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?