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.

 

The Waiting Room Tech

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Director Larissa Kokernot shares a light moment with Stage Manager Elizabeth Nordenholt during tech

It is Easter Sunday and we’re sitting in the dark. Again. We’re in tech for “The Waiting Room,” by Lisa Loomer, directed in this BA Only incarnation by Larissa Kokernot, here at USC School of Dramatic Arts. I should be having a strong sense of deja vu, as I was the SM for a workshop production a gajillion years ago, at the Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Plays, directed by David Schweitzer at the John Anson Ford Theatre.  I know I attended the production when it moved to the Taper in August of 1994. There have been a lot of productions since then, and the “old hard drive,” aka my brain, needs defragging; it is almost like I’ve never read this play before.  I sat in rehearsals for at least two weeks, probably more like four when we did the play before 1994. Only a little more than 20 years ago. Sigh. Anyway, here we are now, and the three women who make up the characters of this play, Forgiveness from Heaven, Victoria, and Wanda are sitting on their respective clean white gurneys, designed by Sarah Krainin, and lit by Adam Blumenthal, in a triangular pattern arrayed on the set.

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Sound Designer and Composer Colin Wambsgans builds cues during the last break of the night.

We’ve just finished teching what Director Larissa Kokernot refers to as the (spoiler alert) “Gurney Ballet,” and which I will always call the “A.R. Gurney ballet.” (I know; it’s a cheap way for me to add a tag to my blog to increase readership among scholars and theatre goers and generally swanky folk.) The A.R. Gurney ballet, masterfully choreographed, lit and with sound by Colin Wambsgans, serves as one of a dozen transitional moments in the play. The play transitions nine separate times in the first act, so as a director, one has to come to the table with some magical solutions. Hence the ballet. Larissa is a straight shooter. She is practical, straight forward, with a strong creative overview of all the play’s elements.

This production sports a lot of gurney-like objects. We did a serious purge of extraneous backstage furniture to accommodate the many silver-legged-white-topped furniture pieces. This followed a complete reorganization of tools we use in the space all the time: ladders, the “leg cart,” which holds the pipe that supports our audience risers, and the genie lift. Sarah and I poked our head into the dressing room yesterday, and Sarah said, “that table’s not doing anything.” I watched as the crew members, Shannon and Emily, who were sitting at the table using it for their homework began to look sad as we planned to remove their island of comfort. Those islands of comfort are critical for survival of tech. But backstage space is as important as on stage space. Designers and stage managers discuss stage real estate in production meetings. But for now, the storage issues have been solved and we are marching through the cue building. The actors are, during tech, in a metaphoric waiting room. The focus is not on them, but as I said to one of them during a break, “This is valuable time for you, to work out things that have bothered you that you haven’t had time to figure out.”

197 is Wanda’s line. 198 is Wanda’s cross.

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Guest and Alum LD Adam Blumenthal works with THTR 130 student Casey Dunn on the light board in the McClintock Theatre.

It is great having Lighting Designer Adam Blumenthal back in the theatre with us, though this space didn’t yet exist when Adam was a student here. Adam graduated in 2007, and is now an accomplished lighting and scenic designer, as well as a magician. He works bicoastally, which is nice for me. I never hesitate to call him because he has defined his workspace as both Los Angeles and New York. Take note, designers, this is useful if you can swing it.

We hire guest designers to work on our shows sometimes; they are professional role models and give mentorship for our current students, augmenting our full-time design faculty. There is a also a magical theatrical echo effect when one of our alums comes back to play with us. On The Waiting Room, it happened when we were shuffling the furniture around the space and Adam saw the park bench we were using for the show. He greeted it like an old friend.

Hey, that’s the bench I designed for “A Boy’s Life!”

We have a guest stage manager, guest lighting designer and guest sound designer on this production. Elizabeth Nordenholt has worked with us before, as the stage manager last spring for “Fortinbras.” She has a wonderful easy way of working and demonstrates complete respect for actors, designers and her director. She keeps the room tone light and moving along. It is probably the most important role a stage manager plays – that of host or hostess of the creative tech process.

Let me know when you are done, Adam and Colin.

She nudges us all along, reminds us when to keep our voices down so that she can continue to communicate with the designers. She always takes a beat to ask the designers what they need before running a scene or moving forward. She cues the actors respectfully, and starts each scene with clear instructions.

We’ll be taking it from Nurse Bruce’s entrance. Whenever you are ready, Ladies!

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Scenic Designer Sarah Krainin taking notes during tech.

I am often asked by students: Do you have to go to every tech?  Their eyes are usually wide with incredulity when they ask this. I’m not at every tech, but at about 90% of them. What allows me to keep my sanity? Perhaps this blog helps, but what keeps me engaged is the alchemy of constructing a show during tech. The designers work fervently, quickly, convening creatively after building their cues, the stage manager calling new sequences which are now much more than the sum of their parts.

As we worked the last transition, the women saying good-bye, the last tableau unfolding, leaving Forgiveness and Wanda on the last gurney center stage. I’m thrilled to report that the play has in large part, returned to me, powerful images and certain iconic scenes, which I will not spoil for you, tickling my memory.

When we finish tech in a few minutes, we will run-through an hour or so of the play in the time that’s left; the actors will take their play back, new and improved with lighting and sound and fluid transitions.  Tomorrow we’ll add costumes.

And on Thursday, we’ll hopefully add you, the audience!

Tickets for The Waiting Room

The Price and Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea

The Price DontrellWe haven’t been going to the theatre as voraciously as we had been, say four months ago. Two brief stints at Good Samaritan Hospital have made us more selective about the number of outings we take. But this week, we had the pleasure of seeing two shows we’re both glad to have not missed.

On Wednesday, we made our way to The Mark Taper Forum to see “The Price,” by Arthur Miller, a play which I’d not met, either on page or stage. I knew about it from conversations with my husband, who had seen it in NY when he was a young member of Lincoln Center Repertory. There were many reasons I wanted to see it:

We’re subscribers and had the tickets.

Both Kate Burton and Alan Mandell were in it. I’m big fans of them.

I had heard about obscenely large props budget for the show. (I know, theatre geek.)

I have some familiarity with Miller, from touring with “Death of A Salesman.”  In the spirit of full disclosure here’s some theatrical blasphemy.  I find him a bit on the long-winded side, with a side of fifties schmaltz that tends to date his work.

No matter how adept the actors are who perform in “Death of A Salesman,” and I’ve seen Phillip Baker Hall (LATC), Hal Holbrook (the previously mentioned tour) and most recently, Brian Dennehy in Robert Fall’s production at the Ahmanson Theatre, that play is a tad turgid and depressing. I guess that’s the point; we all suffer from the same career and emotional free fall as Willy does. Our landing is hard, uncushioned by Linda’s attempts to buck him up, and accelerated by Willy’s pathetic encounters with his clients and a hooker in a seedy hotel.

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A picture of the old Wertz Brothers Furniture Warehouse. Matt Saunders’ Scenic Design for “The Price” removed the visual chatter of smaller pieces of furniture, leaving the more staid pieces.

“The Price” is a 360 degree tour after the death of a father and division of his belongings between the child who stayed to care for him and the child who left to escape the pain of his sibling’s life. The show’s set was extraordinary – money well spent, I’d say. Matt Saunders’ set evoked a more spartan version of the Wertz Brothers’ old antique store with corridors created by beautiful wooden armoires, vanities, dressers, dining tables, with chairs upside down atop the larger pieces in pairs of twos. These object sculptures, in warm rich wood tones, were lit evocatively by James F. Ingalls, and filled the upstage area. The departed father’s lair, now empty,  sat downstage, the back of his huge armchair facing the audience, surrounded by the smaller human detritus of a lonely man’s existence.

Alan Mandell, as the antique dealer, Gregory Solomon, has come to buy the furniture, and one senses that he’d have made the same  $1,100.00 offering for whatever the younger son had to sell. Mandell was extravagant, amazing, really. At 89, Solomon’s interest and intention to appraise and acquire such a large collection is sheer folly, the glee of which is captured by Mandell’s impish expression.  Sam Robard’s character, Victor Franz, is at a crossroads. This hard-earned inheritance may make it possible for him to retire, if he can make the move, something his long-suffering wife has long desired. Kate Burton seethes with a tightly controlled rage at her husband’s lassitude which eventually explodes in Act II. Director Garry Hynes uses the scenic corridors to usher Solomon in and out of the room as  Miller examines the brothers’ relationships to each other, to the money problems of their father, and to what they did or didn’t know throughout the course of their lives. It was an extremely entertaining evening.

Today, we ventured to the Skylight Theatre, to watch  the Rolling World Premier of “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” by Nathan Alan Davis. Co-Produced by the Skylight Theatre Company, Producer Gary Grossman & Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble Producer, Gregg T. Daniel, this striking play about a young man’s discovery of his ancestry is deftly directed by Gregory Wallace.

I knew we were in for a treat, when we entered the intimate theatre and saw the three off white, draped fabric panels evoking fishing nets or boat sails. The actor playing the title character, Omete Anassi, is a USC student where he studies Pre-Medical Neuroscience, and minors in Dramatic Arts. His character, is a youthful nerdy reporter to the future, speaking his narration into a late 90s personal tape recorder. The versatile cast of seven actors morphs from African chorus to the members of Dontrell’s dysfunctional family. Ayana Cahrr’s fluid choreography underlines Dontrell’s spiritual journey with boldly wielded sticks which the troupe pounds thunderously on the floor in rhythm to the drumming by Charles McCoy and Haley McHugh. Stephanie Kerley Schwart’z minimal set pieces, wooden like the theatre’s overhead beams, are moved around, to form intricate assemblages of tables, beds, the dining table turning into the vessel for the deus ex machina late in the play. Jeff McLaughlin’s lighting inventory is spare, used with skill along with three projectors, to create the watery depths of the sea. David Marling’s sound design and Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costume design create strong aural and visual impressions for the multiple locations of the script. I found the story very moving, and told with a stark, but lyric simplicity which made it even more powerful.

So, all in all, it was a gratifying week in the theatre. See you soon at the theatre!

 

Dinner With Friends

Since moving from our home in the Valley to our downtown condo, we haven’t done a lot of entertaining. Our condo is plenty big for us, but we can’t handle more than two other couples for dinner and only then if we are strategic to the point of military precision about our movements from the living room to the dining area, because you need to file in in the prescribed seating order and then stay there; there is no room for gracious serving from the left and clearing to the right.

“Hey, can you pass me jImmie’s plate and the salad bowl” – it’s more like that.

But I have tried to get these two couples of friends together to meet for years. A few other times we have been able to wrangle half of one couple but never all four of them. Tonight we finally succeeded.

My menu was from The Sprouted Kitchen, my favorite cookbook ever. Wild cod with a lemon, shallot caper relish, a zesty quinoa and black bean salad, a green salad, and roasted asparagus with mustard thyme bread crumbs, lemon zest, hard-boiled eggs and Parmesan cheese. I know. It sounds like a lot of things that wouldn’t necessarily go well together, right? Wrong!

And for dessert, this beautiful almond meal gluten-free cake with whipped cream with mascarpone in it and mashed strawberries in top. I must say it was a spectacular meal. (I know. Overwhelming modesty.)

The Sprouted Kitchen website

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I used to entertain a lot-huge parties in our big house with the newly renovated kitchen big enough to do a cooking show. (Theoretically. I never trotted it out on an real cooking show.) Anything under 25 people wouldn’t cause me to break a sweat. I remember on my fortieth birthday, I was ASMing on August Wilson’s “Jitney” at The Mark Taper Forum, and I decided I would have a party for forty friends: 20 old and 20 new. My brother in SF, the commercial fisherman, sent me 10 dungenous crabs in a cooler for the party, and I ordered a Honey-baked Ham with all that that entailed  to serve as well.

It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, a holiday; I love that about my birthday, because it ensures a three-day weekend and when I had ordered the ham, I had asked two times about the fact that it was a holiday and both times they assured me that they would be open. That Monday, which was my birthday, I drove over the hill to pick up the ham only to find the store closed and half of my dinner was not accessible. In my disbelief, I stood, both hands above my head leaning against the door with it’s infuriating sign: “Closed for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday.”   But it’s my birthday, toooooo!

So I whipped up two trays of lasagna instead: one veggie, one regular. Then when the 40 people showed up for dinner, it was all ready. No sweat. Really no sweat beyond my first rage and disbelief that they would have sold me a ham to pick up on a day when the store was closed.

So then,  why is it that it took me the entire time from 7:30Am to 6:00pm yesterday  to get ready for dinner for six?  Let me look at what I did yesterday. Got up at 7:30, made the cake. Went to the Citadel Outlet stores at 10:00AM to return the suit I had bought for my husband last week. Drove to Fish King in Glendale to get good enough fish to serve to my friends.  Stopped in to visit Tina and Michael at their house which was nearby, then promptly left the fish in their refrigerator. Off to Trader Joe’s for a few essentials. Got home and realized I had forgotten the shallots and capers and limes. So I went to Ralph’s. Hmm. Note to self – need to apply same military precision to the prep…. Probably the difference is that I just don’t have a good enough memory to remember what it is that I needed at each of these stores. So I rushed around wasting time. That sounds and is moronic. Even armed with my lists.

Anyway, lest I completely squash my good feelings about last night’s party, I will just say it was a great success. Our friends hit it off and after dinner we watched the video I made about our recent trip to Alaska. I have officially become my maternal grandparents, who used to set up the slide carousel and show photos from their trips to various European cities after dinner. I secretly thrilled to these shows because I had a taste for adventure and imagined what it would be like to visit those places as a new  and sophisticated grown up.

I don’t know. Last night’s dinner went so well I may even try it again soon.  Maybe without the “home movies.”