soon!

Next weekend, Jimmie and I will see our blood family, for Jamie’s memorial. In this business of life and death, it’s about making opportunities to be together, about embracing and laughing and eating.  COLONUS ART

This is the last week for early bird tickets. Tickets $25-35 are on sale only through August 21st. Get yours now! http://www.ebonyrep.org/

The Gospel At Colonus – Opening Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia

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

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

“The first row is standing and clapping.”

“Now the second row is up.”

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

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

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

Happy Opening!

The Gospel at Colonus – Week 2

COLONUS ARTWeek two of rehearsals for The Gospel at Colonus has hastened the alchemy of character and scene work, familiarity with the music and blocking into a cohesive and, at the risk of jinxing it, potentially thrilling production. We are now working through the play each day, making discoveries and strengthening the telling of the Oedipus at Colonus story. Director Andi Chapman is skilled at opening doors by asking her actors the right question at the right moment in their process, and allowing their answer to be “I don’t know yet.”  I have watched a half-dozen times as the actors have listened to the question, and then thought a minute, their eyes widening in recognition. Watching Andi and the actors dissect the literal and metaphoric meanings of the script’s text has reawakened my creative intellect, reminded me again why I love being in rehearsals. The rehearsal room is (in the best circumstances) a crucible of exploration; time is taken for the important work of being and representing humans in all their heightened emotional phases – love, grief, remorse, pride, redemption. The two actors playing Oedipus, Roger Robinson, and Ellis Hall continue to raise the bar for each other – the musical text fortifying the spoken text in a powerful way. The depth of the work in the rehearsals has inspired me as well as all the others in the room, which bodes extremely well for the audience’s comprehension of the story.

Our numbers have grown, with several more talented singers joining us. Abdul Hamid Royal, our puckish and ironic Musical Director, has met and rehearsed once with the choir with another rehearsal planned this weekend. He has worked with the Choragos Quintet separately from the main rehearsals. The men in that Quintet (LaVan Davis, Otis Easter, Milton Ellis, Johnny Gilmore, and Gerald J. Mitchell) each have amazing vocal instruments and under Abdul Hamid’s direction, have blended strongly as a group.  Tomorrow we will assemble wholly for the first time, the four members of the Ismene Quartet (Jackie Gouché, Dorian Holley, Ricky Nelson and Sharletta Morgan-Harmony). If Jackie and Dorian are any indication of the level of talent of the other two, we (and you) are in for a treat.

That’s what I mean. Every day on this project has been like Christmas, or a birthday – the moments musically and dramatically unwrapping in front of our eyes.

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Madison Orgill-Rhoades, former USC student headed up the paint call at Colonus this week.
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Early moments of the load in for Colonus

Tuesday, the pieces of Ed Haynes’ set arrived in the back of a huge stake bed truck. Built by Sets-To-Go owners Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer, the set is not for the faint of heart. For the past three days, at every break and before I leave at night, I have hurried back to see the progress they have made in the load in. When I left rehearsal the first night, Andi sat next to Ed on one of the top choral platforms, overlooking the laying of the carpet on the lower stairs.

(I’ve already shown you too much. You will have to wait to see everything assembled when you come to see the show.)

Speaking of giving it away, this is a generous group. Each day, we have had several contributions of food from cast members, which makes the rehearsal room almost completely self-sustaining. We almost wouldn’t need to go out to eat, except this group likes each other and likes to eat. A combination which makes our lunch breaks very enjoyable.

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Jessica’s meta shot of her computer open to my blog….I promise it was before rehearsal began.

Tomorrow we get on stage for the first time, and will do spacing and realize in three dimensions the work we have done in the rehearsal space.  We will roll the freshly tuned piano into the theatre to support the work. Four of our five designers, Ed Haynes, Phil Allen, Naila Sanders and Karyn D.Lawrence will join us to see a stumble-through. Tom Ontiveros will join us later in the process. There is plenty left to do and plenty of time to do it before we begin tech rehearsals on June 9th.

Jessica, my PA, shared her snapchat photo with me yesterday. snapchatWhile snapchat is a younger person’s game, I am nevertheless learning how to more effectively use technology as a tool in stage management. When new actors join the company, I still will call them to touch base and make sure they have their call, but now I also  text them my contact info so that they can ingest it into their smart phones. That way they know whose call they aren’t answering…Just kidding – they are very responsible and acknowledge their calls. Though a busier group of actors I have not seen in a long time.

Now’s the time for you to book your tickets. Group sales are taking off – You can buy your Tickets to The Gospel At Colonus here. Hear’s to seeing you in the Holden for Ebony Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production.

 

The Gospel At Colonus – First Days

Tuesday of this week,  we gathered for the first rehearsal for the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s “The Gospel At Colonus.” I told you before about how my dear friend, ERT’s Founder/Producer, Wren T. Brown had contacted me a few months back about stage managing this production. I had said “No, I can’t do that,” but then, intrigued, added “What are the dates?”

Nothing could please me more than to work again with Wren. He embodies the humanity we all should strive to emulate as theatre artists; he is generous, funny, and knows how to kick off a rehearsal process in the most celebratory and validating way I have ever experienced.

I have been working a week to get ready for today’s rehearsal. Stage managers have lots of paperwork to put together in the week we call pre-production: contact sheets, calendars, scene breakdowns, you name it – if it can be organized, it will be organized during pre-production. In the final days of last week, I was assisted by one of my students, Jessica Major, who is the Production Assistant for the production. She assisted me with taping out the floor, and many other tasks in preparation for today. I don’t know who taught who more last week – I have always been a firm believer in two way mentorships.

I have also enjoyed getting to know Andi Chapman, who is directing the production, admiring her equally thorough organization of materials in preparation for the rehearsals. She and I worked through the play’s script and lyrics from the score, bonded from our first work comparing  indications in the score that the choir’s “oohs” should sound like “glue.”

I have a confession. First rehearsals stress me out. I get nervous at the responsibility for getting all the actors to the theatre at the right time, to have the coffee ready when the first actor walks in, to have the numbers correct on the contact sheet, and enough scripts and pencils and high lighters so that the work of the first readings can happen. This isn’t just because this is the first play I’ve stage managed in ten years. Even in the height of my stage management career, I would get nervous. So sorry, Jessica, and the others; I wish I could say it gets better. It does not. It is for me the most stressful day of the process. Much more stressful than tech rehearsals, where one might argue that there is far more pressure on the stage manager.

My husband laughed at me on Tuesday morning as I left the house.

“I’ve never seen you in such a state. You know everything will be fine; it always is.”

I knew he was right. When I bade him goodbye, I said, “I’ll be a different person when next you see me.”

He quoted Tyrone Guthrie as I rolled my bag out the door. “The most important thing about the first day of  rehearsal is to get to the second day of rehearsal.” And I was humming that tune on my way out of the house for sure that first day.

Which is where Wren T. Brown comes in. I needn’t have stressed the least bit. I could have sat there with a nervous stomach until lunch had it not been for his version of the “meet and greet.” The meet and greet is where the actors and theatre staff meet and get to know each other prior to the first read through of the play. Usually there’s a bagel or two, some fruit and coffee involvIMG_4156ed, and on Tuesday, there was an elegant spread provided for us by Production Manager Sheldon P. Lane, who stocked us up not only with yummy treats, but also with all the stationery supplies I could have dreamt of needing.

When it finally came time for the introductions, Wren T. Brown kicked into gear. Around the huge table sat a bevy of gifted actors: Tony winner Roger Robinson, William Allen Young, Sam Butler, the guitarist and balladeer from the original 1983 production and many incarnations, Kim Staunton, Ellis Hall, Jackie Gouché, Gilbert Glenn Brown, and even one of our recent MFA grads from USC, Sedale Threatt, Jr. Three  of the four members of the design team, Ed Haynes, Phil Allen, Naila Sanders sat, waiting to talk about their design concepts; musical director Abdul Hamid Royal and Tony Jones, the Choral director for the Los Angeles Young Adults of Gospel Music Workshop of America were standing by to hear the actor read the play.

Beginning with the youngest members of the company, Wren introduced us to each other. Just a lbutterfliesine or two, but he pronounced our strengths and capabilities to every one in the room, including, often to the day of meeting each other, what our personal history with him was. It was an individual unveiling of each artist in the room to the context of the history of the Ebony Repertory Theatre and what we would individually bring to make this project literally sing in the theatre. I don’t know if I could ever say that I have been seen like that before in a rehearsal room, nor will it probably ever happen again. Wren took each of us and pinned us up for just a moment, like a lepidopterist pinning a bright array of butterflies on a board, for all of us to marvel in their splendor. It was quite extraordinary. We ended the introductions with a song, sung at the piano by Mr. Ellis Hall.

And each day we have spent together since Tuesday has helped us to celebrate more the collective talent in the room. As I collect the bios and read in detail about the various bands and striations that have made the beautiful butterflies in our cast who they are, and as I have listened to them read their words and sing the music with Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal in rehearsal, it has made me truly grateful for the project coming my way at a time when I could manage to do it.

Every day, I ask Jessica what she learned that day, not because I am trying to be didactic, but because I really want to know. I remember what it was like to be a PA in a room of truly august artists – I remember PAing for the Mark Taper Forum productions of “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” that were done back in the late 1980s; I assisted Mary K Klinger and Jimmie McDermott, to whom I literally owe all that I know as a stage manager. I remember sopping up each day and learning how I was part of a team. Everything that they knew they shared with me and then I knew it too. And we were stronger and a better support structure for the cast and show because of it. I watched the talented artists, Gwyllum Evans, Peter Frechette, Meagan Fay, Maxwell Caulfield and the beautiful Joseph Maher strive for comic perfection under the direction of John Tillinger.COLONUS ART

This is what a life in the theatre means to me and has always meant to me. The act of sharing and building history with all the beautiful and diverse humanity  in the rehearsal room. Thank you, Wren T. Brown, for allowing me to be a part of building my history up with Ebony Repertory Theatre.

 

On Borrowed Time – Twenty Years Later

I received a call from a dear old friend this week, Producer, Actor and general-all-round theatrical wunderkind, Wren Brown. In the vein of my favorite maxim: “there are only 100 people in the theatre,” Wren was actually among the first 100 I met in the theatre, when I was stage managing at the Pasadena Playhouse in the early 1990s. OnBorrowedTimeWe did a play called “On Borrowed Time,” by Paul Osborn, adapted from a novel by Lawrence Edward Watkin and directed by Sheldon Epps, before his tenure as the Artistic Director. Wren played Mr. Brink, A.K.A. Death, stalking Gramps (Conrad Bain) to tell him his time was up. Crafty Gramps performed a good deed, then tricked Mr. Brink to climb a tree where he became trapped, unable to make good on his goal of recalling Gramps. As Don Shirley noted in his LA Times March 24th review quoted below, Wren was hardly scary as death in the play. I concurred, Wren being one of my favorite actors to work with ever.

“In Sheldon Epps’ staging, Brown’s Mr. Brink is dressed in a creamy white suit and speaks in calm, firm, perfectly articulated phrases. Occasionally he cracks a smile. For those of us who can see him (some characters can’t), this Mr. Brink isn’t scary for a second.

Our fear of death is brushed aside. But then playwright Paul Osborn, adapting a novel by Lawrence Edward Watkin (who goes unacknowledged in the Pasadena program), didn’t want to frighten. He was making the very sensible point that death is a part of the life cycle, that the power to ward it off could create major problems.”

Don Shirley, LA Times, LA Times – ‘Borrowed Time’: A Comedy That Suspends Mystery

Several noteworthy events happened during the play’s performances. On opening night, a rainy late March night in 1992, we were on our way home from the opening night party in two separate cars: my husband with our little red Molly Dogg, who appeared in the play as herself in one car, and me in the second. 1985 BonnevilleI was driving the great big blue Bonneville I had inherited from my grandmother, and Jimmie was in our Volkswagen Jetta, close by me. The rain was fierce, one of those significant downpours that we used to have with such regularity in the early 90s, where the precious water came down in relentless sheets, working the wiper blades to their last shred of rubber –  inevitable in a clime where the sun baked them onto the windshields and disuse weakened them further. My hands clutched the wheel of the car. I was, in spite of having come from the opening night party, sober as a judge, almost seven years sober at that point.

I was driving west on the 134 Freeway, just reaching Glendale, when a car about 100 yards in front of me hit a big puddle and spun out. It corrected itself and I noted by peering into the rear view mirror that had it not corrected, there was a large gap between me and the cars coming behind me. Just as I finished that thought, I hit the same puddle and did a complete and heart-stopping 360 degree spin out,  halting for just a moment before resuming my forward momentum; I then pulled off to the side of the road, where I began to cry. Through the rain ahead of me, I could see Jimmie pulling the Jetta off to the side of the road. I pulled onto the road, still rather hysterical, and slowly followed Jimmie home, to the driveway where  he helped me out of the car and into the house. The play’s message came to me with full force, especially the next night, when Dan, my ASM, told about how he’d been on his way home and had almost been hit by some crazy woman whose car was spinning completely around. I could have taken out the entire stage management team on that night, but as I said, we were on “On Borrowed Time.”

The other event was the Joshua Tree Earthquake, which happened during a performance on April 23, 1992 at 9:50PM, just minutes before the end of the play. A 6.1 earthquake, it struck after Mr. Brink (Wren) had climbed up into his platform within the tree, and in the last 15 minutes of the play. I was calling the play from the downstage right SM podium adorned with its little sticker “Tired of working in the dark?” As was protocol then, after the shaking started, I got on the God mic and in the shakiest voice ever heard, announced to the audience that they should follow the ushers outside in an orderly manner. I gathered the actors and crew in the back alley outside the theatre (a horribly unsafe place where falling debris might have hit us) and we plucky theatre folks determined that we would finish the play if the audience wanted to stay. A survey by the front of house staff determined that the audience did want to stay, so we finished the performance, Wren climbing gamely back up into the tree in his off white suit, my hero for his willingness to finish the show in spite of the natural events around us. Because after all, we were all “On Borrowed Time.”

pasadena-green-roomThere were other events of the show that caused the cast to bond; I remember one night during notes in the green room with Sheldon, one of the pictures  jumped off the wall – came straight out and down. We were sure that Playhouse founder Gilmore Brown was making a comment. Overall, it was a distinct honor to work with the cast and I’ve been a huge fan of Wren’s ever since.  After that, he worked with my husband on a play called “Burning Hope” down at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and we have cherished each opportunity to see him and his beautiful family.

Gospel-art-1-BSo when Wren called me the other day, it was to ask if I would like to work with him again, to stage manage a very exciting project, the 30th Anniversary revival of “The Gospel At Colonus,” to be performed at The Ebony Repertory Theatre. Normally, I wouldn’t be able to consider taking on a stage managing job with my current job at USC, but the dates sandwiched perfectly into my life, and I am really excited about taking on this project for him. If anyone appreciates the fragility of life and the precious life-force in the work we do in the theatre, it’s Mr. Brink. Thanks, Wren, for your confidence in me and your steady and unwavering friendship!