Right when I think I won’t be able to extract myself from the couch to return to work on January 4th, it occurs to me that I need to do that annual self-evaluation called an Annual Merit Review. This is what faculty members do to justify the salaries they are paid for the prior year and to make a case for their continued employment in the coming year.
There’s nothing wrong with justifying your job. If you do it really well, you get to keep it, and believe me, I know how blessed an event that is. Just FYI, I’ve started that document. This is a list of ten less formal but more personal events from 2015, some of which I blogged about this year. If you want to visit the blogs, the links are included below.
watched our son really grow into adulthood, become a hockey coach and put down roots with a wonderful fiancee and their new baby. Drone Parenting
in the happiest event of the year, added a title to my name: Nana Els. You can see above the beautiful baby who gave me that title just before Christmas. I wear it with a pride beyond what I ever believed was possible. May the force be with you.
Spent three brief vacations in Lake Tahoe. Three vacations? Unheard of! I’d advocate buying a vacation home there, but I know the minute we did that, our reason for visiting would move. That’s one reason. The other is below.
witnessed the joy on my husband’s face when he was offered an acting job in the waning hours of the year. (more to come on that in a future blog).
sent out some Christmas cards after vowing in prior years that it was too much work. The secret? Go to Vroman’s now and buy the cards on sale;stash them in the closet. Hopefully by November of the 2016, I will still like them, and there will still be a federal postal service to deliver them.
got a tattoo, my first. Also, probably my last. The Gift
lost some dear friends and relatives. It never gets easier to lose loved ones, but death is a strong reminder/incentive to keep living to your fullest potential.
reorganized my closets and financial accounts to bring me more joy. And a retirement. The two are not related, but both bring me joy.
I hope your year was equally eventful and overall positive. Let’s raise a glass to the untapped potential of 2016!
First, let me reconcile for a moment that what I’m about to do breaks every code of ethics in the theatre for stage managers. Spilling the dirt is verboten. Stage managers are privy to all, witness to much that is shocking and transformative, and sworn to silence except what is necessary to tell a producer should the production be in danger of flaming up. If there were a Hippocratic oath for stage managers, it might read something like this:
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won artistic gains of those artists in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the cast, crew and creative team, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of coddling and artistic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to theatrical creation as well as physical reality, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the director’s note or the producer’s decision.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a production’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my actors, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a poor behavior, a toxic exchange, but a passionate human being, whose behavior may affect the person’s company and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the overburdened.
I will prevent toxicity whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as those crazy ass actors who cross my path.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of helping those who seek my aid.
Modified by Els Collins, Stage Manager, from the Modern Hippocratic Oath
I am fully aware of the severity of my breach by sharing this tale with you. I don’t share it to dissuade you from going into this esteemed profession, but merely as instruction in how to navigate its rocky shoals. For now, while the memory of these weeks’ challenges is strong, I want you to know; whatever the challenges your production brings forth are surmountable and most of the time with pleasing and astonishing revelations in the process. And you rubberneckers out there, don’t get too excited. I do have boundaries.
We had two weeks with the actors to put the show back together again. This would be a snap, right? Same cast, same band, same set, lights, sound, projections, costumes. The two new factors were the insertion of a new sound engineer, (which struck terror in my heart and, I can only presume, in the heart of Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal), and the replacement of the stage left PA, completely new to the show.
To quote Sound Designer Philip G. Allen, what sound engineer Patrick Hoyny was asked to do this week
…was like taking a leading role in the show with only three rehearsals.
I can say with certitude at this point, and only with the healthy advantage of hindsight, the re-opening of Colonus in my rear view mirror, this process was as pain-free as it could have been, in the skilled hands of the new sound engineer Patrick Hoyny, and with the gentle guidance of Sound Designer, Philip G. Allen. I can also say that the show rocked last night.
A remounted production falls under the aegis of the stage manager. I have never remounted a show before, so it was with some small amount of sorrow that I came to grips with this before stepping back into rehearsal mode. After ten years away from the PSM role, my director’s chops are a bit dulled. I flattered myself to think that my directorial abilities were quite keen at one point; my notes were on point and helpful for those actors learning the roles to be prepared should anything happen requiring them to go on. With weekly rehearsals scheduled under most LORT contracts, I had, over the years, refined my approach to the delicate task of putting different human beings into roles where they have little time to do anything other than observe another actor do their role. Usually these rehearsals are limited to 4-5 hours per week, and they don’t have the benefit many times of working with the set parts as they might be in show mode. They most likely will have access to the props, but certainly not the lighting conditions or sound cues of the regular performance.
In the case of the Colonus Remount, we had our Musical Director, Abdul Hamid Royal on the keyboards, and we did our rehearsals in the evenings to accommodate both my schedule as the Production Manager at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts and those of the musicians. Scheduled from 6-10PM, we worked about 5 days the first week, then jumped into dress rehearsals the second week. There was rarely a night when every single person was on stage to perform his/her role, because it is difficult to assemble 45 people, most of whom are busy musical professionals. However, we had been through this scenario in the past – we had several acceptable work-arounds, or short-hands for what we needed to do according to the various scenario. They ranged in severity of challenge from easiest to hardest to solve listed below:
What do we do with 1 usher, not the usual quota of 2?
Producer Wren Brown’s son, Brandon, had quite gracefully stepped in in the role of the second usher on several occasions, as had one of the theatre’s staff members.
What do we do without all the members of the Ismene Quartet?
In fairness, we (knock wood) never had to deal with this issue in performance. Do it with the members who are there and rehearse vocally when all are back. They are all solid professionals.
What do we do without the actor playing the role of Choragos?
Quintet member Ricke Vermont, whom I had also affectionately dubbed our dance captain, had performed twice in this role and had done a beautiful job, in the case where a family emergency called away our regular Choragos.
What do we do without the Soloist who sings “Lift Him Up?”
We found an extremely good alternate in cast member Sharetta Morgan-Harmon, who plays the Singer Antigone. It required some modification in blocking because she begins downstage rather than stepping out from the choir. The changes in blocking necessitated jumping over two light cues and required a change in the microphone used by her for the number.
You can see, we had worked out a number of quite challenging scenarios already in the course of previous rehearsals and performances. This time, however, there were some even more challenging scenarios awaiting us.
One of the Colonus performers, William Allen Young, who plays the Pastor in the show, has been shooting a new CBS primetime show called “CODE BLACK.” He had started to do this during the first run of Colonus, but by the time we began these refresher rehearsals, they were in full shooting mode for the episodes for the upcoming season. As anyone doing theatre in Los Angeles knows, in the battle between a TV gig and a theatrical gig, TV wins. It is pure economics. This is one of the most challenging factors in making live theatre in LA. Having said that, Will, ever the consummate professional, had communicated with me and with producer Wren T. Brown clearly what days were potentially problematic and had also arranged a few Fridays off from shooting completely so that the performance schedule was clear. How he can manage the work load of two full time gigs is another issue. But he’s an extremely dedicated actor and he has powered through both assignments. I can’t wait to see his show, which airs Wednesday, September 30th.
During the rehearsals, we rolled with the absences caused by work, family emergencies, etc. There were a few last-minute announcements from cast members about absences I didn’t know about, but as we had before, we accommodated them, and as per the SM Hippocratic oath above, no one died, and I didn’t need to take any lives. I feel pretty good about that part.
There were two rather challenging rehearsals, this past Tuesday, and Thursday’s final dress. I want to share the specific issues that arose and the ingenuity of the cast members and creative team in the results of the absences even though I am clearly breaking the oath. It was emotionally powerful to see the resiliency of the remaining cast as well as the teflon nature of this production – the will power that holds the fabric together and keeps the show unified.
On Tuesday, one of the leads suffered a medical issue that prevented him from coming to the theatre and even notifying me about his absence. The emotional rollercoaster of emotions that I went through was typical of any stage manager. I know, because of the 5 years of really good therapy I’ve had, that feelings are just that. Feelings. Surmountable. For a stage manager, nothing can be taken personally; coloring the facts with emotional baggage of expectation or history isn’t helpful to getting the work done on stage. But in the interest of teaching, I’ll share my emotions:
Anger – “Where can he be? Who does he think he is putting 45 other people out and not calling? He better be dead if he didn’t call.”
Embarrassment – “Did I not communicate the call to him? I know some people don’t follow the email. Should I have texted him to make sure he had the call?”
Worry – “Why haven’t we heard from him by the 8pm start? Is he all right?”
Fear – “Can someone please go check on him? What could have happened to him?”
Relief – “Thank goodness he is alive.”
Fear – “Is he going to be all right to do the show?” (I’m not proud of this coming so quickly on the heels of #5, but any stage manager who tells you this isn’t their first thought after the relief phase is lying.
Worry – “What adjustments do we need to make to his blocking when he comes back while he recovers from this situation?”
Relief – “We came up with some really good adjustments that can even work in performance if need be.” Again, these involved adding lighting instruments and creating alternative blocking options some of which we employed on the Wednesday night following his return.
So, you see, anything is possible in the theatre. That night, as Abdul Hamid sang the missing actor’s role while also playing the guitar part on his synth, I watched in awe as Dorian Holley appeared at the pivotal moment to walk Singer Oedipus up the stairs to begin his “descent.” He dropped him off then returned to his position on the stairs upstage right.
Remember, we are making it up. Creative minds will create elegant solutions to artistic problems. Theatre is just a never ending string of gifts like this.
The second scenario involved planning for the potential absence of Will due to his shooting schedule on Thursday. In addition, one of the ushers, Jonathan, was going to be out on Wednesday and Thursday due to another work commitment. The remaining usher, Sedale Threatt, Jr., had performed a lot of step-in assignments for actors missing in the rehearsal process. A recent graduate of USC School of Dramatic Arts’ three year MFA in Acting, Sedale is a quick study, committed to the work, and an extremely hard worker. When it became clear on Wednesday evening that Will might be held late at CBS on Thursday, Sedale offered to walk the role of The Pastor.
On Thursday, when I came into the theatre, I found him preparing to walk the part, with script in hand, while lead actor and Tony Award winner, Roger Robinson, coached him from the front row of the theatre. Watching from the booth as I readied the projector for the dress rehearsal, I could see that Sedale had a pretty good mastery of the blocking and was confident with his words. Lulled into a sense of security that things were handled, I went about my pre-show tasks. Rookie mistake. You’ve got to think it through step by step…
At 15, the PA from stage left notified me
Els, the ladies want to talk to you downstairs in the dressing room.
I quickly made my way backstage, after making the 15 minute call to the choir, and when I entered, they all turned their heads expectantly toward me. Sharetta spoke first:
Els, who is going to kidnap us if Sedale (the only remaining usher) is playing the Pastor?
Els: Crap. I’ll be right back.
I know many of you are thinking less highly of my anticipatory skills, but a quick hallway conversation with Sedale determined that he could both play the Pastor and then exit in time to re-enter with Creon as a henchman, kidnap the girls, then exit only to re-enter moments later to deliver the speech that ends Act I, echoed shortly after by the Ismene Quartet in “Numberless.”
And, believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened.
There were about 50 invited guests in the audience, and while I had to turn my face away because of the severity of the compromises we had made to get the show up that night, the audience was still completely engaged in the story and enthusiastic in their response.
Few events in the theatre evoke more anticipation than opening night. Events leading up to the Opening night for The Gospel at Colonus have flooded my memory with earlier openings and the elements that make them both thrilling and poignant. Opening night is the night that a director turns the show over to the cast, and in this case, the cast, crew, band and choir. It is poignant and I am almost always sad to bid the director adieu. In this case, I am certainly sorry to bid good-bye to director Andi Chapman, with whom I have relished working.
Yes, tonight marks the night when Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting cues are set, the sound has been programmed and mixed by designer Philip G. Allen in the days leading up to tonight. Naila Aladdin Sauders’ last-minute costume adjustments will have been made. As Stage Manager, my role will be to make sure that the cast continues to do the show according to the realized visions of the director and musical director, Abdul Hamid Royal. So to that extent it is complete. We are ready to open.
Historically, Opening night is the night when a show reaches maturity, solidifies, or in the immortal words of Ethel Merman,
”Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”
This is ironic considering that what we do in the theatre is the antithesis of frozen. There is nothing solid in the activity that transpires between a cast on stage and an audience in the house, which is, after all, what theatre is – the meeting of story tellers and story receivers. Our art is ephemeral in the purest and most exhilarating form.
The Gospel At Colonus’ specialness sits somewhere between the edge of the stage and the gold carpeted stairs leading into the auditorium. I have watched it over the past two nights of previews. The show is not frozen, nor is it confined to a passive experience on the part of the audience, nor by rote or perfunctory performances by anyone on stage. It is a living, breathing celebration of our humanity.
In the past several days, our preview performances coincided with the terrible events transpiring in South Carolina and the aftermath of the senseless murder of 9 people in the historic Emmanual A.M.E. Church. On Wednesday night, during our invited dress, at Intermission, when I checked my phone, I had received a CNN bulletin about the events. I shut my phone off to silence the cacophony of my emotions to finish the show. Over the next two days, as we have all processed our feelings individually, I have taken great solace in the work before me each night, both from the cast and band and choir, and from witnessing the effect of that work on the audiences, as they stood throughout the show to applaud and sway in time with the music.
The story of Oedipus’ redemption on stage was eerily mirrored yesterday by the incredible grace of the families in the courtroom as one by one, they forgave the young terrorist Dylann Roof for his unfathomable actions.
I believe in the power of theatre to heal. I believe in the spiritual power of this theatrical event. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply spiritual person with a strong belief in the power of the human experience both one on one and in a theatre as a transformative power. Whatever is happening out in the world, and there are some pretty horrible things happening out there, the theatre has always been my church. I have taken comfort post-tragedy in the shared and sacred spaces of theatrical creativity – on the night after 9/11, from the booth at the Canon Theatre, where I watched the cast of the Vagina Monologues perform their words with heavy hearts, to the first preview of The Gospel At Colonus, where the words and music of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson can’t help but be tinged with our collective heartache over the events in South Carolina.
I have been healed by the fervor and passion and raw talent gathered on the stage at the liminal space between that top step and the house.
Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.
The welcome disorientation of those on stage and the audience in the house for The Gospel At Colonus is the strongest I have ever felt in the theatre.
Last night on headset, I reported to the crew during “Lift Him Up”
“The first row is standing and clapping.”
“Now the second row is up.”
Tonight’s Opening night promises to be thrilling as all opening nights in the theatre are, but especially keen due to the gifts of these artists in this place and in this time. This production’s scale and cost is a gamble for any theatrical producer, and Wren T. Brown along with Gayle Hooks of the Ebony Repertory Theatre have nurtured the production to beautiful fruition.
It is such an honor to be working with these artists and I celebrate continuing to break down that fourth wall with our audiences in the coming weeks.
Tech is the most engaging part of putting a show together for a stage manager. I enjoy the discovery process that takes place in the rehearsal room, supporting by scheduling and taking blocking, watching as the actors find their way through a play. But it is in the process of tech where we gently cradle the newborn, carry it across the lobby, and lay it in the freshly built cradle (stage).
Over the course of this week, the designers, led fiercely by Edward E. Haynes, who created a set to accommodate the 32 performers and 5 band members in order to bring the show into the house, director Andi Chapman’s vision. The dedicated Ebony Rep Production Manager, Sheldon P. Lane, has brought Ed’s design to realization, through the work by Sets-To-Go scenic carpenters Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer. The set is carpeted, the railings which enclose the heights and playing areas are secure. The props are in place.
Lighting Designer Karyn D. Lawrence and Projection Designer Tom Ontiveros have worked closely to create a lighting and projection design that can both isolate the intimacy of certain scenes, and tell the story of the play, which depicts the journey of Oedipus to Colonus and his redemption. The character of Oedipus is being played by two actors, the Preacher or spoken text performed by Roger Robinson, and the sung text performed by Ellis Hall. It is a complex story to tell; having not seen the original production except on the DVD, in my humble opinion I think it is being told more clearly in this iteration.
This week, Ed, Karyn, Tom and Andi have worked to create stage pictures that tell that story. My participation as stage manager is to execute those moments by calling the cues in the exact sequences we have worked out in tech rehearsals. In order to do that, I have created a calling script layered with these cues. I am, of course, showing you only the pretty page of the script at left. One which was created largely through the computer savvy of Jessica, my production assistant on the show, whose ability to cut and paste far exceeds my own. With apologies to Jessica, because she has been so fiercely effective as an assistant – when I am doing things on the computer, because she is a digital native she hovers over my shoulder like an Irish setter waiting for me to throw the ball. And I have news; I throw a lot more slowly than I did as a younger stage manager. After dinner one night, when she returned to the tech table, she looked at the computer and with horror in her voice, said,
“What happened [to our beautiful Top of Show sheet]?
Sound Designer Phil Allen, who was sitting behind me at the table at the time, laughed as Jessica tore the computer out of my hands and made rapid work of fixing the sheet.
So, the prompt book/calling script is coming together. The pile of tech food stashed under the tech table is diminishing. The band rehearsed last Saturday and Sunday night.
We finished teching the show Wednesday night, and Thursday, without tech, we had the Sitzprobe. I have written in earlier posts about how the Sitz is my favorite rehearsal, where actors meet band and begin the symbiotic relationship of telling the story with both words and music. With the show in the cradle, now, my friends, the cradle will rock. The Sitz, a creative crucible for both the Musical Director, Abdul Hamid Royal and the Sound Designer, Philip G. Allen, went extremely well, and got the cast really jazzed. There is a lot of talent in the room for this show, singers with history and strong opinions about monitor placement and individual preferences for what they hear in those monitors. It takes a cool head to mix a show and I’ve always loved working with Phil because he comes to the room with skill, humility, a wry irony and a teflon ego that keeps things light. I’ve enjoyed working with Phil over the last thirty years.
Before beginning the Sitzprobe, William Allen Young, who plays Theseus, told me he wanted to have the cast sing happy birthday to our producer, Wren T. Brown, so with piano accompaniment from Ellis Hall, all the beautiful voices in the room were raised in celebration of his birthday. I have always loved birthdays in the theatre. What better place to celebrate one’s life than amongst valued colleagues and friends.
Friday night I called the show from the top with all the cues and it wasn’t a complete train wreck. Went rather well for the first time through. I took about two pages of notes for calls for myself. I know that adjustments will be made in placement of cues, and in the timing of cues. It is always a butterfly-in-the-tummy situation for a stage manager. This show is pretty straight forward, so I wasn’t too nervous, but like first rehearsals, it is a rite of passage for the SM on a show.
As we move forward, our afternoon rehearsals will be finesse rehearsals. We worked with Keith Young, the choreography earlier this week and will do so again today. Due to schedules of some of the cast members, we have worked without the full contingent of actors. Fortunately, they are quick studies and their absence provided the stage managers with the opportunity to flex their acting muscles. There are a lot of facets to the work a stage manager does, not least of which is to publicly humiliate themselves on a daily basis by stepping in and attempting to do the work of professional actors. Fortunately, we are at the point where that humiliation is less frequent as we approach the opening and things come together into performance. This stage manager is safely back in her place behind the wheel. Get your tickets, folks! This is going to be a fun one.
We are nearing the end of our third week of rehearsals; in my last post, I mentioned the upcoming rehearsal with the choir There are many parts in The Gospel at Colonus – actors speaking powerful text, quartets singing harmonies and performing movement. In addition we are fortunate to have Tony Jones, Choir director of the LA Youth Choir of the Gospel Workshop of America and his dedicated singers who will fill the Colonus choir stand with their fervent singing.
Last Sunday, at the end of our regular rehearsal day, thirteen choir members arrived for the first rehearsal at the theatre with Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal and Tony Jones.
We had set up the chairs around the piano in the rehearsal room, and spirits were high as everyone assembled to sing through the choral numbers in the show. After a rousing welcome by Wren T. Brown, and a brief tour of the set in the theatre, Abdul Hamid lost no time, jumping immediately into the material with the choir. It soon became clear that the talents brought by these young people are real and significant.
Producer Wren T. Brown, Director Andi Chapman and I were sitting at the tables in the room working on our own tasks, and basking in the music. It is unquestionably one of the perks a stage manager has to get to listen to the voices that are on any show, but particularly on this production. There are some phenomenal vocal talents in the show – Dorian Holley , Jackie Gouché and LaVan Davis, whose sense of humor and actor’s sensibilities support his vocal chops. And without exception, their voices are exceeded by their humility. What’s clear from watching the musicians on the show is the joy that they each derive from using their voices in service to the work at hand. It has inspired me to watch them support the text with their voices. This play is tricky – the language is oblique at times, and both Andi and Abdul Hamid have worked hard to make sure the story is clear.
I know I’ve digressed from the choir, but in my earlier posts, I focused more on the text and the fact is that Bob Telson’s music is equally important to this play. Back in the rehearsal room, at one point, as they sang “Let the Weeping Cease” with the music building in intensity and volume, I glanced over toward Wren and Andi. I can’t speak for what they were feeling, but I was moved to tears by the emotion of the choir’s commitment and their faith. It was palpable in the room.
The day before, our first day on stage, just at the end of rehearsal, Andi, as she was talking to one of the actors, and standing on the steps into the house, took a step back and slipped off the step, falling hard on her right knee. It was shocking and unexpected and required an impromptu trip to the emergency room that night. But on Sunday, she was sitting with her leg propped up, her crutches behind her, grinning with my same excitement about the contribution that the choir was bringing. The music was a good tonic to the pain in her knee. This blogger pushed a little too hard with the insistence on pictures however, and got this photo saying
Talk to the hand.
In addition to the music work, we have done some musical staging with the effervescent Keith Young. I had never worked with Keith before. He is extremely laid back, but brings a rigor and groove and expectation that his actors will do well. And he is the funniest choreographer I have worked with. His imagery is quirky and unrestrained. He employs a lot of laughter and an extremely talented assistant who executes the choreography with precision and offers useful suggestions to make the moves easier.
There are two musical groups in the show, the Ismene Quartet, headed up by the afore-mentioned Jackie Gouché, and the Choragos Quartet, led by LaVan Davis, in the role of Choragos. After blocking in the rehearsal room, last Saturday, both groups got on stage with Keith to begin movement.
What I have come to appreciate even more through this process is that we as individuals bring unique gifts to this project. The men in the quintet, Milton Ellis, Otis Easter, Gerald J. Mitchell and Ricke Vermont all are strong and experienced singers. Keith has given them pretty straight forward movement and has guided them and refined the movements based on their skill and in celebration of their vocal talents.
In the course of staging one of the numbers, one of the singers was having a little trouble getting the steps. Another choreographer might have said, “Actor A, please swap with Actor B because you aren’t getting the steps.” Not Keith. Instead of shaming anyone, he reworked the steps so that the actor became featured in the number; he did it with such grace, remaining flexible in his approach so that no one felt less capable and the number ended up working just as well. Keith’s philosophy is clearly karmically correct.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.
It is that kind of grace that makes it so nice to go to work each day on Colonus.
Week two of rehearsals for The Gospel at Colonus has hastened the alchemy of character and scene work, familiarity with the music and blocking into a cohesive and, at the risk of jinxing it, potentially thrilling production. We are now working through the play each day, making discoveries and strengthening the telling of the Oedipus at Colonus story. Director Andi Chapman is skilled at opening doors by asking her actors the right question at the right moment in their process, and allowing their answer to be “I don’t know yet.” I have watched a half-dozen times as the actors have listened to the question, and then thought a minute, their eyes widening in recognition. Watching Andi and the actors dissect the literal and metaphoric meanings of the script’s text has reawakened my creative intellect, reminded me again why I love being in rehearsals. The rehearsal room is (in the best circumstances) a crucible of exploration; time is taken for the important work of being and representing humans in all their heightened emotional phases – love, grief, remorse, pride, redemption. The two actors playing Oedipus, Roger Robinson, and Ellis Hall continue to raise the bar for each other – the musical text fortifying the spoken text in a powerful way. The depth of the work in the rehearsals has inspired me as well as all the others in the room, which bodes extremely well for the audience’s comprehension of the story.
Our numbers have grown, with several more talented singers joining us. Abdul Hamid Royal, our puckish and ironic Musical Director, has met and rehearsed once with the choir with another rehearsal planned this weekend. He has worked with the Choragos Quintet separately from the main rehearsals. The men in that Quintet (LaVan Davis, Otis Easter, Milton Ellis, Johnny Gilmore, and Gerald J. Mitchell) each have amazing vocal instruments and under Abdul Hamid’s direction, have blended strongly as a group. Tomorrow we will assemble wholly for the first time, the four members of the Ismene Quartet (Jackie Gouché, Dorian Holley, Ricky Nelson and Sharletta Morgan-Harmony). If Jackie and Dorian are any indication of the level of talent of the other two, we (and you) are in for a treat.
That’s what I mean. Every day on this project has been like Christmas, or a birthday – the moments musically and dramatically unwrapping in front of our eyes.
Tuesday, the pieces of Ed Haynes’ set arrived in the back of a huge stake bed truck. Built by Sets-To-Go owners Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer, the set is not for the faint of heart. For the past three days, at every break and before I leave at night, I have hurried back to see the progress they have made in the load in. When I left rehearsal the first night, Andi sat next to Ed on one of the top choral platforms, overlooking the laying of the carpet on the lower stairs.
(I’ve already shown you too much. You will have to wait to see everything assembled when you come to see the show.)
Speaking of giving it away, this is a generous group. Each day, we have had several contributions of food from cast members, which makes the rehearsal room almost completely self-sustaining. We almost wouldn’t need to go out to eat, except this group likes each other and likes to eat. A combination which makes our lunch breaks very enjoyable.
Tomorrow we get on stage for the first time, and will do spacing and realize in three dimensions the work we have done in the rehearsal space. We will roll the freshly tuned piano into the theatre to support the work. Four of our five designers, Ed Haynes, Phil Allen, Naila Sanders and Karyn D.Lawrence will join us to see a stumble-through. Tom Ontiveros will join us later in the process. There is plenty left to do and plenty of time to do it before we begin tech rehearsals on June 9th.
Jessica, my PA, shared her snapchat photo with me yesterday. While snapchat is a younger person’s game, I am nevertheless learning how to more effectively use technology as a tool in stage management. When new actors join the company, I still will call them to touch base and make sure they have their call, but now I also text them my contact info so that they can ingest it into their smart phones. That way they know whose call they aren’t answering…Just kidding – they are very responsible and acknowledge their calls. Though a busier group of actors I have not seen in a long time.
Now’s the time for you to book your tickets. Group sales are taking off – You can buy your Tickets to The Gospel At Colonus here. Hear’s to seeing you in the Holden for Ebony Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production.
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 involved, 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 line 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.
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.