What I did on my summer vacation

Over the last two weeks, I spent an intensive 25 hours of training with forty-three other USC employees to become certified members of the USC Community Emergency Response Team.

I’ve wanted to become a CERT member for several years but haven’t been able to schedule it. I’ve wanted to brush up on my fire hose and fire extinguisher skills, dust the cobwebs off my search and rescue and triage skills, revisit how to bandage someone with a pen in their forearm and a gash on their head. You never know when you might need these skills.

I’m dead serious. We live in Los Angeles, where we are way overdue for a major earth mantle mastication, AKA earthquake. When you think hard about what you would do in the event of a 6.8 earthquake, and it’s aftermath, it doesn’t take long to realize you aren’t ready.

I was not alone in this realization; forty-seven of us gathered Monday a week ago in Ground Zero, on the USC University Park Campus. We’d all signed up for the training, offered free to USC employees by the Department of Fire and Safety at USC.

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Our fearless leaders at USC Fire Safety and Emergency Planning

As the Head of Production at the School of Dramatic Arts, I’ve worked with these wonderful people, clearing through them the use of e-cigarettes and random issues of egress that have arisen in the course of over 240 theatrical productions over the last twelve years. Aside from knowing their subjects (fire and safety) well, they are quick to respond to emails. After attending this training, I can see why. They’re focussed on teaching us all how to stay safe in our work environments. It’s their mission and they’re good at it. If this training was any indication, they all seem to have a good time doing it.

On day one, we introduced ourselves to the group. We came from a broad array of different programs across the university. There were representatives from the School of Social Work, Hazmat and Lab Inspectors, the Engemann Health Center, the Language Institute, The Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, the Department of Grants and Contracts and the School of Dramatic Arts. And that was just our group, one of five.  From SDA, Chris Paci, an Assistant Theatre Manager and I did the training. When I’m on campus weekends to tech our shows I’m very aware how important it is to know how to safely evacuate a theatre. This training will help us be more efficient and helpful if there is a catastrophic event.

Angela was the master of ceremonies throughout the week, providing us with lesson plans and instructions about what to bring for each session and taught us the segment on First Aid. Five hours each, the sessions lasted five days, culminating today with a live simulation of the skills we had learned during the training. We were geared up with bright green vests and helmets with headlamps, a red backpack emblazoned with USC CERT loaded with all sorts of goodies – heavy goggles, kneepads, first aid supplies, a flashlight, gloves, glow sticks, triage cards, packets of water, and a whistle. Daily, we printed out handouts to learn the following topics:

  • First Aid
  • Search and Rescue,
  • Triage/RPM (Respiration, Perfusion and Mental State)
  • Cribbing and Backboarding
  • Fire suppression and Fire Hose management

Each day, we had a lecture and then hands on training of the day’s material. It was well-organized and we learned a huge amount of information about all the areas listed above. After the drills today, Angela provided us with CERT certificates and cards and bright red CERT T-shirts, as well as lunch.

Best summer camp ever.

At today’s final exercises, an officer from the LA Fire Department who observed the drills told us that 70,000-75,000 people have been CERT-ified in Los Angeles County. This seemed like a huge number until I remembered that there are over 10.12 million souls in Los Angeles County. USC trains up about 30-45 people each year. It is an impressive program.  I’m very happy to have been trained at USC.

Throughout the training, our teams learned how to work together, communicate closely about what we were seeing and hearing in each of the exercises. We planned ahead and debriefed after each drill. Each CERT trainee learned how to put a cervical collar on a patient with a back or spine injury, how to load them safely onto the backboard. Those without spinal or back injuries would be carried in the green sling stretcher, or in the Evac Chair down the stairs.

We each learned how to hook up the hose to the fire hydrant, couple it with the Y-valve to connect the 2 1/2″ hose to the 1 1/2″ hose, connect the nozzle, call for water then let it rip. All in under a minute-and-a-half. Then we learned how to empty the hoses and roll them back up.

We learned about cribbing, the practice of raising up a heavy object using a fulcrom and boxes made of 4″ x 4″s and 2″x 2″s. I felt a brief surge of pride when Jeff Pendley told the group that the School of Dramatic Arts is the first destination for wood after an earthquake.

We learned how to prioritize what type of events we CERT members were capable of assisting at, and which ones we weren’t. Safety of the CERT team members is primary, Angela taught us to think throughout the exercises what was safe to do, and how we could make it safer.  We spent a day learning about Psychological trauma and what we might expect to feel ourselves after dealing with traumatized victims.

In addition to getting prepared at work, they encouraged us to prepare at home. In the course of the week, I ordered some additional supplies to add to my home kit, including getting an Evac Chair to get Jimmie out should we need to evacuate at home.

It was an exhaustive and exhausting training and a great investment in my personal development. I highly recommend you staying tuned for future trainings and jump at the chance when it’s next offered.

 

Writing with Me: Stories Just For Us

Just checking in to report that the book is underway. I’m spending a few hours each week to write (not nearly enough), and it’s unfolding as planned. I’m reading a book recommended to me by my friend Bob, entitled If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland. I highly recommend it, a balm for those get queasy at the thought of writing a book. So today, I’m digressing to write about things that probably won’t appear in the book, as they aren’t flattering things about my practice as a stage manager. I can see you all leaning in.

Oh good – here comes the dish….

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of Festival Supervising USC School of Dramatic Arts’ New Works Festival at the Pasadena Playhouse, two concert readings of plays written by the graduating writers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts Dramatic Writing Program. These play readings are cast with professional actors, directed by professional directors, an SDA offering in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse.

My participation in the past few years has been one step removed; on behalf of the school I’ve hired someone else to supervise the festivals, and due to the timing, have been unable to even attend the readings at the Playhouse. This year, I was pleased to be able to do both – supervise and attend the readings, which were highly entertaining and festive. I recommend you seek them out next year. They happen in the middle of May, this year landing on a weekend of cultural wealth in Pasadena, opposite the Lit Fest, the Directors’ Lab, an open house at JPL, two U2 Concerts at the Rose Bowl, and an AMGEN bike ride, all of which brought 200,000 visitors to spend a sweaty Saturday in Pasadena, where temperatures hovered at 92 degrees midday. I’d warrant a guess that anyone who braved the traffic to see Rebin Zangana’s Everybody’s Moving to Fiji, and Inda Craig-Galván’s award winning Black Super Hero Magic Mama was happy that they had made the trip.

I had spent about six years working on and off at the Pasadena Playhouse, back in the early nineties, and have several credits at the State Theatre of California, including a production of “On Borrowed Time” in 1992, where I met Wren Brown for the first time. You can read about that in the post linked above; the production was noteworthy for many reasons, most important of which was that I survived the opening night ride home. Other highlights included productions of “Camping with Henry and Tom” which began with a model-T Ford, entering upstage left,  rolling down a sharp incline, where it banged into a tree, the tree fell over, smoke came out of the car and the denizens of the car, Henry Ford, Warren Harding, and Thomas Edison emerged. The show had been done in New York the previous year, so our rehearsal period was fairly brief, our tech table still in the center of the house, and the house quite well-filled for an invited dress. I made the standard invited dress disclaimer over the god mic about perhaps having to stop the show then cued the top of the show. Nothing happened. The car refused to budge. We tried to start again, and still no movement from the car. From the tech table, using the god mic, I said,

Well, I think this is going rather well, don’t you?

Big laugh. Fortunately, the next attempt at the car starting went as planned, and the dress rehearsal began.

I gave a ride home the other night to two of our three junior stage managers who stage managed the readings at the Carrie Hamilton, and I told them a few stories about my time at the Playhouse back in the nineties – before they were born, I noted, wryly.

A lot of crazy things happened in those years, many that taught me how to manage crises in a live theatre situation and a few how not to handle them.

Late during the previews of A Lion in Winter, actress Carole Cook, playing Eleanor of Aquitaine to her husband Tom Troupe’s King Henry, lost her voice and arrived at the theatre willing but unable to go on. The Playhouse, a LORT B theatre, had no understudies, and I along with the director, and artistic staff, and with Carole’s rather surprising agreement, decided that rather than cancel the performance that night and send six hundred people and Ms. Cook home, I’d set up a music stand on the apron down stage right with a script, and I would read the lines while Carole acted the part. Crazy, right? But I’d been listening to her deliver the lines for the previous five weeks, and knew where she took breaths, etc. My assistant, Ando, called the show that night.

Maybe it was like watching a car accident, but I was told afterwards that no patrons went to the box office to get their money back. Audiences love that stuff, right? It’s live theatre. In this case, I am not sure where I got the gumption to perform, and I’m quite sure that it would not be considered best practice, but I received two calls the next day – one from the artistic director, Lars Hansen, thanking me for “saving the performance,” and one from the Equity Rep, letting me know that I’d be receiving an additional 1/8th pay for “going on” as Eleanor of Aquitaine. I wouldn’t recommend this as a course of action, but just as an example of thinking really far outside the box.

I stage managed “Lettice and Lovage,” a satire by Peter Shaffer, directed by David Galligan, starring Jane CarrJane Carr as the dotty and overly-inventive tour guide at a large English manor house, and Mary Jo Catlett as her officious boss. The play called for an ensemble of tourists, and the Playhouse, ever conscious of the costs of large casts, decided they would partner with the large volunteer organization, Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, who manage the ushering needs and support the Playhouse. The idea was quickly embraced that the ten to fifteen ensemble of tourists would be played by Friends on a rotating basis. Every night, we had a different group of volunteers whom we trained to follow Jane around the stage and hear her inventive history of the house.  Logistics were tough, but my assistant, Ando and I enjoyed their great energy and their commitment to the show. There’s no doubt that they were critical to the success of the play. It helped to boost ticket sales as well, since they all lived in Pasadena and had lots of friends to invite. Win win.

Last weekend, I became reacquainted with Patrick Corbin, a current house manager, who had just begun ushering around the time of Lettice and Lovage, and he dryly noted that he met a new usher one night and the next night had seen her on stage and thought, what a meteoric rise! He had no idea about the arrangement of the Friends as ensemble.

Managing the rotating handful of volunteers was a challenge, and their attendance was sometimes sporadic. One night we were down two volunteers, and so the director, David, and I decided we would don the running suits of these two tourists and head out for the first scene, which took place at the foot of a large staircase from the top of which Jane addressed the masses. Yes, we were being extremely naughty, and unprofessional, because we didn’t tell Jane that we were going on for the tourists. Lights up, Els and David facing upstage to hide our hysterics, our shoulders shaking like jello jewels in our garishly colored track suits.

Jane entered at the top of the stairs, took one look down at us and went into kill mode. She put a bead on the two of us and addressed the entire speech down at us, never breaking for a moment with a death grip of concentration. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of Jane’s onstage ire. The two of us were falling apart, and ashamed of our poor performance as the tourists. Jane never let us forget that one.

Those were critically important years for me in my development as a stage manager. I know that the examples cited above lead you to believe that the development was not in a positive or professional direction, but they tell the story of the types of things that stage managers deal with routinely.  Creative solutions are needed. The ones we come up with may or may not be effective. So we’ll just let these be our little secret, eh?

“We Wrangle Crazy People for a Living”

Spring 2017 brought along with the rain we so desperately needed, a hearty serving of teaching practice for our BFA Stage Management cohort. The recently endowed Alice M. Pollitt Professorship in Stage Management, the first in the nation’s endowed professorship in Stage Management, kicked off an international search for the best candidate. In the past several weeks, four outstanding finalists have visited the campus, each teaching a class to our stage management cohort. Continue reading

Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

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I do that-what you just did.

An artistic, theatrical experience spoke loudly to me this week and in reflecting on it as I vacuumed the apartment this morning (Writers to your vacuums!), here’s where I arrived.

We are presenting Middletown by Will Eno this weekend at the Scene Dock Theatre. It features our MFA Y2 Actors, directed by Andrei Belgrader. The play is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with a shiv. The Stage Manager of Wilder’s gentle encomium to small town life is Eno’s more-than-slightly deranged patrol officer, who tells us everything will be all right while he puts a chokehold on the Simon Stimson equivalent, an alcoholic would-be murderer, if he only had the self-esteem. Instead, Eno’s mechanic volunteers at the hospital, before dumpster-diving behind the hospital for discarded drugs.

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Photo Credit Craig Schwartz

As I sat through techs and dress rehearsals this week, I became obsessed with the vulnerable relationship between two main characters, John Dodge, a natural philosopher sans direct life path, and Mary Swanson, a recently-arrived housewife, desperately lonely, her husband always away for work. In one scene, they happen to meet in a park and end up sharing Mary’s lunch.

30731854210_afbfab630b_n.jpgTheir instantaneous intimacy lands with the heft of human gravity echoed throughout the play:

Mary: Night is hard, you know? It gets so quiet. I never know what I’m supposed to be listening to. (brief pause) But it does give me time to catch up on my needless worry.

John: I do that – what you just did.

Mary: What?

John: Use humor to distance myself from the pain.

    Will Eno, Middletown

Boom. How deftly Eno unveils our strategies.

Jimmie frequently invokes his favorite biblical character these days- Job. Job comes trippingly (oops, shouldn’t say that) to the tongue in light of our itinerary this month:

  1. Swollen foot diagnosed as broken foot.
  2. A walking cast which we fondly call Das Boot, or on most days, Das Fucking Boot (DFB).
  3. Instability which results in wifely paranoia about leaving Jimmie at home to go to work.
  4. Bloody nose = ER
  5. ER = Overnight Stay

Around the time of the hospitalization, I received a text message from Jimmie’s niece, Jen, who offered to come down and help us.

How soon can you get here?

The answer was the next day. This probably wasn’t the response she requested, but it was the one she got and responded to. As you may have read in my last post, this visit helped and healed both of us, infected as we were with the giddy laughter and creative inventions of Jen’s four-year-old daughter.

In the meantime, I have been researching and seeking assistance from numerous people to plan for a moment when assistance is actually needed. Jimmie, in his support of easing any stress on me, met with the representative from one such company. We sat at the dining table with her; she was direct and kind, understanding of what we might eventually need.

I should say here that Jimmie has absolutely zero interest in having extra unrelated people around our home. It’s always been his way. Back in the valley house, when I got it in my bonnet to remodel every square inch of the house, then went off to work leaving the house filled with strangers, I’d return and Jimmie would look woefully at me, the nascent improvements covered with a thin sheen of dust, his nerves worn raw. The results were marvelous, but the process was painful.

I didn’t expect much better results this time, but I appreciated how game he was. We planned a visit from the care giver on Thursday, Nov. 17th- four hours to start, in the afternoon. He worried about how this would go. I had gotten him a sandwich to have for lunch, and had planned to ask the home health care aid to do some grocery shopping for me, but then decided to not burden her with that task the first day, stopping instead on my way back from the gym.

I arranged for her to get a key at the guard’s desk downstairs so that she could let herself in, so that Jimmie wouldn’t have to get up to get the door. I asked them to call upstairs when she arrived. I went off to work.

She called me at ten to one, having circled the block twice already, looking for parking. I told her where to park.

Unbeknownst to me, when the guards called upstairs to Jimmie that she was there, he got up and went over and opened the door, leaving it resting in a cracked position, before returning to the couch. The door was propped open three minutes or less, the time it took her to walk to the elevator in the lobby, rise to our floor, and walk down the hall.

Jimmie said she arrived while he was eating his lunch, and he offered her half of his sandwich which she accepted.

He told me he spent a lot of time in the bedroom that day, taking naps, and when he got up, he went out to the patio with the newspaper. I’m sure just to get away.

At 4:45, she left and he relaxed. He really hadn’t enjoyed the afternoon in any shape or form, and told me that it wasn’t going to work out. When I came home, I saw that the blanket on the arm of the chaise puddled on the sofa, and thought it was nice that she’d made herself at home, but a little strange that she hadn’t tidied up the blanket.

The next morning, at 7:00AM, I went to the door to get my keys, I realized that Jimmie’s wallet was not in the dish by the door where it usually is. I turned to ask Jimmie if he’d moved his wallet to the bedroom yesterday when she was there.  He hadn’t.

I immediately went  to check if his wallet was in his pants pocket in the closet. It wasn’t. I tore through the dry cleaning bag to see if it was there in one of the pairs of pants there. It wasn’t. Jimmie hasn’t been leaving the house much because of the walking cast, so it didn’t make sense that it would have been in his pants pocket anyway, but that was of course my first understanding of what had happened.

I called the agency and told them that his wallet was missing. They promised to reach out to the employee at once.

I texted the care giver since I had her number:

This is Els, Jimmie’s wife. This morning I realized that Jimmie’s wallet was not in the dish by the door. Before I take action, I’d like you to call me please and let me know if you’ve moved it somewhere for safety.

Then, I went to the gym because it is those workouts that allow me to maintain my equilibrium in the event of events like these.

Back from the gym, I began the odious process of canceling the cards in the wallet, and finding out where we had to go to file a police report. I have a pretty high threshold for irritation, but I felt my heart constricting, my eyes filling, the bile rising in my gut, all of which I hid from Jimmie. Being on hold with Bank of America for about 10 minutes made me angrier than I’ve been in a long time.

A while later, after speaking with the supervisor at the agency and learning that this employee was “up the hill at another client’s home where the cell phone reception is poor,” and listening for five minutes about how laudatory all her clients are about her performance, I finally got us organized and at 9:45, Jimmie and I got in the car to drive to the central LA Police Station to make a report. I had told the head nurse at the agency,

Now rather than providing me with a service, hiring your agency has created a huge hassle for me and my husband, hours of appointments to replace lost cards and a complete lack of trust in humanity. Not a good outcome.

Shortly before we left for the police station, I received a text from the care giver. It read:

Good morning Elsie sorry I’m just responding I don’t get signal until after 10 o’clock but no I don’t know what this you’re referring to because when I arrived yesterday the door was already open he said he was looking for his wallet I asked him if he would like me to assist he responded no he would just wait until after I’m gone and I’m assuming he just didn’t want me to be running around in the house being my first time so he had his sandwich I had my sandwich with him at the table then in the living room he turned on the TV he said on the chair slept for a little bit then he went to the balcony with his magazine while I still watch television and then I was on my way out the door 10 minutes to 5 because I have therapy but I definitely advise you because it’s very important having all your information and having to go and get it again definitely importance

Yeah I wouldn’t have known about a dish by the door because I don’t even think about looking behind a door he stated he didn’t want me to assist him I figured he probably would find it later but I just put it in my notes that he did misplaced his wallet.

When I read this unpunctuated and grammatically horrific text message, I couldn’t believe the chutzpah of this person. Jimmie is a meticulous soul. He has a place for everything and everything in its place. On those infrequent occasions when has misplaced a set of keys or a wallet, he gets frenzied and won’t settle at all until they are found. What she describes in her text message, cradled between”Elsie” and the instruction to get the information replaced so infuriated me that my blood pressure rose to unhealthy heights. This was how I drove to the police station.

At 6th and Maple, this police station resembles a fortress in the middle of skid row. It is a windowless blond brick structure with attempted a cheerful terrazzo mural ofcentral-community-lapd life in the big city, surrounded by police cars. Perfect.

I could do a better job of describing this mural if I had found a parking space in front of the station, but instead, had to illegally park and scurry Jimmie inside the station, where at the vending machine, a large woman in a bright yellow hat raged nonsensically at an unresponsive officer as he plunked in his change and extracted his late morning snack. I reluctantly left Jimmie sitting in his walker in the lobby while I ran back to the car to find parking. I found a structure nearby, parked at the top, and walked down the steep driveway to the sidewalk, where a homeless man outside his tent and a small enclave of homeless people greeted me enthusiastically as I passed.

The officer who took Jimmie’s statement, a young Latina officer, was polite and with the neatest handwriting I’ve seen this side of a tech table. In between painstakingly printing the details of our report, she answered the phone and gave out numbers and information to those who called. The entire desk was covered in contact sheets under glass, with numbers of city services.  I realized that I had been one of those callers just an hour before, and now had 75% of her attention, which was enough to get the job done.

At 11:30, we walked out of the station with a report in our hands, and I ran back up the steep driveway to get my car. The homeless population by the garage had swelled, large enough and rowdy enough so that I crossed by them in the street, feeling bad for my avoidance, but anxious to get Jimmie home so I could get to work.

I was still pretty steamed. Before I left for work, Jimmie asked me to please calm down. By 2:30 or so, I had regained my composure. The collegiality of my faculty peers in our lunch meeting and meeting the prospective production students rebuilt my faith in humanity, and gave me a way of refocussing on why we do what we do in the theatre and theatre education.

Besides, it’s a way of avoiding my needless worry.

 

More Elk Confidants

The first two weeks of school are always insanely busy, but even more so this year for me. Mr. Big Head has been a great companion this week. He’s become the reason for many visits from many of my stage managers. But not just stage managers came to dote on him. Other artists of the design stripe came and saw and rendered.  Zach Blumner came one afternoon and I invited him to draw Mr. BH and within about 10 hours, I had received the drawing below. That’s the kind of idolatry we are dealing with here.

Faculty came and paid homage.

Then there were the stage managers who couldn’t take their eyes off of him.

I honestly don’t know how I got a salt lick of work done this week with all the fawning that was going on.  I think it’s probably time for you to come visit me and have your portrait taken with Mr. Big Head.

Elk Confidant- Wapiti Whisperer

At the end of May, Hannah was offered a gift from a local theatre which shall remain nameless. It arrived early in June, and sat on the end of the work table in the production office for two months. A trophy Elk head with a beautiful rack of antlers, 10 point by my amateur count. I say amateur because a brief query about how to refer to his magnificence reminded me that there are experts in everything, and you can find them within seconds on your digital devices. Just typed in “How do you count an Elk’s antlers?” and within moments learned that there are several considerations to this question.

Regional: Are you western or eastern?

  • If western, you only count one side, so Mr. Big Head (our temporary but affectionate name) is a 5 point elk.
  • If eastern, as in east of the Mississippi,  he would be a 10 point elk.
  • But wait! Whose region? Mine or the elk’s? Where he is now? Or where he was when he lived with his “gang” (yes, that’s the nomenclature).
  • I prefer my region and now his as it sounds more impressive.  I can also refer to him as a 5×5, which sounds like the type of big-ass truck complete with the gun rack in the back that I might have driven while hunting this beautiful beast had we not acquired him in a more peaceful theatrical hand off.

Size of points

  • In order to qualify as a point, the projections need to be at least 1 inch out from the main “beam”, and longer than they are wide. (Mr. Big Head is clearly and proudly a 10 point. Hey, I’m from Pennsylvania. Don’t know where he’s from originally, but he’s western now!)

Scoring

  • There are professional scorers who can score them (sets of antlers) for you. I guess if you want to sell your antlers.

Like I said, there are experts in all fields.

Mr. Big Head sat on the work table, nose pointed blithely to the sky all summer long. I ate lunch with him every day; the production and design faculty had curriculum meetings with him listening from the comfy chair near my desk where he’d been moved to make room for our meeting. After that meeting, he spent the rest of the summer lounging in that big leather chair. His big eyes gazing across at me were comforting throughout the summer as I assembled the fall pre-production materials. I caught him looking at me and would wink at him conspiratorially when on the phone. Michael, our Assistant Technical Director, swears that he overheard me talking to Mr. Big Head several times during the summer when he worked in the theatre.

I smugly demised that his tenure in our office was short-term, because of his size and the low heights of our ceilings. Hannah and I texted over the summer about the ideal spot for him (was there one?) and decided that maybe over the couch would work, though one of his 5 or 10 points might put some poor student’s eye out, which would be antithetical to our mission. So that was a problem.

When Hannah returned a few weeks ago to work, it didn’t take her long to swing into action in mounting the elk head. She found the perfect spot, directly over the comfy leather chair, which sits directly across from my desk. Even during the installation, people flocked to Mr. Big Head, sharing intimacies with him, joking and stroking his wise chin and neck for comfort.

Mr. Big Head is a good listener. He doesn’t judge. He is so kind, and allows those he meets to stroke his neck which isn’t even too dusty. He models amazing counseling skills – listen a lot, speak a little. He let the advisee craft his/her own solutions without butting in. After all, he’s wise enough to know that it’s dangerous to butt in when you have a 10 point rack.

So in the last week since the mounting of Mr. Big Head, I have begun taking portraits of some of  his fans.

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Hannah reading fall play scripts as Mr. Big Head looks on.

I wonder what he thinks of the plays? But he is the soul of discretion. He would never say anything to make us question our season.

He’s also modest, but we’ll see how long that lasts. Hannah, his agent is already brokering possible appearances in a few shows in the fall schedule. He will be a little more obvious on stage than Lea’s white squirrel was, who made appearances in all her SDA shows after her first all-white set, as set dressing, through to his final SDA appearance in A Little Night Music last spring. Mr. Big Head will inevitably command attention, as he already does in our office setting.

 

IMG_6809Here’s my selkie. In this shot I inadvertently caught a hint of approbation in his gaze. I think he might have objected to the angle with which I shot the photo, but really my chins look much worse than his. And still, in spite of the look he didn’t criticize me. And besides, the shot accentuates his beautiful antlers.  This photo got me in trouble when I posted it on Instagram. We were busted by the local area theatre PM, who noted that it was one of their gang. Hope I didn’t get anyone in trouble.

The rest of the photos which follow are some of our distinguished faculty and students who have sat with our Wapiti Whisperer, Mr. Big Head. You too can make an appointment to take counsel with him. You can see from his banners that he’s ivy league educated, and likes to drink champagne. And he’s very orderly – note the file drawers. I’m so sorry that I ever thought he wouldn’t/shouldn’t be a permanent member of our team. I think he’ll forgive me because that’s the kind of understanding elk he is.

I Should’ve Studied Piano Harder

When I was 6, and my parents built a beautiful colonial on a rural corner at the bottom of my paternal grandfather’s property, a green rectangle of field in Southwestern Pennsylvania that sloped down to the road. We were living at the time in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, in a neighborhood that had plenty of kids and close access to our elementary school. It was also a time when it was okay to open the front door of your house and kick your kids to the curb for the afternoon, calling them home only when it got dark and dinner was ready.

While the house was being built, we piled into the station wagon and  traveled out every weekend to look into the big construction site, initially a hole ringed by cornfields, later traipsing through the wooden framing, then watching as the windows with their stickers were installed, scraping those stickers off, watching the movers load in our furniture and getting to pick my own wallpaper, (probably my first design assignment). I chose an extravagant flourish of blue birds on branches. Even then I had a yen for birding. A quick search on the internet yielded this BlueBirdsimage which wasn’t too far from it, I think. And forgive the dank recesses of my memory if I’ve mistakenly given my six-year-old self an important design decision such as this. My mother might have waited until I was 10 to charge me with choosing the wall covering for my bedroom.

Aside from launching my design career (and ending it, I might add), the other thing my young brain fixated on was the notion that I would learn to play the piano. Now with a larger house and a convenient family room just off the kitchen, my parents quickly provided me the means to do that; I’ve talked a bit about that in another blog so I won’t bore you here again.

What I really want to tell you is that if you are young enough to take up the piano you should. I am currently searching for an accompanist or two to support our classes and our fall production of Side Show, and finding one that isn’t already engaged is harder than finding a good electoral candidate. Sorry, too soon, isn’t it?

At any rate, I want to assure you it isn’t for lack of trying. I have a list of about 25 good solid accompanists who come endorsed by colleagues I respect and whose contact info resides in my magical computer rolodex. They are all working. I have had good friends who are revered musical directors try to help. One invited me to a special group on FB for keyboard artists in LA. Who knew such magical nether worlds existed?

I finally worked up my courage yesterday, or my desperation worked my courage up to post the job announcement both to the carefully curated list of accompanists recommended by two musicians whom I have worked with on several projects. The responses from my outreach prompted the responses below:

I’m on a cruise ship until November! Sorry!

I’ve moved to the NY area so I’m not available. Sorry!

I’ve moved to Sheffield, England. Sorry!

I’m in NYC now and not available! Sorry!

I’m MDing a show in Milwaukee. (this after a brief tease indicating interest) – you know who you are and I love you in spite of yourself….I mean myself)

The immediacy of their responses was cheering until I realized they were really telling me NO! by geographic location. Don’t get me wrong. They were doing it really nicely. I love accompanists, who are the true service branch of musical theatre. They are critical to the success of a rehearsal process. A good accompanist is definitely an asset to the process. And I can’t blame them for growing their skills and following their hearts to more advanced assignments, leaving town and leaving me with my ongoing search. So the recommendations of the elders for young accompanists coming up is gold. (Hint, Hint)

PianoAll of these signs indicate to me that long ago, in the bucolic recesses of the Pennsylvania countryside, I should have practiced more. Instead of choosing wallpaper for my bedroom, I should have been down there pounding the ivories. If I had, I could be in New York or even England now, taunting some poor, desperate production manager in Los Angeles.

SDA Rodeo

Today marked the start for our new class of freshman at USC School of Dramatic Arts. Sergio Ramirez, Director of Academic Services, along with Admissions Counselor Ramón Valdez, planned an extravagant theme, which Marissa Gonzalez, Director of Special Events executed with her usual panache. The theme, SDA Rodeo.

I’ll admit, I groaned audibly when Marissa told me I would have to wear something appropriately festive for the lunch. All my cowboy boots (remember the 80s?) are long gone, and the only jeans I own are more Mom jeans than Dude ranch. Marissa confessed that I was not the only one who complained. But once we arrived, given the opportunity to humiliate ourselves with silly costumes, we embraced the moment.

The apron of the Bing stage was garnished with two stacks of rodeo-themed props downstage left and right.  The ubiquitous crates which multiply in the Shrine basement when we aren’t looking were stacked up artfully, a homey picture frame chalked with Welcome SDA! sitting atop another pile of barrels and other Rodeo-themed props near the podium.

Marissa instructed us to enter through the lobby, where we passed the new students checking in at the box office window, then gathering in effervescent groups just inside the door. You remember what it was like those first few days of college? Where everyone you met held the promise of being your next best friend? When you were terrified of not knowing anyone, and worried about seeming unsophisticated, or clumsy, or unfashionable? Or all three? When you weren’t sure who you would go to lunch with? The angst! The butterflies in the stomach!

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Dean Bridel talks with Christopher Shaw and Dan Fishbach

What could be more brilliant than to give everyone goofy costume pieces so we all looked clumsy, unsophisticated and unfashionable? And then feed us lunch together? Two problems solved! Ramón thrust a large rectangular frame toward me, and I took it, fitting my face inside and smiling broadly. He snapped a picture. Then I turned the frame around, read “Wanted” across the top, and made him take another less animated photo. I wandered over to see what goofy costume piece I could try. I grabbed a red bandana, tying it to my Mom jean belt loop, then added a silly paper cowboy vest. Dan Fishbach wandered by, a teeny cardboard cowboy hat perched jauntily on his head. His hat was dwarfed by Sheriff Bridel’s massive headgear.

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Dean Bridel welcomes Stand-Up Comedy Instructor Jude Shelton

The faculty and staff greeted each other warmly with hugs, taking private moments to acknowledge our shared loss of colleague Paul Backer. But this was not the time for grieving. We entered the Bing, the students were herded into the center, the faculty and staff corralled off in the back forty (okay, it was house right).

We have several new faculty this semester. Christopher Shaw, above, will direct George F. Walker’s play, Escape From Happiness;  director VP Boyle (below)  is directing Side Show, book and lyrics by Sam Russell, music by Henry Krieger. VP was rocking a terrific hat today. Later I saw him talking with students at lunch, who were leaning in to hear his thoughts.

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VP Boyle, director Side Show

After a slide show of photos and captions sent in by the incoming students and edited by Sergio and Ramón, and welcoming remarks by Dean Bridel, we lined up for delicious food, burgers and salad, roasted corn on the cob, and ice cream.

Paula L. Cizmar, author of the upcoming MFA Rep production of Antigone X and I hung out in the lunch line, this photo of Paula (looking rather skeptical) taken by Sara Fousekis. We then scattered to eat with the students at gingham cloth-covered tables, pulled up the antiqued white folding chairs like we were at the county fair. The students were having a ball, and by the time we got our food and joined them, they had bonded with each other so really had no use for us. FullSizeRender 10

At 1:30, the students all assembled on the steps of the Bing for their class picture and we wandered back to our offices to continue prepping for the start of the semester.

Time to buy your tickets for our upcoming shows! Click on this link and check out our season.

And Marissa, you threw a great party today! Thank you for making us all feel at home.

 

 

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.

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Rest in peace, dear Paul.