Paulbearers

Last night at about 1:50AM I awoke, nausea rising as I rose from the bed and padded toward the bathroom. Truth be told, I had set my alarm for 4:45am to go to my spin class, followed by my annual sojourn to jury duty. The fact that I was now heaving into the john at 2am seemed like a cruel interruption to an already abbreviated night. And probably the appropriate response to the quick orange chicken I had rolled out for dinner last night.

After brushing my teeth, I went back to bed and lay awake in bed; my mind had stumbled on a grisly pun that burrowed into my brain like a pop music ear worm; my latest is Meghan Trainor’s, Me Too frequently played during the jumps at my YAS spin class.

If I were you, I’d want to be me too.

What does that mean, anyway? Not really what I wanted in my head as I tried to get back to sleep. And psychologically quite the opposite of the man I found myself thinking about.

“Paulbearers.”  At the end of last week, we’d gotten an email requesting assistance at the funeral of our dear Paul Backer to be pallbearers, with a number to contact. I attended the memorial on Friday, had not planned on attending the mass or grave site service, and besides, I’d be too short in both upper physical strength and the height needed to carry a man of Paul’s stature.

But at the scene shop, I heard a funny story, if that’s possible when speaking of pallbearers. A co-worker had answered the call to do the ultimate heavy lifting in life.

My co-worker, Michael, needed a new black suit for the occasion. His old one no longer fit him, and it was 20 years old. So he went to buy a new suit on Friday. It ended up being a little too big around the waist for him. The salesman said, “Can I have that taken in for you, sir?” He said, “No, I’m fine. I have a nice dress belt.” And off he went, slightly baggy suit in hand.

At the funeral, he joined 7 other pallbearers to carry the coffin of our giant friend. The ground in the cemetery was rough, the flat stones a bit sunken in the soggy grass. Mike and the others made their way carefully toward the grave site, all eyes on them; there were a considerable number of former students, friends and family there for the service.

After putting the casket down at the grave site, they all stood back as he was lowered into the ground. Michael and the others had done the undesired job well.

As soon as Michael got home, he reported that his dress belt suddenly broke in two places, his new pants falling to puddle around his ankles. Had that happened while he was holding the coffin, it would have been a scene out of an Evelyn Waugh movie. One that Paul surely would have appreciated.

Michael laughed, as he told me his story, looking heavenward and shaking his right fist, he thanked and swore at our friend, Paul for saving him the dishonor.

I suspect there will be a number of visitations from Paul in the coming months. Not necessarily paranormal, but mental and spiritual. He was so present in our lives at school and his wit and breadth of knowledge will no doubt continue to surprise us. Hopefully his visits won’t take the shape of midnight sickness and a hangover of grisly puns, but things will be ascribed to Paul just because he is much with us, in spite of his current body’s resting place.

For example, I will always think about Dr. Backer when I hear the following terms:

  1. Backer’s audition, now pronounced “bocker’s audition” because we now know the correct pronunciation.
  2. Paulbearers – those who volunteer to do the heavy lifting
  3. Paulacial – what Paul’s office will feel to its new denizen without Paul’s obsessive collection of books.
  4. Paulitical – what I’ll be thinking of as I watch Election 2016 coverage
  5. Paulitheatrics – a festival of devised work celebrating Paul Backer
  6. Paulitico – a blog devoted to promoting the performances of students and alumni of Paul’s

You get the idea. Gone but certainly not forgotten.

The Time To Start Measuring Up is Now

Events in the past three weeks have been shocking and have smacked me upside the head. On the macro level, more young black men were gunned down in the streets, more cops assassinated. Every time I turned on the TV it seems like ISIS or some wannabe fringe extremist has killed another 125 people.  I’ve become de-sensitized to random acts of terrorism, both international and national. And it’s not because I don’t care about my fellow human beings. It’s just not possible to be in a constant state of shock or rage or worry or grief. Especially if you’re a “there-must-be-a-pony-here-somewhere” type of person like I am. Unfortunately, events like these have hardened me enough that I don’t have to curl up in a corner 24-7. Because if there were no auto-protective features, that’s where we’d all be, right?

But on Monday,  when I received a call from Virginia, our guiding Senior Business Officer about the recent and sudden death of one of my faculty colleagues, Paul Backer, I cried out. “What?” So shocking was the loss of someone so integral to our work place, and ostensibly so healthy, that the news reached out of the phone and punched me in the gut. “I wanted you to know before you heard it from someone else,” she said.

Paul Backer, tall, with boyish good looks, a large head filled with facts about the theatre, and the broadest spectrum of interests, was a fixture of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC since 1984 when he began teaching there. He attended all the productions, both those that were curricular, as well as all the Independent Student Productions. As the production manager, I am the last person to sign off on the ISP contracts, and Paul was the faculty advisor for 99.9% of them. He was a sterling director, directing the first show of each fall semester in the McClintock Theatre. This was a tight rehearsal period, four weeks to tech, one which required exquisite preparation. The plays were challenging contemporary, open-ended types of plays, and Paul somehow found the time to sit with the play, conceptualize his approach, get the research done, and send off no less than 30 pages of analysis with research images, with metaphors for what he wanted to achieve in his/our production.

thumb_IMG_5149 3_1024His production last fall, Love and Information, was a huge learning experience for our production and design students. A few weeks ago, I received his first ideas about how  he wanted to stage Julie Jensen’s Mockingbird, with the casual tag line, “details to follow. Pb.” That made me smile, typically understated.

To get an idea of how ecumenically Paul approached his productions you only have to read a little about the subject of his dissertation, to quote SDA’s website: 

“Shakespeare, Alchemy and Dao: The Inner Alchemical Theatre. It was an interdisciplinary and cross cultural analysis of Shakespeare and the Renaissance esoteric traditions as seen through the lens of classical Chinese Daoism, particularly the philosophy and practice of “Inner Alchemy” or neidan.

USC School of Dramatic Arts

Paul slipped off this mortal coil in his sleep, at 59 years of youth, sometime before Monday when I heard about it from Virginia. And as I processed the news, even before the official email came telling his SDA family about our tragic loss, the ripple effect among Paul’s “children,” his former and current students, was immediate, tsunamic.  I saw Paul’s last post on FB honored an alum, who passed away July 2nd. Paul attended his memorial just last Tuesday, spending an hour  after the memorial in the parking lot chatting with one of his former students. She called me to commiserate that afternoon. She shared that she had asked Paul about what to say to a parent who demands “when are you going to give up this theatre stuff and get a real job?” They’d talked about how hard it must be for a parent to bury their child, and how attending services like these felt terrible in the same way.

Paul was there for his students. He was there for his colleagues, picking up the role of interim chair of Critical Studies when his supervisor had to step away to deal with her own tragedy.

Paul’s death has got me thinking a lot about legacy. As we watched Paul’s legacy unfurl through the devastated testimonies from former students, I thought that Paul probably never ever thought about what his legacy would be. He just built it one relationship at a time. He showed up. He witnessed the work. He demonstrated how he cared, one conversation, one hug at a time. And then he was gone. One of my colleagues said in a recent emotional email,

The time to start measuring up is now.

My tribute to Paul on FB garnered 270 views. That’s a whole lot for me, like by a multiple of ten. We are Paul’s family, vast and interesting and varied, just like his mind, his theatre practice, and his life.

I am and I know the rest of the SDA/SOT community are in a stunned state of grief about the loss of Paul Backer. There is a significant hole in the fabric of the universe. Paul was always there, always supportive, always creative and collaborative. He attended all the shows, was witness to people’s important life events. He gave all of himself to us. Thank you for your calls today to talk about Paul Backer and to cry a little about our loss. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the posts from students and alumni about the impact Paul had on your lives. It really helps to try to understand this loss. I took this photo last September during tech of Love and Information. I wish I’d waited until he turned around.

thumb_IMG_5145_1024

Rest in peace, dear Paul.

The Time to Start Measuring Up is Now

Events in the past three weeks have been shocking and have smacked me upside the head. On the macro level, more young black men were gunned down in the streets, more cops assassinated. Every time I turned on the TV it seems like ISIS or some wannabe fringe extremist has killed another 125 people.  I’ve become de-sensitized to random acts of terrorism, both international and national. And it’s not because I don’t care about my fellow human beings. It’s just not possible to be in a constant state of shock or rage or worry or grief. Especially if you’re a “there-must-be-a-pony-here-somewhere” type of person like I am. Unfortunately, events like these have hardened me enough  that I don’t have to curl up in a corner 24-7. Because if there were no auto-protective features, that’s where we’d all be, right?

But on Monday,  when I received a call from Virginia, our guiding Senior Business Officer about the recent and sudden death of one of my faculty colleagues, Paul Backer, I cried out. “What?” So shocking was the loss of someone so integral to our work place, and ostensibly so healthy, that the news reached out of the phone and punched me in the gut. “I wanted you to know before you heard it from someone else,” she said.

Paul Backer, tall, with boyish good looks, a large head filled with facts about the theatre, and the broadest spectrum of interests, was a fixture of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC since 1984 when he began teaching there. He attend all the productions, both those that were curricular, as well as all the Independent Student Productions. As the production manager, I am the last person to sign off on the ISP contracts, and Paul was the faculty advisor for 99.9% of them. He was a sterling director, directing the first show of each fall semester in the McClintock Theatre. This was a tight rehearsal period, four weeks to tech, one which required exquisite preparation. The plays were challenging contemporary, open-ended types of plays, and Paul somehow found the time to sit with the play, conceptualize his approach, get the research done, and send off no less than 30 pages of analysis with research images, with metaphors for what he wanted to achieve in his/our production. thumb_IMG_5149 3_1024His production last fall, Love and Information, was a huge learning experience for our production and design students. A few weeks ago, I received his first ideas about how  he wanted to stage Julie Jensen’s Mockingbird, with the casual tag line, “details to follow. Pb.” That made me smile, typically understated.

To get an idea of how ecumenically Paul approached his productions you only have to read a little about the subject of his dissertation, to quote SDA’s website: 

“Shakespeare, Alchemy and Dao: The Inner Alchemical Theatre. It was an interdisciplinary and cross cultural analysis of Shakespeare and the Renaissance esoteric traditions as seen through the lens of classical Chinese Daoism, particularly the philosophy and practice of “Inner Alchemy” or neidan.

USC School of Dramatic Arts

Paul slipped off this mortal coil in his sleep, at 59 years of youth, sometime before Monday when I heard about it from Virginia. And as I processed the news, even before the official email came telling his SDA family about our tragic loss, the ripple effect among Paul’s “children,” his former and current students, was immediate, tsunamic.  I saw Paul’s last post on FB honored an alum, who passed away July 2nd. Paul attended his memorial just last Tuesday, spending an hour  after the memorial in the parking lot chatting with one of his former students. She called me to commiserate that afternoon. She shared that she had asked Paul about what to say to a parent who demands “when are you going to give up this theatre stuff and get a real job?” They’d talked about how hard it must be for a parent to bury their child, and how attending services like these felt terrible in the same way.

Paul was there for his students. He was there for his colleagues, picking up the role of interim chair of Critical Studies when his supervisor had to step away to deal with her own tragedy.

Paul’s death has got me thinking a lot about legacy. As we watched Paul’s legacy unfurl through the devastated testimonies from former students, I thought that Paul probably never ever thought about what his legacy would be. He just built it one relationship at a time. He showed up. He witnessed the work. He demonstrated how he cared, one conversation, one hug at a time. And then he was gone. One of my colleagues said in a recent emotional email,

The time to start measuring up is now.

My tribute to Paul on FB garnered 270 views. That’s a whole lot for me, like by a multiple of ten. We are Paul’s family, vast and interesting and varied, just like his mind, his theatre practice, and his life.

I am and I know the rest of the SDA/SOT community are in a stunned state of grief about the loss of Paul Backer. There is a significant hole in the fabric of the universe. Paul was always there, always supportive, always creative and collaborative. He attended all the shows, was witness to people’s important life events. He gave all of himself to us. Thank you for your calls today to talk about Paul Backer and to cry a little about our loss. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the posts from students and alumni about the impact Paul had on your lives. It really helps to try to understand this loss. I took this photo last September during tech of Love and Information. I wish I’d waited until he turned around.

thumb_IMG_5145_1024
Love and Information, Fall 2015: Scenic Design, Projections and Lighting by G. Austin Allen

Rest in peace, dear Paul.