Theatre and Her Ability to Forecast

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

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

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

Teresa Watanabe, Libraries turn the page,

Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That will never happen to us. Phew!

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

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

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

Embedded at Endgame – Opening

Charlotte Rae, James Greene, Endgame Photo credit above to Craig Schwartz

Today is the long awaited opening night of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. We are happy to have our niece, Martha here for the opening, who drove down from Los Osos yesterday, bringing her usual bounty of vegetables, or home-made breads to add to our larder. She arrived with a huge box of the biggest strawberries I’ve ever seen, some of which were quartered in a bowl on the counter this morning when we emerged from our bedroom at 9:15. Mind you, I was supposed to emerge at 7:00, so as to be ready to go to my YAS class at 8:30, but that didn’t happen. I swatted the clock onto the floor, coughed, donned my purple eye shades, and rolled over onto my side back into slumber.

This morning as we drank our tea and coffee, we talked about opening nights in general. Jimmie, in his long Broadway and off-Broadway career has had probably over 100 openings. I asked him what his favorite opening was.

The Iceman Cometh.

Which one?

Because he had done the revival in 1956 and again in 1985. Both times, as in Endgame, he played the same role, thirty years apart in time. In The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s four and three quarter hour masterpiece portrays the denizens of a dingy bar who clutch their “pipe dreams”, stories they tell themselves and each other about how they will one day emerge as successful participants in society. The play featured a startling Act IV confession by the character of Hickey. In 1985, it was the play that brought us first to Los Angeles, direct from the Washington DC performances at the Kennedy Center.

In 1956 when we went on stage in the semi darkness for the final act, the audience broke out in applause as we entered. Peter Falk (who played Rocky the bartender) leaned over to Jason Robards (Hickey) and said, “Don’t blow it now, Jason!”

James Greene recalling the opening night of the 1956 production of The Iceman Cometh

That production was done at Circle-In-The Square, a funky little cabaret space, which, in the set’s thrust configuration (David Hays), placed the audience elbow to elbow with the inhabitants of Harry Hope’s bar. Jimmie was working a day job as well as acting in the production – he got up early in the morning for his job at a cigarette store in the village during the day and frequently came to the theatre exhausted. During the first act, all the actors were discovered at their tables, many of them with their heads down, sleeping. Jimmie, who played “Jimmy Tomorrow,” would take advantage of this opening to take a nap each night, because a fight broke out near his table which would wake him up. One night, the fight woke him up, and immediately, (like me this morning when I swatted my alarm clock) he fell back asleep. Suddenly he heard another of the actors calling, “Jimmy! Jimmy!” He sat bolt upright, said his first brief line, then began shaking uncontrollably, appropriate behavior for his sodden character.

That opening night party took place at Jose Quintero’s Greenwich village apartment. They were very aware of the positive feedback of the opening. It had been an early performance, 5:00pm, which would have come down around 9:45pm. Someone would have been sent out at or after midnight to the back of the New York Times building to grab a paper and bring it back to report to all the results of Brook Atkinson’s review. This production, which was off-Broadway, ultimately garnered massive support both critically and via word of mouth, resulting in a run of 565 performances.

Jimmie talked about the opening 29 years later of the Broadway production of Iceman, again starring Jason Robards as Hickey and himself as Jimmy Tomorrow, again directed by Jose Quintero.

At Lunt-Fontanne theatre in 1985 – I could look out on the street from my dressing room. After Act II I remember looking out and seeing all the other theatres letting out, when we had over an hour left in the play.

That opening night would have taken place at Sardis, the old standard for opening night parties, where the ghosts of living and past performers past looked down from the walls covered with caricatures like the hallways at Hogwarts.

Many people have described the opening nights at Sardis before me, and better, but I had the privilege of attending Jimmie’s last opening on Broadway, for David Hirson’s “La Bête.” At that time, in 1991, the party was festive with an underlying nervous energy until someone arrived with the review of the play, and depending on the review, either an atmosphere of celebration or the miasma of disappointment would sweep over the party, causing an early closure to the party. All the photos in the montage below were taken before the review arrived, which sent us all scurrying to cabs. Need I say more? I was, in fact, so incensed, that I sent a poem to Frank Rich, at that time, the NY Times Theatre critic, entitled “Death by Cheese,” which was written in verse, like La Bête was. There was, in the play, a reference to that poem, but no poem itself. As Jimmie’s opening night present to the company, I composed the poem, which was hysterical, if I do say so myself. You’ll have to trust me on that because I did not keep a copy of it, and didn’t record it on a computer so it’s lost in the mists of time. I subsequently sent it to Frank Rich in protest for his tepid review of the play. Maybe he has a copy of it. Not even the glowing Sunday View by David Richards could save La Bête, which closed after only 25 performances.

Cut to 30 years later and the second iteration of Endgame for Jimmie. We all eagerly anticipate tonight’s opening. Regardless of what the critics deliver in praise or damnation, what the artists at the Kirk Douglas Theatre have achieved in this production is nothing short of extraordinary. It is, I am sure, the most august cast of actors working together in the country, if not the world. Their dedication to Mr. Beckett’s drama, and to their individual practices as actors, designers, stage managers and directors has been inspirational to this embedded soul on the outskirts of the process. And regardless of the reviews, I have confidence that the remaining performances (thru May 22) will be full.

Tonight’s opening night party may not be at Sardi’s, but I have no doubt that it will be equally as celebratory and raucous as that post O’Neill Greenwich Village gathering in 1956, or the 1991 Broadway opening of La Bête.

Embedded at Endgame

Tech began a week ago on Tuesday for Endgame. First came the barrel fittings. Speaking of barrels,  for me, let alone Jimmie, this whole month has been akin to climbing into a barrel and jumping into the water. April rushes by at USC with the ferocity of a Class IV- river.

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. …Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult.

Wikipedia International Scale of River Rating

In spite of knowing the river quite well, there are sudden fast maneuvers under pressure that challenge even the best “kayakers.” We closed our last three shows last weekend, after 10 days of tech and dress for two of them and only 3 days for the workshop of a new play by MFA Dramatic Writing student Inda Craig-Galvan. As of now, we are out of the rapids for a while.

Meanwhile, Jimmie finished his tech rehearsals for Endgame, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, beginning previews last Sunday, April 24th.

Lindsay-Allbaugh

Lindsay Allbaugh of  Center Theatre Group

The CTG staff, headed by Associate Producer Lindsay Allbaugh, have taken exquisite care of Jimmie and his fellow actors on the journey through rehearsals thus far. Production Stage Manager, Susie Walsh, and Stage Manager Brooke Baldwin treat the actors like royalty. There are special considerations that are not obvious when dealing with elder actors and she and Brooke have handled those, incorporating the accommodations into the daily routine without missing a beat. One of the first things she did was provide me with a backstage pass to be able to come in to rehearsals whenever I was able, so I could assist with getting Jimmie to and from the rehearsals around my work schedule. Tuesday, I took advantage of my embedded access to watch the barrel fittings going on.  I arrived just as Jimmie was finishing his 2nd fitting. There is a complex sequence of lifts and platforms  in the under stage area to get them into place so they can raise the lids of the cans. The crew was working hard when I arrived, talking the actors through the intricacies needed to position them for their scenes. John Iacovelli, the Scenic Designer, sat in the front row of the house with director Alan Mandell, Assistant Director John Sloan, and Lindsay, watching the rehearsal of the barrels. IMG_6081Costume Designer Maggie Morgan watched Charlotte and Jimmie working in their nightcaps, with the action of raising the barrel tops with their heads. Cambria, the wardrobe crew member, stood behind the barrels as I watched Brooke, head leaning into the barrel, murmur reassuring instructions to Charlotte, deep in her barrel. Nothing was rushed. No one hurried the actors through the complexities. As a stage manager, I appreciated the calmness and deft handling of all the actors. As a spouse, I appreciated the humanity of the care accorded my husband and the others.

After the tech rehearsal, which was executed after a dry tech (tech without actors) so as to not tire the actors; the actors had an unhurried 90 minute dinner prior to their first dress rehearsal. I had jetted over from work to pick up the dinner I’d ordered at Cafe Vida next door to the theatre, and the two of us ate shoulder to shoulder at the dressing table in Jimmie’s dressing room.

The experience kind of took me back to our courtship days, when, at the McCarter Theatre,

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Els and Jimmie share a romantic dinner at the Kirk Douglas dressing room

Jimmie was playing Scrooge, and I was on the props crew, and we frequently hung out together with his professorial dog, Jasper, in his dressing room during the dinner hour. Jasper was an astonishing dog.  We never used a leash on that dog, and we lived on 71st and Broadway. We’d take him to Central park, and every time we got to the corner of Columbus, Jasper would sit down and look up at Jimmie. When the light changed, Jimmie would say ‘Ok,’ and Jasper would tear across the intersection, waiting on the far side. One day, when Jimmie was standing in line at the bank with Jasper, a woman said to him,

Your dog looks smart enough to do math.

I remember once at the McCarter Theatre, during Christmas Carol, one of the young child actors, a young girl of about 12, appeared at Jimmie’s dressing room door, there to visit Jasper, and seeing me there, asked sort of churlishly,

Why are you always here?

I imagine that the staff at the Kirk Douglas are probably thinking the same thing about now. But I like to consider my embedded status on Endgame as akin to those journalists in March 2003 who became embedded during the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan. Well, of course, with much less danger involved.

There were a few friends watching the final dress rehearsal today. We sat amidst the tech tables, I house left to be better positioned to see Nagg and Nell’s action. The play began, punctuated by the sharp shutter sounds from photographer Craig Schwartz’s camera. I worried for a moment that it would prove a distraction to the actors. But soon the camera faded as I became mesmerized by scenic designer John Iacovelli’s penumbrous stone room. The world as created by John and lighting designer Jared Sayeg and sound designer Cricket Myers is impossibly confining, and Clov’s rhythmic shuffle around the room caused me to laugh out loud within the first few minutes. From the bloody “stauncher”draped over Hamm’s (Alan Mandell’s) face, to the jaunty straw boater perched on Clov’s (Barry McGovern’s) head for his final entrance, Maggie Morgan’s costumes convey the film of dust and grime implied in the impermeable prison that confines these four characters of “Endgame.”

Hamm’s cheery devil-may-care attitude about his own decrepitude, and Clov’s brutal intensity held our interest. Nagg’s and Nell’s scenes were heartbreaking, and Nagg’s final speech destroyed me.

NAGG:It’s natural. After all I’m your father. It’s true if it hadn’t been me it would have been someone else. But that’s no excuse.….I hope the day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice.(Pause.)Yes, I hope I’ll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark, and I was your only hope.(Pause. Nagg knocks on lid of Nell’s bin. Pause.)Nell!(Pause. He knocks louder. Pause. Louder.)Nell!(Pause. Nagg sinks back into his bin, closes the lid behind him. Pause.)

I think the most impressive thing I observed today was the excellence of all of the acting – all 334 years of acting experience, which is a lot of time to perfect one’s craft. But in addition to that, these are all extremely challenging physical roles. Not once did we stop because someone 89 was sore from being scrunched in a garbage can. In this age of inclusion and diversity and access, it moved me to see the entire cast navigate this play with good humor and the sheer will to make it as good as it possibly can be. After the run, I sat in Jimmie’s dressing room, cranking the monitor up so that I could listen in on the notes. A fly on the wall.

Later, as Jimmie and I headed out the stage door, we ran into Jason Martin, from the CTG press office, who had been there with Nancy Hereford for the photo run. I realized that I shouldn’t blog about any details of “Endgame” using any information gleaned during my embedded status without clearing it first with the Press office. I hope I have intrigued you enough to come check out the show.

Get your tickets now! 

 

Kobe’s and Beckett’s Endgame

I live in LA. Tonight, April 13, 2016, everyone, even those people who don’t care about basketball at all, like me, are watching Kobe’s final flings at Staples Center. Some of the fans have paid up to $55,000 for a pair of tickets. Not me. I’m sitting in my nightgown on the couch in our apartment. I’m pretending to watch the game, enjoying the testimonials from all of Kobe’s fans a little more than the game.

Today was my day off. It is tax season, as well as the middle of  major and important things happening at work. In April, we open 8 productions. We have, thus far, opened and struck 4 of the 8, with another 2 in tech this weekend, one play playing this weekend, and a strike for three shows next weekend, wrapping up our 13 play spring semester.  In addition to our fevered pitch of production, it is the season when accepted students are determining if they will come to USC.  It is always gratifying to see the prospective students come to the Open House, see the Spring Musical, and meet students and faculty to make their final decisions by May 1.

Last weekend, the weekend of the Open House, it rained, necessitating a complete reworking of the events, which were, of course, planned as outdoor events. Our tireless Director of Special Events, Marissa Gonzalez, in the span of 48 hours, totally reworked the events to happen in the North Gym of the PED building, nothing short of miraculous. The student Ambassadors were there, visiting with prospective students and sharing their good cheer with them.

Jimmie has been in rehearsals for Endgame for about three weeks now. He has had the service of daily drivers ferrying him from downtown to Culver City, both ways, and the rehearsal days have been short enough to not wear him out. I am his daily driver on Wednesdays, because I am not working that day and I take advantage of the ride to and fro to catch up with Jimmie and hear about the work. Today, after dropping him at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, I did some errands and then went back and got to watch a tantalizing little bit of rehearsal.

This morning, Jimmie had an appointment with his primary care physician, a soft spoken man we had met about a year ago at Good Samaritan when Jimmie had bad bronchitis. It’s hard to imagine going to the doctor when you are not sick, but when you get to the age Jimmie is, they want to see you every 3 months or so to make sure you are still going strong. Jimmie’s doctor reminds me of my childhood doctor in Pennsylvania, Doc McKelvey, who’s manner was kind and unrushed. When we first walked in today, he asked,

How are you doing?

I chose the moment to brag a bit on Jimmie’s behalf.

He’s rehearsing a play. He opens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre the end of April. He’s in an ash bin.

I reached for the script to show Doc C. what we meant by ash bins. His eyes widened a little more and he looked at me like I had told him I had just stuffed Jimmie into an ash bin.  We explained further. Samuel Beckett, “Endgame.”

Dr. C sat down in his chair and begin to quiz Jimmie about the preparation for the role. When had he started learning his lines? How much rehearsal did he  have? How long did it take to put something “like that” together? He said something about Jimmie’s optimism and I shared the fact that three of the four actors were over 88. I think we might be selling some tickets here.

Anyway, we left there and returned home where I paid the taxes, mailed my Dad’s birthday present, and checked on some prescriptions before driving Jimmie to Culver City. I decided I’d knock out the errands I had before picking him back up.

What does one do on a day off? Repaired a few watches. While those were getting repaired, visited Nordstrom’s Rack, where I found some cute tops, then stopped by Babies ‘R Us, first calling our son to determine the proper size of garments. On the way back to the Kirk Douglas, I stopped at my favorite place in Culver City – Orchid Fever, a low-slung non-descript building filled with the most gorgeous displays of orchids.

Having blown my budget on fun things to do, I texted Susie Walsh, the stage manager for “Endgame.”

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I waited in the hall until Susie poked her head out  and invited me to come sit at the SM table. Jimmie and Charlotte Rae were in their rehearsal barrels, having just finished their scene together. Alan was giving them notes and I gathered that things had gone quite well.

Alan came over to say hi, and I got to meet Barry McGovern for the first time. Alan and Barry stood together in front of the table and discussed the fact that today was Samuel Beckett’s birthday, April 13, 1906. He’d have been 110 today.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Mr. Beckett’s birthday than to watch Kobe Bryant score 61 points to win his final game. Cheered to the finish line by the likes of Jack Nicholson, Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson and even me, no longer pretending to watch, but genuinely involved in the theatricality of the event. That was quite an Endgame.

Meanwhile there are some very happy actors in barrels at the Kirk Douglas. We will get to see their Endgame soon.

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James Greene in his rehearsal barrel. Doesn’t look uncomfortable, right? He looks happy as a clam.

 

 

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

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.

happy bus

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.

 

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.