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.

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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! 

 

Lucy and Ethel in Tech

You remember that “I Love Lucy” episode, right? The one where Lucy and Ethel joined the theatre and had to extract a baby possum that found it’s way into a crate of props backstage? No?babypossum

Things are hopping at the School of Dramatic Arts these days. Tonight was the first/final/photo dress for the MFA Dramatic Writing New Works Festival Year Two Play, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Chinese People but were Afraid to Ask” by Fei Kayser.

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Crew member Massimo Napoli and Stage Manager, Savannah Harrow review the scene shifts before the first/final/photo dress rehearsal

The New Works projects are some of my most favorite projects that we do: workshop productions of plays written by the second year MFA students in the Dramatic Writing Program. Budgets are minimal to contain the tech related to the plays so that most of the attention centers on the re-writing of the play by the playwright, supported by the guest director and the dramaturge assigned to each piece. We do three of them over three consecutive weeks and each process culminates in a weekend of performances in our smallest black box space, the Massman Theatre. Hence the telescoping of three distinct events in the timeline of a play: first/final/photo dress.

The designers for the plays are generally doing their first designs, after assisting as design Production Assistants on an earlier project in the fall semester. The stage managers are from the Freshman BFA class. What they know so far is based on the introductory design classes and their experience assisting older stage managers on Fall projects as well as whatever experience they brought with them from their high school programs. Which is, I can tell you, often, considerable and impressive. However, it is their first time out of the gate, and there is a lot to manage, even in a small workshop situation. Why? Because in addition to managing rehearsals for a play which, in this case, sports a cast size of 13 actors, the stage manager is receiving new pages from the playwright every day, or at least three times a week. Anyone who has stage-managed a new play can tell you that this is a considerable task. Introducing new material affects scene breakdowns, occasionally scenic elements, and usually always costumes.

After the first/final/photo event, freshman Stage Manager Savannah emerged from the booth, and in the same, calm, authoritative voice that she had used to guide her company through the preceding three days of techs, announced,

I think there is a possum in the booth.

My head turned as I looked at her with incredulity, and I asked her to repeat herself. “What??

Savannah calmly reported that she had gone to put a prop away in the crate in the booth, and saw something furry in the box. With the uncomfortable realization that I was  one of “the grownups” in the room, I moved slowly into the booth, as the students gathered behind me. There in the corner of the booth was a small blue milk crate, filled with extra props, a prop laptop computer leaning on top of a Chinese toy mask and some candies and bananas in the bottom of the crate.

Grownup doesn’t begin to define what I was feeling as my heart pounded in my chest cavity. I grabbed a broom that leaned against the wall and tried to raise the laptop with the handle, discovering, just as she had said, a small gray furry critter at the bottom of the crate trying to, well, “play possum.” Despite its efforts, you could see its little sides heaving in and out; it had a lot to learn still about that trait.

By this time, my partner in crime, Tina Haatainen-Jones, Director of Design, had entered the booth, and she assumed the role of the real grown up, because I was now backing away from the crate as though it contained a rabid coyote. I have never been very good when faced with small rodents (I know, a possum is a marsupial, but it looks like a rat from the top view).

Tina began speaking in her really calm “It’s going to be all right” voice which is certainly what I should have begun doing when I discovered the critter, and buoyed by her voice, and that she promised it wouldn’t move quickly, we each grabbed a handle of the crate and picked it up, marching through the booth and outside the door of the theatre to the back of the building, where there were some trees, Tina narrating the release plan to the students who followed us with interest and giggles. Much hilarity ensued as we arrived at the tree, and without missing a beat, Tina reached into the crate and extracted the little fellow by lifting him by his tail, placing him on the tree trunk we were next to. He scampered away into the darkness, leaving his admirers pointing their iPhone flashlights and cameras at his receding tail.

We returned to the theatre and began gathering our bags to leave for the night. Tina offered me a ride to my car, which I gratefully accepted and which I’m sure she began to regret.

When I had arrived earlier in the day, I thought I had parked on level 5. However, even with my arm outside the window of her car pushing the button to make my car’s horn beep, after circling the garage for about ten minutes, I was becoming convinced that my car had either been stolen, or had been towed. This was particularly upsetting, as I had completed my car loan payments just earlier in the week, an event which I had celebrated with much excitement. Again, Tina calmly encouraged me to mentally retrace  my steps.

Ok. I started the day at Smart and Final buying the meet and greet food for the two shows. After leaving S&F, I drove to the back of the MCC Building to drop off the first show’s food, then got back in my car and drove to the Scene Dock to drop off the second show’s food. Then I went to my office to drop off my bags and my food, parking in Lot 6 with my blinkers on.

Then I ran into David and we went to talk in my office about next year’s titles for the MFA. Oh! My car is probably in Lot 6 with a ticket and a drained battery!

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Tina demonstrates our Lucy and Ethel-like understanding of how the jumper cables work
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Lucy and Ethel prepare to jump the car battery

And that, gentle and most indulgent reader, was exactly where my car had been parked. By Me, no less, and promptly forgotten. Tina drove me to my car, produced the jumper cables from her trunk and the two of us hooked the two cars up; thanks to the instructions which were clearly printed on the case for the cables, guided by the good-natured support of two students who parked their car next to us while we were figuring it out, I was able to start my car. Then of course, I couldn’t go home yet, because I had to drive it a bit before turning it off.

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After returning home, I invited my husband to come down and sit with me in the car to drink my milkshake, while recounting the day’s events.

I stopped at McDonald’s and that was the cherry on top of the day. I raise a glass to Tina and Savannah and the Baby Possum who all support the work at hand.

Writing 101 – A Sense of Place

In April, I spend time in many  different places, doing many different things. Here’s a brief list of some of the places I inhabited in the first 8 days of this month:

  1. Bing Theatre – Attended Final Dress Rehearsal for Grease
  2. MCC Theatre – Two days of 10 out of 12s and a Dress Rehearsal of The Waiting Room
  3. My office – Assorted tasks related to this year’s productions and next
  4. Smart & Final – Buying food for the Meet and Greet rehearsals for “Waiting Room” and “Hide and Seek No More.”
  5. Spudnuts – Slinging Donuts
  6. GFS 106 – Lecturing on “Production Management” and introducing to my students, Sheldon P. Lane, PM of The Ebony Repertory Theatre
  7. DRC Conference Room – Meeting finalist candidates in the School’s search for a Critical Studies professor
  8. Massman Theatre – Attending first tech for “Hide and Seek No More,” an original play written by one of our MFA Y2 Playwrights
  9. Scene Dock Theatre Workroom – attending three production meetings for 5 remaining productions left in the semester
  10. Town and Gown – Dining with parents of prospective students
  11. My Couch – Sitting and recovering -arguably the least inhabited in April but most comfortable of my sites
  12. Lobby of Kaprelian Hall – Purchasing a tuna sandwich, my dinner, from the vending machine

I’ve bored you to death already.  I am doing a writing 101 drill through WordPress, where throughout the next twenty days (or remaining 18), we respond to writing prompts which we receive at midnight each night – or 12:01AM to be precise. Which is, in the month of April, just about the time I sit down to play a few mind-numbing rounds of solitaire before climbing into bed next to my lonely and abandoned husband. Today’s prompt – sharing a space with all that it evokes.

We’ll linger on #6 for a bit, the beautiful classroom where we teach the students who take THTR 130, Introduction to Theatrical Production, a class which meets at 8:00AM every Tuesday morning. Ask any of our students and they will be quick to tell you how much they love love love the 8:00AM class meeting time. THTR 130 is a very large lecture class with a lab; the class is divided in half each semester. Half of our students attend lectures about the literal nuts and bolts of assembling scenery, lighting and sound elements and costumes. They do their labs in our theatres and shops, building and painting scenery, hanging and focusing lighting instruments and sound speakers, and sewing costumes. They do these labs three hours a week for a total of 36 hours.

The other half of the class comes to lectures on the design areas and stage management. Their labs are intensively focused days surrounding the tech and performances of our School of Dramatic Arts plays, where they support the execution of the designers’ work by running the boards for lights and sound; learn how to run a mop around the stage (a surprising number of students seem to have never met much less used a mop or broom); help actors with quick changes; do hair and makeup; or execute scene shifts on stage.

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The seats stand at attention under the curved wooden ceiling holding multiple projectors.

Our lectures on design and stage management take place in a room in the Grace Ford Salvatori Hall, which, last summer, underwent an epic makeover. The happy result of this remodel, which we eyed with greedy anticipation throughout the summer, was neatly marching rows of fold-up seats, and desktops which retract into the backs of those seats.

The walls, off white, circling the room, are able to be written on, with markers provided in cups around the room; this feature  allows students to break into smaller groups and work on projects before reporting back to the group.

The biggest boon of the classroom is the multiple projectors which face the front white board and the 5 large monitors wrapped around the sides and back of the room. When I saw the projectors and screens being installed last summer, I panicked a little. This would change the game of teaching in this classroom. We all know form follows function, but in this case, my form was being challenged by the enhanced functionality of the room. My lectures now required visuals worthy of the space.

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Fortified with coffe and my laptop, I await the onslaught of students.

As a stage and production manager, I appreciate good paperwork and am enamored by its beauty, but the majority of the students in the class are actors, not stage managers, so the wealth of screens called upon me to raise the bar in all my presentations. By embracing my new “secret” life as a blogger, armed with a cell phone that transfers its pictures to my computer via a wave of my magic Airdrop, I can now confidently illustrate my Keynote presentations with photos taken “in the field,” during techs.  In the still limbo of the empty classroom at 7:40AM, I snapped a few shots to share the feeling of potential learning that could be achieved in the room. And as the students began to trickle in, I appreciated all their efforts to be present, many of them having been in the tech rehearsals the previous night until 11:00PM. We waved at each other, greeting and acknowledging each others’ service to our collaborative art of the theatre. My colleague, Duncan, likes to say the first day of the class,

 “None of your parents made you come to theatre school.”

IMG_3896And few of them knew exactly what the day to day would be for their student thespians. This room, and this class, are indeed an intro to a life in the theatre. Not everyone is cut out for it. It is hard work. Hard, with long hours, late nights, and early mornings, but rewarding, resonant work. So yes, I complained on FB last night that I was getting too old for these 15-hour long days. Guilty as charged. But at the same token, I get to do what I love. Make theatre every day from dawn until way after dusk. And it feels great.

When I get an email from a former student who just got promoted at her job, or I sit next to a freshman stage manager who is running his first tech and doing a fantastic job, I relish what my life in the theatre has taught me and my privilege in sharing those skills and experiences with the next generation of theatre artists.

6 Shows in 6 Days – LA is a Theatre Town

As I sat out on the balcony tonight, sipping my post prandial decaf, and watching the hummingbirds tear madly back and forth across the airspace just outside the railing, I was filled with an inner peace.

I thought back on the week just ended. I had been to the theatre every night except Monday.  Here was what I saw this past week:

Tuesday – Pairi Daiza by Nahal Navidar – McClintock Theatre

Wednesday – Henry and the Hippocampus by Brian James Polak – McClintock Theatre

Thursday – The End Times by Jesse Mu-En Shao – McClintock Theatre

Friday – different words for the same thing by Kimber Lee – Kirk Douglas Theatre

Saturday – Giving Up Is Hard To Do by Annie Abbott – Santa Monica Playhouse

Sunday – Les Miserables, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Original text by  Alain Boublil – La Mirada Theatre

Now, here it was Monday again, and I can just relax and watch the changing light as dusk settled in, and anticipate the mere two shows scheduled this week:

Wednesday – Death of the Author by Steven Drukman – Geffen Playhouse

Friday – A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee – Odyssey Theatre

Who says LA isn’t a theatre town?

 

“Giving Up Is Hard To Do”

Annie Abbott

Annie Abbott’s “Giving Up Is Hard To Do” at the Santa Monica Playhouse is a play about taking intimacy risks.

Now that I think about it, attending a play at the Santa Monica Playhouse always feels a little risky. The lobby is jammed with dusty props left over from other shows- books stacked on a shelf high above the box office window seem perilously close to falling. Glasses on another high shelf seem ready to cascade off.  A gilded violin lies on it’s back at the bottom of the stairs like a stranded beetle with legs- oh no, those are artificial flowers splayed around its body. A dress form with a red T-shirt, adorned in pearls, it’s neck topped with a discarded crown, jauntily greets us as we enter. Two tiny crystal chandeliers adorn the ceiling. The lobby is a veritable cornucopia of discarded theatrical props.

Once inside, the theatre is surprisingly intimate- only about 8 rows of 10-12 seats, with two side sections of seats that look woefully divorced from the main house. It is crowned with the most derelict of lighting equipment.  Safety chains  are unnecessary because the yokes of the antique fresnels and lekos are bolted right into the tracks, their white cords and white plugs plugged into the ceiling. Here and there are 25 foot long extension cords snaking their way amidst the lights. The picture below I took just as the pre-show announcement excoriated the audience to not  record or photograph any thing.

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Surely my illicit photo does nothing to threaten the intellectual property of the lighting designer; the inventory of any other theatre has so eclipsed this one that an equivalent design would be impossible.

“Giving it Up” begins with Annie Abbott, the writer and solo performer, entering from the back of the auditorium as though she were the next speaker for a self-help meeting geared to nonagenarians, a clever device as she refers to the previous speaker whose topic I will not spoil for you.

Her energy high, her cadence quick, she blurts out a rush of personal observations, describing the prospect of online dating for the over 70 set. She is funny, truthful, unflinching throughout. She switches easily to her recent attendance at friends’ wedding, a couple who met online and have included in their ceremony’s notes their original postings that led them to each other. Annie is stunned by the candor of the woman’s post, her frank description of her sexual and sensual preferences. Her attitude seems to be  “I have felt these things as well but didn’t know it was okay to say it.”

And therein lies the success and universality of Ms. Abbott’s material.

For the hour and ten minute performance she candidly discusses her marriage and children. She challenges the privacy usually afforded breast cancer  with humor and wades through the pathos of the sudden and unexpected loss of her husband. My husband and I had known Annie’s husband, Ron,  with whom she had shared an eventful and rich life, and whose loss left a chasm in hers and her children’s lives.  The evening feels a bit longer than its 70 minutes. Occasionally, Annie could stand to project a tad more strenuously. A few patrons were overheard to say “What did she say?”

 In spite of these insignificant shortcomings, this solo performance is obviously just one of the ways Annie Abbott has found to fill the chasm and to resume her life. Her journey includes the formative voices of both her grandmother and her grandchildren; we can see her grandmother’s spirit in Annie, as well as Annie’s spirit in her daughter’s children. She provides us all a service here, through her generosity and depth, her wit and candid intimacy and by showing us the path that led her to this quirky venue.

 

“Pairi Daiza” and “Henry and The Hippocampus” and “The End Times”

http://dramaticarts.usc.edu/news-events/season-of-plays.aspx

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I have the privilege of working with talented theatre artists – most recently, the newly minted alumni MFA Dramatic Writers from the School of Dramatic Arts at USC. This week there is an ongoing “New Works Festival” of plays written by the recent graduates. The thesis plays, by the three writers, Nahal Navidar, Brian James Polak and Jesse Mu-En Shao, are directed by established Los Angeles directors, cast with professional actors and presented as concert-style readings in the McClintock Theatre at the corner of Jefferson and McClintock.

Those are the facts, but what has happened, gradually over the past several years and most successfully to date this year, is that a community of directors and playwrights and dramaturgs fill the 90 seat house with enthusiasm and  an expectation which is palpable. The plays are each presented twice, in rotation through the course of the second week, the first week having been devoted to rehearsals and several days where the writers go away and work again on their scripts. What happens is a wee bit of alchemy – talented readers and eager writers percolate, stirred by directors who have both willingness and skill to forge  new plays made better in the creative cauldron.  And the audience is there on the front lines to witness the birth of these new plays. Not only witness, but have direct feedback following the readings to respond. And with an audience of playwrights, dramaturges and directors as well as actors and interested general audience members, the comments are insightful. They take what you have just heard and spin it around so you can look at it from a number of perspectives that you might not have considered. Oh, and did I mention it is free?

Last night’s play, “Pairi Daiza” by Nahal Navidar, is set in Iran in 1981, on the eve of revolution with three characters united in circumstance, separated and ultimate unified by their experiences and challenges.

Tonight’s play, “Henry and the Hippocampus” by Brian James Polak unfurls the elaborate dance of three characters, a man who has lost all ability to form new memories, his wife, a professional dancer, and the doctor who is doing his research on the title character’s painful mental purgatory.

In both cases, I was awed by the intelligence of the characters, by their raw and universal  humanity and by the profundity of the feelings that were evoked through sensitive direction and beautiful performances.

So, there’s one more in the chute. “The End Times” by Jesse Mu-En Shao, will perform tomorrow, Thursday evening at 7:00PM at the McClintock theatre. Do yourself a favor and be there to drink in some of the latest voices in the theatre in LA. It’s a bit of a party, too – you never know who you might meet there!

The plays all perform again – Pairi Daiza on Friday at 7pm, Henry and the Hippocampus on Saturday at 2:30 and “The End Times” on Saturday at 7:00PM. Don’t miss them. I will be sorry if you do.

Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, 1991 – Part II

Our rehearsals for “Bogeyman” took place on the 3rd floor of LATC (I think – the upper levels are not clear in the fogs of my memory). I think I ended up SMing Bogeyman because I had subbed in for two weeks of rehearsals on “The Hip Hop Waltz of Euridyce,” an earlier project of Reza’s a year earlier. But regardless of how I landed this show, hired by Production Manager Don Hill,  I faced the most challenging assignment of my career. The set, by Timian Alsaker, the resident scenic designer for LATC, was like Hollywood Squares on acid.  The photo below, from video taken by Video Artist Adam Soch, showed 6 of the 9 cells of the hellishly creative  imagination of the author. Boogeyman6 of 9

This was new terrain for me . There was no neatly typed Samuel French script, nor even a neatly typed script of a new play in my binder. In fact, Reza Abdoh’s  work featured text that was often  the last of the elements to join the play. Complex choreography, in this case, provided by Ken Roht,  iconic and jarringly startling imagery smashed together to  probe our cozy assumptions of what it meant to be an American in a time when AIDS patients were dying at an alarming rate; Reza himself would die of AIDS in 1995.  I grappled with the “why me?” of working with artists like these, but supported them to the best of my abilities and absorbed the experience like a sponge. The rehearsal room lacked the levels necessary to mimic the set design, which is frequently common, but we taped out three abutting rows to represent three levels of the set. There was no way to really rehearse the physicality of running up and down the staircases to get from room to room. That would impact the cast much later when we finally got to work on the set.

On the first day of rehearsals, I came smack up against my personal shortcomings when Sandie, the wheelchair-bound transgender actor hired to play the fairy grandmother, asked me for help to the bathroom. I stood in the stall with her, poised to assist her rise from the toilet and all that that entailed, and then defiantly  marched to the production manager’s office to complain about duties outside of my AEA contract. What a jerk.  My guilt at refusing to assist this actor in her future breaks was somewhat mitigated by my willingness to drive her home on my way to the valley, but not really. Even now, I am struck by how ill prepared I was to deal with the special circumstances of  the show. Another reality check occurred when we were first in the theatre working on the set. The set, constructed of steel, was built for the insane pace and demands of the action of the play. In the opening moments , Cliff, the boy with the green hair, was asked to scale the front of the set from the ground level to the second level. In doing so, he cut his finger on the steel (the first of many minor accidents on the set); I rushed with him to the bathroom to attend to his injury. Grabbing some paper towels, I reached for his hand. “NO!!!!!” He shouted at me. “Don’t touch my blood!” Chastened, I withdrew my hand. More gently, he told me in no uncertain terms that I did not want to have contact with his blood. Again, I was completely unprepared for such considerations.  My naivete was embarrassing.

I would never have been able to survive the production process of Bogeyman had I not had the talented and willing crew we did on the show, headed by ASM Sandy, deck crew Michael, video operator Mark, dressers Alix and Anne,  and light board operator, Jane.  Galen, the sound designer, also mixed the show, which rivaled a musical in its complexity.  Galen and I worked in the house, not the booth – poised like airport traffic controllers, Galen house left, and me house right. There were easily 400 light cues and maybe as many sound cues; calling the show was an incredible rush, unlike anything I’ve experienced before or after.  When my director friend, David Galligan, with whom I had done five years of the APLA S.T.A.G.E. benefits, came to sit in Theatre 2, he chose the seat closest to my perch on the concrete plinth house right. As the play began, he repeatedly looked up at me and  drolly  mouthed “Oh Nurse.” That was a hard show to call.

During techs, the technical director, David Mac,  and ATD, David Libow,  undoubtedly grew tired of my visits to the basement vault where the production office was, but remained assiduous in addressing the daily scenic safety modifications requested by our Equity Deputy, Tom Fitzpatrick.   At one point, there was a cast meeting where I was presented with a list of about 10 safety issues that the cast refused to perform until they were addressed and corrected. They were simple, sensible things, and the notes were taken care of promptly by Mac and David Libow. For example, each of the doors leading into the rooms of the set was the same. They had no markings to differentiate them from each other. So the actors would come crashing out of one room running up and down the stairs to their next entrances, meanwhile feverishly changing costumes in the dark and then not being able to find the appropriate doorway. Once the backs of the doors were painted white, with a descriptive phrases like Mud Room, Submarine, Hospital, etc., things looked up considerably.

At one point in the show, Michael was charged with carrying Sandi from her wheelchair at the bottom level of the stairs up to the top level so that she could appear as the Fairy Princess. The journey took place in the span of a single blackout transition.  Michael recounted to me that Reza had complete confidence in him and said something to the effect “If anyone can do it, Michael, you can.” And so he did. Imagine asking a crew member somewhere else to do that. Never would have happened.

Props Supervisor Cat Dragon provided the the many  instruments of violence that populated the play. Costume designer Marianna Elliott designed all of the extraordinary costumes, including the oversized frog costume, shed by an actor after being kissed by Juliana Francis, the blue unicorn horn that actor Tom Pearl sported, the fat suit and greasy wig worn by the raging emcee of the evening, Tom Fitzpatrick. Easier by far to supply, were the pairs of black army boots worn at the very top of the play by the naked male dancers led by Ken Roht, complete with bleached blond hair.  See some images below.

https://masslivearts.org/event/bogeyman/  

And the review.

Review – LA Times by Sylvie Drake

Reza Abdoh’s “Bogeyman,” 1991- Part I

In the early 1990s, I had the  honor of working with a group of theatre artists fueled by passion and courage and fortitude. Led by Iranian-born director Reza Abdoh, the Dar A Luz company of actors wrested theatre into creation out of the rage and beauty that was Reza’s distinctive voice.  As a group, they developed a language together, a process which was completely foreign to my theatrical experience and training.  They were athletic, graceful, and unafraid to express the dark societal taboos that Reza entreated them to.

Up to that point, I had stage managed mostly either large scale one-time APLA benefits, Broadway musical revues; or a series of “old school” shows at various theatres in LA – ranging from “A Little Night Music” to Neil Simon’s “Jake’s Women” to “On Borrowed Time.” Hardly ground breaking in terms of risk or political statement. How I ended up as the stage manager for “Bogeyman” is a true illustration of the organic networking process of live theatre, and a case of “being in the right place at the right time.”

The Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring and Fifth Street in downtown LA was a hotbed of creativity in the years leading up to 1991 and  Reza Abdoh’s “Bogeyman.” I stage managed a small show in Theatre 4 at LATC one year earlier,  in September of 1990. A group of Latino comedy artists, Rick Najera, Diana Rodriguez, Luisa Leschin and Armando Molina, constructed a show to lampoon the Latino stereotypes  they had to that point seemed destined to play. They banded together to write original material to show off their talents and get noticed. The show was slated to run for 6 weeks but was a hit and ran for six months in the smallest theatre in the complex, just off the vast white marble lobby.

LATC was housed in a repurposed  Bank building in the Banking District of downtown LA. Outside, the neighborhood teemed with homeless people. The donut store on the corner was notorious for drug deals.  Inside, the three story lobby,  echoed with the voices of artists colliding from all four theatres and rehearsal spaces over 6 floors of activity. It was like a theatrical ant farm. The Queen of the Farm was Diane White, who championed Reza’s work both financially and emotionally. The King, Bill Bushnell.

This description of the theatre from an LA Times article by Judith Michaelson in 1985 on the occasion of it’s opening gives you an example of the kind of energy Bill Bushnell brought to LATC.

“Theatre 1–an open stage and 503 seats upholstered in seven shades of hot yellow, orange and red seats, and denoted by an orange door–opens its Classic series Thursday night with Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” in a new translation by British playwright (“Noises Off”) Michael Frayn.

Theatre 2–a proscenium stage and 296 seats with a Prince-purple door and wine-colored seats–opens the Los Angeles premiere of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” Sept. 26 with an all-black cast.

Theatre 3–a thrust stage in a stark Greek-amphitheater setting (downstairs), with 323 seats, a blue door and black seats that veer straight up the side of a steep incline–premieres the English-language production of “Nanawatai” by William Mastrosimone, about the Soviets in Afghanistan. Philip Baker Hall plays the Soviet tank commander. It opens the Premiere series Thursday.”

Bill and Diane did new and provocative work as well as reimagined classics, and those artists privileged to work there in the late 80s and early 90s before it closed could not help but be energized by the environment. The physical plant made artistic collaboration inevitable. There was an elevator just off the lobby that led to the dressing rooms. It opened front and back – front when you reached the lobby, back after it had groaned slowly down to the third and fourth levels where the dressing rooms were. There were multiple occasions where “places” was called and just the architecture of the building fought a timely start to the show. In Theatre 1, the booth, on level 3, nestled just off a catwalk, allowed a stage manager  to go out and look down on the actors backstage to determine if you had places. I remember watching two actors make out at the top of one show I subbed in on. They were both married and not to each other. Scandalous. Inevitable.

Here’s a virtual tour of the theatre center.

Virtual Tour of LATC facilities

These were fertile years of training for me and I suspect for all those who inhabited LATC during that time.

Don Shirley’s LA Times article from January 9, 1994, a scant two months after the closure of LATC on October 31, 1991, appeared and cited the cause of the demise of LATC and Bill Bushnell:

“A legal entanglement lingers on for Bushnell in L.A. Soon after LATC collapsed in Oct. 1991, the state’s Employment Development Department assessed him for $46,464 in LATC’s unpaid unemployment and insurance contributions and slapped on an additional $6,607 penalty. But last Dec. 1, administrative law judge Paul Wyler reduced Bushnell’s liability in the case to just those debts from the period between mid-May 1991 and the theater’s final collapse–an 80% reduction, according to Bushnell attorney Mark Rosenblatt’s estimate. Wyler accepted the argument that Bushnell was not in charge of the theater’s finances during the preceding period.”

And yet, it was in those dark, financially insecure moments of LATC’s history, when Reza  challenged us to join him to rage against the world, funded largely by Diane White, in Theatre 2, with it’s purple doors and wine colored seats.

Reza Abdoh Documentary Facebook Page

 

 

 

Classic Stage Manager Nightmare

So last night I was trapped in what felt like an 8 hour stage manager nightmare. I apologize for using real people’s names, but that was what made it so horrifying. These names are people whom I really respect and have worked with successfully in the past, so my epic professional collapse in the dream made me wake in a sweat. And like truly great nightmares, that are detailed and fascinating, I repeatedly went back to sleep hoping it would continue, which it did.

I had been hired by Dan Ionazzi, the Production Manager of the Geffen Playhouse and a renowned Lighting Designer in his own right,  to stage manage a large opera production in an outdoor arena called the “Alhambra.” I have never been to the Alhambra in Granada, but my cursory search this morning on Wikipedia led me to a castle on a hill.

This was not at all what the theatre I had been hired to stage manage in was like. This was some multi-chambered outdoor arenas  grouped in a cluster of adjacent canyons, each requiring sure footing to make your way through them. Once inside, the tech table was perched in the middle of the “theatre” on a naturally formed table shaped stone. I arrived at dusk and made my way to the table. There were many people running around in headsets and I chatted with them, and eventually walked down to the table when Dan said they were ready to begin. My tech table was completely clean of anything. No headsets, no book, no pencils, which was when I realized I had not brought anything with me. 

I said, “Do you think I could get a headset at the tech table, please?” And one of the many headset clad people came over and said, “This isn’t the tech table. The tech table is down here,” guiding me further down into the center of the canyon, where, sure enough, there was a headset and a large contraption that looked like a boom mic on a goose lamp contraption – sort of what you would see clamped to the side of a drafting table, but with a microphone on it, not a lamp. I sat at the table (still horrified that I didn’t see my script there) and the assistant gently guided what I realized was their version of the “God” mic over my head so that it captured everything I said and broadcast it, booming, out into the canyon for all to hear. They all heard something like this: “Where is my fucking script?”

Meanwhile, I looked around and there were large tourist groups being led into the canyon at regular intervals by nun guides. Yes, nun guides. And groups of children in uniforms. I know, I should be lying down on the therapist’s couch to recount this tale.

So, without a script, not much was going to happen. I explained (over the god mic which I didn’t know how to turn off) that I would need a script to begin the tech. This flummoxed everyone as you might imagine. So, in order to save face, I said I needed to return to my car to get my script. Next thing, I was walking around for the next 2 hours or so through the similar but creepy adjacent canyons. I was hopelessly lost and had no idea how to get back to the “theatre”.

They all looked remarkably similar, but were devoid of actors carrying spears and children in uniforms being led by nuns. I could not for the life of me, find my tech.

Suddenly I stumbled across a headset clad assistant, who had clearly been sent out to look for me and who led me back to the theatre, which was literally at least a mile away through a tortured route of knee straining steps.

Additional nightmare factors to this tech – I didn’t know the play.  I never made the tech happen. When I returned to the table lo those two hours later, some of my students from SC were sitting there teching the show quite satisfactorily without me. As I climbed back up to my table, I saw Paulie Jenkins sitting in the front row of the theatre removing her headset for the night. When I got to the table, there were three copies of the script on the table – no, unfortunately, in my dream I couldn’t read or remember the title of the play – and inside each script was a note from the following people – Bryan Gale – hope you feel better soon, Els, along with a cue list of the light cues. (There were a lot of LDs on this show apparently). One from Dan Ionazzi with equally supportive language. The message I woke up with was “this is your last show.”

Like I said, classic stage manager nightmare…..Glad to be awake this morning sharing the horror with you.