Beauty in a bunch of different people doing one thing together.

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(photo “acquired” from the internet and taken by the amazing Joan Marcus)

The following writing, poem for lack of a better word, is inspired by the Company (by company I mean Creatives, Cast, Crew, Producers, Musicians, Managers) of The SpongeBob Musical headed up by Tina Landau and her Viewpoints!

June 19, 2016

An Opening thought for The Best Day Ever…

We have been guided to shape a world with seemingly no rules
so full of joy and colors that it could make a rainbow blush.
We are made stronger by a group gesture of kindness
when the world has delivered pain that has broken through our make-believe.
Our environment is the architecture of mad genius
its slopes and angles offering a comfort that we call home.
There is a spatial relationship between new friends that we quickly call family
this family is there to support us at our most vulnerable moments.
We move at a tempo set for us by the moment we are in
then in the speed of light we are delivered to the moment we live in now.
We remain uncertain of the duration of this beauty we create
but strive to continue with strength and conviction to bring happiness.
All of our senses are alive in a kinesthetic response with the audience
living in the energy that only human response can bring to our art.
Our foundation is built on repetition of action
but within that repetition blows the nuance that leads to change.
Using our soft focus we take in this magical journey with all of its twists and turns
landing in this time, that we’ve come to today, which we all embrace
As. Something. Special.

My viewpoints have been wrapped in a whirl of joy surrounded by beautiful spirits
The familiar who is always ready with a quip full of heart
The one who tries anything and everything beyond comprehension
The professional who wraps us all up into being better
The little engine who could and has done and done and done
The trodder who brings a base of history with their every move
The youth who are still growing into their very talented paws
The creative who have a light in their eyes that cannot be extinguished
The steadfast that offer a calm in the creative storm

I learn and I learn and I learn and I learn and I learn and I learn
you all make me better and for that I remain forever grateful.

Devotion at work, to a fault

1753_Traversi_Operation_anagoria.JPG“Its not brain surgery” this is an anthem often heard in the theatre, but I’d like to argue that there is a quality of caring among professionals in the theatre that makes this work our brain surgery. Lets face it, most of we theatre professionals never wanted to be brain surgeons nor did we likely have the passion for biology to consider this life or death profession. So while I am not going to trust the inimitable Jack O’Brien to wield a scalpel near any of my vital organs, I am going to trust that this master of the boards will make every attempt to see that a play is directed with absolute precision and heart. I believe the exchange for science is emotion and the delicate hand it takes to navigate around the emotional beings of the theatre takes absolute concentration and skill. When I go to work I am managing complex groups of people not governed by a code of ethics or trained for a very specific task repeated multiple times daily. These are people who invest in a living breathing entity called theatre. So to the dilemma I find myself facing; How do we as Stage Managers not let our devotion take us on every rollercoaster ride we are presented with in the theatre? How do we put breaks on our give-a-shitter?

There are no jobs backstage in the theatre, that I know of, that are total punch in/punch out professions. There are a few people who get to hide in high places like front light operators or flymen, but they are still invested thoroughly in the product. The Stage Hand is not a man or woman who punches in does their job and goes home uninvolved. Their contributions vary from the local stage hand who has a task that must be complete correctly day after day, to the sound engineer who must have the technical knowledge and the artistic sensibility to see that you as an audience hears the show as it was intended. Beyond their job they are interacting with actors, dancers, singers on a personal level, (after 28 years professionally in this business I can honestly say that there is no way to not be involved with performers on a personal level, they simply will not allow it), and providing a safe and confident work environment. The Wardrobe and Hair crew… they see people in little to no clothing and make sure they look they’re best or worst (as designed of course). They hear dressing room talk which is the professional equivalant to pillow talk. They are on their feet running about with laundry baskets and providing the performer with confidence that they don’t need to worry… about their clothes anyway. The actor; the well sung hero of our profession, everything is very high stakes for this often creative ball of vulnerability who puts themselves front and center for the audiences entertainment.

So I have a great idea, says a Producer, lets put all of these people (give or take musicians if it is a musical) in the same and often cramped (in the case of Broadway) building to perform what is ultimately a singular task that a brilliant creative team has built… but before we walk away to continue the task of building an audience, lets throw a couple of managers at them to run the thing day to day. Now Stage Managers are not on an island by any means… nope, its not that romantic! We work hand in hand with a true unsung hero, the Company Manager; the conduit between General Managers and Producers. The Company Manager is undoubtedly the Stage Managers best friend and ally, but I digress. The point is how do we, as Stage Managers, step back from this wildly diverse bunch of professionals (and occasionally un-professionals) and focus on the business and not the latest emotion. When I assist I have more time to ponder this question than when I am the lead stage manager (Production Stage Manager). I get to watch the lead stage manager either soar with great success through the storm like an Eagle with his eye on a doomed mouse or I sometimes I see him back into a corner like a Chihuahua caught in an ice storm. I once had the opportunity to work with a well respected stage manager called Beverley Randolph, whom I thought I disagreed with completely. Beverley was a force of nature and did everything by the Book of Beverley and insisted that those around her do the same. She felt that the Stage Manager should be “beyond reproach”; I still disagree with her on that point because I’m just not that gal. As it turns out there were several things that I took from the Book-of-Bev and one very important thing and while I may apply it differently it helps me to manage creativity without developing an ulcer “rise above it”. Sometimes, often times, things in our business do not go according to plan and rather than getting mired in the mix of right and wrong if you rise above it all you just may be able to look down and see the clear path.

Please note: Everything I mention about Beverley Randolph is with great respect. She was a female stage manager who paved the way for so many of us. She was taken from the American Theatre and the world too soon when she passed away in 2011. Rest In Peace Bev.

To achieve greatness through respect

respectAs a parent and a working professional I am constantly struggling to be awesome in my work and home. We owe it to ourselves to be brilliant whenever possible, right? I mean that is what you do right? Strive for brilliants. I have recently achieved catastrophic failure in my family life, when seen through the lens of this “brilliant” filter that is. My son Cooper, who has God’s special touch in the form of autism, was so upset with me recently he attempted to “run away” via New Jersey Transit after I left for work. Now, I must preface this story with the fact that my son has a penchant for train travel with or without me and has an internal compass and a memory for directions that defies odds. In fact over the Thanksgiving Holiday he showed up at my stage door in the heart of Times Square to surprise me. This was a tremendous surprise since his journey into New York City required riding the New Jersey Transit train from our town in Maplewood NJ into Pennsylvania station NYC where he then he hoped a subway to 50th Street station on the red line and backtracked on foot to our stage door on 47th street. So the fact that Cooper retreated to the trains to run away was not the shocker. The fact that he openly defied his mom’s rules that he was never to ride the trains without an adult was bad, but still not the sting that made me evaluate my “brilliants”. The failure came from my internal pressure to deal with my son’s behaviors earlier that day  with good old fashion “normal” discipline when he was being very badly behaved and not listening to anyone. I was very stern in tone, attitude and threat. I told him I hated his not listening and that this wasn’t how my boy behaves. Then I gave him a cold shoulder when he tried to turn things around just before I left for work. I was bound and determined to let him know I was the boss. This superiority shouldn’t seem so outrageous, right? After all, I didn’t beat him. However this was the reason Cooper ran away without his phone after I left for work. My wife Doreen had the wherewithal to reach out to a group of friends to help find him and reported our son to the Transit Authority who did find him in Newark Penn Station while he waited for his connecting train to Long Branch NJ. Cooper later revealed to me that he was planning on running away to our friends house in Red Bank NJ right after he finished visiting Bay Head NJ. Again proving that his compass was fully in tact since Red Bank is a stop on the train line on the Jersey Coast which terminates in his beloved Bay Head.

I mentioned that my son has special needs so traditional discipline is not at all effective, in fact, later that night as I was coming home from work Cooper spared no pains to tell me that he ran away because I said I hated him (translated from “I hate your behavior”) and I was mean to him, so he said he didn’t like me anymore. Okay, I don’t need my son to like me all the time, but I do need his respect and I felt that is what I was loosing by dealing with him in a petty manner. So the next day, after I licked my parental wounds, I took my son for Pancakes and leveled the playing field. We reached a reasonable compromise, that did in fact include an escorted train journey in exchange for his hard work on how he behaved at home and respected his family. I also told him I had some work to do, but most of my being angry comes out of fear. Oh, the blank stare I received in response to that statement was priceless and resulted in him asking me to help him cut up his pancakes.

This exchange with my son made me think a little more deeply about other interactions I have in life and the fact that respect is always creeping in as a factor. I recently heard a stage hand say to an actor who was struggling with his performance that day and expressed how tired he was, “never talk about being tired in front of a stage hand.” I completely understood this stage hands point, he started working at 8:00 that morning doing physical labor and has a young family who makes a full nights sleep difficult. His average work week runs from 50-60 hrs or more depending on how many jobs he is working at any given time. The average cast member at our show is at work 24-30 hours a week and has access to multiple forms of body work from gym memberships to PT and massage. However, the problem in this communication is a lack of respect. This dancer looks at this stage hand carrying some props  or pushing some scenery, looking at his phone and sitting around at work while this performer is running around changing clothes, dancing and singing for nearly 2 1/2 hours. The stage hand doesn’t know the work the dancer puts into maintaining his body and training his instruments. Not to mention the vulnerability of putting yourself in front of an audience 8 times a week. So that conversation, given mutual respect could have gone; “oh my God, I’m so tired today.” and the response could have been “I hear you brother, I feel the same way.”

Is true mutual respect even possible when you mix together such different people? I started thinking about respect and how as a manager and as a human being this one word “respect” and its action of being “respectful” is way under utilized. Will I be a more effective manager if I truly start from a place of respect? Not insisting on everyone toeing a perfectly straight line, but building a mutual respect for for the line each individual toes? In the theatre we are mixing so many disciplines that it is easy to loose sight over what everyone contributes, but I think we must always try everyday or we may end up with people trying to run away from us as managers instead of being a part of the process together.

A brief stint at the kiddy casino… never again!

UnknownI walked around in a whirl hands stuffed with wands and tickets as lights flashed and machines made more noise than their hypnotized operators. I was strong armed into taking my kids to “funplex” at their request since Doreen, my wife, was off to Atlantic City with her mom for her birthday. Armbands, tickets and tokens, I was so unprepared for the true money suck I had entered. As I approached the token machine with my debit card I thought, I’m going to load these kids up with some tokens and I am just not going to stress it. For forty dollars you got something like 160 tokens, “that should really do the trick” I thought. Maybe forty-five minutes later I was purchasing another forty dollars worth of tokens and begging my kids to understand how un-fun this place was. “Cooper, I could have gotten you five Mario plush toys at the store with the money you are dropping in this terrible grab game.” “Olivia, I don’t think luck is with you today angel, maybe you want to pick a skill game.”

images “Ruby, that’s a lot of tickets but I thought you wanted to go on the rides? Isn’t that why we got you that wrist band?” It was ridiculous how tense I was over the fact that my children were pouring tokens into these games that either gave you tickets that resulted in the worst dollar store prizes or possibly an eight dollar plush toy out of a grab game that was manufactured in a factory in China for maybe sixty-five cents. In fact, these grab games are such an obsession for Cooper, and the hundreds of other kids (and their parents) walking around with pools of drool gathering in the corners of their mouths, that I had to tell Cooper to surrender the machine to the kids gathered around and take turns. He reluctantly stepped away and a couple of turns later another kid won the jack pot, the Mario ba bomb. Cooper was so devastated that even Olivia was trying to console him by telling him I would buy him ba bomb. I finally told Cooper he was cut off, I wasn’t getting anymore tokens and we would leave after the girls were finished in Magic Quest, which is some Harry Potter inspired section of this game place. Also, not a place I can easily embrace but at least Doreen had already gotten them wands so all I had to do was pay four dollars for them to disappear into that attraction. I walked away to use the restroom and when I returned my son was sitting on the floor next to the token machine hunched over like one of the many homeless outside of Penn Station in the city. All he needed was a piece of cardboard that said “Just looking for a few tokens. God bless you.” The irony was not lost on me that Doreen was off in AC happily wandering around in a stupor of her own with bells ringing and money eating machines.

I am resolved that this will never be how I am an awesome fun mom. In fact it is two hours of my life I am quite certain I will never get back. Yet all that said as we were finally leaving, and I was in just about as foul of a mood as I could be in, Cooper turns to me and says, “well, that was fun!” and his sisters in complete agreement skipping behind him.

A stage Manager with a touch of “style”

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I have, very recently, had the opportunity to address what “style” I am as a stage manager. It has taken me the better part of my twenty-seven years as a professional stage manager to realize it, but these truths I hold to be self-evident that all situations require a different hand and are by no means created equally. I am wholly imperfect and wholly accepting of it, so the rest of this writing is not going to be an attempt to sway you that I have come up with the stage manager silver bullet!

You may or may not wonder why it took me so long to figure this out? I think it’s because my career, which has been incredibly rich, has also been so incredibly varied. I have been hired as everything from the big picture technical assistant stage manager to a production stage manager for interesting niche projects. Okay, never so niche… but small and personality-driven, thank you, Everett Quinton, for that distinction. I have had no major preference for one type of project over the other, although I love a snappy tune for the long runs.

You see, in just the last two years I have worked on the very tempestuous but successful Motown The Musical, The star-powered laugh-a-lot hit Fish In The Dark and the sellout theatrical event Little Shop Of Horrors. Sorry, this is not going to be a tell-all-blog about Jake Gyllenhaal & Larry David; sadly for the gossip world, I found both of them to be incredibly talented men who took their jobs to heart in very different ways. Each of the shows I have mentioned were wildly different. I am constantly learning; I learn about myself, I learn about the business, I learn about stage-managing and I learn about humanity with every new challenge. So discovering a style in all that change is tricky because “my style” is not only dictated by the demands of the production it is also dictated by the people that surround me. I think this is why I am often a cleanup hitter in most job interviews. An example of this is a job interview I had for a big musical after Motown closed. I was very excited about the project and the prospect of being involved. There were so many great people working on the show. In the interview when the director asked about how I would deal with a particular group of the actors, let’s say kids (just for conversation sake), I responded that I would handle the kids however best suited his (the director) & the production’s needs. I didn’t have a magic formula for how I dealt with children in shows, although I had had a good handful of experience. I believe that my response to his question may have cost me the job since the director, whom I had a great interview with, went with a person who had a very specific experience with show kids. I don’t regret my answer; although I was pretty bummed I didn’t get the gig, I really do believe in my response. Fast forward to Little Shop Of Horrors, a job that I was given because of my previous work with Dick Scanlan, the show’s director. I had not worked with Dick as a director before; he was Motown’s script consultant, having had undeniable success as a book writer for Thoroughly Modern Millie. Dick and I met for brunch to discuss the show and touch base on each other. It was a great exchange of information and at the end, I asked Dick what he was looking for from me during the process, I mentioned that I try to stay adaptable to the needs and the tone of the director. Dick very simply and clearly said he wanted me to control the flow of the room so he could invest in the creative process without being a detail man (these are my words, trust me when I say Dick’s words were far more elegant), and we went our separate ways. I proceeded as planned and hired stage managers to work with who would be the nuts and bolts. It was a sublime experience and went just according to plan between Dick and I. In fact, it was Dick’s delight in the process that made me realize that the power of adaptability is my “style”. Look, it is not for everyone, in fact, many a day I look back on Stage Managers I’ve admired and had the pleasure of working for like: Beverly Randolph, Steven Zweigbaum and Clifford Schwartz, to name a few, who had their checklists, swagger & duties down to a tee. I have often wished my style could be as clearly defined as theirs, but it’s just not. Please, do not confuse “personality” with style… I certainly have a very specific personality and have my entire adult life! But when it comes to my work I’ll keep changing colors based on the room that the Production Stage Manager or the Director would like me to keep. I will continue to find my way through every day with the knowledge and faith that I am servicing the production the best I can.

a few thoughts for young stage managers

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What would happen if we put down the screens in rehearsal
If our young stage managers were able to absorb “the room”
soak up its magic… energy… urgency?

Try, the masters of our future, to let your
imagination dance among the interest of others
as they live and as they reveal.
Take a step back from building and bettering.

What would happen if the line weren’t always perfect
if the column didn’t add up but you knew the why of it?
What if Instead of dotting the “i” you watched a flower grow?

What would happen if you let go of perfection
and let respect guide your decisions?
What would happen if the power went dim
and only your light was available to hold the room?

I am inspired to write this blog not as a chastisement to our future stage managers and certainly not as an affront to all of my friends and colleagues grooming these very efficient managers in Universities across the country. I am writing it as a reminder to young stage managers that our business allows us to be a unique part of a creative process through the support of actors, directors, designers and a production team. In this age of technology: computers, instant communication, instant information and beautiful paperwork so many young stage managers have become machines and don’t recognize that they are a part of a magical journey.  Don’t get me wrong, I love good paperwork and when I have a choice I love working with a certain Stage Manager who does some of the best paperwork I’ve ever seen. My question to these flashlight clad knights of the future is beyond the paperwork do you know how to communicate with a stage hand with as much respect for their knowledge as you do with  a director or an actor? Do you take the time to understand why the same step, song or moment is worked and re-worked beyond comprehension? Are you okay with being seen and seeing everything and not being involved with the decision, but still willing to understand and uphold that decision? Ours is a curious part of the artistic process but no less a part and if you burrow behind your smart this and i-that you miss so much of what is happening. Lift your eyes and see how an actor digests information, how the story is being told, how the blocking evolves. See what a designer sees so you can maintain their vision, see how a prop is being used so you can make sure the right item is manufactured, see how a costume, that is yet to be worn, could change what is being asked of the person wearing it. I promise you this information will change how you write that report, how you communicate that need, how you enjoy your day.

Please note: I am authoring this blog as a working Stage Manager for the past 27 years and while I work in a commercial theatre setting now and so much of what I do day-to-day is completely mechanical I do try to practice these principles whenever possible. I am  using as my inspiration young stage managers that I have worked with over the last ten years or so, many of which have wildly successful careers, so I am not trying to be an arbiter for what will bring you success. I am suggesting that as you start working in this business don’t forget that it is an ART and you are an artists.

Michfest… A final hurrah

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Words like community, connection, amazon warrior, are the buzz words for my sapphic sisters, they insight a feeling that mirror balls, poppers and whistles evoked in the Disco set of the late 70’s and that the 2nd amendment, 8 pointers, AR 15’s evoke in a die hard NRA supporter. In fact these buzz words have led thousands of lesbians to load up their camping gear and solar showers and go on a pilgrimage for a week in August to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. An annual institution celebrating my nymph like lesbian sisters in the woods celebrating their womynly self. Musical stages, mosh pits, workshops, fun & learning for Womyn of all ages, abilities and ethnicities. Freedom to be bare little or a lot or not at all but certainly freedom to be yourself… or maybe be whoever you want to be as long as that person carries a couple of X chromosomes.

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Upon hearing the news that The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is shuddering its trees I was having a maybe cynical conversation with some friends about how my friend Matt, using me as a front “myn” could take over the legendary camping extravaganza and maybe move it to NYC. Manhattan Womyn’s Music Festival sponsored by Bra Tenders and Cover Girl for today’s lesbian. Special booths set up by Lulu Lemon so when you go to your “Queer Yoga, Sacred Bodies, Sacred Land” Intensive you feel properly clad, Bliss offering back to nature spa treatments, Henkel sponsoring “Amazon Knife and Tomahawk” incentives, #MyStringBling, offering a new way to adorn you tampon string. Performances by Patti LuPone, who might appreciate and audience of naked womyn with no place to smuggle in noisy candy wrappers, Rock-n-Roll as performed by all the back up singers from your favorite male rock singers, Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell could teach intensives on “landing a hot model girlfriend” (someone else could do the part about keeping them) and “Crafting” with Martha Stewart and “Entrepreneurship and beyond” taught by Oprah Winfrey (with the knowledge that Martha & Oprah would have to honorary lesbian since they are not…) The blasphemy of stereotypical Sisterhood went on and on.

So then I went into researching the MWMF, aka Michfest for this blog and I was humbled by the event and its simplicity of choice. Go to Michfest and be safe to express, explore and enjoy being a female born individual.  Someone else has fought the fight and broke down the barriers, been the bad guy keeping the Y chromosome far away so you can go and be among them. They have taken criticism in an ever-changing world to keep life simple and free and promote endless amounts of amazing female musicians. So instead of sending up this event, I would like to celebrate it. Not for everyone, true that, I myself have  way too many issues with camping to ever truly enjoy these back to the earth celebrations. I would like to celebrate an event that has stood the test of time and lets die hard dykes join hands with the children of my two moms and everyone feels safe and happy. I marvel at the “Sheros” that protect this institution of being queer and proud in a time when we are forced to assimilate in our work place filled with designer bags and bikini waxing. These are womyn and girls that are celebrating community just how they want to. I for one will not see you at Michfest, but I will dream about that week in August when so many women will converge on that land in Michigan for the very last time.

Have a great trip you Warriors! May the moon in your house be blessed by your Goddess of choice.

Aquatic Zumba, are you age appropriate?

I went to a nearby town’s community center to swim this morning. I love swimming for all of its freedom from the everyday realities. When I get in the water and I can’t hear beyond the murmur of my own splashing, all the aches and pains that I felt when I get up in the morning all disappear & my thoughts are on my body in motion fulling engaged in the joy of semi-weightlessness. I feel like Superman, although I suppose Wonder Woman is more my super hero likeness. However, even this love for swimming does not get me in the car to drive twenty minutes and pay ten dollars to partake in the pool very often so today I thought I might stay after my version of lap swim and partake in the noontime Aquatic Zumba.

Well, I made a sad discovery, I am about twenty-five to thirty years too young to participate in the Woodbridge Zumba. Not technically too young, I’m sure the class is not agist but I’m also sure my participation would not be fully embraced. So I kept swimming back and forth happily in my lane stealing glances at these fabulous women (no men took this particular class). They appeared start at about 75 years of age; there was no particular type of woman it ran the gamut from small frail-looking “classic grandma” through the “zoftig blessing grandma” that could hug the life out of you. The instructor had her boom box set up and stands pool side demonstration the moves that the class is to perform while in the water. She looked to be about my age, perhaps a little older but probably not, in dark pink velour sweats (I am not so great with identifying fabrics so it could have just been a fluffy cotton situation) and some sort of water cross-over gym shoe. Her movements were of course slower than the beat of the Zumba Latina magic rhythms so her class could enact the same movements in the water. As the class went on my swimming became more of a frog legs/dog paddle swim so I could really take in the monumental joy of these Senior women as they owned their health and “danced” along to the Zumba. There were spins that ran at quarter time while their hands above water played mock horns with their fingers moving at tempo. They would all bop out of the water together a solid two beats behind their instructor. I was wearing goggles so I started swimming with my head under the water taking in the joy of their legs and ankles moving freely in the water. I thought of how my own mom has physically has slowed these past few years since she’s entered her eighties and how some of the fabulous octogenarians that I have worked with over the years take their steps with caution. My appreciation for the wonders of the water grew ten fold by the time I finally stopped sneaking glances ending my now very long swim.

The other discovery I made is I think my dream of being the Production Stage Manager for the yet-to-be-written Broadway musical production of Cocoon is unlikely. I doubt even the seemly invincible Broadway Producer Scott Rudin could re-create the magic of Senior Citizens finding their fountain of youth in a community swimming pool. However, I got to see a little of it today at the noontime Zumba in Woodbridge, New Jersey.

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Dark doesn’t scare this mid-west born hoodlum
laughs through tears mixed with tears through laughter
family ripe with background feed her reality
mother
daughter
sister
wife

her axe a script
her medium an actor
her jam telling a story…
a conflict… a tale…
possibly a resolve but lets leave that for now

she’s a mad mad scientist mixing this and that…
careful not to cause an explosion, but you must create
a charge… alight the senses
a craftsman measuring the smallest of detail,
again and again and again,
measure twice before you cut
creating a frame to nestle the dialogue
checking every angle… degrees matter

what she’s thinking is difficult to ascertain
buoyancy her double edged sword
answering questions that exist in…
“only makebelieve” or does it existing in the time
we have together

her trail continues to blaze a flame from
classroom to stage
stage to classroom one and the same
embedding in all of us experiences we crave to relive
long after recognition is reality.